When I was young, I loved to go shopping with my mother. I remember one day in particular when we went to my favorite store, Pixie Town, to buy a dress for a party I was attending. Whenever my mother went out, she always had to find a parking space near the store; it would never work for her to park even a block away. This was the 1960s, several decades before the Americans with Disabilities Act mandated handicap accessible curbs, and my mother, who relied on a wheelchair to get around, was paralyzed from the waist down.
We were lucky that morning as we found a parking spot right in front of the store. Making our way inside, we became engrossed in examining the frothy creations that hung on the racks. Suddenly, I heard a small gasp and turned to see a child, aged five or six, gawking, open-mouthed, at my mother. A sickening wave of embarrassment swept over me, and I wanted to leave. But I knew not to suggest that to my mother, as she sat there, unfazed, barely taking her eyes off the rack.
It’s ironic that I was self-conscious about her disability, as the unstated message in our house was that we were never to think of ourselves as being different from other families, and we certainly weren’t encouraged to discuss my mother’s impairment. Of course, I knew the basics: my mother became paralyzed as a result of contracting polio at the age of two; that she had had surgery as a young child to strengthen her back, also weakened by the polio virus; and that, as a child in the late 1920s, she had spent time at Warm Springs, the rehabilitation center in Georgia founded by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Growing up, I yearned to talk to her about all of this, but my tentative questions were always met with an angry look, and soon enough I stopped asking.
Yet over the years, questions about my mother’s life tugged at me with increasing frequency. Although she was remarkable in what she had achieved –she raised two children and had a successful career as a musician – I always sensed she was gripped by an impenetrable sense of sadness that if acknowledged, would have crushed her. Although in my 20s I repeatedly resolved to ask her again, my behavior always fell short of my intentions.
When I was 33 my mother died. After the funeral, my father honored her wishes and sent me the journals she had kept, starting in her fifth decade, which she had never shared with any one. Curious, I sat down at my kitchen table and began to read. Although I was fascinated to read about the particulars of her life, what really struck me was the self-hatred that infused her writing. She wrote about dragging her “crippled body around with a dumb smile” on her face, how “ugly” she was, as well as feeling consumed that she was a “bad and deviant” person.
I felt sick as I realized that the humiliation I had experienced that day in Pixie Town was similar to how my mother felt every day of her life: shamed, flawed, and less of a person than everybody else. Sitting at the kitchen table, I vowed that day to learn everything I could about my mother’s life. What I gleaned from this journey – from what it was like to live with polio in the first part of the twentieth century to my mother never being able to share with others her experience of being confined to a wheelchair – I will write about in a series of future posts.
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