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The Doctor’s Youngest Daughter

A Memoir

By Susan M.J. French

It was the era of the 1950s and 1960s—long before answering machines, #911 emergency and cell phones—that made our family an inextricable part of my father’s practice. Soon after he returned from World War II, he hung his sign—Dr. William F. French, M.D. Physician and Surgeon—on the door of his new practice in Fillmore, California. He came to Fillmore because the small, citrus-growing town needed another doctor. 

​My father was often on the front lines, both as a doctor in WWII and in our hometown. He never boasted about receiving a Purple Heart when his ambulance was attacked while he was retrieving the gravely injured in his tank battalion in Germany.  Unlike now, doctors went out onto the battlefield back then.  I didn’t know until after he had died and I found the medal. With horrific memories of needing to triage his injured comrades—deciding whom he could try to save and whom he had to let die—he would say to us, “No one wins in war; everyone loses.” So perhaps that is why a medal didn’t mean much.

​Being a doctor got better for him in Fillmore, which is a beautiful little town nestled against San Cayetano Mountain. My mother was the unsung hero by his side. She was the one who diligently kept the financial and medical records, and stepped in as nurse, receptionist and x-ray film developer when needed. Every night, she also handed my father his martini when he walked through our front door after seeing his last patient (this was the 1950s and 60s, after all.)

My maternal grandfather was a doctor too, and was practicing during the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, which killed 675,000 Americans. It feels strange to be writing about him 100 years later, as we experience the second global flu pandemic. I don’t know if he kept a journal about those years; I wish I could ask my mother. All we have is Mother’s early edition of the book Daddy Long Legs, which is the diary of a girl in an orphanage. Mother’s childhood friend, who lost both her parents to the flu, gave it to Mother for her 12th birthday with a little message on the inside cover.

The close connection between a doctor’s practice and his family life that my sisters and I experienced was even more intense for my mother when she was growing up.  Ruth—an only child born in 1917—first lived above her father’s medical office, which was located on the first floor of their home. Dr. Charles Freytag—who was born in 1882 and graduated from Rush Medical School in Chicago, Illinois at the turn-of-the-century—first practiced in Rock Island, Illinois. Then, when my mother was five, she moved with her parents to Hollywood, where he reestablished his practice.

 

Not unlike my mother’s childhood, my two older sisters, Penelope (born 1946) and Catherine (b. 1948), and our parents first lived in an apartment connected to the back of my father’s office in Fillmore. I was yet to be born, so missed that, and my sisters were too young to remember many details. My parents built their home on Hunter Drive in Fillmore in 1950—my destination after leaving the maternity ward in 1953. 

 

My parents were city transplants. They graduated together from Hollywood High School in 1934, and then UC Los Angeles in 1938, before my mother headed to UC Berkeley for grad school and my father to the University of Southern California for medical school. They married in 1941, before my father went off to war. When he returned, they moved to Ventura where my father completed his residency. And then to Fillmore, where he opened his practice.

Mother should have been a doctor too; I think she would have felt more fulfilled. She was definitely sharp enough. Still, I think natural history books, classical music, and tracking the migration of the birds she fed, kept her company in the quiet hours. She and my father also shared many friends in Fillmore.

Ruth Freytag and William Forrest French, at his graduation from USC Medical School

Dr. French with newborn granddaughter, Erika, 1983

As I look back on being known as the youngest daughter of a small-town doctor, the tragedies come first to mind. Yet, I also remember the richness of knowing so many people in the town, and being known by so many as well. I also appreciate that my life was entwined with people from many walks of life, not just one segment of society.

Fillmore was a complex web of descendants of several cultures and flows of immigrants. To understand Fillmore, it helps to know its history. The first settlers, of course, were Native Americans, specifically the Chumash. The area came under Spanish rule beginning in 1769 and then became part of Mexico after it achieved independence from Spain in 1822. In 1833,  Rancho Sespe—a 8,881-acre Mexican land grant encompassing the site of Fillmore—was given by Mexican governor José Figueroa to Carlos Antonio Carrillo. I remember childhood friends still living in Rancho Sespe housing when I was in school in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1848, California became a territory of the United States and then, finally, the small town of Fillmore was established when Southern Pacific built the railroad through the valley in 1887.

Over the years, Fillmore accumulated more citizens from other states and Mexico; many drawn by sunny weather and the rich, farming soils of Santa Clara River Valley. John Steinbeck could have plucked characters for Grapes of Wrath from the impoverished Dust Bowl immigrants who came to Fillmore from Oklahoma and Arkansas in the 1930s after their farms were parched by drought and blown away in dust storms. The plight of the those immigrants was still evident decades later. 

Some, like my parents, came from cities. In the 1960s, Fillmore was a favorite place for some United Airlines pilots to raise their families; they were willing to drive the 60 miles from Los Angeles International Airport. Looking back on my childhood, I lament that I’ve never known such a broad range of people in my adult life. Perhaps it was because I was a friendly, outgoing kid, but I could write a book about the characters of Fillmore whom I befriended and who ultimately enriched my perspective on life.

At an early age, my sisters and I learned to answer the phone, “Dr. French’s residence” and write down names and numbers so he could return the call. I can still recite it in the correct tone of respect and politeness that our mother drilled into us. Until I was 11, our town of 4,000 had switchboard operators who asked, “Number, please?” The operators would also break into our personal phone calls when patients needed urgent care. My parents kept a small sand-timer by the phone to remind us of our three-minute limit with friends. After office hours, the operators would switch my father’s medical office line (#284) over to our home (#758) for house calls. It wasn’t a party line, but it was definitely controlled by the operators. You could also ring the operator to find out what time it was, in case you had forgotten your watch.

My father seriously guarded the privacy of his patients and rarely was a medical case referred to by the individual’s name. When my sisters and I did hear names, we knew it was a grave sin to speak of anyone’s condition or sickness. We definitely knew better than to ever ask questions.

I became an adept receptionist by junior high school, when I was the only daughter still at home. There weren’t answering services or message machines in Fillmore in 1966. Often my parents were out for the evening with friends or with their bridge group. On Thursdays, which my father took off, they would drive the 60 miles to Los Angeles for cultural events and to check on my paternal grandmother. When I was in 8th grade and throughout high school, my parents always had season tickets for Sunday matinees for symphonies and plays at the newly completed Music Center in Los Angeles.  Sometimes I would go with them, other times I’d spend the day with my beloved horse, which I rescued from starvation and abuse, and was slowly nursing back to health.

We lived at the end of a private road with only a few other houses, which helped me persuade my parents that I needed a dog to keep me company when they were away to L.A., which often stretched late into the evenings. So, when I was almost 12, my father took me to visit one of his patients whose dog had a litter of Lab-mix puppies. In exchange for a medical office visit ($5 in those days), I could pick my favorite—a little black female that I named Bach, after the composer.

When my father died at age 87 in 2003, we had a simple open house for family, friends and patients. While I regret that we didn’t provide the opportunity for people to share stories openly, I was touched by many of those who shared with me.

I had never known that my father often didn’t charge patients for office or house calls if he knew they were struggling financially. At his memorial, one of my high school teachers told me that my father wouldn’t let him pay early in his teaching career when he had five young children.

Another teacher told me how my father had stayed up all night at their house when their daughter had a dangerously high fever—he feared brain damage—from measles. This was several years before the introduction of the vaccine in 1963. 

I also found out that, even though my father wasn’t religious, he didn’t charge clergy.

I wish I would have written more of these stories down. Yet, many incidents are so seared in my memory that I’ll never forget them.

I learned to despise guns early, when my father rushed out of the house one evening, growling “I don’t want to see this.” My mother patiently explained to me that two teenage boys had played Russian roulette with a gun and one had blown his brains out. She elaborated, in a clinical voice, that the bullet enters one side of the head and then explodes a big chunk of the skull out the other side, splattering brains on the walls.

There are other reasons why I hate guns, but they are too painful to write.

Dr. French as a young doctor

When I hear people say, “We grew up in the 1950s and got by just fine without seatbelts”, I want to tell them that a patient shared, at my father’s memorial gathering, how his young son had opened the car door while the car was moving and had fallen out. It was on a weekend so they drove to our family home and my parents washed the boy off in our bathtub before taking him down to the office to finish scrubbing the asphalt out of his wounds and bandaging him. I almost, but didn’t, respond, “Yes, I remember that incident; I was in elementary school and the bathtub had been so bloody that I wouldn’t take a bath in it for a week, even though my mother scoured it clean!” 

 

I’ll never forget a five-year-old girl who was hit by a car on Guiberson Road when she turned and, without looking, ran back across the road after getting the mail. My father wrapped her in Saranwrap to hold her little body together until the ambulance arrived from Santa Paula.  I remember seeing her sweet face as a poster child for the March of Dimes crippled children a few years later. 

I can envision the bloody head-sheets sitting on top of our washing machine, waiting to be washed, after my father stitched someone up on a weekend. My parents told me that if I was ever caught riding on a motorcycle, I would be taken to my father’s office and invited to clean up the blood and gore covering the examination table after a motorcycle accident.

How differently blood became handled after AIDs and the increase of other blood-transferred diseases.0

I was no doubt the only girl in our town whose father brandished her grandfather’s turn-of-the-century amputating knife for slicing a roast.  I also remember losing my love of ham when I was a curious eight-year-old who lifted the lid on a long, stainless-steel cadaver box at UCLA Medical School. From there we went to my grandmother’s house near Westwood for a dinner of cured ham, which reminded me of the body cured in formaldehyde.

My father kept track of the many hundreds of babies he delivered by hand-writing the details in small notebooks labeled “Physician’s OB Journal”. My mother related that he delivered twins soon after they arrived in Fillmore, for which the babies’ parents paid him two chickens. During the great flood of January 1969, which washed out all the bridges and left Fillmore isolated, he flew in a rescue helicopter—with a woman in active labor—to the hospital 10 miles away. 

My stomach turns when I remember a phone call early one morning...a SIDS crib death of a baby. Mother rushed out with my father to comfort a friend.

Labor pains often sabotaged family outings. I had excitedly awaited going to Olvera Street in Los Angeles to celebrate my ninth birthday, but one of my father’s OB (obstetrics) patients went into labor.  I do remember a happy ending to that birthday, however; my mother kept the promise and just the two of us went together.

I loved seeing the newborns through the glass when my father made his rounds at the tiny, six-bed maternity hospital in Santa Paula. But then a new, modern hospital was built and the rule of no children under 16 was strictly enforced...that double-digit was a long way off for me.  I remember being hurt and indignant.

Sometimes parents would desire a home birth to save the money of going to the hospital. My father performed home deliveries reluctantly and told the story of a home birth for a new patient when the placenta didn’t present after the birth. He anxiously waited, knowing the woman’s life was in peril, and her husband said, “The same thing happened last time, and I almost lost my wife.” I can only imagine my father’s fury that the husband had omitted that fact in the prenatal consultation.

My father stopped delivering babies when he turned 50. I was 12 then, with the majority of my classmates being among the hundreds of babies that he had helped into the world.  Yet he still drove off frequently to middle-of-the night house calls until he retired.  I believe he would have preferred to work well into his 70s, however an untreatable type of glaucoma and damage to the optic nerve was robbing his eyesight.

When my father was in his 80s, the medication for his glaucoma affected his nervous system and gave him terrible nightmares of what he experienced on the front lines in WWII and he’d wake up yelling.  Fortunately, he was able to have the prescription changed, but the horrible impact that his experience as a doctor in the war still had on him—so many decades later— was eye-opening for me. 

Broken bones were set in plaster-of-Paris after x-rays confirmed fractures. My parents would often return to the office after dinner to develop the x-ray films in the dark room, so the bone could be set the next day. Extremely difficult breaks and compound fractures (with bones sticking through the skin) would be sent to an orthopedist in Ventura, 22 miles away.

Being familiar with film-developing chemicals since college days, my parents also turned one of our bathrooms into a dark room (draping black felt over the transom window on summer nights) to develop their personal black and white photos. Watching the picture magically develop on the Kodak paper as a child (and later helping them) no doubt fostered my lifelong interest in photography.

Father and Daughter (Susan) at their home around 1956 with view of San Cayetano Mountain

Not long ago, I had a glass of wine with a fellow student from high school and she mentioned that her brother had been killed falling off a cliff on San Cayetano Mountain. Her brother and another boy had been caught on the mountain when the dense fog rolled in. As she spoke, my mind flashed back to March 1968, kneeling on our living room sofa with my mother and sister Cathy in front of our floor-to-ceiling windows, and using binoculars to sadly watch my father and the coroner in a jeep following fire roads up the mountain to retrieve his body. 

I also remember, in high school, hearing the anguish in a woman’s voice when I answered the phone and she screamed that she had just found her husband dead. When my classmate told me in class a few days later that his father had died of a heart attack, I never let him know that I had taken that call.

The only time I ever remember fainting was when I was exhausted after driving to Fillmore from Napa Valley in 1978 to donate blood to help save the life of one of my parents’ dearest friends.  She had been badly scalded in a bathtub when a water heater thermostat was set too high. My father had rushed to their house with his black medical bag, but knew immediately that her only hope was to be sent to the burn center in Los Angeles. Sadly, she didn’t survive.

While I consider the diversity and number of people I knew as the best part of being the doctor’s daughter, there were some other perks.

Cathy reminds me how much she enjoyed helping our father distribute the Sabin oral polio vaccine in 1961; I happily remember it too, even though I was only eight.  Citizens lined up in the Veterans Memorial Building to receive it for free and it was a chance for the town to come together. While I was too young, Cathy also remembers my father coming to her classroom in 1955 to give Salk polio vaccine injections to her first-grade class.

I loved to stop by my father’s office on the way home from Sespe Elementary School to visit with Pauline Fernandez, his nurse, and Sally Ebell, his receptionist. When I was about 10, I told them that I would never change my name when I got married. Nearly twenty years later, at my wedding, they remembered that strong-willed little girl and laughed. Yep, still Susan French.

Pauline and Sally stayed with my father throughout his medical career. Pauline spoke fondly of both of them at Mother’s memorial in November 2017, almost 70 years after she joined my father’s practice.  Pauline and Sally were both Hispanic and bilingual, which was so important in Fillmore and added warmth to the family practice.

Cathy also reminded me of the Pavins, who owned one of the two shoe stores in Fillmore, and were among my father’s favorite patients. They would bring us Jewish rye bread and pickled herring when they went to synagogue in LA. To this day, rye is our favorite bread.

My father loved the classic French dish, escargot. I made the mistake of proudly showing a playmate how we had snails in a wood orange crate and my father was feeding them cornmeal to clean out their digestive tracts. I don’t recall if he ever cooked them, but I’ll never forget the news spread quickly around the school playground and the taunts of “Susie’s daddy eats snails!” 

My father kept current in the medical world as an avid reader of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) and by religiously attending monthly Ventura County medical meetings and lectures. I took quite an interest in his medical journals and anatomy books and, decades later, one of my childhood girlfriends said that she received her sex-education from me in 6th grade. I was relieved to hear her say, as an adult, that it was “right on”.

My father also attended courses at Mt. Zion Medical Center (UCSF) in San Francisco. Spending part of a week each fall in San Francisco and eating at different international restaurants every night was definitely a perk of being a doctor’s daughter. For San Francisco, we wore dresses and white gloves, while in Southern California, even at the Music Center in Los Angeles, I never remember white gloves. But once my sisters went away to college, I don’t remember going with my parents to San Francisco as often.

I proudly remember my father walking across the stage at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles in the late 1960s and being honored as one of founders of the Family Practice Specialty.  He was very dedicated to education and keeping current in medicine.

Destination: No Phone

The only way my father could get away from the intensity of office and house calls was to physically remove himself from Fillmore.  Preferably to a place with no phones. He succeeded every summer, when our family drove 1,293 miles to the northern tip of Idaho where we’d spend a few weeks at our very simple, 650-square-foot cabin (with a million-dollar view) on the shores of Lake Pend Oreille.  We weren’t a sporty kind of family; bookish was a more apt descriptor.  Our much-loved Fillmore librarian, Art Arundell, would squeeze longer due-dates into the books’ inside pockets; mine were always horse books that he had stockpiled for me. 

My husband, Rich, and I, and our daughters, Erika and Juliana, have continued that yearly pilgrimage to the French family cabin on Lake Pend Oreille. Our infant granddaughter, Annalia, is part of the sixth generation of Frenches to summer on this lake, dating back to the late 1800s.

 

Among the hundreds of books in our living room at our parents’ home was one titled You Can Take Them with You, with pointers for traveling with children in Europe. While it never happened when we were young, our parents did instill a great love of world travel in all three of us. My parents took two long trips to Europe in 1956 and 1958, while our grandparents took care of us back home. But then, in 1961, they inherited the lake cabin and we spent our summer vacations there. Within weeks after I entered college in 1971, they resumed their international travel to Europe and also South America and Asia.  When Mother died at 100 years old in 2017, the tailored, wool dress-suit, which she had worn on her 1950s trips to Europe, was still hanging in her closet. 

At 25, when I had saved enough money from working at Sunset Magazine, I hoisted a backpack, sleeping bag and the student travel guide Let’s Go Europe 1978 and tackled 15 countries, from Israel and Egypt to northern Sweden, in six months.  I’m now up to 37 countries and our daughter, Erika, has reached 50 (not including our many repeat trips to the same countries and, no, we don’t count airports.)  We travel simply, using public transportation and often staying with families or bathroom-down-the-hall accommodations to be closer to the local people. Juliana’s number of countries is climbing steadily and she has surpassed us in the number of states. My sisters, who often travel together, have visited more countries that I can count.  

Dr. French's three daughters: Susan, Penelope, Catherine in 2011

After college and graduate school, Penny moved to New York City and its environs, and Cathy to Pittsburgh, making Back East cities their home. There they pursued their careers and raised their families, while I did the same in California, although I moved 400 miles north of Fillmore to the Napa Valley and a career in the wine country. Penny’s and Cathy’s advanced degrees were in library science—a career influenced by our family’s love of books and, no doubt, that the Fillmore Library was our meeting place after school and often on weekends. Likewise, my career choice of writing about wine was because my parents embraced the European custom of wine with evening meals. Cathy married a university professor; Penny married a travel writer; and I assured myself plenty of vintages with a winemaker. While neither Penny, Cathy nor I wanted to become medical doctors, my father was pleased, in his last year, to know that Cathy’s son, Juan, was attending USC Medical School, my father’s own alma mater, to become a medical doctor—specializing in pediatric infectious diseases—and carry on the family tradition.

Debutantes and Cotillions 

I was the only girl in Fillmore selected to be a debutante at the Las Patronas Ball during my senior year of high school. Supposedly, outstanding girls were selected from each city in Ventura County, based on academic achievement and good citizenship. Truthfully, I couldn’t help but feel my selection was also influenced by my father being a town doctor. For the black-tie ball, the debutantes wore formal, full-length, white gowns as elaborate as for the most expensive weddings. I do remember being disappointed when my parents declined the offer of my “coming out” because they felt it was elitist and their daughter would be presented to a lily-white society. Now I thank them.

I did attend cotillion at Fillmore’s Ebell Club, however, where we learned the waltz and foxtrot as early teens.  I never thought about how “white” it had been—not until a Hispanic friend mentioned to me, when we were in our 50s, that she was never allowed to participate and how much it had hurt her. My sisters later quipped to me that they would have gladly given her their spots—-they hadn’t enjoyed it—-but that was hardly the issue. Cotillion had been by “invitation”.

The Best Gifts

 

Perhaps the longest lasting gifts of my childhood’s cultural diversity came from the warmth of the Hispanic community. My father’s Mexican-American patients brought us gifts of tamales at Christmas; turkey couldn’t begin to compete. I remember one of my favorite families would open the door, greet me with “Mi hija!” and give me big hugs. From them, and other Hispanic families, I learned to hug generously. Those were the best gifts of childhood.

 

Ruth French at 97

(805) 524-0948

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