I was with a group of people recently, mostly younger which is usually the case now that I have turned 90. The subject of bacteria came up, and there was concern about antibiotics, and whether they might stop being effective from over use. As a child growing up in the 1930s there were no such things as antibiotics, Lysol sprays or Dial soap. There was no talk of bacteria, and germs sounded like mosquitoes that might bite me, but certainly not kill me.

The Sakonnet River shore in Tiverton, R.I., was lined with summer cottages and boat houses, including the handsome Fall River Yacht Club, which was built on pilings out into the water. Long gone, it was a victim of the 1938 Hurricane. I spent my entire childhood along that river, either in the water or in a boat, without a worry in the world.

The river flows between Mt. Hope Bay and Rhode Island Sound. The tides were strong, and had an impact on how we planned our days. High tide was for swimming and low was for clamming. The cottages along the shore, including the Yacht Club, had bathrooms, and whatever happened there ended up in the river. I never heard of anyone questioning this practice, and I believe the idea behind it was that the tide would take care of everything.

Before a modern new school was built, I attended a two-room schoolhouse. There was no running water, and the drinking water was in a large bucket up front with a communal dipper. An outhouse stood in the play yard, and there was a large sandbox much loved by the neighboring cats. I don’t remember any childhood epidemics, except for measles and whooping cough, and maybe a few upset stomachs that we called the “grip.” At home we had refrigeration, but it was best when the ice man came regularly. I don’t remember anyone taking the temperature inside the ice box, and I know my mother would not put any food in it until it was thoroughly cooled off. And that would sometimes take all night. I drank unpasteurized milk and ate raw oysters from the above-mentioned river.

All that said, something happened to me that was surely bacteria related, but at the time no one had a clue. When the Barnum and Bailey Circus came to town, it was an enormous event. I was always taken to the parade in Fall River and then to see the show under the huge tent.

On one circus day, as we were walking by the animal cages and my parents were saying as they always did, “Don’t touch the cages, the animals might bite you,” I couldn’t help myself. Looking straight at me was an adorable little monkey, with a shiny cap on his head and wearing red pants, who had wound his tiny fingers around the one of the bars of the cage. When my parents were looking the other way, I reached out to touch his hand.

Of course he bit me, and of course I didn’t want to tell, so I simply sucked off the blood and went skipping along. A few days later I became very sick, and the doctor came to our house scratching his head, wondering what was making me run such a high fever. Everyone talked softly around me and wore worried faces. My mother told me later she thought I might die. It was years after when I connected the monkey bite to the illness.

Today, I read studies saying that if children are exposed to a few germs when they are little, they are apt to have greater protection from illnesses later in life. I agree. Otherwise, who knows what kind of dreadful afflictions might have overtaken me before I turned 90 this April?

Nancy Wood lives in Vineyard Haven. She turned 90 on April 14.