When someone you love and respect is 114 years old, well, it is not exactly a shock to hear that they passed away. However when I got home from class this morning and opened the email from our choir director informing us of Dr. Leila Denmark’s passing, I felt as if my face had been slapped, and I literally gasped. I was never one to think of her as either perfect, or other-worldly, but I just got so used to having her around (even if she was not up for lots of visitors in the final years). And though a mere mortal like the rest of us, she certainly did manage to accomplish quite a lot of good in her 114 years. Heck, she accomplished a lot of good in half of those years.
There are plenty of places to read about all her accomplishments, and not enough space here. The website developed by her family would be the best place to go for a good chronology of this remarkable woman. However here you will find snippets of my own conversations with her over the years. The mini-lectures, if you can call them that, were four to five sentences at most, all shared during poking, prodding and peeking at my children’s ears, eyes, and noses (one per child) and delivered with a calm, matter of fact tone, and always, a smile.
The Baby Comes to Live with You
I suppose each generation is a bit self-absorbed, and criticizes the next generation for being so. However in the four generations of families she treated, Dr. Denmark told them all the same thing: put the baby on a schedule and let him or her adapt to your family’s routine, and understand that they are not the center of the entire universe. Everyone, including the baby, needs to get a good night’s sleep, and you can train your baby to sleep through the night pretty early on. Yeah!
Sometimes Animals Make Better Parents than Humans
Along the same lines, she often would tell me of stories from her childhood where she learned quite a bit from watching animals care for their young. “You watch a mama cat or dog Mrs. May,” she would begin. “You won’t see them open for meal time all day long; no, they will push their young away no matter how much they bother her until it is time to eat. If only humans would take a lesson from the animals, we would all be better off.”
Babies Will Cry
“Now this baby is going to cry about three to five hours each day, and that is perfectly normal. It will open up his lungs, and provide him with some exercise, so don’t fret about it. And don’t use food to keep him quiet all day long.” Now that there is an obesity epidemic, even among U.S. children, it would be wise for moms to take a second look at her “No juice, crackers, goldfish, sweets, or any kind of eating in between meals” code. I began to do this myself with no ill effects (and no wailing).
Heart Attack Victims are Lucky
I shared in an earlier post about how Dr. Denmark responded when I told her my father had just passed away from a heart attack. “Oh, he’s lucky! That is the best way to go.” Of course I was a bit shocked at her frankness, especially since I was still stinging from the loss, but later I saw her point. Like most of us other mortals she did not get to pick how she would go, and I am afraid that her last few years were not the quick and painless death she might have chosen. But she knew she was in God’s hands and that He is in charge of these things.
Don’t Make Excuses
On one visit one of the twins was fussing and I told her that he was teething. She quickly responded “Now Mrs. May–you don’t want to be making excuses for this child. He will be teething until he is almost grown, so let’s not use that as an excuse for everything.” This took me off guard because it was a bit of a reprimand, but Dr. Denmark was so wise, I took it as an opportunity to get her to elaborate. She went on to say that a baby can fuss for lots of reasons, but that Moms don’t need to become excuse makers for them each time they act up. She was trying to prevent me from forming a bad habit, and I am thinking that the teachers of some of our helicopter-parent kids might agree with her.
The Georgia Lottery Is Bad for Families
I visited with Dr. Denmark during the time that the Georgia Lottery was being debated, and she was very clear about how much she was against it. As she put it, “Mrs. May, the lottery is nothing more than a way for poor people to use their food money in a get rich quick scheme that won’t help anyone. It will literally take food out of the mouths of poor kids, and I hate to see that.” A Duke University professor, Charles Clotfelter, said the same thing in his book Selling Hope: State Lotteries in America. He did the research, but Dr. Denmark knew this from her experience working with Atlanta’s poor children.
Mothers Have the Most Important Job in the World
Dr. Denmark’s pep talk about how important my job as a mother was remains one of the best memories I have of her. She used to say that women had all the power in the world because they were the ones raising the next generation, but then they all wanted to leave their kids for someone else to raise and get a job that would make them important. Now you have to know that she went to medical school back when women just didn’t do that. And she was a practicing physician while her daughter was growing up. She would explain that due to her having a good husband and a steady income she could practice at home with Mary nearby, and that she was available for her at any time. Dr. Denmark valued education and smart women, and even women having a career; she just did not think leaving your baby for most of his or her waking hours to do it was a good idea.
Those of us who knew Dr. Denmark well will recall her aversion to two things in particular: carpet, and cough syrup. (At the time, mine was cough syrup IN the carpet.) About both she often said “Would not have it in my home.” The carpet thing was simple enough; it is a reservoir of dirt, hair, bacteria, pet waste, and other nastiness that cannot be easily removed. Her thought was stick to wood floors, or even linoleum. (Do they still make that?)
The cough syrup was more mysterious to me so I prodded a bit. “Coughing,” she would begin “is your body’s natural defense against things that need to be removed from your respiratory system. If you take medicine to stop that–how will it get out?” “Um…good question Dr. Denmark; I never really thought about it.” As we talked my mind flashed back to the bottles of cough syrup we had in our medicine cabinet when I was growing up–Vick’s 44-D–with Codeine, as they used to advertise it. That was before the days of everyone and their brother finding ways to get high (or at least before the grownups realized it) and so almost every family had a bottle of this in their home, in a cabinet that was not locked. And it never occurred to us to use it for anything but a cough–but now I was rethinking this too (the cough syrup, not the getting high).
Dr. Denmark did not like to see parents yelling or scolding their children; in fact she was not that keen on spanking, which surprised many, including myself. “If you feel you must punish your child Mrs. May, just get a little branch from outside to use as a switch, and three simple swipes across the back of the legs should be all they need. Of course I have only done that once or twice with my own daughter. It is not something you need to do a lot.” Ok, that was different from my own view about spanking, but as I reflected back on the actual number of spankings delivered in our home, each child only got about 4 or 5 in their entire life. (I think this surprised a good friend, who was against spanking, and who thought that those of us who think it is ok were doing it all day long, every day.) I think Dr. Denmark believed so much in training children to wait, giving good attention,providing healthy food, sunshine and a peaceful home, that she did not see the need for much corporal punishment.
Dr. Denmark went on “You see Mrs. May, you want to do things WITH your child, to teach them the joy of working together. Don’t say ‘ go get your shoes,’ but say ‘let’s go get your shoes.’ And use a nice calm voice-no yelling or scolding.” I am laughing now because I was way too lazy to strictly follow her advice on this one. I wanted my kids to go and get their own shoes, and not have to do the Let’s …thing each time. Heck, sometimes I wanted them to get MY shoes. But of course Dr. Denmark was never lazy, and a lot nicer than me (and she only had one child.) Now however as an older and wiser mom, I plan to use this method with my grandchildren one day until I am too infirm to go with them. Then they can fetch Granny’s shoes/knitting/mojito.
The Nature of the Beast
On another visit one of my children was crying and fussing, but this time I did not make some excuse for it. I finally figured out that they were simply acting like a baby, which is fine for them, (but not for teen-agers or grownups). When I handed him to Dr. Denmark, he quieted down and let her examine him. I was rather puzzled so I asked her, “why are YOU able to calm them down so easily?” Dr. Denmark had an answer at the ready, “Oh that’s simple Mrs. May. He knows that I am not his mom and don’t love him as much as you do. Children will always act up the most for the people that love them the most because they already know that you will never let go of them, but they don’t know that about me or some stranger.” Ok! Class dismissed. I drove home from her office that day thinking about that and how somehow I need to bring this back to mind during the teen years, (which I did). No one loves them as much as I do…no one loves them as much as I do…repeat after me….no one loves them as much as I do. Smile.
I wish I could remember more of our conversations; there were so many during my kids’ early years. I learned so much from Dr. Denmark about babies, parenting, God and His creation, and our role in this world. Dr. Denmark is in my head, and more importantly in my heart, and neither I nor millions of others will ever forget her.
Again, God Bless You Dr. Denmark, and May You Rest in Peace.