Casting sinister curses has become a lost art. An enraged modern person might throw oaths like “A scourge on your email server!” or “Your Wi-Fi is flawed!”
Shakespeare was a master of ominous curses. One of them, from the tragicomedy “Romeo and Juliet”, says: “A smallpox in both houses!”
This shows that difficult relationships with in-laws have a long history. But one also wonders: what did Shakespeare mean by “smallpox”?
I have first-hand knowledge on this subject, having endured chicken pox.
I was in first grade when an unspeakable tragedy occurred. Our Christmas vacation had just started when I started to feel feverish and gross. Even more alarming were the dozens of small red lesions that erupted on my skin.
Based on my vast medical experience, which consisted of watching veterinarians treat the animals on our farm, I concluded that my condition was terminal. I broke the heartbreaking news to Mom, who responded, “Don’t be silly. You just have chickenpox. ”
Try as I might, I couldn’t determine how I got chickenpox. We had a flock of Leghorns and collecting their eggs had its dangers. But it had been a long time since an angry chicken had left a mark on my hand while stealing hot eggs from under her soft butt. How could you get chickenpox if you hadn’t gotten any chicken bites?
The only source of heat on our old farm was an old Siegler fuel oil stove. My feverish brothers and I (by some cosmic coincidence, we had all contracted chicken pox) huddled near the stove, fighting for a position that would maximize the absorption of radiant energy. Inevitably shoving and recrimination followed, closely followed by: “Mom! He pushed me! “or” Mom! Tell him to keep his smelly feet away from me! ”
A house full of children with chickenpox is really smallpox in the home. But worst of all was the fact that my case of chickenpox consumed the entirety of our Christmas vacation. I recovered just as classes resumed in the new year. My Christmas holidays had been stolen from me, a heinous injustice.
The smallpox gradually began to scab over. They told us not to scratch ourselves, but that was like telling someone not to think of an elephant. We couldn’t help it; we scratched like a troupe of monkeys that were completely infested with hypercaffeinated fleas.
The results of this can still be seen all these years later. It turns out that scratching chickenpox can lead to permanent stinging of the skin.
I wish our parents had done things differently. It’s true that a chickenpox vaccine wouldn’t be widely available for another 30 years, but that’s a bad excuse. Our parents should have invented a time machine, traveled to the future, and brought some chicken pox vaccine. At least enough for me.
The feeling that our educational system had shortened me never faded. This, in turn, caused me problems during my high school years.
Because I felt like I had been improperly deprived of my first grade Christmas break, I had no qualms about missing some of my high school classes. My friends and I would waste allotted time for Algebra driving in our cars while talking about cars and making fantasies about the cars of our dreams. You could say that they were motivated by our mode of motivation.
Our absences were reported to school administrators, prompting me to have several forced conversations with our high school principal, Mr. Grebner. During these meetings, Mr. Grebner tried to explain the importance of attending classes so that I could receive passing grades and eventually graduate. I remained defiantly silent, still upset about the Christmas vacation that had been stolen from me.
Mr. Grebner was not impressed by my stoicism. Still, he saw the clear path to sign my diploma, although he was probably happy that I was leaving.
A few years ago my doctor recommended that I get the shingles vaccine. I wondered what he knew about the condition of our roof, but he explained that having chickenpox had left me susceptible to shingles. It seems that the chickenpox virus did not finish with me. I was still lurking in my system, waiting for an inopportune moment to paint myself with a constellation of angry red lesions, not unlike the acne breakout I suffered during prom.
So, I got the shingles vaccine. The next day my shoulder ached as if it had been hit by an elephant.
But that was so much better than living through the curse, “Smallpox on your face!”
Jerry Nelson and his wife, Julie, live in Volga, South Dakota, on the farm that Jerry’s great-grandfather lived in the 1880s. Daily life on that farm provided fodder for a long-running weekly newspaper column, “Dear county agent”, which becomes a book of the same name. Dear County Agent Guy is available at workman.com/products/dear-county-agent-guy.