Was it just me, or did everyone adore their pediatrician when they were little?
I mean, not love love. Not like in any Electra Complex sorta way. It’s just that for me going to the doctor was always a super happy event. Even when I had to get shots.
I’ll call him Dr. Unger. And what I remember about the guy was this: He had pictures of his patients covering one wall of his office. Even though I wasn’t in any of them (something I never dreamed of—as a fourth child, photos of me were rare), there was something so free-spirited and fabulous about the collage. To my kid brain, at least. No adult I knew dared to decorate this way.
Of course, as a mother now myself I now know nearly every pediatrician does this, at least at the holidays with photo cards. But at the time it was one more thing that made Dr. Unger so dazzling.
For some reason I always thought he looked like a handsome version of—get this—Jerry Lewis. Ha! Absurd, right? I’m not sure where I got that idea, but I remember thinking I was pretty cool for coming up with it. I mean, this was the age of Tab and Fresca people. I’m no spring chicken. So, along with thinking that shag carpets were an acceptable floor covering and Pacers were cool-looking cars, we we clearly devoid of handsome celebs—leaving me to have to summon in my youthful imagination what Jerry Lewis mighta looked like if he didn’t look the way he did.
I know what you’re thinking: I’m an over-achiever. And you’re absolutely right.
Anyway, Dr. Unger had this nurse (or was she a secretary?) who was ancient, and crisp white uniformed, and super old school. She ran that office like a Swiss train. Or a Swiss clock. Something Swiss. (But not cheese.)
She was a mighty force, but her air of authority was never off-putting. She made it clear the place would fall to ruins without her, yet managed to be all smiles and winks. And she had a very chummy, insider-ish way of talking to my mom. As if we were a special family she was truly happy to see.
She probably made everyone feel that way. And good for her, if she did.
“Oh that Dr. Unger,” my mother would say admiringly, as we walked down the floating staircase (very mod at the time) to the parking lot, and she lit up a brown More cigarette. Mom adored Dr. Unger as much as I did. In that “he’s SO good at his job” kinda way. Though, who knows? Maybe she had a thing for Jerry Lewis too.
Whatever the case, there was a real sense of us feeling lucky that he was our doctor. I mean, we’d drive a half-hour to get to his office. This is halfway ‘cross the state when you consider we were in Rhode Island. But mom was resolute that he was “the best” so she’d dress us up for an outing to “the city” for every little check-up and sniffle. (Shorts, for your information, were an unacceptable clothing option for the city according to Mom. She stopped just short of making us wear gloves and bonnets.)
Aside from an allergy test where he pricked different parts of my arm with a short four-pronged needle, and aside from getting to pick out a lollipop after getting a shot, for all my admiration for Dr. Unger, I don’t remember any specific interactions I had with the guy. But I do remember one thing he told my mother once. He said, “The best thing you can do for a child is to keep their window open when they sleep.”
And so, all these years later I can’t help but think of Dr. Unger when I tuck my girls in at night. Unless it’s super cold out, I try to at least keep one window in their rooms cracked.
It’s such a little thing, but when I do it I feel like I’m tapping into some old world wisdom. Like I’m channeling some simple maternal legacy, since it was something my mother did with us. Because, of course, Dr. Unger’s word was gospel. Mom wouldn’t dare go up against doctor’s orders. And she always prided herself on the fact that my sisters and I never got sick. Something I’ve gotta admit, I love about my kids too. (Though now that I’ve said that I’m sure they’ll be plagued with an endless stream of sniffles, sore throats, and all-night puking sessions.)
Anyway, more often than not old clashes with new. And this small window thing is no exception.
Because one day, in a stream of chatter about everything and nothing at all (my favorite kind of conversation), my Mama Posse friend Maggie mentioned that she always closes her kids’ bedroom windows at night. And locks them. “Even,” she added, “if it’s, like, 100 degrees out.” (Though, blessedly, the Bar Area never gets near that hot.) Ever since the Polly Klaas thing, she said she’s not taking any chances.
Several weeks later, another member of the Mama Posse (we don’t have matching tattoos or embroidered satin jackets, I swear) was showing us the new extension they’d put on her house. Their fab-u-luss new master suite is pretty removed from their kids’ rooms. And so then she mentioned something about locking the kids’ bedroom windows at night.
And so, I took pause. (It’s such an odd expression, “took pause,” but I’d like to use it here, if y’all don’t mind.)
Because my Mama Posse mamas are women I’ve known since I used the word “latching” several times a day, and my C-section scar was still an incision. Back when a wrap-around nursing pillow was a regular accessory on my couch, and I hadn’t yet mastered breastfeeding while waiting in line at Trader Joe’s. In other words, I’ve know them since the infancy of my motherhood.
And we have talked about it ALL, these women and I. If my mama friends had told me that slathering my baby in mayo was an effective cure for colic, or way get her to sleep, or to take a bottle, I’d be scooping the stuff out of a jar with my bare hands and lubing that baby right up—no questions asked—even though I’m pretty much phobic about the stuff.
I seek and trust and respect their opinions on all things motherly above and beyond Dr. Spock even. But above Dr. Unger? And my own Mama?
I was perplexed.
So hearing their stance on window openage got me thinking. Am I acting irresponsibly? Am I playing with fire, all for the sake of some fresh air? Does old school wisdom not translate so well into the modern day?
Our nice neighborhoods aside, the fact is, we live in the fourth most dangerous city in the U.S. At least, that’s what my sister told me she read on AOL once. It’s not like we’re in the little Mayberry-like town that I grew up in.
But somehow, somewhere along the line, the fearful “someone’s going to break in and take her” feeling I had about both my girls when they moved out of our bed-side bassinet and into their own rooms seems to have dissipated. Not that I’m concerned about their safety any less. But now that they walk and talk and wear friendship bracelets and request “alone time” and know the lyrics to Justin Beiber songs, I have a whole new host of concerns that have apparently put kidnapping low on the list.
Or maybe it’s that I could imagine someone wanting to steal an angelic sleeping baby, but can’t fathom the desire to make off with a child who has a 20-minute screaming tantrum because I won’t give her a cookie three minutes after she’s had an ice cream cone.
Besides, the way our house is set up, our first floor windows are super high up. Definitely un-attainable by even the tallest thief or kidnapper.
And the place is hardly vast. If either girl sneezes in their room, we can pretty much hear it from ours. I always said the baby monitors we used were vanity items.
Last summer my neighbor started letting her third-grader walk the couple blocks to our local library. This seemed kind of wild to me at the time—who knows what could happen in that short distance, even with the most careful and responsible child? But I’m coming around to understanding what she allowed it. It’s no Mayberry here, but it IS a sweet little neighborhood we’re in. And if we can’t relax and enjoy it—if we can’t give our kids small tastes of independence, bite by bite—then we’re just letting the terrorist win. Or someone who we don’t want to win.
Who knows what I’ll be allowing my girls to do a few years from now. I hope I have some of that “let them out of the nest” courage my friend next door has with her kids. More likely I’ll be jumping out of the bushes when they’re in college to walk them across the quad at night.
In the meantime, I’m taking what feels like a small but valiant stance on the windows. Barring any large-ladder wielding weirdos, I think we’re safe having them open.
After dredging up all these memories of Dr. Unger, I just Googled the guy. I was half-scared I’d get an obit. In that clueless kid-like way, I have no idea how old he was when I was his patient. (Though I know I was wedging my college-aged ass into a kiddie chair in his waiting room when I last saw him, and he gently referred me to a grown-up doctor.) Thrillingly, I found a listing for him. He is alive and well—and still even in practice! Those kids who’s pics are in the collage on the wall of his office today are lucky little patients.
After more prowling around The Internets I found one of those doctor directory websites, which had this line on him: “Years since graduating from medical school: 57.” My math’s not good, but I think that takes him to a ripe old age.
Good for him. Must be all those nights sleeping with his window open that’ve kept him going.
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