The Dreaded Polio Scare of the 1950s

A Facebook group to which I belong is sharing responses to the question, “What was your favorite hangout as a child?”

If like me you grew up during the polio epidemic of the 1950s, there are only two possible answers to that question: my own backyard, and Karen’s.

Mothers were urged to keep their children at home. Kiddie pools were emptied, parks were childless, and if Karen and I were allowed to walk to my local library, I don’t recall having done so.

Even copies of “My Weekly Reader”, a periodical published for children and distributed through the Minneapolis School system, carried articles about the dangers inherent in polio.

I remember staring with morbid fascination at a grainy black and white photo of a little girl in an iron lung—a huge, tube-like contraption that, we read, “breathed” for her. Only her head stuck out. A mirror mounted above her face allowed her to see surrounding activities, albeit with limited rotation of her head.

She looked so brave in the photo. How could she even smile? Would she spend the rest of her life trapped in this iron cylinder? What did she do when she had to go to the bathroom? Would her friends eventually abandon her out of boredom? How could this scary machine do her breathing for her? What if someone tripped on the electrical cord that kept it plugged in? (I was a very imaginative child and I loved the macabre.)

I’m certain the article discussed all of this but I recall reading none of it. What I do remember is how not too many months later, my classmates and I were lined up outside the school nurse’s office to receive the first of our polio vaccines.

The gravity of the situation must have been impressed on us because I never before had we lined up so silently in a line

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95% Jekyll, 5% Hyde?

Like a six-year-old with a scab, I keep picking at the memory of the man whom, even as an adult, I called “daddy.”

If you read my March 21 entry, no doubt I left you with the impression that my father was a cruel, violent man. But that side of his personality (and yes, it did exist) was only a small part of who he was.

I wrote of violent scenes. The two sides of this man were hard to fathom when I was little; they’re even harder to fathom now. Nonetheless my memories often take me to scenes that were fun, warm, loving.

An example of Mr Hyde:
How furious he must have been that hot summer day! Did he have any idea how scared my brother and I were as he stepped on the gas and took the corner in front of their house on two wheels? I felt my brother’s body as it slammed against mine. The hard, blunt door handle dug into my back as I in turn slammed against the Chev’s back door. Tires shrieked, and so did we. “Goddammit!” he shouted. I saw his fingers on the steering wheel, gripped so tightly that they looked as if they could break it in two. Was he really that strong?

But later that evening, in our old, square kitchen with its bumpy linoleum, he surprised my brother and me with child-sized boxing gloves. “The real thing,” my dad said with pride. I used to brag at school that my dad was a Golden Gloves boxer. He had been teaching me to box for a few weeks now, and I was excited as he laced up my red leather gloves. Their girth tripled the size of my eight-year-old hands and their weight made me feel impossibly awkward. But I was not going to complain. This was the big time! Left hook, right cross, I was a power house! No way was Joanne’s older brother going to bully me with his threats of squirting lemon juice in my eyes!

“Come on,” my dad said, “you can do this. Hit me with your best shot! Show me what you’ve learned!” So I did. I gathered up my courage. I pulled my right arm back. I let it shoot out. My dad hit the floor laughing, rubbing his jaw, a look of pain combined with pride on his face. “That’s my girl!”

I went to bed very happy that night.

Grandma Didn’t Like Us Very Much

In my childhood, it was only in books that grandmothers taught love by sharing baking secrets or by stepping in whenever Mom couldn’t be there. And since my maternal grandmother died years before I was born, my ideas of ‘grandma’ were influenced by my paternal grandmother, a woman whom the word “distanced” doesn’t begin to describe.

It was the summer of 1959, a transformational summer when I learned that yes, my dad’s mother really did dislike us. It  was the year that I learned that life is often complicated and often cruel. But it took many years and lots of thinking before I realized that I had been raped by reality.

“Rape” is such a strong word but I have no other word to describe the sense of losing my childhood naivete that everyone loved us.

That was the summer my family moved into my grandmother’s house while our four-room duplex was remodeled into a two-story, single family home. Living on site amidst falling plaster and gutted plumbing was out of the question, as was renting an apartment for three months. So, with my dad’s oldest sister’s insistence that my parents pay rent, she gave her approval and off to Grandma’s we went.

Even though Grandma lived only a few blocks away, she had never been a big part of the 14 years I’d been on Planet Earth. We were never welcomed to her house and all I knew was that if Grandpa stopped over to our house on his way home from his job as a Soo Line engineer, my brother and I were not to mention it to any of Dad’s siblings. Like most kids that age, I never asked why; I merely accepted the directive and went on with my day, knowing that a trip to the local Dairy Queen was in store if I kept my mouth shut. So while I didn’t look forward to moving out of the small bedroom I’d shared with younger brother, I didn’t give much thought to what it would be like to share a small bedroom and a double bed with my grandmother.

That summer…oh my; what a summer. It started badly when, in the last two weeks of school, our gym teachers ordered us to take our reeking white cotton blouses home for washing. Grandma found me in her kitchen ironing my now-clean blouse, watched me for a minute or two, then slapped my hands hard. “You’re doing that all wrong! My daughters could iron better than you when they were half your age.”

The summer got worse. My mother’s oldest and dearest friend committed suicide, Mom was hospitalized with pneumonia, and I had oral surgery, a surgery that left me with black stitches poking out from between my top four teeth and a mouth so swollen that all I could do was drool blood and saliva for the following six hours.

“Don’t you dare get that blood on my sheets!” Grandma’s voice thundered with every passing hour as the novocaine wore off and my mouth and my head throbbed.

I tried to distract myself with stories that I created out of what I saw around me. A favorite was the three-dimensional Easter egg made of hard sugar. It had place of honor on her upright piano which, like the egg, I was not allowed to touch. So tempted, partially because I knew what would happen if I did.

As I laid in bed and looked through the doorway of Grandma’s bedroom, I remembere stories my mother had told me.

One that I still ponder after all these years: “I was a new bride,” she’d said, “and I wanted so much to make a good impression on your grandmother. The annual family Easter dinner was coming up and I asked how I could help. My assignment was to run the carpet sweeper around the front room. I wanted to do a thorough job so I flipped back the edge of the rug. That’s where I found Daddy’s and my wedding picture.”

Now there’s an image that stays with you!

But the memory that brings back chills, even after all these years, is the memory of my mother doing all she could to alleviate some of the cost of the remodeling by sweeping plaster dust and sanding wallboard tape. She would walk to Grandma’s gray with dust, climb the 14 steps to the second floor unit, ask to take a quick bath, and then prepare dinner for all of us.

“I suppose you forgot to get my butterfluffs from the bakery,” my grandmother said.

My father did what he could, but working 12 hour days shoveling coal on a steam engine and then working with Mom at our own house didn’t leave him much time for what was going on at Grandma’s.

Or was he avoiding his own mother?

The story continues but I don’t know if I can tell it. We’ll see.

Secrets

I spent the first 24 years of my life in the same N.E. Minneapolis house in which my mother had spent all but the first two years of her 85 years. The house itself was torn apart and remodeled into a two story, single family home the summer before my fourteenth birthday but it is the unremodeled version of my childhood home that still dominates my thoughts.

I’ve written hundreds of pages and thousands of words about what went on inside those walls but I’ve never been brave enough to put my words on paper. I created phrases, sentences, and whole paragraphs in my head. But I never wrote them down. Could someone be hurt? Possibly. Would I be considered disloyal? Probably.

But now I’m in the last quarter of my life. I look back and I wonder: Who were these people? Where did my dad’s combustible temper come from? Why did I get a strong sense of “push me/pull you” from my mother? And most importantly, why do these thoughts haunt me more today than ever before?

It’s time to probe the stories I’ve been telling myself all these years and face up to my fears.

Memories come back like the black and white photos that were popular with the advent of the Kodak Brownie® camera. Tiny triangular corners anchor small pictures in albums filled with gray paper. I see myself in those imaginary photographs as if I were looking through a dried out, frayed scrapbook.

Although I was too young to recognize it then, my childhood and my adolescence were enfolded in layers of secrets, the biggest of which was that Dad was a binge drinker. Even before I was old enough to understand this, I learned to hide it from my friends.

Another secret: Grandma–Dad’s mother–didn’t like us. I didn’t question this; it was just a fact of my young life.

And then there was the fact that Mom was embarrassed by the house we lived in. It took years for me to realize that was the reason we never had guests.

Might these secrets be the reason that I always felt distanced from people, including those in my own extended family?

Nevertheless, mine was a happy childhood, partially because of that cloak of secrets. It kept relatives and neighbors in the dark and it protected me from my turbulent father’s  anger and from my mother’s self-consciousness about living on “the wrong side of the tracks.” That cloak of secrets fit me so well that it was years before I realized that it had become my uniform.

So many of my early childhood memories are centered around our kitchen. I played for hours under that round wooden table. The green and dirty-white linoleum tiles became rooms for my paper dolls and the lives I created for them.  And like all little kids, it didn’t take long for me to learn that the quieter I was, the more likely that Mom and friend Gladys would forget about me. That must have been where I first heard euphemisms like “PG,” “that way,” and “female troubles.” (It was at least another ten years before I learned that a girl who was PG or ‘that way’ was pregnant. It took another five to learn about menopause, a word I’d first learned as ‘man pause.’)

Mom spent far more time at Gladys’ house than Gladys spent at ours. In a neighborhood where even one car to a family was rare, our mothers formed friendships the same way we kids did: proximity mattered. It was rare that Gladys came to our house; more often Mom walked the 150 feet to Gladys’. But either way, I knew that when they were together  I would be protected from witnessing my father’s volatile outbursts. Like this one, a memory that haunts me still:

She huddled in her favorite hiding place, squeezed in tightly between the stove and the kitchen wall where there was just enough space to squeeze her skinny six-year-old frame. This was the safe spot, the spot where she was protected from the violent energy of her father’s wrath, the violent energy that would find as its target her younger brother.

She never could tell when it would happen but the muted clank of the belt buckle, the insistent hiss as he yanked it out of the loops of his denim work pants–these were the danger signals: Tommy was about to get it again.

She watched and she listened, glad she wasn’t the recipient of his anger, yet torn that she couldn’t (or didn’t want to?) stop him.

I couldn’t tell you what set him off that day, nor could I tell you where my mother was. It’s the sounds that are clear: “I’ll teach you to (fill in the blank).”

My mother had to have been in the house but she’s not in this memory. No matter how I  try to place her in that scene, I can’t make it happen. Nor is there a conclusion. Did Dad really hit Tommy with that belt? Did I cry out? Like so many of the events from my childhood, there is no hint in this black-and-white photograph of a memory as to what came before I snapped the shutter of my mind’s camera, nor what happened after.

Coming soon: “Grandma Never Liked Us Very Much”