May 5, 2011
Note from AZ:
This piece was written 5+ years ago, before my brother Ed died on January 25, 2015 at 88 years old. I love him and miss him still. He was a great man…
Living With Polio
I was born at about 2am on May 5, 1931 at Boston Women’s Hospital. I don’t know much about the birth itself except for the fact that during my entire life I would hear from my mother—God rest her soul—that she knew that I would have problems because of the pain she went through when I was born. As I grew up I didn’t know what she meant so I took it as she was acting the role of the Jewish Mother quite well. At times during high school I started to wish I hadn’t been born so I wouldn’t have caused her so much pain. She won…I carry that guilt to this day, more than 80 years later.
My memories begin about the time I was diagnosed with infantile paralysis—what most people know as polio—at the age of 4. I recall sitting with my mother on huge benches in a huge room with a high ceiling waiting for a doctor’s appointment at the Children’s Hospital in Boston.
Two other memories come back to me more than not. In one, I am being lowered into a large pool and carried by women in black rubber coveralls onto tables and receiving some sort of warm water physical therapy. For some time I thought those ladies were born with rubber bodies.
The other memory of course was being a tenant in what was called in those days the “Iron Lung.” This machine was used to keep pressure on the lungs so that I could breath. After a while the muscles became able to do the involuntary breathing on their own.
A surgeon told my parents that if I did not have a certain muscle transplant in my feet I would never walk after age 12 or so. My father said “absolutely not” and took me home. Thank goodness he took that stand. God rest his soul. Apparently my father knew about those things.
As you can see, I made it through into my teens and as yet have not stopped walking. I must admit I am slowing down a bit as I age. I can tell how slow I am getting by the distance I fall behind the lunch guys when we get out of the car and walk to the office. Generally the boys are inside the building and off to their offices well before me, except maybe one or two who feel guilty and stop to hold the door open for me.
I’ve found that walking slowly is cool: I can see more about what is going on around me.
Summers At Cape Cod
When I was a child, the hospital staff suggested that my parents somehow find a home on Cape Cod and take me there during the warm weather since the water was very warm and the salt had positive therapeutic effects on the paralysis. I was told that the warm current from the Gulf of Mexico travels up the coast and to the Cape Cod Bay area during the spring and summer. I don’t know about the veracity of these claims, but it has seemed to work.
When we were home in Boston, I had a daily visit from a very nice nurse. She worked with my legs on each visit. I remember when she left each time she would give me a stick-on cartoon character which she would put on the cabinets in the kitchen. I remember that they were completely covered with Mickey and Minnie and Pluto and such and the landlord was not happy. He told my parents that they had better clean them off if we ever planned to leave—or else.
I can’t remember the nurse’s name, but she also visited us in the summer down on the Cape. We worked hard and she was a really nice person.
I have many memories of the Cape house. It was on an island. My father would stay in Boston most of the summer to work. The Depression was still depressing, after all, so my mother carried the ball.
We had a small rowboat that would carry a sail. Every few days, she would put me and my brother in the boat, row for a while and then put up the sail to help her get to the beach across the bay, where she could shop for groceries. And then we would get into the boat and she would navigate us home.
Once in awhile, there was no wind—or too much wind—when we were almost half way across the bay. It was kind of scary at the time. But Mother was quite the sailor and we always made it to our safe harbor.
Unfortunately, the hurricane of 1938 made a direct hit on the Cape and our house was found up in a tree and the boat was sunk and never found. That was the end of our Cape experience—one I will never forget.
From then on, my mother would get together with her two sisters, and they would pool whatever money they had to rent a place for two weeks each summer. It was always on the water and always with all the cousins together for the time we were there.
Those memories are as clear as if they were from yesterday. One in particular: we were staying at a beach south of Boston. We had two houses that summer. One for our family and one for Aunt Ethel, Uncle Jim, and cousin Arlene.
After supper we walked over to Aunt Ethel’s house. Uncle Jim was not there yet. After a time, he showed up and lo and behold he was carrying a baby. We didn’t know what was happening. Arlene didn’t either. He explained that they had adopted a baby boy so that Arlene would have a brother.
We were dumbfounded. I had never heard of that before. Adopting a baby. Wow! After the oohing and aahing it came time to name the baby. They decided to name him Sonny because he brought so much joy to their household.
It was an evening of celebration. Everyone was happy about our new family member. I think I was around 9 years old at the time. Sadly, what started out with great happiness ended tragically many years later. That happens sometimes, doesn’t it?
Sonny grew up into a handsome young man. He learned a trade, met a girl, was married, and had two daughters.
He became friendly with our Aunt Ida who lived in Boston and owned a farm in Vermont. We had visited there before: a beautiful place on a hill. Sonny, a master electrician, had done some work for our aunt so she deeded him a few acres of land to build a house and live near her in the mountains.
They thrived. It was a nice place near nice people. However, something happened in the family relationships between Aunt Ethel and Sonny that caused a break in the family. We all seemed to grow up and grow apart. Years later, after Sonny’s move to the mountain home, he was involved in a serious accident on the road on his way to work one morning.
Sadly, Sonny passed away at the scene. God rest his soul.
My mother related the story to us over the years. There was a very small funeral service. He was buried in a cemetery near a family plot south of Boston. We understand that the break widened, and Sonny’s wife moved on with the girls. His adopted family never spoke to her again. How sad.
Many years later, when my father died and we went to the cemetery for the service, my brother and I took a moment and went to look for Sonny’s grave. With help from a worker, we found it. It had no stone. My mother told us that Sonny’s wife had no funds to buy one and my Aunt Ethel would not help her out. Very sad.
My brother and I made it clear that we were quite unhappy about this and if necessary we would have a stone put in place as soon as possible. It was the right thing to do.
The message was carried by Mother to her sister. Time passed. Mother passed away 20 years later, and at her funeral we noticed that Sonny had a headstone. That was good.
We sort of looked after Sonny in death in a way that we didn’t do in life. But that’s the way it happens sometimes, sadly. God rest his soul. Amen.
My brother and I are the only ones left now. Our cousins are gone. We know some of their children and try to keep in touch. My brother and I speak very often. We love each other and tell each other so each time we speak. Over many years we have seen what can happen when little things create lifelong anger. That’s not good.
Who else do we have but family? Who will put the pebbles on the stone after we are gone, if not our loving family?