In the Shadow of Polio: A Personal and Social History

In the Shadow of Polio: A Personal and Social History

In the Shadow of Polio: A Personal and Social History

In the Shadow of Polio: A Personal and Social History


"In 1954 Kathryn Black's mother became one of the millions of people worldwide stricken with polio. A year later, as the Salk vaccine became widely available, the nation heaved a collective sigh of rel"


For most of my life, my father and I have had separate homes in distant states. From the time I was six years old, we had shared hardly more than a polite, once-a-year-Christmascard relationship, but I wasn't surprised when one day in late April 1988 he called me at my home in San Francisco. In the previous few months we had warily begun to get reacquainted. I had visited him at his home in Seattle, which marked the first time we'd been together in almost ten years. I had gone because he had had surgery for a heart aneurysm, and I was afraid he would die. His possible death didn't dismay me for its potential loss in my life, because he had been lost to me long ago. What I feared was that he might die before I found the courage to ask him about the secrets in our family's history. He survived the surgery, and I cautiously began to pose questions.

After years of silence, we were talking on the telephone every few weeks, though mostly about the present, his new relationship, and my failing marriage. When he called that day in April, I expected it to be another such conversation, but he surprised me by saying he was feeling blue and had been thinking a lot about ray mother. He never spoke of her unless I asked, and although she was the secret I most wanted revealed, in those days I seldom probed for information about her. That morning, Dad told me he had been remembering how our family used to camp out among the Joshua trees and saguaro in the Arizona desert when we'd lived in Phoenix.

"Do you remember," he asked, "how your mother and I used to fly kites with you and Kenny? How at night we would lie on cots so the rattlers couldn't get us and listen to the coyotes?"

"No. I don't remember. I wish I did."

My father had once said that that first year in Arizona was the happiest of his life, maybe the only happy time of his life. Maybe it . . .

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