An Ostrich-Plumed Hat: Chapter Forty-Three

an ostrich-plumed hat

Begin with Chapter One ~ Return to Chapter Forty-Two

Dr. Ferdinand Peter Herff, February 1913

Peter pauses on the front porch outside his office. Listening. Not eavesdropping per se. But taking pleasure in the sound of women’s laughter. 

His father is probably right. He concentrates on work at the expense of having a pleasant home life. Imagine the contentment. A wife to come home to every night. A companion with whom to share meals. To share thoughts. To share laughter. 

Maybe, in a year or two, his practice will be secure enough to afford the distractions of courtship. 

He feels fortunate to have Mrs. Hatzenbuehler helping him for several hours a day. When she was a young woman, she worked for his grandfather. When she became pregnant with her first child, she stayed home to rear that child and the subsequent five.

Peter was able to coax her out of retirement. An ideal arrangement. He cannot afford a full-time nurse as yet, and Mrs. Hatzenbuehler has no desire to work additional hours. Actually, she claims she has no desire to work at all. But he “thinks the lady doth protest too much.” 

With her children grown, Mrs. Hatzenbuehler seems to relish having someone over whom to fuss. And fuss she does. She takes care of not only the patients, but also of him. She frets over his lack of sleep and questions his eating habits. She scolds him continually for being so distracted by work that he is oblivious to mealtimes. She is so avid a bill collector, one would think the money is owed to her. She finds his willingness to accept the multitude of often implausible excuses nonpaying patients offer both incomprehensible and unacceptable. 

Now, when needed, she enlists the aid of Miss Burgemeister. And Miss Burgemeister brings a spontaneous spark of life to the office. Mrs. Hatzenbuehler claims she is recruiting Miss Burgemeister to take her place. 

Peter finds the younger nurse, ten or fifteen years his senior, competent and professional, yet cheerful when time allows. But she seems reticent to commit to any regular schedule. She must have more patients than she has revealed to them.

“Doctor Herff,” says Mrs. Hatzenbuehler as he enters the office, “As you were out on calls, I referred two of your grandfather’s patients to Hedda, and she is unsure how best to treat the pair.      

“Missus Brennan was the one who telephoned—the one they call Mammie, whose name, I believe, was Kate back in the days before she and her husband Aloysius had seven children. Following his early death, her progeny increased to forty-some grandchildren, in turn contributing a host of great grandchildren. Why, she alone is responsible for producing enough Catholics to populate all of Irish Flats.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Missus Brennan reported that her only daughter, Missus Conway—Genevieve Conway—was ‘feeling poorly and complaining mightily.’ Although Missus Brennan believed Missus Conway in no danger, she requested I go sit with her for a spell to reassure her that she would indeed live. I told her I couldn’t possibly leave the office and suggested she telephone Hedda.”

Peter’s “And?” is all it takes for Miss Burgemeister to launch into her story.

“I rang at the door, and no one answered. As I reached up to knock, the door was opened by a ghost—or what appeared to be a ghost—startling me so that I almost fell back down the steps. Thin as a lamppost she is, and she was completely dusted over with a white powder. Wisps of white hair that had fled the confines of her bun stood out as though electrified. 

“‘Missus Brennan?’ I gasped. The ‘ghost’ nodded affirmatively and showed me to the kitchen. From floor to ceiling, everything was covered with flour, the result of the ongoing preparation of her home remedy for anything that ails you—chicken noodle soup. Plump, irregularly shaped noodles were scattered about the countertops, waiting for the plunge into a huge pot of simmering broth.

“Missus Brennan showed me into her daughter’s room. I asked Missus Conway a few routine questions, felt her head and checked her pulse. Missus Conway seemed perhaps a tad warm, but, indeed, not in a dangerous state. Relaying her symptoms to someone not tired of listening to them perked her up incredibly; so much so, she began to speak of her concerns for the health of her mother.

“Five years ago, she said, your grandfather advised Missus Brennan she needed to put some meat on her bones. The old Doctor Herff mentioned that peanuts and beer would fatten her up. Well, she adhered to his advice as though it were one of the Ten Commandments. For both lunch and dinner, she grinds peanuts up in the coffee mill, spreads the resulting butter on bread and downs a glass or two of beer. That’s virtually all she ever eats, save when the figs ripen on the tree in the backyard. Mammie Brennan still weighs no more than a feather, and the plumper Missus Conway frets over her mother’s size. But most of all, I think Missus Conway despises drinking peanut-flavored coffee every morning.”

Miss Burgemeister’s enthusiasm reminds Peter of his first medical cases, all overwhelmingly important no matter how insignificant the symptoms. He seizes an opportunity to interrupt her monologue. “How old a woman do you think Missus Brennan is?”

“Oh, at least ninety-five.”

“And she’s been subsisting on peanut butter and beer for five years?”

“Almost exclusively.”

“But what of Missus Conway?”

“Well, we ate the chicken soup Missus Brennan had loaded up with fresh parsley, and the color immediately returned to Missus Conway’s cheeks.”

“Miss Burgemeister, it sounds as though chicken noodle soup was the right prescription for Missus Conway. And, as she has managed to make it to ninety-five, peanut butter and beer must be the appropriate medicine for Missus Brennan. I doubt that heavy a dosage is what my grandfather intended, but I wouldn’t tinker with what appears effective in prolonging her life.

“You should recommend Missus Conway purchase a second coffee grinder reserved for her exclusive use. No doubt she will feel better spared from swilling peanut-infused coffee every morning. 

“And maybe I should advise Mister Koehler at the City Brewery to feature a testimonial from Missus Brennan in one of his newspaper advertisements. Ninety-five and living on peanuts and Pearl. 

“And how are you feeling, Nurse Burgemeister?”

She giggles. “Oh, the chicken noodle soup improved my spirits as well. And, here, Mammie Brennan sent me off with a jar of soup for you.”

“Thank you, but I actually was inquiring about your intentions. About how you feel about joining us. I know Missus Hatzenbuehler has explained my needs to you. You’re capable and enthusiastic. Will you be able to assist me at least while she cares for her daughter?”

“Hedda,” says Mrs. Hatzenbuehler, “my daughter’s in fine health. She hops out of bed almost as soon as she pops out a baby. The birth shouldn’t be a complicated one. Besides, Doctor Herff only requires someone here in the mornings before he begins his house calls. You still will have time for existing patients.” 

Peter continues to make his case. “Missus Hatzenbuehler won’t need to remain long in Boerne, as there is a very competent doctor there. Doctor Nooe was trained in North Carolina and has practiced medicine in Boerne since about 1900. As my father often is at our family’s ranch outside of Boerne, he knows the doctor well and speaks highly of him.”

“Dr. Nooe has been there for every one of Nellie’s babies,” adds Mrs. Hatzenbuehler. 

Peter smiles. “Although I cannot imagine the Nooe family discussions of the events of the day around the dinner table at night. Doctor Nooe’s wife, a widow from Galveston with several children of her own, is a devout Christian Scientist.”

“Love often makes impractical pairings,” says Mrs. Hatzenbuehler. “But Hedda, I trust you will take care of my young Doctor Herff in my absence?”

“I’m flattered to be asked. Yes, of course. I’ll be glad to be of assistance.”

Footnotes

Hedda was a practicing nurse engaged by several doctors in San Antonio, including Dr. Herff. This chapter strives to provide a glimpse into that side of her life. The Author portrays her as professional and pleasant, or she would not have met with much success. Cheerful as well, because Otto Koehler presumably would not engage in an extended affair with a dour, grouchy woman.

In order to try to capture her at work, everything in this chapter is pulled from elsewhere. The Author is using (abusing?) Dr. Herff. In real life, he married Lucy Frost in 1909. The fixation of the imaginary Mrs. Hatzenbuehler on deadbeat clients is based on Moira Lynch, a wonderful Scottish-born office manager who worked for the Author and whose indignation about late-paying clients far exceeded any her employer could muster.

Mrs. Brennan is based directly on the author’s paternal grandmother, Katherine Ann Conway Brennan (1887-1972), who never set foot in Texas. The noodles, peanut butter and beer tales about her are true, however.

The appearance of Dr. John Francis Nooe (1871-1944) is geographically correct. The doctor married the older Christian Scientist widow from Galveston, Mary Mills Hutchings Spencer (1857-1941), the Mister’s great grandmother, in 1900. The Herff farm on the south side of Boerne was adjacent to that of Minnie Knox Spencer Howard (1883-1972), one of Mary Spencer Nooe’s daughters.

Continue to Chapter Forty-Four

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