Polio Summer

In the United States, the 1952 polio epidemic would be the worst outbreak in the nation’s history, and is credited with heightening parents’ fears of the disease and focusing public awareness on the need for a vaccine.[20] Of the 57,628 cases reported that year 3,145 died and 21,269 were left with mild to disabling paralysis. — Wikipedia

Most of those polio victims were children. I can’t attest to the accuracy of these numbers, although they are documented. But I can attest to the fear.

I was reminded of it when I read an article the other day about Mark O’Brien, a poet who was stricken with polio at age six and confined to an iron lung for the rest of his life. He died at 49. (His story inspired the movie, The Sessions.) As I read, the memory of a particular summer in our small town came flooding back. I’m not sure it was 1952. It may have been a different year, but it was our personal summer of terror and dread.

It was probably a typical Mississippi summer–the smothering heat, the mimosas in bloom, the late afternoon thunderstorms that didn’t cool things off but made steam rise from the pavement, the attic fan that barely stirred the hot air inside the house.

Ordinary, until children started becoming ill at an alarming rate.

As panic spread, my parents kept me out of crowds and away from swimming pools. My best friend’s younger sister and brother came down with severe cases. My friend did not. Her sister was transferred to a Vicksburg hospital, designated a regional pediatric polio center, where she would receive more treatment and therapy. Just as many other children did, that little girl spent weeks there, far from home. She would have been about five years old. What must that have been like for her? What was it like for her mother and dad, to be separated from her?

Boy and Vaccine Syringe / Photo by Sura Nualpradid / Courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Boy and Vaccine Syringe / Photo by Sura Nualpradid / Courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

I had other sick friends, too, and there was little anyone could do to help. My mother suggested I share some books with a friend who had a fairly mild case of polio but still faced a long recovery. So I gathered books, and one of my parents delivered them (whoever took them would not have entered the house). I didn’t know my books wouldn’t be returned. They were burned.

The worst case, the one that affected all of us more than any other, was a young boy so severely ill that he required an iron lung. I remember our prayers for him at school and in church. I remember the day the teacher told us he had died. In my memory, it was September; we were back in school, and I was sitting in art class. Dead? My reaction was selfish. I was terrified. A child could die? Old people died, not children.

I didn’t get sick that summer. My friends got well, eventually. My best friend’s sister was left with scoliosis that would plague her for the rest of her life. None of us would ever be the same. Whether we were directly touched by polio or not, we learned some hard lessons: that our parents, no matter how good they were or how strong or how faithful, no matter how much they loved us and cared for us, couldn’t always protect us from harm. That our bodies were frail. That disease and death were real and close, lurking in the innocence of a shared sip, a touch, the water in a swimming pool.

In 1955 the Salk vaccine was introduced. A godsend, but it was too late for many.

Thinking about that long summer has been interesting. I’m surprised by the details I remember, like the burned books. The memory of the fear is so real it’s almost visceral. I’m surprised, too, by the things I feel I’m recalling incorrectly. (Was the child who died a boy, or was it really a girl? I can’t say for sure.)

Memory is a slippery thing. It warps our stories and makes liars of us, even when we’re trying our best to tell the truth.

Do you have a memory that eludes you, that’s difficult to recall truthfully? How do you feel about the fictions our minds create about the past? 

The Sisters’ Story

Enter a room with four elderly women–all in their nineties–in various stages of infirmity and alertness. They are sisters, and all of them grew up with my mother in a small town in north Mississippi. This means they were all born within a few years of 1920. They were girls during the Great Depression, young women around the time of World War II. I’m visiting with them just before Thanksgiving. They are having a grand reunion, and I’m grateful to be included for a little while.

I have driven to the family farm on a gorgeous late fall day, caught up in my own memories, a little apprehensive, not sure what to expect. One of the sisters, the one I see frequently and have stayed most connected with over the years, has Alzheimer’s and is declining. I’m relieved to see that the others–Julia, Eleanor, Genevieve (what beautiful names!)–are in fair shape physically, considering their advanced age, and their minds seem reasonably sharp. They all exclaim over me and say I’m the image of my mother.

Eleanor is exactly the age my mother would be. They were very best friends growing up and throughout my mother’s life. With some difficulty Eleanor stands when I walk in the room, comes to me, and hugs me hard. In spite of her age and having suffered a broken hip a few years ago, she stands straight and tall, but she feels fragile in my arms. I can still see the Eleanor of fifty years ago in her features. When we sit on the couch together, she takes my hand and holds on tightly.

Stories

Over the course of the afternoon, Eleanor tells me many times that she and mother walked to school together “from the fourth grade on.” I wonder how that was possible since they lived across town from each other, but I don’t ask. I have brought photos of Eleanor and of my mother and dad, hoping to jog her memory, hoping for stories. She talks about how beautiful my mother was and describes in detail a blouse Mother wore about the time she and my dad married. “It had a beautiful, pleated collar that framed her face,” Eleanor says. Remarkably, she has described the blouse in the photo below. Mother would have worn it around 1940, more than seventy years ago.

My mother, about age twenty
My mother, about age twenty

My mother died in 1985, and I never see Eleanor that she doesn’t tell me that she still misses her. But Eleanor’s stories are changing. She tells me she has letters Mother wrote to her about my dad when they were first dating. The last time I talked with Eleanor, the letters were about Mother’s pregnancy with me. I’ve never seen them. I’m not sure they exist any longer. The topic of letters reminds me that these women went off to college, and my mother did not. I wonder how painful it was for Mother to be left behind. Of course, if she had gone away, she wouldn’t have met my father when she did. They might never have met. She might have had an entirely different life. I wouldn’t exist.

Recognition

One of the other sisters says, “You played at my wedding reception!” It’s true. There’s a photo to prove it: Genevieve in her beautiful wedding dress, standing beside me at the piano. I was ten. Today, she has a lovely, serene face. She chats and smiles. But when it’s time to go to the table, her daughters lift and carry her.

Reception
Reception

During lunch I sit next to Eleanor. There is lively conversation, but she’s quiet. After lunch, a couple of the sisters doze in their chairs. “When are you coming to see me?” Eleanor asks. “Will it be soon? Will it be December?” I say I’m not sure, already feeling guilty, thinking about all the reasons I should go and all the reasons not to. They aren’t valid excuses. What better way could I spend my time during the holidays than to take a day–just one–and go and visit her?

Leaving

When it’s time for me to leave, I’m filled with sadness. I wonder about the memories and stories my mother might have contributed had she been here. I think about how, when I laugh, it’s my mother’s voice I hear.

Eleanor insists on getting up from the couch and following me to the door on her walker. She stands in the doorway and waves as I’m driving away. My last glimpse of the farmhouse, she’s still there at the door. I wonder what she’s thinking. My eyes fill with tears. I hate to leave her especially, not knowing whether I’ll ever see her again.

I’m overwhelmed by such an accumulation of life and memories and years gathered in that house. I’m struck, as I am so often now, by how stories change over time. I’m sure my own stories are changing, but what time robs from us it also invents, as long as we keep telling.

Are  you “in between” the very young and the very old? What are you doing to preserve the stories?

Age Twenty-five: The Turning Point

So we come to the end of the October Memoir and Backstory Blog ChallengeThanks to Jane Ann McLachlan for proposing this challenge that has taken me places in memory where I would never have gone otherwise. At times I believed I’d have nothing to write, but it seems memory begets memory.

The end of the challenge brings me to a strange place in my personal history. If you’ve been following these posts, you know that by the time I turned twenty-five, I had two little boys. I was a stay-at-home mom. I couldn’t imagine a different kind of life. I was happy. I thought we were happy.

Christmas

Our first Christmas in the little gray house, my husband and I decided to have a party. I cooked all the food, I cleaned, and I decorated, using lots of freshly cut evergreens and magnolia my parents brought the day before. They took both babies home with them, so we would have our party and the rest of the weekend to ourselves. It was a rare occasion. My husband was in his internship year by then, which meant more nights on call, more time away from home.

We had a great crowd, mostly medical school friends, good food, good wine. I wore a new dress, and I remember feeling pretty. After the last guests left, we stayed up late, picking up glasses, cleaning up spills, putting away food. I was excited and pleased at how well the party had gone, and I kept trying to get some kind of response out of him. I wanted to be told what a good job I’d done. I had done it for him, after all. But I got nothing. He had seemed withdrawn and sad for weeks. Every time I’d asked, he would say he was exhausted, which was true. His schedule was grueling. But I kept after him that night until he told me. Yes, there was something wrong. He wasn’t sure he loved me, he said. Maybe he loved somebody else. What? We had been married three years. We had two children.

I didn’t sleep that night. The next morning, he got up early and went hunting with friends–another surprise. He hadn’t told me he was going. I was left alone, distraught and uncertain. I missed my children. I called my parents, thinking I would just check on the kids, and my mother immediately knew something was wrong. I told her. I’ve always regretted that.

By the time my husband came home the following afternoon, the little boys were back, too. He had made his decision, he said. He wanted us. Just like that. That easily. And I believed him.

We would stay together for a long time after that Christmas. I gave birth to two more sons. Did I think that having more children would hold him? No. I’d wanted a house full of children, remember? It didn’t matter. He left anyway.

I blamed myself. He was the one who left, but it must have been my fault. All my fairy-tale notions of love and marriage? Destroyed. I hated myself for not knowing what I might have done differently. Oh, I knew all the self-talk and the psychology. I was a psych major, after all. I went for counseling. But still, it was a long time before I could look anybody in the eye and carry on a conversation.

I wasn’t writing back then, but I was getting ready. I believe the surprises, the unexpected turns, the complexities of relationships, the betrayals, the losses, the long years of trying to hold a marriage together, of getting up in the morning and putting on a fictional face to the world (“How are you?” “I’m fine, thank you!”), were the catalysts for stories to come.

I hope stories will surface out of this challenge. We shall see.

Thanks to all of you who have read and followed these little pieces of my past. I hope you’ll come back soon and see what else I have in store. Or in story.

If you participated in the challenge, what did you gain from it? If you were a reader and/or follower, what have these memories sparked for you?