If there’s anything in our current crazy lives that reminds me of my childhood, it’s the pandemic.
I was born in 1939. No, not Spanish flu days. That was unknown to me then but is sadly today a harsh reminder of how far we haven’t got! Wearing masks and being separated was the advice in those days, just like today. Sounds like we haven’t progressed too far.
When I was a kid the scourge was known as polio. Infantile paralysis. Although most kids did not get it, if you lived on Aldine Street in Newark’s Weequahic section, with my mother, you knew that every single child caught it and most usually died from it. To be honest, all of the mothers, and some of the fathers, thought this way, and it stifled our childhood at times. Like, for example, when we were awake or when we wanted to go swimming. Or to anyplace crowded. I could never convince Mom that I’d be fine. I couldn’t even convince myself. And if she ever doubted her own wisdom, chatting with friends would convince her once again. This is all the more remarkable since she was not inundated with news on radio and cable TV, 24/7, as we are today. Just try and forget about the current pandemic for one minute and you’ll hear the urgent words “BREAKING NEWS.”
And so every summer we went to the Catskills, to a hamlet called Parksville, where we were lucky enough to own a small rooming house where Mom rented out bedrooms and kitchens to other city families, in the belief that the air was better there and we’d be safer. The summers were always fun, with the caveat against swimming following us up Route 17 and keeping us from cooling off at the nearby waterfalls.
My mother was a major worrier, so when she got the phone call in Parksville, where we were already hunkered down, from my aunt in New Jersey, terror entered her safe zone. The phone was not, in the early 1940s, our constant companion. For the 35 families who shared our rooming house, there was one phone, a pay phone at that, and it was also a party line. You didn’t dial that phone. You couldn’t. Every call was operator assisted. I share this with you so that you’ll know that making or receiving a call was a very big event. The phone, Liberty 726J, hangs in our home until this day, a reminder that it really was possible to live without a phone in your purse or pocket in modern history.
Thus, when my Aunt Edna phoned, Mom knew something was wrong. And it was. The day before the phone call, when we were in the midst of packing for the summer, my cousin Bobby had polished my nails. I don’t know why he polished my nails, since I was a bit tomboyish and definitely not into fancy nails. I’m still not! But for whatever reason, he sat me down and polished my nails — and then, the very next day, was diagnosed with polio.
Edna had called, duty-bound to tell us the grave news. My mother concealed her angst from me but I knew she was terrified.
Bobbie, as it turned out, had an extremely mild case with no debilitating consequences. As an adult, many years later, he actually had some sort of episode related to his childhood polio but that too soon passed. Neither my sister nor I caught polio from him, or from anyone else. Who knows why?
Bobby’s next-door neighbor, a beautiful little girl named Maggie, also contracted polio and was disabled her entire life. She died young, but I’m not in a position to tell you whether it was polio-related. I assume, because of the severity of her case, that it was.
And then there was Ray. Ray came from a family of three kids and they all spent their summers at the Parksville rooming house. He had, by then, recovered from the acute symptoms of the disease, but his legs remained shriveled and he was cane-dependent his entire life. He took enormous pride in displaying the muscles in his arms, which were powerful and apparently unaffected by the disease.
Ray’s two siblings and Maggie’s sister all remained disease-free. Again, who could explain why?
When routine vaccines against polio appeared, I was ready. By then I was a teenager and eager to avoid the dreaded disease and to get on with my real interest, boys! Although there were some mishaps in the early immunization days, my sister and I were vaccinated early and remained unscathed. Our parents then transferred their worries to other, less urgent, less disabling, and less imminent dangers.
I was the wrong age for most of the other childhood vaccines that now are accepted as routine; and with their only consequences usually being a crabby infant a day or two following the shot. I had actually, like most of my cohort, suffered through all the other prevalent actual diseases in real time, none of them being more than an annoyance except for measles, which I remember very well. It made me extremely sick. But I endured chicken pox, German measles, mumps, and even whooping cough.
I remember whooping cough, not because I was so sick but because it gave my mother a major business loss. She owned and operated our little Parksville rooming house. In 1948 she had one remaining room to rent, and a family looking for a summer rental negotiated with her and came to an agreement that they would become our newest tenants. My always careful mother asked why their children were coughing and was told they had allergies. And so, half of us kids came down with the same allergies, also known as whooping cough. The unaffected families, were refunded their money and all returned to their city homes. This was a giant loss for the little business but it avoided quarantine for those of us who already had the disease. We stayed for the rest of the summer and never needed to curtail our activities whatsoever. Now it seems like a minor blip, since all of us sick kids recovered uneventfully, and by the following summer the business also had recovered.
But now, as the anniversary of our first year in covid isolation is nearing, and our lives have been changed in shocking, tragic, and really unbelievable ways, as we’ve seen staggering death loads and incompetent government reactions, we await the newly approved vaccine against the life-altering virus that has taken tens of thousands of lives in America, Israel, and throughout the world. It probably is months away but, at the very least, there appears to be a light at the end of the tunnel. May it be so.
Just as vaccines eased my parents’ lives by eliminating the powerful threat of polio, may they soon allow those of us living in constant and justified fear of covid-19 to resume our lives. May going to the supermarket or hairdresser or dentist no longer conjure up shades of death and illness. May we unmask and never again be fearful of attending a family wedding or visiting with our children, our very own children, or hosting a Thanksgiving dinner. May getting nails polished not appear to come in the guise of the Angel of Death.
May we be vaccinated! I’m ready!