My mom always told my dad he needed to gain weight. "No, Leo says 180 is enough," my dad would say, about his doctor, Leo Wolf. My mother didn't like Dr. Wolf—thought he was old-fashioned and complacent—and referred to him as just, "Wolf." Wolf also thought it was okay that my dad smoked three cigarettes per day. And it probably was. But find a doctor to tell you that today.
Mom didn't go to Leo, she went to Shelly—whose full name was Sheldon, but who my dad called by his last name, "Friedman"—and she took my sister and me to him, too. Shelly was more liberal than Leo. He was more liberal than my mother, actually. Once, he suggested that, in order to cure her manic depression, she try cocaine. "I'm telling you, Carol, it's fantastic."
But Leo and Shelly were family advisors; they were the human embodiment of a vast and mysterious medical realm. They were people whose genius and foibles we knew. And they were doctors, too.
My parents sometimes followed their advice, sometimes ignored it, but always seeked it, because these men were friends, and why wouldn't you tell a friend your troubles? (As opposed to a stranger; once, a heavy-drinking pal of mine was asked by a doctor he'd just met, how much alcohol he consumed; he cracked under the persistent inquisition, bellowing: "More than everybody else!")
Sometimes doctors settled family arguments that didn't really have everything to do with medicine. For two years I begged my mom to let me try out for the junior high football team. I was too small, she said, and would get hurt. Finally, she made an appointment for the two of us to see Shelly Friedman, who she hoped would somehow break our loggerheads. "Oh Carol, let him play," Friedman said. "The worst that can happen is he'll break a leg."
Relieved, she looked at me, shook her head, and shrugged, OK. I looked back at her, pretending an I-told-you-so face, but meanwhile thinking, "Break a leg?"
I never tried out. Thanks to Shelly.
We'll live without family doctors, of course. But not as long, I'll bet. And not as well.