Before our move to Italy, I had been the one to take the children for their doctor’s visits, usually while George worked. I had developed a good working relationship with our doctor in California. No question was too silly for Dr. Fricker, and his deep soothing voice on the telephone always calmed me in the midst of the children’s minor crises. I was anxious to establish another good working relationship with our Italian pediatrician, and when he entered the room and smiled, I relaxed. He seemed very nice. However there was one big problem: he spoke no English.
Once again, the reassurances we had received from our American friends, “Oh everyone in Italy speaks English,” was proven untrue in the rural areas. With a sinking heart, I realized George would have to do all the talking, while I could only listen and try to absorb what I could with my limited understanding of Italian. I found this extremely frustrating. I was not used to playing spectator, while others discussed my children’s health.
As the examination began, I peppered George with questions that he seemed to relay to the doctor, but I couldn’t ask for myself what I needed to know, and I couldn’t respond to what the doctor was saying except through George. It was not like the United Nations, where someone keeps a running commentary on every word the person says. George listened and then summarized to me what the doctor had said, so I never knew if he had left out something important. However the doctor listened and answered, and thumped and prodded, and then he declared them all healthy. I was relieved.
For the diarrhea, instead of a prescription, he gave us a faded, typed recipe for vegetable soup, to be eaten with rice. I thought this seemed strange, since vegetables tended to loosen them up. However, since nothing else had worked, I was willing to try it. He also said to keep them off all chocolate, so that the diarrhea wouldn’t return, and so that the blistering spots would go away. George translated for me. I was inclined to disagree with chocolate as the cause for the spots because none of the children had shown allergies previously. My bet was that the uncles were right, that something had brushed by their legs as they wandered in shorts through the fields. I told George to ask him about that, but the doctor shook his head. I was willing to try abstinence from chocolate, especially since he also prescribed a cream for the spots. I was greatly reassured when we left. If we could just get the diarrhea under control, they were otherwise healthy. And I was relieved to know that we could just show up again if they had other problems.
The doctor’s visit highlighted for me my diminished role as a mother. I had been in complete charge of the children’s health and well-being from the moment of their birth. It was not that George was incompetent. On the contrary, he was a very involved father and was quite capable of looking after them. But in the division of duties, he had gone off to work, and I had stayed home to look after the children. Doctor’s visits, shots, and illnesses, fell into my realm of responsibility. I was the one who read the child-care books, who had figured out when we had to worry, and when we didn’t, and George had always followed my lead. He had been able to go to work in the morning, assured that I had things under control. Having little experience with babies before Paul’s birth, and without a mother to turn to, when I took the children for their checkups, I listened carefully to what I was told and asked lots of questions. And of course I read obsessively. I was immersed in on-the-job training. But in Italy, I was suddenly cut off from a major source of data and advice. Not only couldn’t I keep up with the nuances of the doctor’s comments about the children’s health, but I couldn’t ask everything I wanted to. My give and take with the pediatrician was missing, and it left me uneasy.
Amazingly, the vegetable soup and rice worked. My father-in-law, Marino, boiled up a big pot of vegetables, spices, and water, and strained off the vegetables so the children couldn’t complain about not liking them. I then loaded the broth with rice. Within two weeks the children’s diarrhea disappeared. Keeping them off chocolate was harder because their main source of chocolate was the peanut butter substitute, Nutella—the sugar-loaded, chocolate-hazelnut paste. We had to persuade them to eat something else in their sandwiches. Luckily, they liked salami, so we switched them over gradually. Unfortunately, salami was more expensive than Nutella, so our grocery bills rose. We scheduled a trip to Casale to see if we could find another substitute for peanut butter.