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Polio Summer

ISSUE:  Spring 2003

I grew up listening to stories. Our family seemed to live on them. I picture us around a table. We are slightly hunched, with our arms forward, as if we’re ready to work. We think we are at work. We’re working in a family business. We are in the business of telling stories.

There was one story I could not let go of. It was about the summer before I was born. I had to go to my mother; she was the only true source. But it wasn’t easy. I had to catch her in the right mood— preoccupied, reflective, only slightly sad, but not quiet. I knew how to do it. Intuition taught me.

“I can’t believe people really did that. The summer before I was born. I can’t believe they drove through our town that way. Rolling up their car windows.”

“Oh yes. They did it. Everybody knew about the epidemic and how bad it was here. We’d see cars come in from out of town. People would start rolling up their windows.”

“Wasn’t it hot?”

“It was very hot that summer, very hot.”

This was 1950. Before air conditioning. Before interstate highways. Old Route 11, the highway named Robert E. Lee Highway, ran right through my hometown. It sloped down from the railroad town of Roanoke into Bristol, the Tennessee line. There was no getting around our town.

“Did they look out their windows?”

“Sometimes. Sometimes they ducked their heads when they did it. When they rolled up their windows.”

It was always the same story. It always ended the same way. It had a message I couldn’t escape: we were sick and the world was turning its back on us.

That story was what we didn’t talk about. It was all we talked about. Both things are true.

There was a progression to the story. Sometimes I couldn’t do it, couldn’t prod my mother into the story’s end, when I was born. Sometimes I couldn’t bear to move it forward myself. To the next step where it went from the impersonal sight of strangers rolling up their car windows to the very personal sight of my mother, innocent and good, trying to walk down her own street.

“People would cross the street if they saw you coming. Sometimes they’d put handkerchiefs over their mouths,” she’d say and she had a way of looking off into the distance, not at me, not at anyone when she told that part of the story.

She would use the word “you,” the second person pronoun, but somehow I knew she meant “I” or “we” as in “when I crossed the street” or “when we crossed the street.”

“And then I was born at the end of the summer. On Labor Day, right?”

“Yes and the doctor really thought there would be terrible things wrong with you. He told me not to have any hope.”

Sometimes I couldn’t stand it. I’d jump to my feet and shout. “Those people were mean. That doctor was mean. I know! The aunts have told me! That doctor came in just in time to catch me, he was so afraid of getting sick himself and no nurse would even come into that hospital room.”

“No, one did. She stuck her head in the door. She was brave. That doctor was brave. You don’t understand.”

But I did understand. I thought they were mean, not brave, and I would doggedly argue my theory until I tired her out and when I did, she nearly always said the exact same thing.

“I can’t make you understand. People were afraid.”

Often my mother would tell me I was “special . . . Nobody expected you to be all right. There was, not only the polio, but I had German Measles when I was pregnant with you.”

Then she would tell more stories that elevated the human race.

“People were kind,” she would say. “People came to visit us, people who had lost children. They told us: “Keep one picture up, one and one only. You have other children. People were so generous. Someone offered us that cabin at the park. We never had to ask.”

The state park—that was the part of the story that was never talked about. I was never fully told.

Fifty years later I know little, only that our family lived in a cabin in seclusion for a time at Hungry Mother State Park near Marion, a park named for a child who’d been found walking up a creek bed after having been separated from her mother by Indians. The child could mutter only, “Hungry, Mother.”

I have tried to reconstruct this period of time in fiction but the story has never jelled. I have a beginning and an end to the story but no middle.

My mother’s sister, who lives in Marion, Virginia, some years back described the events of the year 1950 in a privately printed memoir entitled “Yesteryear.” She writes: “In 1950 there was a terrible polio epidemic in Wytheville which drew nationwide attention. Dean (my mother) had three children then: Melva, Skipper, and Alfred. She was pregnant with the fourth child. All of her children ran high fevers and had mild symptoms of polio. Skipper had the bulbar type. His circulatory system was paralyzed. He was sent by ambulance to the hospital in Roanoke, Va., as were all the victims of this disease from that area. He died within hours. He was a beautiful, tow-headed nine-year-old with an angelic personality, loved by all who knew him. He had spent several days with us about three weeks before his fatal illness. So little was known about how the disease was transmitted that the family was afraid for us to even go to the funeral. He was buried in his acolyte robe. Skipper said he wanted to be a preacher. . . .his pastor was a close friend. I was so upset that I asked [a grandmother] to keep [her oldest child] for a few days. She had played with him so recently.”

Once when I was driving my sister Melva through Hungry Mother Park, she gestured toward one area of the park, the one called “Hemlock Haven” and said, “It’s only been recently that I haven’t associated this park with where we went the summer after Skipper died.”

My sister Melva was six years old then, the summer after her brother died in May, so close to his own birthday. I was born late that summer on Labor Day. My mother loved to tell that part of the story, that I waited until Labor Day to be born.

When I found out it was there, in Hemlock Haven, where our family lived during that polio summer, it was at a time when I couldn’t ask my older sister any probing questions. It was the summer of 1995 and Melva was undergoing chemotherapy and radiation for lung cancer. My older sister, the one who remembered squeezing oranges to get her strength back after polio, was going to die at 52.

Maybe I became a newspaper reporter because I felt I never got the full story. Maybe I became a fiction writer so I could make the story turn out right. On one of my sabbaticals away from daily newspaper reporting I lived with my younger sister in Richmond, Virginia, writing fiction but still keeping up with the local press crew.

One day in September one of them brought me a copy of the Richmond newspaper. He smiled when he showed it to me, proud that he knew somebody from my tiny village, proud that he knew me, proud that he knew something before it made the newspaper.

The headline said something like, “Town Worst Hit In Polio Epidemic 30 years ago.” My younger sister had saved me a copy and she laid it on her dining room table, close to where the newspaperman now stood holding it. I pointed to the date on the newspaper.

“It’s my birthday you know. My 30th birthday.”

One of my fiction writer friends has been after me to write about the polio epidemic and our town’s place in it and my place in it. She has been after me for years, intimating that I need to write a personal essay, not a mere journalistic account of it. We were journalists together and have moved on to more artful forms of writing. We are also mothers together and decorators and we have a weakness for fabric and color, for an accessories store called “Tuesday Morning.” She decided that I had some emotional block about polio and wanted me to contact another of her friends who, as a teenager, had been sent away because of the polio epidemic. She told this third party about me, that I might be contacting her. I didn’t. Then she ran into this third party at the accessories store and was told that I hadn’t contacted her, hadn’t called or written a note.

“She said she now realized what her mother must have gone through, to have sent her away like that. And she started crying, really crying, right there inside Tuesday Morning.”

The only satisfactory conclusion to this story must be found in fiction, not fact. The way I have imagined it, I am not in utero. I am born. I am not old enough to know that my brother is dead, only that he is away. First I hear a pounding on our front door. It’s not someone knocking; it’s a person with a piece of paper and a hammer. I’m not even two yet so I can’t read the word “Quarantine.” Then I (my character), is in the car headed for the park. I am sitting on a box of provisions: bags of rolled oats, flour, and corn meal. There are fresh vegetables from our garden in bushel baskets sitting on the floor boards. I am oblivious to the somber conversation in the front seat, the tears. I am only happy to be around so much food. In the next scene, there is a sudden chilly night in the cabin and a fire is made in the fireplace. The father stands in front of it holding a drink. The mother has not been outside for days, has not even tried on the new pair of sandals someone has bought her. She hasn’t stayed in bed but has looked out the window from time to time.

Then the fiction writer in me becomes a total wash-out and I have nothing, nothing until the ending scene, which switches to the mother’s point-of-view. Somehow, maybe on the radio, the mother hears that a cure has been found—a polio vaccine—and, unthinking, she bursts out of the door of her house and looks around. The scene has the feel of peace after war, of a sudden shower after a firestorm.


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