Written several years ago, in this time of pandemic, seemed worth revisiting…
In 1953, Edie’s family didn’t have a TV, not yet, but it was In all the newspapers: Polio, pictures of hapless kids, grinning bravely, their heads poking out of the huge breathing drum, an Iron Lung, they called it. At school, the nuns led prayers for al the poor children struck down with polio.
Edie’s mom told her it wasn’t just kids either. The president of the United States, the one who was now dead, he had it too. Edie would hear her parent’s quiet, worried talk after supper, after they had listened intently to the news that came over the radio, the same radio that broadcast breathless accounts of the Saint Louis Cardinals baseball games, that practically jumped off the shelf when Stan the Man hit another home run. On Thursdays when Willa Mae, their colored cleaning lady came to the house, she and Edie’s mom would sit with their tea and listen to their favorite soap opera. These days they lingered and talked about the epidemic and Sister Kenny and a possible vaccine that would put an end to their worry.
Willa Mae shook her head and clucked, “I sure hope they do something. It breaks my heart seeng these little cripple children.”
Edie’s mom stared into her empty tea cup.
When her husband came home she looked ups this “Should we still go? The kids will be so disappointed if we don’t, Mother, too.”
Hearing this, Edie held her breath. How could they not go? Every year at the end of the summer, her family loaded into their car and drove all day across the flat steaming fields of Illinois to her grandma and grandpa’s farm in Black Hawk County, Iowa. She was sitting on the stairs, listening intently, her arm wrapped the bannister on the landing. Then she heard her dad, “We can’t let them down. Of course we’ll go.”
Edie’s heart jumped a little and she ran upstairs to her room. They would be going to the farm after all.
The drive to Iowa was a long one but if they started early, they could be at the farm before dusk. They started off, windows down, morning-cool air blowing in the faces of Edie and her two brothers in the back seat. As the sun grew hotter, Edie’s mom said, “I can just feel the freckles popping!”
Edie looked at her own arms. Would they pop on hers as well?
She And her brothers tried to read comics but that was impossible with the windows down. Her brothers started poking around her at each other. Her dad said, very loud, “Cut it out or I’ll stop the car,.”
They knew he would and they started counting P.I.E. Trucks, Pacific Intercoastal Express, it said in small letters under the logo. There were lots of them on the road, always. Their mom turned around and smiled. “We’ve got a long way to go.”
Before they got to the Big River, they had to cross a smaller version of it, the Illinois River. Her dad liked to take the ferry at Savannah. Out of their way but an adventure, her dad called it, like the secret rides he and his friend Mr White would take them on back home. He drove the boxy grey Plymouth onto a floating wooden platform and a man in farmer overalls guided it across, standing at the helm in front of a big, noisy motor. They drove off onto a dirt road on the other side, Dad waved a thank you, and got back on the blacktop. Then the ferry picked up a waiting truck, rusted-out and old, and took it back where they had just come from. Back and forth all day, Edie thought, back and forth.
When they got close to the big river, the boys and Edie spelled it out –
M I S S – I S S – I P P I
Looking down from the car windows, they saw the huge opaque brown river, barely flowing, it seemed. Long barges moved slowly along, some empty, some loaded down, sitting heavy in the water. The steel girders on the bridge framed their view like individual photos in a flip book.Then they were on the other side. WELCOME TO THE STATE OF IOWA
WHERE THE TALL CORN GROWS
A goldfinch and the state flower, a wild rose embellished the sign.
They were in Keokuk now and stopped for lunch. Edie had fried catfish in a basket with French fries. They all squeezed into a sticky vinyl booth, Edie sipped her strawberry pop from a straw. Soda pop was a treat they got only while on vacation or on a drive to Lincoln park on a particularly hot summer night. Overhead fans whirled around, not cooling anything but stirring up the moist air that smelled of grease and fried fish and burnt meat. After lunch they watched a jeep struggling to drive up a hill behind the diner, almost straight up a steep bluff. The driver kept backing down, revving his motor and starting up again. The cook came out to watch, stained apron stretched across his fat belly. “Damned fool,” and Dad nodded.
Back in the car, Mom turned on the radio, Paul Harvey and more news of polio striking down kids. “Turn that damn thing off,” her dad said and they drove on.
The rolling fields were still covered with oats and corn, blindingly green in the late summer light. Even the sky looked hot, hazy blue and not a cloud in sight. The sun was low in the sky by the time they turned off the highway and down a white gravel road to the farm. Behind the car billowed a cloud of white dust. They were almost there and Edie’s heart did that little dance again. On to the lane, shimmering corn fields on one side, the gnarly old orchard on the other. In the culverts on either side was wild rose and Queen Anne’s Lace and black-eyed Susan’s and Day Lilies, all dusted with fine white powder.
By the time they were at the house, Grandma and Aunt Mayme were in the yard waving flour-covered hands, a pie probably in the oven for tonight
‘s supper. White-haired, handsome Grandpa sat in a big wooden chair stroking an old stub-tailed cat and nodded hello. He had a heart attack last Spring, her mom had told Edie, and did’t move around much these days. The Boys, Edie’s two bachelor uncles jokester Carl and serious Bill, tromped up from the barn, past their parked John Deere tractor to greet their sister and her family. The Boys brought out chairs from the kitchen and set them in the yard. Soon the women were catching up on news of cousins and kids, deaths and of course, polio. Her dad smoked his Lucky Strikes and her uncles puffed on their pipes and talked of cars and equipment and the price of corn and oats while Grandpa looked on.
Her brothers could be still no longer and headed off to the orchard, Edie. Instead, wandered into the modest, clean house, taking in the smell of waxed linoleum and good things baking in the Home Comfort oven. Yes, it was all as she remembered. Then outside, she raced past the chickens, sending them flapping and squawking, and ran down to Camp – a place in the woods Uncle Carl, the younger of the Boys, had cleared out do she and her brothers could play. Yes, the three sitting rocks were there and the pigs still looked at her with lazy, mean little eyes when she climbed back over the fence and headed back up to the house.
That night when the family sat at the big round table in the dining room, facing a feast that Grandma and Aunt Mayme had been preparing all day for their guests, Edie wasn’t hungry at all. She just couldn’t eat, not even Grandma’s mashed potatoes or her aunt’s Apple pie topped with vanilla ice cream. She didn’t want to catch lightning bugs out under the elm tree and put them in a jar. All she wanted to do was go to the living room and lie down on the foldout couch that was her bed on these summer visits to the farm. Her Aunt Grace, who had driven out from near-by Cedar City that evening after work, shared the bed with Edie when she visited. Her brothers went outside and chased each other around, the grown-ups sat in the cool evening air and Edie fell asleep fast and didn’t notice when Grace carefully joined her.
Edie woke up the next morning to find her mom sitting next to her.
“How do you feel, honey?”
Edie wanted to play with the stub-tailed cat and go down to Camp. “I’m fine.”
But her mom looked concerned and she heard Grace talking, “Try not to worry. She’s probably just tired from the trip. We’ll keep a close eye.”
At lunch, Edie still didn’t feel like eating, Grandma frowned at her, disapproving. Her aunts and mother exchanged worried looks. After play with her lunch and not eating much of it, Edie lay down on the couch. She studied its scratchy surface, her fingers tracing tiny clusters of pink and white flowers that patterned the deep blue upholstery. Grace came in and put her palm to Edie’s forehead,
Edie wanted to jump up, go out and collect fallen apples with her brothers in the tired-out old orchard. She wanted to help Aunt Mayme collect eggs or do the wash and help her hang it up on the sagging clothes line that ran along the side of the house. Why couldn’t she? Her head was hot and felt like it weighed a ton, her legs, too.
“I’m fine, Mom,” she said, hoping to wish it so, confused by her body’s rebellion and sad because it was vacation and here she was, lying on the couch in this dreary, hot room, watched over by pictures of Jesus and Mary, dried Palm fronds tucked behind their frames. The upright piano in the corner, the one nobody played, sat dark and silent and only made her sadder. She could see the drooping branches of the elm tree and the glistening corn fields beyond. Occasionally she saw a streak of one or both of her brothers as they played in the yard. . Not fair. Not fair. She felt tears forming. She may as well be back home, in her own room, with her dolls and the Strawberry patterned curtains over windows that faced north so that at night she could watch the beacon from Capital Airport.
“C’mon honey, we’re going to the doctor.”
That was her dad, holding one of Grandma’s quilt, ready to wrap around his girl. By now, Edie’s teeth were chattering.
Why do I feel hot and cold at the same time she wondered. Her dad scooped her up and swaddled her in the quilt, her mom and Grace followed, hurrying past Grandma and Mayme, standing with hands clasped in front of their aproned chests. “Oh dear. We’ll pray,” they waved as Dad loaded Edie and the women into the Plymouth. Down the lane, a cloud of white dust behind them, out Eagle Center Road, past Schaefer’s General Store and the farmers outside drinking soda pop and bottled beer. Their heads swiveled. What’s the damn hurry?
He sped up to the intersection turning onto Orange Center Road, past the funny half house that never got finished, the humped storm cellar next to it, past the Catholic Church and rectory, the yellow brick two story school. Edie huddled up next to her aunt in the back set, Grace directing her dad.
“This is the best way, the back way.”
“Don’t boss me Grace. I was raised here,you know.”
Grace shut up. Edie’s mom turned around and patted Edie’s quilted hand as Cedar City and County Hospital came into view.
Later, when Edie told the story, she actually recalled very little, relying mostly on accounts of her mom and aunts, and her father of course. What she did remember was her fear that their vacation on the farm could end, just like that, and that she did’t want her parents to know how bad she had felt.
She remembered too that the doctor had her make a BM for him so he could study it to see if she had polio. He had made her open her mouth really wide and stuck what looked like a fat Popsicle stick in her mouth. “Say aah.” He thumped her chest and listened to her breathe and asked all sorts of questions about how she felt and about the kids she played with. He was dark, almost as dark as Willa Mae, their cleaning lady back home. His bushy black mustache moved up and down when he talked. She could hardly understand what he said sometimes, his voice sing-songy and high. Her dad would translate. But the doctor’s hands were gentle – small and soft, unlike her dad’s blunt square fingers. She wasn’t afraid, even when he gave her a shot. It did’t hurt at all.
Leaving the hospital her dad drove a lot slower.
“Thank god,” her mom said and Grace gave Edie a little hug. Her teeth weren’t chattering anymore and she even felt a bit hungry.
“Edie Button, how about if we stop at Schaefer’s and get you some lime sherbet.” That was her dad and he knew lime sherbet was her favorite.
“Twenty-Four hour flu, The doc told me, scaring the hell out of a lot of parents, he said.”
“Thank god, thank god,” her mom kept repeating.
This time the Plymouth pulled up slowly and parked in front of the store in Eagle Center.
“Say, you were in quite a hurry there, ” one of the old guys said.
In the back of the store was a bar that sold cold beer and an occasional shot of cheap whiskey. It was getting on in the afternoon and a crowd of men milled around out by the gasoline pumps. Her dad stood out among the farmers, all of them in dusty, sweaty overalls, their arms and faces sunburnt and brown, their foreheads pasty white.
” Got a sick little girl here but she’s gonna be OK,” her dad announced. “Gave us a fright with all this polio talk going around.”
An old farmer gently slapped her dad on the back. “It’s a real worry these days.”
Her dad got the sherbet, packed in a round paper tub, wrapped with extra newspaper to keep it cool and they drove back to the farm. When they got there, Grandma, Grandpa, Mayme and the Boys were all having coffee, sitting around the dining room table, the Hummel Madonna watching benevolently from the mantle. The ornate clock with its Roman Numerals chimed four o’clock
“Don’t worry, it’s just a nasty flu.”
“Thank god,” her mom said
“We’ve been praying,” Mayme said, she and Grandma still clutching their rosaries.
Edie was embarrassed a bit by all the attention but felt well enough to have a small bowl of green sherbet. After that she napped a while and that evening ate a portion of meatloaf for supper. Her brothers looked at her sheepishly, worried maybe, but a little jealous, she knew, of all the attention she was getting. That night when Edie was back in bed on the fold-out couch in the darkened living room, a cricket was chirping so loudly it was all she could hear above the murmur of the adults saying the rosary as they did every night. When Grandma came in to say goodnight, Edie told her the cricket was keeping her awake.
“Don’t worry about that lil’ cricket,” Grandma comforted, “Let him sing you to sleep.”
That night Edie fell into a deep, lush sleep and woke up to roosters crowing and the quiet bustle of women in the kitchen. Her head did not feel thick and heavy and her stomach growled. She hoped Grandma was making bacon and eggs for breakfast.
The summer after that, Edie waited for the cricket to sing her to sleep. She remembered when her dad had rushed her to the hospital and the lime sherbet afterwards. She thanked the Blessed Mother that she didn’t get polio and didn’t have to spend the rest of her life in an iron lung. Tomorrow she and her brothers had planned a big ceremony down at camp to honor their Aunt Grace. They still had to clear a path and clean the sitting rocks and put a string on the metal that her brothers had made from an old iron nail. The cricket rubbed its legs together. Jesus and Mary looked on, the piano in the corner sat silent as always. And Edie fell into a deep calm sleep.