Friday, November 28, 2014

Merle Hayward Wessman (1909-1945)

When a child is born, the hospital pricks its heel and soaks the blood into a Guthrie card. The hospital tests the blood for a variety of rare conditions including cystic fibrosis, congenital hypothyroidism, and phenylketonuria.

With modern medical technology, if a child has an early diagnosis, many diseases can be treated and the child can live a normal life, but in the days before the heel prick test, something about the child's development or feeding might not have seemed quite right, but parents could only watch helplessly as their child started to fall behind developmentally, mentally, and physically.

Merle Hayward Wessman was born September 27, 1909. Her proud new parents named her after her mother's beloved sister Leah Merle Hayward, who had died four years earlier.

Merle's widowed grandmother Amanda Wessman was a Swedish immigrant and temple worker. Merle was her fourteenth grandchild. Merle's other grandparents, Henry Hayward and Elizabeth Pugsley Hayward were respectively a contractor and politician, and Merle was their first grandchild.

Soon their darling little Merle developed the symptoms of what was then called "cretinism," perhaps a diagnosis now known as CH, or congenital hypothyroidism, perhaps another rare genetic disorder like Hurler-Scheie syndrome or Morquio syndrome. If it was CH, she would have slept a lot, eaten poorly, and had poor muscle tone and a low body temperature. Her belly would have distended and within a few years she would have failed standard developmental tests.

Merle with her uncle John Hayward.

Whatever the genetic or metabolic disorder, it does not seem to have shown up again in the family, and due to the size of the extended family, there's no reason to believe it will.

Not long ago, Merle was mentioned on Facebook, and in response, her younger sister Norinne sent a lovely hand-written letter filled with tender memories of her sister's life, with permission to excerpt it and include it here.

From Norinne:

My first recollection of Merle was when I was very young. She would sit in a rocker holding me, rocking and singing, “Go to sleep, my Renie, Renie girl,” (to the tune of an old song). The first line in the song is “Smile the while you kiss me sad adieu,” the title of the song is “‘Til we meet again,” —at least I think that’s the title. I still remember the melody, and she did quite well with it. This resulted in my family and friends (many years later) calling me “Rene,” which they still all do. 

You are right—she didn’t smile much (never in pictures), but when she did it was a sight to behold. She’d sit at the piano and play no recognizable tune, always in kind of a waltz tempo. For hours on end she would sit by the radio and play cards. I don’t recall if she ever played with other people. She loved to wash dishes, if you can believe that—14 plus place setting, 3 meals a day. She would cry if for some reason someone else did the dishes.

Merle, Grandpa Henry Hayward, unknown boy.

We moved to Salt Lake when I was about 9 years old. Mom, Keith, Boyd, Marilyn and I camped out in South Fork Canyon. I don’t recall Merle being with us, and I think she may have stayed with Grandma Hayward—she did that occasionally, and Grandma loved her. I think the others all needed to help. We also had 5 orphan kitties with us, whose mother had been poisoned by a horrible man, who would give cats and dogs poisoned chicken.

Front: John, Jean, Phil, Betty, Bobby (cousin Robert Edwards, son of L.R.J and Elizabeth Hayward Edwards). Middle: Merle, Harry, Paul, Dick, Ernest (baby). Back: Jean, Grandpa Henry Hayward, Henry, Grandma Elizabeth Pugsley Hayward.

What is sad is, I don’t recall Merle ever going to church with us, and never to our Pugsley family reunions at Lagoon. She was kept home most of the time; Grandma would take her for a few days quite often. Isn’t it awful that people with her issues were sort of hidden away. It is so different now—they are taken in groups on outings, etc. I’m ashamed when I think back on the way they were treated.

Jean with all fourteen children.

I must have been high school age or older when a terrible thing happened. John and Merle were home alone. At that time he was working for Mtn. Fuel Supply. John was bathing and heard some commotion. He wrapped himself in a towel and opened the door to see Merle running, screaming toward the kitchen, and she was in flames. He wrapped the towel around her, put out the flames, and called the doctor. Merle was in the habit of standing with her back toward the fireplace (no screen). The down draft pulled the back of her dress into the fire.

The doctor popped big blisters all over her body and dressed them with some kind of ointment. Her hair, eyebrows and eyelashes were singed. The doctor came every day for a long time to dress the burns. It was horrible! She could have died, and the house could have burned down!

When Grandma Hayward died 26 Jan 1942, Merle was very sad—she and Grandma loved each other so much.

Wessman family gathering, 1943-1945.
From left: Merle, unknown,  (behind: Beverly and John), Liz and Harry dancing.

When Merle was 36 years old, she was very ill with Bronchial Pneumonia and was in LDS Hospital. I understand that illness was common in people with Merle’s condition. Mom spent most of the time there. Merle thought Grandma was there. She also kept staring at a corner of the room and told Mom the kids were playing there.

Merle died on 7 April 1945.

John was in the army, and was on his way home... I keep thinking the funeral was at Larkin Mortuary, but I’m not sure. She was buried by Daddy in Salt Lake City Cemetery. 

See her entry at FindAGrave: Merle Hayward Wessman.

It was a good time for John to be home. Mom (and all the rest of us) depended on him in more ways than one. He was almost a father figure in the family.

A story added by Ernie's wife, Elaine, as related by Norinne:

I had talked with Elaine yesterday and was telling her what information I remembered about Merle to you. She didn’t know Merle as she and Ernie were not together at that time. She called me this morning to tell me something Ernie had told her years ago. He said that my sister Jean and Dick’s wife, Margaret, were staying with Merle at the hospital. They were looking out the hospital window; heard something and turned around. Merle sat up in her bed, held out her hand and said, “Help me, Daddy!” fell over and died. I had never heard this before. Ernie would not have told her that if it hadn’t happened.

Thanks to Emily for providing most of the pictures. My picture of Merle's gravestone is from a trip to Utah in 2010.


  1. I've been reading through the medical literature to see if it is possible to make a firm diagnosis, differentiate between CH and Down and other syndromes, but we simply don't have enough information about distinctive features (toe spacing, etc.) and onset of developmental delays.

  2. Interesting, as I always thought she was Downs.

  3. My grandmother Jean Shirts also told me the same story when Merle died.

  4. My grandmother Jean Shirts also told me the same story when Merle died.