On April 12 I posted a quote from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to my Facebook account. For those that don’t know, Roosevelt, or FDR, died on April 12, 1945. I tend to honor his “death day” every year as he is personal hero. FDR, it was thought until recently where it’s become something of a debate, was stricken with polio or infantile paralysis in early mid-life and lived the remainder of his life in heavy braces or a wheelchair. What I did not know until this year (thanks Wikipedia) is that Jonas Salk’s treatment for polio was deemed ‘safe and effective’ on April 12, 1955, ten years to the day after FDR passed. At this moment, we live in a world of quarantine, where plague stalks the land, social distancing is the norm, and there is, to date, no certain cure or vaccine for the dreaded Coronavirus that floods our news day and haunts our nightmares. We also live in a world of misinformation, both accidental and intentional, where once thought of common sense practices like vaccinations are hotly contested, and everyone seems to have a polarized opinion, whether well-informed or not. It makes me wonder what FDR would think of our current crisis. It makes me wonder whether he would have welcomed Salk’s vaccine or eyed it skeptically and dismissively. Sorry, just kidding. I have no doubt, given FDR’s documented struggle with his illness that he would have welcomed and preferred a cure, any cure to being wheelchair bound. Still, his struggle, inching toward a century old, feels like something from the murky past that we can’t touch. Polio is gone and feels almost mythic now doesn’t it? Except when I was growing up I witnessed its effects firsthand.
Her name was Mary, and she was one of my Nana’s bingo buddies. In the 1970s from around when I was six to ten years old, Mary, along with a motley assortment of other ‘golden girls’ would pull up in front of my house and whisk my grandmother and I away in a beat up Nova whose color can only be described as vomited forth avocado that someone mixed with glitter. The interior was maroon and torn, the backseat had no seatbelts (safety? Psshaw!), pick up was choppy, and the weight of the car sagged it toward the ground like an overburdened tank. In the back were variously me and my Nana, and Ethel, a woman who looked like her name sounds and who famously if absentmindedly ate plastic fork tines without realizing; and Alice, a red-haired raincloud whose language was loud and salty, and who vaguely resembled Heat Miser. Bertha, the kindly heart of the bunch rode shotgun, except when she drove the group in her own midnight blue Nova. I don’t know what was with the Novas back then; it was a thing. In the driver’s seat was Mary, a pistol of a woman who barely stood 5 feet tall. Mary’s legs were bowed way out and then turned back in on themselves, the result of the aforementioned polio. When she stood and walked she was bowlegged in the extreme and relied on a multi-footed black cane that made the macadam tremble when she lowered its boom. She was kindly, but her face bore the scars of a lifetime of struggling with affliction. At her age she sported what we used to call a ‘bread and butter’ perm. The total effect was one of a stooped, scowling, scrawny wishbone staggering quickly if determinedly towards you wearing a Q-tip on its head. As a driver, looking back she was no less terrifying. Her legs bent in as she sat, the side of one foot worked the brake, the side of the other worked the clutch, and she drove one-handed so she could pound the cane down to slam the accelerator into action. Every week, several nights a week in fact, we took our lives in our hands with her as we drove to bingo halls in Lebanon, Womelsdorf, Robesonia, and Myerstown, PA. We always arrived, though I confess I smashed my face more than a few times into the front seats in an effort to not fly through the windshield. It was the 1970s; that was considered a successful trip. Minor concussions were the price of flight.
It might sound like I’m making fun of Mary, but I promise I’m not. Quite the contrary. I look back on my time in that car, with those gals and my Nana as some of the most happiest of times. I think on Mary, especially of late, and all I see is admiration. This woman had lived a life of struggle and disfigurement, and she was unstoppable. She had lived to see her illness cured, thought eradicated, in those that came after her, but had to live with the knowledge that it had just been too late for her. To my knowledge Mary had married and been widowed, had worked in a factory and retired. She had done it all, and done it with polio; done it with grit, determination, and a cranky perseverance. What a tough broad. When my Nana died in 1981 my excursions with the gals ended. No more bingo halls, no more Mary. There’s no question in my mind that she’s long dead; doing donuts in the New Jerusalem strip mall parking lot with St. Michael nervously smiling on.
I see people nowadays questioning the best available science. They thwart social-distancing, risk the lives of others with their erratic and self-serving behavior, and just rebelliously want to lead their “normal” public lives regardless of costs to themselves or others. I’m picking on no one in particular here; from ‘millennials’ on a Florida beach to picketers by a Michigan courthouse the mantra is always the same: I know better, I’ll do what I want, I don’t care who I hurt. Me is more important than we.
I wonder how some of these folks would react if they could see a lifetime’s lasting effects from an illness for which there is (or was at the time) no cure play out on a loved one. Maybe they have, but missed the lesson. I wonder if they could learn to trust science and scientists, medicine and doctors, or would they still know better? I wish no one ill, but I can wish them wisdom. I had Mary. She was a good teacher. I count myself lucky.
Mary was a small, but significant part of my life. She is a window for me into a world long gone but one which could resurface if we don’t learn from the past. She was tough and unlimited. And she drove the country roads like Andretti after a few stiff ones.
I’m glad I knew her. I’m glad I could learn from her.
Thanks, Mary! On the ride of my lifetime, I’m glad you were in my pit crew.
Peace and Pennzoil,