Michael A. Ingall, M.D.I. Behind the MaskMy father was a doctor, a pediatrician. He was the kind we all long for today. Me, too. When I was little, I was aware of loving him. On Sunday morning, I would climb into his bed and curl up next to him. He had a sweet smell, and an interesting little tab of skin on his belly. I used to stare at it, and the words of a nursery rhyme ran through my head:
Old Mister Kelly
Had a pimple on his belly.
His wife cut it off,
And they ate it like jelly.
On Sunday mornings, my mother would sleep late, and my father would make us breakfast --- a mixture of cottage cheese, butter, and grape jelly that he would mash together with a fork. We ate it just as it was. It had no name. It was just Sunday morning breakfast.
Most of my father's practice was house calls. I used to love going with him to the various neighborhoods in Boston. Most of his clientele was Jewish, but he had many Italians and Irish, as well. I would wait in the Buick, playing the radio, starting the engine and turning it off. Sometimes, I would go in with him, and the Italian and Jewish mothers would pinch my cheeks and stuff them full of gnocchi or tagelach.
He would go out, day or night. He drove five hours in a snowstorm to New Hampshire to see a very sick kid, because there was no pediatrician in the area, and the kid's father got my father's name from his sister who lived in Boston. The Kaplans became our closest friends, and we spent many happy years together, visiting each other's homes --- the country mice and the city mice.
Once, when we were in a house where the people were obviously poor and could not afford my father's five-dollar fee for a house call (he raised it to seven-dollars in 1952 to keep up with inflation), I watched as my father surreptitiously slipped a five-dollar bill under the tablecloth.
Two years ago, my wife gave a talk in her hometown. Afterward, a man came up to her and asked, "Did you marry Dr. Ingall's son?" He told the following story.
It was 1948. I was twenty-one years old and had just come back from the Army. I was going to school on the GI bill. My wife gave birth to our son prematurely, and he weighed just four and a half pounds. The resident at Children's Hospital said, "I don't think this kid is going to make it. He has pneumonia. You need a pediatrician, and it's New Year's Eve. Good luck."
I didn't know what to do. I called my sister. She said, "All my friends and I use Dr. Ingall, and she gave me his number." (My father had no secretary, no answering machine. The phone rang at home. Highlands 5-0818.)
I couldn't believe it. He came into the hospital on New Year's Eve and stayed in the nursery for two hours with my son. When he came out, he looked me square in the eye, grabbed my hand with both of his, and said, "Mazel Tov! You have a beautiful son, and we're going to make a mensch out of him!" The baby came home, and Dr. Ingall came to our house every day for a month.
I finally said to him, "Doctor, I can never repay you for what you have done. But you haven't even sent us a bill." He scratched his head and said, "You know, you're right. You should pay me. Here, I'll give you a bill." And he wrote out a bill for fifty dollars. That's the kind of doctor he was.
In my father's office, a picture hung on the wall. It showed a country doctor sitting at the bedside of a child in the throes of a fever. In the background, his parents hover anxiously. The doctor is tired. He has no wonder drugs, nothing to offer but his presence and his prayers. Fifty years later, the picture hangs on the wall of my office.
In our home, my father had a large closet that he called his office. In it, he had a centrifuge that held test tubes filled with urine. He would spin the tubes at high speed and examine the sediment at the bottom under the microscope. I had free run of this tiny office. It was far better than the toy chemistry set and microscope that lay at the bottom of my bedroom closet. I would loosen the suction cups that held the centrifuge on the table, and run it at top speed, to see if would lift off like a helicopter. It did not, but it did hop around quite a bit.
In the corner stood a file cabinet, filled with samples of prescription drugs and cough syrups. In the third drawer was a bottle of chloroform. It looked like water, but I knew what it was. I had seen Dick Tracy serials at the movies on Saturday afternoons, and I knew what to do. I opened the bottle and saturated a few square pads of white gauze with the pungent clear liquid.
I called my sister, two years younger. "Gilda, come in here, I want to show you something." I pointed to the microscope, and she leaned over it. I grabbed her from behind around the neck with one arm, and clamped the gauze over her nose and mouth with the other. "So much for you, Tess Trueheart!" chortled the villain.
Gilda's screams were stifled by the gauze mask, but she was wiry and strong, and she wriggled out of my choke hold, dislocating her right shoulder in the process. She stood there, sobbing, her right arm and shoulder hanging significantly lower than the left.
When I saw what I had done I was horrified. "Shut up!" I snarled, "If you tell Mommy, I'll kill you." Ever the dutiful and devoted sister, she suppressed her sobbing.
My mother called us in for lunch. She stared at my misshapen sister and asked, "What happened to you."
Gilda gave the right answer.
Eventually, the story came out, and I was banned from the office for a week. A small penance for an experiment in the cause of medical science.
Gilda claims this did not happen, and that I was a good brother. She needs more time on the couch.