For some years now, I’ve thought that the increasing attention given to matters of health by my friends and loved ones has to do with our advancing years. We have more ailments and take more pills and see more doctors than we did 30 or even 20 years ago. And every time we get together, the talk seems to turn healthward.

    But, I’m re-thinking that assessment. It’s not just that we are getting long in the tooth and experiencing various failures of systems and appendages. It goes far beyond that. Television commercials assail us with “ask your doctor” about this drug or that one and then spend an equal amount of time warning us about the dreaded side effects that might occur should we try them. Our elected officials argue about Medicare and Obamacare and we all worry about the ever-increasing cost of health insurance.

    We are inundated with news about cutting-edge treatments and innovative research techniques. Every day we read about a new “athon” or other athletic fundraising event for research and cures, even as we read best-selling books that warn us about the unhealthy aspects of agribusiness and deceptive brand name jargon.

    And then there are the commercials for healthier foods, low-fat or no-fat versions of everything conceivable, fool-proof diet and weight loss plans — even restaurants that will help you count your calories as you spend your money. And don’t forget the infomercials concerning fitness, often programmed cheek-by-jowl with the fast food specials and all-you-can-eat offers. We seem to be a nation obsessed.

    By the same token, we console one another with words like “Well, if you have to get sick, the 21st century is the time to do it.” We reassure ourselves that never has better health care been offered and we feel fortunate, indeed, that we have such excellent medical facilities nearby.

    That hasn’t always been true, of course. When my great-grandmother Julia Jefferson Espy was ready to deliver her first baby in 1871, there was only one doctor in the entire Shoalwater region. Unfortunately, he was located across the bay in the Bruceport area and, by the time he was needed in Oysterville, he was off in the woods somewhere attending to a case of smallpox.

    It fell to the neighbor ladies to deliver Julia’s firstborn. They had to use “distressing methods” which meant, it was whispered in the family, that the infant had to be dismembered in the womb in order to save 20-year-old Julia’s life. Over the next 15 years, Julia would have seven more children, all healthy, and according to family lore, her husband R.H. Espy made arrangements for the services of a doctor or a midwife well in advance of the due date.

    Even during my mother’s childhood in the early 1900s, most doctoring here in Oysterville was done by the women of the village. In those days, Dr. Paul had his practice in Ilwaco and if he was summoned for something extremely serious, he would come as quickly as possible by horseback. But usually, he talked with my grandmother by telephone asking lots of questions about the patient’s condition and then advising her how to proceed.

    My grandmother usually relied on “The Cottage Physician,” a thick, well-illustrated book of medical advice for individual and family use. She used homeopathic and herbal remedies and patent medicines, as well. For the most part, though, she was far too busy to be overly concerned about matters of health except when necessity demanded.

    While the men of the village harnessed and plowed, mowed and raked, milked and groomed, the women chopped kindling, pumped water, cooked on woodstoves, scrubbed with washboards, and beat the dust from rugs. They walked or rode horses or sailed boats to get where they were going. I doubt that any of them gave much thought to “physical fitness.”

    Nor did they spend time reading ingredients on labels or wondering whether their food was genetically engineered. Families ate what they raised or grew or hunted or caught. Leisure time, like extra money, was scarce and when either was available, the focus was on just plain living rather than on the finer points of health.

    I sometimes wonder what my grandmother or great-grandmother would make of our preoccupation with illnesses and ailments, with diets and exercise. Would they even understand the concept “health food?” What would they think of a television commercial advising them to join a gym or take the latest medication if they were feeling depressed? Would they think us wise or wasteful or … what?

     Sydney Stevens lives in her family’s ancestral home in Oysterville with her husband Nyel.

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