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Telling Our Stories

Mary Berlin Christman—Her Nursing Skills Were Legendary

by Shirley Berlin Wilhjelm

Mary Elizabeth Lance was born in Scranton in 1902, one of six children of William and Elizabeth (Jones) Lance. She graduated from Hahnemann School of Nursing in Scranton in 1921 and began working as a surgical nurse at Hahnemann Hospital. She had wanted to become a doctor but gave up those plans when her sister-in-law became ill and money got thin. Katherine Lance was divorced from Mary’s brother William, and she and her five children lived with the Lance family on Green Ridge Street. When Katherine became ill Mary helped take care of her and her young cousins, the littlest of whom she called “my baby.”

On the Berlin side of the family, my great-grandmother was a Kresge and a sister of Sebastian Spering Kresge, founder of the S.S. Kresge five-and-ten-cent stores. The Kresge family had settled in Monroe County back in the 1740s, and that’s where my father, Allen Airly Berlin, was born in 1889. When he was a young man he went to his Uncle Sebastian and asked him for a job. He was told, “No, go and get an education first,” which he did, and he ended up becoming a doctor. He graduated from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia in 1912 and came to Newfoundland to join Dr. Fletcher Gilpin’s practice. It was a good opportunity, and he eventually took over the practice.

When my father moved to Newfoundland his family came with him—mother, grandmother, aunt and uncle, and his young cousin Miriam Beers—and they all lived together in what everyone in town called the “big house.” He met my mother in the operating room at Hahnemann Hospital. She had a surgical mask on, of course, but he noticed her eyes and that started the big romance. They were married in 1925, and I was born two years later. Uncle Sebastian came to see me when I was born and brought me a book on the history of the Kresge family.

When Katherine Lance died in 1930 her three older children stayed with their grandmother in Scranton, and the two youngest, Almeda and Betty, came to live with my parents in Newfoundland. Almeda and Betty were like my big sisters when I was growing up. My mother was a very caring person. She would have to be to take two teenage girls!

My father didn’t drive a car. He hired different men to drive him on his rounds or when he was called out to see a patient. Being an RN, my mother worked alongside my father and helped with the patients. When Doc was out on a call she would get up in the middle of the night and go out to care for people. One time she was called out at twelve o’clock at night to help a little girl who had stomach pains. Mom traipsed up through snow that was up to her hips—nothing stopped her if you were sick. It took her two hours to get up to the house, take care of the little girl, and bring her down to the office. She saved that little girl’s life because she had an attack of appendicitis. She had to get Frey’s to take her to the hospital in the hearse—that was the “ambulance” in those days. Another time a little boy was working on a farm, and he was up on top of a wagon in a hay mow. Somebody pushed him and he came down on a pitchfork and it went through his mouth. He bled so much, but she saved him. She could have been a doctor!

My father died in 1932 when I was only five years old. He had gone out to see a patient in the wintertime and caught a cold, which quickly turned into pneumonia. There was no penicillin at the time, and within three days he had died. He left my mother a young widow.

After my father died my mother rented the house and office to Doctor Summers, and we lived in the apartment over the garage behind the house. Later, another doctor, Frank Uridel, came in to practice, and she rented the house and office to him until he built a new home and office farther up on Main Street. Mom decided to sell some of Doc’s medical equipment. Pharmaceutical salesmen always used to stop at the office, and one of these salesmen told my mother that Dr. Robert Christman in Lehighton would buy the X-ray machine. So she went down to Lehighton to find him and try to sell him the X-ray machine. He wasn’t interested in the X-ray machine, but he married my mother. They were married in 1934, and that’s how I got to Lehighton—Pennsylvania Dutch country. I was in the second grade.

It took them a long time to get everything moved down there. They moved a little bit at a time. My little brother Lewis came along about a year and a half after they were married. We lived in one of the nicest homes in Lehighton and had three cars in the garage. My mother wanted to send me to a private school, but I said no, Lehighton High School was good enough for my friends and it was good enough for me. I think I got a good education. I used to come back to spend summers with my cousin Miriam and her husband Charlie Ehrhardt.

My stepfather loved animals. We had chickens and roosters, and one time he brought a Billy goat home. This Billy goat would get out and wander around the neighborhood, and they would call my mom to come and get him. One time she was baking pies and the goat had gotten out and had my little brother pressed up against the garage door. He was hollering, and my mother went out with the pie dough all over her hands, and she just stood out there and laughed.

There were many times when I came home from school for lunch and I’d find a note on the table that she was out delivering a baby. Oh, yes, one day she delivered three—one in the morning, one in the afternoon, and one at night—because Doc was out making other calls and wasn’t available. The patients used to call our house to find out if she was going to be in the office that night, and if she wasn’t they wouldn’t come in.

She had gone to school in Philadelphia for a while to learn how to develop and read X-rays, so she did that for Doc Christman too. I remember when I was in high school, boys would get hurt during football games, some with broken bones, and the next thing you know they would be sitting in our backyard and she would be putting a cast on a leg or an arm. Another example occurred when a young child was brought in critical condition to the office. My mother discovered he had been playing with coins and immediately placed him on the X-ray machine, with his parents exclaiming, “But this was done at the hospital!” My mother put him in every conceivable position while Doc looked on, until he finally said, “There it is! We found a dime!” When my nephew broke his arm, she immobilized it so efficiently the doctors at the hospital asked, “Who did this?!”

She was also quite into real estate and that’s how she put me through college. She didn’t sell the house in Newfoundland, and around 1950 my stepfather decided to come up to Newfoundland to practice. They remodeled the house and by the time they were finished it had 28 rooms. Not long after they moved back to Newfoundland, Mother embarked on a new venture. She thought a nursing home was something that was needed in that area of the Poconos. She got bids from local contractors but thought they were too high, so she decided to be her own general contractor. She had acquired some experience in new construction when she lived in Lehighton. She drew up the plans for the building and submitted them to the state for approval. No changes were required.

She got a little Ford pickup truck and hired all the people who were going to be working there. I remember she had several big containers on the back of the pickup that she filled up with water every morning and took up for the men to drink when they were working. She and her friend Hilda Frey used to go to Philadelphia and bring back bricks and doors and windows and whatever else they needed. They’d always get all dolled up in their finery, their mink coats, and go out to lunch first, and then they’d bring back what they needed for the builders.

Holiday Hill Nursing and Convalescent Home opened in January 1962. It opened with two patients, but it wasn’t long before the place was full. She had a number of friends who were registered nurses, and she hired them to work there. One of the first was her childhood friend Hilda Frey, widow of Russell Frey. She and Hilda had grown up together as neighbors in Scranton and became lifelong friends. Emma Osborn was the first full-time cook, and there were many more to follow. My mother was proud to have established something worthwhile for the community and was pleased to be able to provide employment to many local people. She managed the home for several years before she retired in 1969. At one time there was a plaque in the lobby dedicated to her.

I remember my mother as being able to do just about anything. She could take a lamp apart, fix it and put it back together, or any electrical appliance. She made a coat for me on the sewing machine, and once she made slipcovers for a sofa bed in our sunroom and put up matching curtains. She loved to bake and was very good at pies. She could do whatever she put her hand to. And, of course, her nursing skills were legendary!

The only thing she couldn’t do was make a doctor out of me. She made a big mistake by promising my father when he was dying that she would make a doctor out of me. I told her later that if he had lived, he would want me to do what I would be happy doing. I took three and a half years of premed and hated every minute of it, but I loved my English courses. I finally convinced my mother to let me go ahead with my English degree, but I had to promise to go on to get my master’s degree. I graduated from Hiram College in Ohio in 1949, and have a graduate degree in English and Education from Teachers College, Columbia University. I taught high school English in Ohio and New York for more than twenty-five years. I was the Junior Class advisor and put on the prom and raised the money to pay for it. You can’t imagine what those teenagers put me through, but I loved it! I retired in 1982 and still keep in touch with many of my former students.

This article was first published in The Greene Hills of Home in March 2012.