The polio strikes when my mother is six years old. Her sister, Jane, is eight. They are living in Chula Vista, California, where my grandfather has taken the family from Brooklyn to escape a charge of embezzlement. “A better life,” he calls California. In California, he promises, they will buy a house with a large backyard, and he will work as a Fuller Brush man, selling brushes door-to-door. California will be joyful, he tells them. My mother and her sister won’t even miss the friends and cousins they left behind in New York City.
Chula Vista is hot that summer, a dry heat with temperatures nearing one hundred degrees. They live in a motel room with a broken overhead fan. My mother and Jane sleep on the floor; my grandparents sleep in the bed. At night, the lights from a Piggly Wiggly grocery store shine through the window, keeping my mother awake. In the mornings, while my grandfather looks for work, my grandmother takes her daughters to a local pool to swim.
Perhaps she should know better. There are headlines across the country: “Pools Closed to Combat Polio Spread,” reads The Saratoga Journal on July 9, 1953. “Polio Closes Swimming Pool,” reads The Eugene Register-Guard on July 17, 1952. There are similar headlines in California and New York, too. But my grandmother doesn’t heed the warnings. The family is poor and the girls are bored. She lets them swim.
My mother gets sick first. She wakes up in the middle of the night and cannot lift her head. She calls out to my grandfather. He presses his hand against her forehead; it’s hot with fever. He picks her up and presses her against his chest. He must be scared. Adults are not immune.
He carries my mother out of the house and places her flat in the backseat of their Studebaker. She rests her head in my grandmother’s lap. Later, she will remember this as one of the few incidences where there is any demonstration of maternal affection, a caress of a palm as sweat is wiped away from her forehead. She feels almost calm then, as her father gets into the front seat, turns on the ignition, places his hands on the wheel, and pulls out of the driveway.
My grandfather gets halfway down the block when, through the open windows, they hear: “Where are you going? Take me with you! Take me with you!” My mother does not need to sit up to recognize her sister’s voice.
“Abby!” Jane screams my mother’s name. “Where are you taking my sister? Don’t leave me, Abby! Take me with you!”
Jane, her legs long and lean, races after the car, until it disappears.
It is the last time she ever runs.
I am a little girl the first time I hear about “BC” (“Before California”) and “AC” (“After California”). I am five, and six, and seven years old, and I lie in bed under a plaid pastel blanket with satin trimming and wait for my mother to say good night. “Bankie,” as I like to call it, is worn at the edges, wrinkled, and darker in the spots where I consistently drool. This is my constant companion, along with my teddy bear, Sigmund T. Freud, or Siggy for short, and I hold them tightly as I wait for sleep. Siggy was a present from my mother’s psychiatrist, Sharon, a woman she’s gone to for years. I never see Sharon’s face, but I know her voice, as she leaves messages confirming appointments on our answering machine.
In bed, I listen for my mother’s footsteps, the creak and swoosh of the carpeted floor against her feet. It’s after eleven, or even past midnight; I am a night owl like my mother, even then. My father is asleep by eight and my sister, Ella, by nine. I’m accustomed to napping on the couch while my mother watches Johnny Carson or the evening news.
When my mother enters the bedroom, she lies down next to me, positioning her body so my head is in her lap. She feels delicate to me, all ninety-two pounds of her, with a body so slender I can practically fit my child fingers around her wrist. We can wear the same bracelets and rings.
Sometimes, she rubs my scalp while I lie there, her fingers massaging until they rest on the large red bump I’ve had since birth, a “cradle cap” the doctors call it. Then she begins to pick, her fingernails digging underneath the skin. It is a nervous habit Ella adopted but I managed to avoid. When they aren’t picking at their own scalps they are picking at each other’s, and when the other isn’t around, they’re picking at mine.
“Mom, stop,” I tell her, and then she moves to the other end of my twin bed and grabs at my toes. One by one I feel a pop in the joint and then the release. This is a habit I catch on to, and in my adulthood the men I share my bed with often ask me to stop trying to brutalize their feet.
“Tell me a story,” I ask her. She repositions herself next to me, and again my head is in her lap. I look up at her. Her skin is smooth and freckled. She could pass for a mother a decade and a half younger, even though she’s in her forties and the oldest mom I know.
“I don’t do stories,” she says. “You know that.”
We then go through our routine.
“Please tell me a story.”
“Well why don’t you tell me a story?”
“Once upon a time…the end.”
Then I pretend to cry, until finally she gives in and tells me a story, which never has anything to do with princesses or dragons or “any of that fantastical shit.” Instead she tells me stories about her childhood. I hear about my grandparents, two people I know only from photographs, my grandfather dead fifteen years before I am born, my grandmother succumbing to dementia when I am three. I hear about my mother’s time in a polio ward, where she lived for eleven days. I hear about the spinal tap, the way she begged her parents not to go away. I hear about her sister’s hospital stay, how two days after my mother’s paralysis, Jane sat down on the toilet and couldn’t get up. I hear about the hospital room that they shared. My mother tells me about her “recovery,” and the warm bath she was placed in while her sister screamed and cried. My mother was helped into a new yellow dress and black patent-leather Mary Janes. She remembers my grandfather standing at the end of a long hallway and being able to run to him with full mobility in her legs.
One night I interrupt my mother to ask how she felt in the moment she was finally allowed to leave the ward; I can only imagine she must have felt relief. Instead, she tells me, “I didn’t know to be afraid until I was already walking out the hospital’s front doors.”
It takes me years to understand the impact of this moment. Unassisted, her feet made contact with concrete, then grass, and then the floor of her father’s car, which she sat in while her sister, paralyzed from the waist down, remained in the polio ward.
Whenever my mother and her sister look at each other, they see what might have been. For the first six years of my mother’s life, the two share everything—clothing, hairbrushes, a room, their father’s affection. After the polio, they continue to share shirts and dresses, but now they have their own shoes, as Jane’s are attached to braces. The randomness of their fate is always present. Polio is arbitrary in who and how it strikes. My mother easily could have become the wheelchair user. Instead, she is deemed “the survivor,” though both emerge from the polio ward very much alive.
My grandparents find a way to return to New York City, and they settle in Queens, near my grandmother’s sisters. At night, my mother empties bedpans, massages Jane’s feet. She does the things that have to be done. When the cold air comes through the cracks in the windows, my mother climbs into Jane’s bed for warmth. A massage table divides the room in half. A physical therapist comes over and maneuvers Jane’s body, willing her paralyzed legs to walk again.
There is hope for recovery. The family hears stories of children recuperating after being bedridden for over a year. They cling to any thought of a miracle. But a miracle does not come, even though every night my grandfather kneels next to my mother and Jane and prays. Sometimes he makes my mother get out of bed and pray with him. But when his prayers go unanswered, my mother and Jane stop believing in miracles, my grandfather stops believing in God. Then, when he goes into his daughters’ bedroom he takes Jane’s crutches and beats her, chasing her with them as she crawls on the floor. Even before the polio, he could be a violent man, but after he becomes more unpredictable. He’ll often turn his back to his children and not speak to them for days.
The house is built on pain. The rooms are filled with “what ifs”—what if the family never moved to California, what if they had never gone to the pool. The questions are oppressive; they fill up the space. Multiple times, my mother and Jane try to run away. As for my grandmother, she remains in the background, quiet and still. In the stories my mother tells me, years later, it is as if my grandmother is barely in the room at all.
The courses of their lives irrevocably shift. Whereas my mother and her sister were once inseparable, treated as twins, they now must attend different schools—one is wheelchair accessible and the other’s entrance has stairs. They make different friends. My mother takes dance lessons, years of ballet, while Jane studies singing. One summer, at a bungalow colony in the Catskills, where they vacation when they have money to do so, my grandfather forces Jane to go up the stairs to the front of the stage and sing. She moves slowly, on crutches and with braces, her red ponytail swinging with each step. After she finishes she descends the stairs and quickly exits the building alone, uncomfortable with her body put on display.
Years later, Jane marries a fellow polio survivor she connects with at a support group organized by my grandfather. When she has children, it’s impossible to hold them while she’s using crutches, so she transitions to a wheelchair full-time. My mother marries her college boyfriend—my father—after she tells him that he has no other choice; if he loves her then he will provide her security. The years pass, one into the next. They lose my grandfather and grandmother. My mother has a baby and then another. Yet the polio does not lessen in significance.
It is always there, joining the family at the kitchen table, on car rides to the dance classes I take for two decades, and at night, as I fight off sleep.
I don’t know exactly why my mother chose me as the recipient of her stories. My sister is ten years older, and consistently calmer, the first one you’d share bad news with. Even when I am long past nighttime stories, my mother finds other ways to share experiences from her past. One day when I am visiting—making the trip from Manhattan to Queens for laundry and take-out Chinese—she hands me a manuscript, fifty-eight pages, typed and double-spaced.
“Take them,” she says. “Tell me if they are any good. Worse comes to worst, it’s material.”
I hold on to the pages for weeks before I finish reading. A month passes, maybe two, and then my mother asks me what I think of them. I don’t tell her the writing is good, though much of it is. A school psychologist for many years, she segues seamlessly from memory into analysis of personal experience. Guilt about her body and its mobility is reiterated multiple times. A life sentence, she writes of it.
But other than, “It’s fine,” I don’t say anything at all.
She does not mention it again.
One night, I cannot help myself. I ask her.
“Did it help you heal?” I say.
“I’ve never been more depressed,” she says.
I don’t believe my mother has ever known a moment, at least not since her family moved from California back to New York City, when she was not depressed. She writes of being a child and locking herself in the bathroom, swallowing handfuls of pills while her father bangs on the door. She also tells me how she used to cling to the bedside table, thinking she was being sucked into the mattress. It was a feeling, she says, of being drowned. She takes pills, antianxiety medication, muscle relaxants, and painkillers. The white pills are for depression and the yellow ones for sleep and the orange for post-polio syndrome, an often degenerative condition that begins affecting her and Jane when they are in their fifties. She needs her pills, she says, and I don’t doubt it, but I wonder if there is anything that can be done to stop the need.
I struggle with my own anxiety and depression. For years, I have sporadic public outbursts, long crying episodes at school. As I enter adulthood, and the stakes get even higher, these incidents get worse. When I am twenty-five, I end a three-year relationship with a young stock trader in New York City. We don’t make sense—he’s a Republican living in a Trump building, and I’m the liberal daughter of schoolteachers—and of course this is the appeal. I think we are going to get married, and when the opposite of this occurs, I call my mother sobbing. I call her again and again, multiple times a day. I cannot imagine being able to sustain this ache. I ask her over and over if what I did was right. All I want is for her to fix me.
One night, she breaks.
“You’re killing me!” she screams. “You’re taking years off my life!”
I become very quiet then hang up the phone with a quick goodbye. Her reaction does not surprise me; I’ve witnessed this before.
When I am six or seven, I sit on a shiny silver table at a doctor’s office while a stranger prepares to draw blood. My mother tells me, in a calm voice and over and over, that I need to stop crying. This will be over soon. But I need to stop crying.
It’s my annual physical, and the doctor is new to us. He is pale and blond and his skin does not have wrinkles. I can tell he is not like my old doctor, Dr. Shein, who had also been my mother’s pediatrician. Dr. Shein made his thumb appear and disappear, again and again, a trick he performed whenever I was nervous. But this doctor means business. He does not placate as I try to stall, asking him to take my height and weight again. I know I am taller and heavier than many children my age. My friend from second grade, Barak, recently announced that he was forty-four pounds, and I am over sixty.
“Hold out your arm,” the doctor says as he comes toward me.
I won’t hold out my arm.
“This will only hurt a little bit,” he says.
I keep my arms firmly at my sides.
“I’ll give you a balloon,” he says.
“No, thank you,” I tell them. “I think I’ll pass.”
My mother tries a different approach.
“You think this hurts,” she states, her voice even and stern. “Imagine having a spinal tap. At five years old. And no one around to hold your hand.”
I get very quiet. I had thought, with a glimmer of my gap-toothed grin, I’d have the upper hand in this situation. But no, my mother is right. Polio is real pain whereas this moment is nothing, pain diluted, like my father’s Jack Daniels watered down by ice. I close my eyes and hold out my arm, knowing I have no other choice. On the ride home, I refuse to speak, feeling as if she’s betrayed me.
It is only when I am in my thirties, recently married and thinking about having my own children, that I begin to understand why she might behave this way.
One night I sleep over at the house I grew up in. The walls are a different color, but other elements are exactly the same—my father is asleep by nine, and my mother and I stay up and watch TV. I lay on the couch next to her, and she asks me to rub her feet.
She tells me a story, one I am surprised never to have heard before. She explains that when I was a toddler, I used to cry incessantly for her; barely anything appeased me. Eventually she would give me over to my father and go into the shower and turn on the water so hot that it burned. She’d stand in the stall for more than half an hour, her flesh clothed by steam. I couldn’t get to her there, me, who clung to her breast begging for milk until I was almost three. She adds that whenever my sister and I are hurt, she experiences the sensation of pain—what scientists call “mirror pain,” our innate ability to have empathetic experiences when others are hurt. A dancer breaks her ankle doing a double turn and we look away; a friend stubs her toe and I say, “Ow.”
I think about all the times I’ve called her crying.
She always seemed so numb to me.
I keep rubbing her feet, and then start cracking her toes.
Maybe she felt the opposite.