When my family of two sons and a daughter made our quarterly trip to New Orleans, we traveled by car south on Mississippi Highway 51. Forty miles south of Jackson we passed a sign: SANITORIUM. No one paid attention, but I’d mumble, “I know that place,” or “I lived there once.” As the kids got old enough to show interest, they asked why I remarked about the area. I told them the story of my six months stay there.
I was seven years old in 1940 when my mother carried me to the Sanitorium campus. I remember I didn't protest, I was that obedient to do whatever she chose for me. We passed the main building housing adults with tuberculosis. Two blocks down the road lined with perfectly mown lawns, dotted with flowering trees and beds of blooms was the Preventorium, where children from four to eleven years of age had their dormitories. I joined forty-nine children to live, eat, play in a near-perfect setting. What was lacking was our families.
Did I have TB? I thought so at the time. In my family the rumor circulated my grandmother had it and “ Vivian may have caught it.” This was reaffirmed later during weekly examinations when a panel of doctors looked at my chart, cluck-clucked at my weight, examined the X-rays, and nodded in affirmation. In my chest was a knot they thought was TB. I weighed thirty-six pounds at the time, the lowest-weighed kid in the group. This embarrassed me and I tried often to be at the back of the line waiting to step on the scales, so I didn’t hear, “Ooo, look, she’s not even at forty!”
Classes lasted a several hours. We sat at small desks studying geography, history, math and English. We second-graders practiced our handwriting. With mother’s postcards she sent daily, I worked to imitate her style. In tiny cursive she put more words on a card than anyone else. Those beige-colored cards with their permanent green stamp comforted me at lonely times.
Our dorm held twenty-five beds for girls, and same for the boys in another dorm room. Our uniform featured one item: white cotton bloomers. We looked cloned, as the photo shows. The lasting memory of most of these little residents was those bloomers! Nothing attractive about them. Our shoes and clothes we arrived with hung in a metal closet until our discharge. I spent the spring and summer on this beautiful campus. Sunshine was our staple, besides delicious meals and free haircuts (everyone had same “bowl-type” hair styles.) We played and napped. We slept at least ten hours a night. A temporary home with a taste of stern leadership. Only we didn’t know that at the time. The regimen overshadowed the pleasure.
The playground had equipment seen only in upscale country clubs. The well-kept area featured a duck pond and a swimming pool. Rainy days kept us in an area called the “round room” because of its shape. We sat on the floor while Miss Effie, our away-from-home mother, read us stories. There were dolls, trucks, puzzles, books for individual play. The furniture throughout were scaled to our comfort.
Our relatives visited on second Sundays. This exciting time of happiness switched to crying when our visitors left. My mother wrote in her diary every time she visited with a few words: “Saw V. A. today. She seems so happy.” She didn’t understand it was my seeing her that made me content. By Monday I felt good having seen her. The routine made me forget my loneliness.
I left in mid August. The reunion with my family, especially seeing my new sister, was joyous. I never told my friends where I’d been for fear they’d think I had TB During that one trip to New Orleans did I reveal for the first time that hidden part of my life. Forty years later.
Sixty years later I found a FaceBook page devoted to “kids from the ‘P’”. It is a happy reunion of adults once innocents trapped in a world largely unknown to the public. The page gives them freedom to express their hidden lives.