This is the fourth installment of a story I am writing about my great-grandfather. The characters and the story are true, for the most part, but many of the names have been changed.
The ambulance took Tom to the Poplar Bluff Hospital, a two-story, whitewashed brick building that faced Oak Street on a bluff above Black River.
For the last forty years, Tom had almost superstitiously avoided hospitals. This avoidance began in the spring of 1931.
Maggie Midkiff and Tom White were deeply in love. Their romance had all the passion of a chivalric epic, even if it had run a bit of an unusual course. Maggie was three years older than Tom. She was born in the Ozark foothills of Carter County, Missouri. Maggie was the second child of Robert and Lizzie Midkiff. Her father had operated sawmills in the area. He died in 1905, when Maggie was sixteen years old. Maggie’s oldest sister, Dode, was intellectually disabled. With her father gone and her mother needing help to take care of Dode, Maggie remained at home as her younger brothers and sister married and moved away to St. Louis, to Detroit, or to Dallas. Maggie had resolved that she would be an old maid, caring for her mother and sister as long as they needed her.
But then, when she was in her early thirties, she met Tom White. I have never found out how they first met. All I know is that Tom, the powerfully built teamster, drew Maggie’s attention immediately. His Roman face and his mighty frame captured Maggie’s imagination and made her at once nervous and intrigued. And Maggie, who was a nice-looking if not beautiful spinster, struck Tom, the theretofore-confirmed bachelor, as the kind of woman he could settle down with. After about a year of courting, they were married, in the front room of the Baptist preacher’s house. Tom was 33 years old, and Maggie was 36, both unusually old for a rural Missouri family in 1925.
In early March of 1931, Maggie entered the Poplar Bluff Hospital, which was then a three-story red brick building on Main Street. She was 41 years old and pregnant with her first child. In today’s world, a woman giving birth for the first time in her 40s is remarkable. In 1931, it was life threatening.
The pregnancy had not been routine. The midwife had visited with Maggie a few times in the final months of her pregnancy and had expressed concern about Maggie’s age. She was concerned that Maggie’s body would not hold up to the strains of natural childbirth. She recommended a planned Caesarean – something that had never been done in Poplar Bluff before.
At 8:33 am on March 9, 1931, a young obstetrics surgeon from St. Louis delivered Tom and Maggie’s healthy, strong, infant son. They named him Thomas Robert White.
Maggie White died just over a week later, on March 17. Her forty-one-year-old body, which no one thought could withstand childbirth, could not fight post-operation infection. Her final days were marked by fever and delirium. She was too sick for the nurses to allow her to see her baby boy.
Tom buried Maggie near his grandparents, in the Doniphan city cemetery. Decades later, decades after Tom had re-married and sired a daughter with his second wife, young Tommy White and his wife would regularly drive old Tom from Poplar Bluff to Doniphan to visit Maggie’s grave. During these periodic trips, the old, stubborn, powerful, strong Tom, wept bitterly.
The woman on the left in this photograph is Maggie Midkiff White. The woman on the right is Tom White's grandmother.