My First Polio
A memoir excerpt by Lynn Strongin
"If wishes were horses, beggars could ride.” (Proverb)
Life began with musical scales ascending, descending. On the piano, on the violin. D major, d minor: like messengers, a Renaissance boy velvet-clad, svelte, dark blond, up and down the back stairs, or the front stairs. It was the music to accompany unrequited love. For as a child, I already sensed that melancholy hung over the love in our home. This went with the milk-bottle, blue-shining air. My father and I became intertwined when insomnia afflicted him after, at age twelve, I was stricken by polio, my legs left paralyzed. His early studies as a doctor had been on how emotion is mirrored by the eyes. He wanted, all along his career as psychologist, to make life better in the mental hospitals for his patients. He worked both the huge public psychiatric hospital of Bellevue, and the more private pavilion of Cornell Medical Center on the East River, Payne Whitney. He was quick to get me a room there, in intensive care, isolation, not the psychiatric wing, but the wing which treated physical medicine, that summer night in July 1951 when Mother phoned from the suburbs to tell him Indigo had polio. While he was trying to improve life for the patients in hospitals, life at home was darkening. Did he not notice this? Once Mother ran away. He said he searched for her, frantic, for ten hours only to find her at the movies. For him, this summed up her frivolity. For her, her escape from a lonely marriage into the heightened drama and vocabulary the visual blacks and white lived on the velvet-toned, the silver screen. Unrequited love.
“I was born to love you,” Ava says. Moving about in the radical night of the North where I have chosen to make my life with Ava, who was kinder to me over a long stretch than anyone, rolling up one green sock inside another green sock—her sleeping socks from her father which she first “piked” to come live in New Mexico with me—I pause, smiling, realizing I was born and raised to be the eldest among four daughters. I would not change a hair on the head of any of the little ones. This is just where I am to be, I am convinced, passing on some of the love that was given me. My destiny, I sensed from four years of age on, was to be Northern. But wherever I am, the South shines thru like bones thru an x-ray.
Arriving to tie the knot of a disaster, my Father comes. Gathering the shreds of emotional shrapnel in his long graceful hands. In apartments where he relocated when our mother booted him out, apartments with black fire escapes climbing outside them, where I went for our weekend visits glad of the fabric, thread-thin, inherited from my first cousin, Nyrene. The fabric told me my body was still clothed in love. Younger, Rachel looked more the orphan despite the fact she had come into my magnolia white or morning glory purple-blue frocks. Two young girls in the mid-forties in a new location; the bell tolled for us all, I was learning young. The church outside his Manhattan window darkened with rain coming on. Always a child sensitive to weathers, I put my arm around Rachel’s slender back. I could feel her backbone. She no longer had to say, “Keep good care of me, Lynn.” I knew. I could not keep my eyes from her for long. Arriving in the clerestory light of the music conservatory is my mother, who tells me, “There are beans to snap in the pan, Indigo.” And always up and down, up and down, those messengers, like messages—the ones forever cut off in my spine—the musical notes, in D major, d minor, unrequited love which was to color, like a cloud, to melancholy our home.
Chapter One, Excerpted
“The past is inaccurate.” (Czeslaw Milosz)How could a mother name her child after a polished Siberian stone, Lapis lazuli : the densest, most opaque, and saturated blue? To live up to my name, I had to reach the sky. Alias Indigo, a bolt of cloth dyed that peculiar blue-violet of early American Indigo. Given a heaven, we imagine it to be blue. I was taken aback when someone once told me to live up to my face: it was the name I could not fulfill; either I must reach up, or, like indigo cloth, the famous strong homespun fabric, shelter and clothe the young, the wounded around me. Rachel, my kid-sister, was simply Rach.
“Lynn, we are all measured, cut to wear the cloth we are given.” Mother spoke in measured terms, like a solemn music: firm, but not severe. Once I met a nun who said, “Before you had legs, now you have God. You are selected for Daughterhood, a servant of the Eternal.” Bird Ambulance is overdue, I reminded myself, (while she spoke, both of us shadowed by leaves which danced over us like mirror-reflections Must return it Monday or will have a fine.)
Up North, dawn glazing to pewter, or down South, daybreak bruising into saffron.
I should have known when the angel was knocked off our mantle, her right wing severed from her body, that it was to prophecize our lives. I caught her reflection in the mantle mirror the split-second she broke. There was a bead of Lapis lazuli from Siberia for each of her eyes.
Home was wherever Rachel, Mother and I were together. My mother had sung all night the night I was born, in New York City at the end of the Dirty Thirties. She herself had been born in Boston. A daughter of New England which revolves wholly around water, a water star radiating in many directions: like a pin-wheel ‘round its pin, a carousel ‘round its music, its horses whirling, and its glistening brass ring. I cut my teeth on the Mozart and Chopin etudes she practiced late at night, in those loneliest days—as they must have been—of her life, when she no longer was in love with her husband and was trying to figure out how to divorce while her father, Rosenblum, the brilliant research chemist who bore the same name as our father, Israel, was still alive. Her father, the immigrant from Romania, who—even then—had won the family’s fortune, and who had predicted the marriage would come to grief. Rosenblum had a cutting edge to his tongue and my father avowed was the most brilliant man he had ever met. My grandfather—I remembered mainly his stunning silence and his velvet gardens. In homes with leaded glass panes, diamonds, the kind of glass that wrinkles. His estate.
The marriage did end in ruin. The angel’s wing was shattered, that with which she would have flown, her hand severed, that with which she could have written. Yet the recording angel in me was wakened.
Down South, the sky at times was parchment, was magnolia-fine, bone-ivory or like Irish lace. Up North, the sky was a shell out of Pieter Brueghel the elder. For me, the leader, that teal frost of a lower heaven which interchanged the word Heaven for Winter. “You were born to be torn in half,” said Mother.
Through all the moves, the distances, the trauma of the past fifty years, we have been singing back and forth to each other, three women, the Three Graces we were called from the Mid-Forties on. Wherever we were the compass pointed Home, whether Mother set us up for one week in a Memphis hotel room, or we sunk our stakes into another Army Post on another Godforsaken outpost of New York, the city which intersects my life. Overflowing with energy, I’d thwack signposts when I was four and five, leaving them resonating, their pipe ringing till I was out of earshot. These were lonely rig towns, mining and mill towns. Bricked-in linen mills began to haunt my dreams: the boarded-up windows, nailed, against the red thread-thin color, heavenly hue of brick which I was to perceive later in Seventeenth Century Dutch artists. Those were our rooms: their gloom, their penetrating shafts of light; their mirrors, their quiet heartbreak, which nonetheless spilled over; the young girls and women with intense absorption making lace, reading a letter.
Intense absorption: that was what we had as adolescent girls. “The graveyard is full of irreplaceable poets, Indigo,” Mother said. “Write.”
These patterns of choir were set up from the cradle. Mother played Ravel at night on the old black upright piano in the hallway. Playing, she tells me, I came down and played the exact same music in morning. This was a constant, like The Settlement Cookbook with its happy kids trailing a mother to the bake oven on the yellowed cover was part of our lives; it stood in every kitchen we ever had. “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach,” it said. The “Cheerful Cherub” came out in the newspaper every morning during the war, urging Americans to show the British trait of a stiff upper lip. Mother turned to us, me especially when I looked at war headlines. “What can one do? You can’t leave town.” Then she put her arms around me and said, “”C’mon, Lapis, c’mon, Indigo.” I’d smile. I was the only one with green eyes in the family. Neither Lapis nor indigo but I wanted them to be. I coveted the eyes of angel like those of almost all our dolls. Non-brown, that’s what my eyes were. Mother called me a dirty blonde, a natural blonde.
Rachel would look up to me in those early times, and say, “Keep good care of me, Lynn.” The cathedral-radios of our early girlhood, dignifying the background, playing.
It amazed my mother, my playing on the piano precisely what she had played the night before, same key, same notes. My ear had recorded it, memorized the melodies. It assuaged my pain, helped mend my sadness, like lace, over our father being gone. The war.
I have vignettes of my father: He did put in cameo appearances during the war on leave.
Baruch Atov Adonoi, the gentle, slightly gravely voice would say. He took me to the Russian Tea Room right beside Carnage Hall. The war had been over only a year. In the air, euphoria. In this historic tearoom, with its dark burnished wood, its buzz of activity from musicians who came in before and after concerts, there was a custom of presenting the prettiest girl of the day with a rose. That day, a tall mustachioed gentleman came over to me. “For you,” he said extending his hand with a pale pink rose. “Me?” I held it. I smiled all the way on the drive home catching my rose cheeks, my dirty blonde hair, my grin. What would mother say? She’d say, “It wants water,” and plunk it in a mayonnaise jar filled with water on our oilcloth kitchen table.
Looking at Mother one evening, I noticed what a beautiful breastbone she had. Sternum, she told me it was called. “Remember that, indigo” It was near the heart. It was the body’s most vulnerable spot, where the pain was lodged.
Lynn Strongin was born and raised in New York City, and moved around a lot during World War II. She writes: "Polio in 51, the experience of living in a children's ward has never left me and I have spent large portions of my creative life trying to capture the isolation of hospitalized children." The Sorrow Psalms: A Book of Twentieth Century Elegy, Lynn's first anthology, will be published next spring by the University of Iowa Press.
My First Polio is an excerpt from Lynn's memoir Indigo, which is being published in installments in various venues. One installment recently was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Another Indigo excerpt , Miss Mary's, also is available at VerbSap.
Photo "Blow II" courtesy of Jyn Meyer, Spokane, WA.
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