Healthcare in my Dad's Time

Mischief, Marriage & More

In those rare times when Doctor Joe could get away for a vacation, he liked to keep his feet as close to the ground as possible.  He never rode a motorcycle, but when hunting did ride horses and mules (and very few, if any, ATV’s could carry Doctor Joe!).  His preferred mode of travel was by car.  When brother Joe and I were small we traveled to places like Forest Lodge, Yosemite, Carlsbad Caverns and Yellowstone.

Small yes, but very active while touring in Dad’s big Buick.  Sometimes we got tired and cranky.  To help make travel more tolerable for us kids, our parents rolled up our mattresses and stuffed them down to where feet would otherwise go.  The mattresses made it level so the entire area became a mobile play-pen.  Then, when we stopped at a motel (AAA approved, of course) for the evening our mattresses could be taken into the motel room for us to sleep on.  Even though brother Joe and I were quite young we showed great talent for getting into mischief.  One memorable example occurred on a long road trip.  We were on vacation riding in Doctor Joe’s Buick sedan, that’s the one where two spare tires covered by strap-down metal covers were stowed in special wheel-wells located at the rear of each front fender.  Out of sheer boredom we decided to quietly lower the rear window and (on my side).  Then we each removed the good street shoes we were wearing and threw them out the lowered window.  We took great delight in watching each shoe bounce crazily on the highway.  Glad we didn’t throw them onto the shoulder of the road because our father angrily drove a long way back along the highway until he found where the shoes had stopped bouncing.  He actually found both pairs of shoes that we had tossed onto the roadway.  Good thing –It saved us from getting a good spanking.  Further, we weren’t within 500 miles of a shoe store, so new shoes were out..

Doctor Joe never traveled by train in his entire life.  The train didn’t let you stop to see things up close, like historical markers, (that he just couldn’t pass one up without stopping).   Then in 1960 there was a life-changing event.  My brother, who was an Army officer stationed in Italy, announced he was marrying his girl friend, Emma.  The Army and the bride agreed that the marriage would be held in Italy.  Well, Doctor Joe at age 60 had never been on a plane, and it would have been his preference to continue that perfect record.  The good doctor put up a barrage of arguments why he couldn’t go.

My mother generally gave way on issues on which Doctor Joe disagreed.  But, this time she spoke up.  I, also worked to bring my father around.  I finally got angry and essentially shamed him into going.  I drew a picture for him by saying only the bride’s relatives would be represented in the church and at all the functions before and after the wedding.  I asked him how he thought that would look.  I even crossed the line and attacked his ego.  I said that some of the bride’s family were going to think that though he was a doctor he was apparently too poor to make the trip to his son’s wedding.  Thankfully, the pictures taken at the wedding showed my father thoroughly enjoying every moment.

But, at the San Francisco International Airport, Doctor Joe told us “I’m going just to make your mother happy and because if I don’t, I’ll never have a day of peace again.”  Right on, Doctor Joe!   Once the wheels were up in the big jet, Doctor Joe’s fear of flying disappeared.  Though speaking Italian wasn’t easy for him (he only spoke the Genovese dialect, and most Italians didn’t understand that dialect).  You see, Mussolini, a World War II dictator, had decreed that all Italians would speak only the mother language and forbade use of every dialect spoken in each Provence.  So, my father found conversation with the bride’s family and friends somewhat difficult, but he managed.

When my mother first came into the young Doctor Joe’s office as a patient back in 1932, her upbringing dictated she treat the doctor with utmost respect.  My grandmother had quite the mouth on her, but her daughter did not.  It was soon apparent to Nonna and Gramps, Mom’s parents, that Doctor Joe was spending an inordinate amount of his professional time making certain that our mother was healing properly.

Doctor Joe was considered quite a catch in the San Francisco Italian community.  His ruddy complexion and black wavy hair combed straight back appealed to many of his female patients, including mothers seeking suitable matches for their eligible daughters, and my grandmother was no exception.

My grandmother, Nonna Parnigoni, was the highly dominant matriarch in her family. Even as she aged you could see she still retained her charm as a stunning young blonde, blue-eyed woman.  Nettie, short for Antoinette, was very outspoken and got away with it by using her sharp wit and beauty.  Nettie met her future husband, John, when they lived in Rhode Island.  She loved playing lead roles in local theaters and was in a play where John worked the curtains and helped paint the scenery.  They got married and moved to Barre, Vermont where Nettie became pregnant and where my mother was born.  Mom weighed over 13 pounds at birth.  After that difficult birth Nettie had no desire to bear any more children.  (Doctor Joe’s comment was Nettie needn’t have worried because in the process of giving birth her reproductive organs had likely been badly damaged.).  So, Vivian Velma Veronica was an only child with brunette hair and the big brown eyes of Grandpa John and the physical beauty of her mother.  My grandparents were strict in raising my mother, raising a highly respectful daughter who definitely did not speak out of turn to her elders.  So, when my mother came in for treatment by Doctor Joe she was already very beautiful and quite mature.

None of the four “Raffetto Boys,” as we were called, had the brass to ask either of our parents about their courtship.   I know the 1930’s period and the morals of that era may have allowed some women to be casually intimate.  But, my mother wasn’t one of those women.  And, my father’s self-image as a doctor would not for a moment allow him to consort sexually with a patient.  I do know their romance was quite brief.  On June 30, 1934 in Doctor Joe’s house at 1546 Alemany Blvd. in San Francisco, CA, Vivian Velma Veronica Parnigoni, not quite 18 years old, married Joseph James Raffetto, MD.  The bride’s mother, her two sisters, aided by their husbands, strung hundreds of Gardenias throughout the living room, which was set up with an altar and many, many flower bouquets.  I recently found a single picture dated one day after their wedding.  It surprised me.  Growing up, no one ever mentioned a honeymoon destination.  But, that picture showed the happy couple in Calaveras County, specifically Murphy’s California, where my father’s mother, who I called “Nonna Raffetto” was introduced to my mother.  The honeymoon was brief.  After the hard-scrabble days of his youth, Doctor Joe, singlemindedly, wanted to be financial secure as quickly as possible, and that meant getting back to his office and treating  patients on an almost daily basis.

I entered the world on Easter Sunday, April 21, 1935.  That was nine months, two weeks, year after my parents were married.  My mother frequently noted that I was “barely legal.”  The following year, again on Easter Sunday April 12, 1936, my brother Joe was born.  Wouldn’t you know it; our family couldn’t resist giving me the nickname “Bunny,” and baby Joe the nickname Chick!  So, not quite 20 years old and with two lively boys, our mother was totally occupied taking care of our needs. Then in 1939, Doctor Joe had a much larger house built on two city lots on the sand dunes of the west side of the city. bordered by 19th Avenue on the West and Junipero Serra Blvd. on the east.  Doctor Joe, the “workaholic” had indeed risen to be an excellent provider with a thriving medical practice to prove it.

Mom rarely challenged Doctor Joe’s authority, even though the good doctor manifested some strange beliefs, –example: how far the weekly allowance he gave our mother should last.  On the other hand, in the kitchen my mother admits she “couldn’t boil water.”  So, Doctor Joe taught her how to cook many of the dishes he liked.  It rankled my mother when Doctor Joe brought this up, because she worked very hard to make herself an outstanding cook.  Illustrating how great a cook she became: When she and my father became members of a Presbyterian Church we boys attended, she volunteered to provide a home-made Ravioli dinner for over 200 church members as part of a fund-raising event.   Before the dinner took place, we had trays and trays of freshly-made raviolis from laundry room all the way to dining room in our home, all covered with floured towels.

My mother was very compliant to my father’s wishes, but she was not a doormat.  On those occasions when Doctor Joe’s thriftiness compromised the well-being of us kids, she sought out her family for assistance.  They would gang up on him; it was like guerilla warfare.  Doctor Joe’s in-laws would soften him up by noting how his conduct about money was depriving his children of things they badly needed.  In return, Doctor Joe would bellow, “Money doesn’t grow on trees, you know,” but he generally caved in to recapture family harmony.  At the same time, doctor Joe made all of us justify our perceived financial needs.   As he grew older, doctor Joe mellowed and Mom didn’t have to run the household on a limited budget.  It reminds me of when our federal government introduced Medicare in 1965.  As he stood at the entrance of our breakfast room, Doctor Joe said, “This (Medicare) will be the ruination of medicine as we know it.  We’ll (doctors) make a lot more money, but it will kill the profession.  And, once doctors understood the rules of this new law, doctors DID handsomely profit, and cost to provide Americans quickly grew to two times the annual cost of living.

It took me a long time before I understood why our Dad, Doctor Joe, when something broke or wore out in our household, would say it was the fault of his wife, us boys or someone else…but, never his fault.  I think it was fortunate my mother never learned to drive a car so she escaped being blamed when the good doctor repeatedly overloaded our beautiful red and white Ford Fairlane Station Wagon hauling stuff up to the Healdsburg summer home.  Brother Joe and I, because we had started to drive by then, got blamed, if tires went flat or the transmission failed.  Today, when I’m with my brothers and one of us says, “Unh unh, that’s no good,” we all burst out laughing because it was the way our father would start his tirades.


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