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Volume 1, Issue 1
Spring 2005:

Dr. Dad

Robert Bell

Cell 2 Soul. 2005 Spring; 1(1):a11

My father loved being a doctor. He was a General Practitioner in North Cambridge, from 1946 until his death in 1970. He had an old fashioned, traditional family practice, caring for people from womb to tomb. He delivered babies, extracted tonsils and gall bladders, dispensed pills and advice. He explained the facts of life not only to me but also to young patients about to get married with no sexual experience at all.

His patients were working class people, mostly Irish and Italian Catholics, with large families and small incomes. He held evening office hours, including Fridays, to accommodate people working 8-5 shifts. He regularly made house calls, carrying his little black bag and often accompanied by a doting little boy who was often asked, "Are you going to be doctor like your Daddy?"

One Christmas eve, it must have been 1949 or 1950, I was plucked out of bed and taken on a visit to an old Irish lady's house. She had a hacking cough, and, wondrously for a three-year-old boy, displayed a cardboard cut out house with shutters that opened to reveal pop-up figures: a child playing, a cat on the window sill.

As a college student, I would sometimes help Dad with the accounts. He was a terrible businessman, jotting barely decipherable entries into two folio-sized leather books. A couple of times a year he'd ask me to look into the books to settle accounts. Every time he would explain, "Now, these are working people, and you don't want to alarm anyone. Just ask them very nicely, 'When might the doctor hope to receive payment?' I know you'll be polite."

He would start for his examination room, pause, and repeat that I should be nice to anyone I had to call. I would start with the Abiano family, noting that they had been visited four times, and come to office hours many times, since they last paid anything.

Before I could call Mrs. Abiano, Dad returned from the other room. "Don't call Mrs. Abiano," he said. "Her husband has been out of work."

Then he would start leafing through the pages. "Don't call the McCormacks. Their son was just shipped to VietNam, and she's a nervous wreck." Then he remembered that the O'Brien's daughter was getting married and the O'Briens were always strapped for cash. Mrs. Cavaretti's husband had suffered a heart attack; the O'Learys had twelve children; the Labanaras had a severely handicapped child. Etc.

By the time he finished, there were maybe ten or twelve calls allowed.

Twenty-five years later, I was standing in line at an elementary school in the old neighborhood where Dad had practiced medicine. My wife had won a fellowship at Harvard's Bunting Institute, so we were returning to Cambridge from our home in Williamstown for our sabbatical year. We were anxious about our first child Kaitlin, entering kindergarten the next fall. In Cambridge, schoolchildren were placed and bussed according to minority/majority status. A kid wasn't even eligible for the lottery to get into the nearest school unless the child was registered the April before September classes began.

So there I was, standing in line, waiting to establish spurious residence, clutching the gas and light bills for the Cambridge apartment in which we weren't yet living. Finally, I faced a weary, impatient lady about my age, who carefully checked my identification and verified my residency. I also showed her my daughter's inoculation record. "OK," she said, "all I need is her birth certificate."

The birth certificate was safely deposited in the safe deposit box, back where we lived in Williamstown, three hours from Cambridge. "The birth certificate," I mumbled.

"That's OK," she said, noting that I lived, or said that I lived, right around the corner, on Upland Road. "Just drop it off Monday."

"Can I mail it? I'm really busy Monday."

"Oh, no. I have to see it, stamp it, and return it to you in person."

"Can't get it by mail, huh?"

She looked mildly alarmed. "No, no, the regulations are very clear. Gotta be done in person."

I diddled and fiddled. She glanced again at my daughter's medical record. "Kaitlin Bell," she said. "Are you related to Dr. Bell?"

"That's my Dad."

"Oh, my," she replied. "He delivered me! 1947. He took care of my whole family. When I was in seventh grade I had eczema so bad I refused to go to school. Dr. Bell had a magic medicine that cleared my skin! Oh, my! Is he still . . .?"

When I said that he had passed away, she stepped forward and hugged me. I choked up and she began crying. She said, "I guess we can register Dr. Bell's granddaughter!"

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