Encounter with a Giant
It was so very special. That night in August 1951, our family of seven was leaving for a real vacation. From our home north of Chicago outside of a small bedroom community named Glenview, we were going to travel all night to northern Michigan. Just seven years old, I remember only peripheral details. I suspect my perspective might surprise readers expecting words of compassion, sadness and fear. However, as children do, I pranced through days and nights -- and indeed, for decades later, through most of a lifetime -- oblivious to important surroundings while I focused on catching butterflies and picking blueberries.
My parents decided to travel at night because fewer cars would share the road. Thus, on the day leading to the evening departure, my father, who would drive, slept and we children tip-toed around. I remember whispering outside while standing under the window of the room where he slept.
My 8-year-old sister Marianne and I were excited about the trip. Because we were the oldest children, we were given a privilege. We could remain awake and watch for "shooting stars." An annual meteor shower, the Perseids, would send them shrieking across the sky. They were burning comet dust. We wanted to count them before they disappeared. I hoped they would do that off to the side of the road and not hit us.
Even our sleeping arrangements were exciting, as novel as camping outdoors would have been. In 1951 suitcases were hard rectangular boxes. Ours would be placed on the floor in front of the back seat. A blanket would cover them and we could lie down to sleep.
As I said, my memories are peripheral. Only years later did I realize the poignant irony of that trip. Until that year my father had been self-employed. He repaired radios. However, with five young children on the scene, he took a salaried job and earned his first paid vacation. My parents chose to go to a cottage in northern Michigan on Lake Medora near the tip of the section of the state known as the Upper Peninsula. Unfortunately, the trip was anything but a vacation.
I have only two memories, starkly different, from our brief stay at the cottage. After the all-night ride, my mother was achy. One of my parents said it must have been from holding the baby all night. As Mother's soreness and difficulty moving increased, my sister and I took turns waving a handkerchief over her face to shoo away flies. My second memory is of gingerly making my way down rocks to the water's edge and watching some fishermen. Enjoying the scene, I suddenly shrieked in pain. A fish hook cast by one of the men was caught in my upper arm. He gently removed the hook and sent me to the cottage to have the wound washed.
Those are my last memories of my early childhood. Within hours, I began to grow up.
My father drove Mother and the five of us to a hospital, probably in Calumet. After a while, we were taken to see my mother. She was lying on a high narrow bed against a curtain. She held a rosary. She needed to be transferred to a bigger hospital. She told us to kneel on the floor. Together we recited an Our Father, a Hail Mary and a Glory Be to the Father, the three prayers of the rosary. I remember the cold tile floor and being afraid.
Mother had polio. An ambulance took her away to a hospital in Marquette. The date was August 15, the feast of the Assumption. Apparently it is a day for mothers to leave. We didn't see ours again until October.
Dad drove us back to the cottage to grab our belongings. Then we drove the route the ambulance had already taken. We were annoyed having to wait for a freight train to pass because we wanted to catch up with the ambulance. Dad checked us into a motel with tiny cabins in the shade. I discovered that we had left behind the brown paper grocery bag that held my clothes -- a crisis for a little girl. Someone from the motel watched over us while Dad was at the hospital. We picked wild blueberries. Several days later two relatives from Chicago arrived to take us home.
Back in Illinois, relatives kept my three brothers until the following spring. My mother, whose condition had deteriorated rapidly during the first few days, was confined to an iron lung. Every other weekend my father visited her, often accompanied by her sister or mother.
Because we were school-age, my sister and I remained at home. We had new rituals. When my father left for work about 6 AM, a neighbor came to get us ready for school. After school we stayed at the convent of the religious nuns who taught at our school until Dad picked us up.
I was in second grade. Several weeks into the school year, Larry Burkhart, a classmate who boarded the school bus at the next bus stop, was run over by a garbage truck just before our bus reached his stop. He was in critical condition. Each day the nun who taught our class gave us a report on his condition and we prayed for him. Doctors amputated first one leg and then the other. Then he died. I was horrified that a mere child could die. I wrote to Mother about how awful it was. Later I was embarrassed, wondering if she thought I was more concerned about Larry than her. The next year I am sure I expressed similar grief and sympathy after a classmate died of complications of measles. The thought of being so inconsiderate still makes me ashamed.
In October, Mother was transported by ambulance 400 miles from upper Michigan to St. Francis Hospital in Evanston, about 15 miles from our home. I was born in that hospital seven years earlier. While Dad visited Mother, two brothers from our neighborhood took turns sitting for my sister and me.
Sometimes one of us went along to visit Mother in the hospital. I remember city street lights, nurses carrying shiny pans covered by white cloths, and exercise apparatus hanging over Mother's bed. I thought the pans were apple pies. Later I learned that they were bedpans. I also saw a therapy room that had a tall round apparatus like a whirlpool into patients were put to benefit from moving water.
That Christmas Mother spent several days at my aunt and uncle's apartment in Chicago. She lay on the bottom bunk in their children's bedroom. She saw all of us, including my little brothers. I wonder now how painful that must have been. I remember a close family friend, Anna Ross, visiting and holding her young child on her lap.
Perhaps because our parents never discussed much in our presence, the entire significance of Mother's paralysis escaped me. I didn't know that she could easily have died because she was afflicted with the two worst types of polio -- bulbar and spinal. I didn't understand that a machine breathed for her, pulling air into her lungs and pushing it out. Surely my parents were angry, afraid and worried about the future. They waited to find out how much movement Mother would regain. Another reminder is that her teeth were not brushed during her seven months in the hospital. Within the next year or so, all of them had to be extracted
Finally Mother came home. A nurse and physical therapist came, paid for by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, now the March of Dimes Foundation. My brothers returned one by one. Mother resumed her role in our household. She did almost everything from her wheelchair, but could walk if she held onto a wall and could stand at the sink and stove. Marianne and I had many chores. We swept the floors, burned the garbage, set and cleared the table, washed and dried dishes, and prepared our brothers for bed. On weekends Marianne and I did the heavy housework.
Every few months our pastor, Fr. Dussman, picked up Mother and a woman whose bout with polio left her dependent on crutches. My mother was envious of her because she was more mobile but, in turn, they visited a third woman, another parishioner, Mrs. Kovacic, who was confined to an iron lung. I wonder how the two women with less paralysis felt each time they saw her. More so, I wonder how Mrs. Kovacic, who could neither breathe on her own nor move, felt seeing them.
Mother was named National Polio Mother of the Year in 1955. Basil O'Connor, president of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, presented a certificate to her in our living room. A big department store in downtown Chicago gave Mother a suit to wear during the presentation. Television cameras captured the event. By dinner time we were celebrities. My brothers received toy orange metal trucks bearing the name of the store. The department store gave my parents set of club aluminum cookware and a refrigerator.
A year or so later Mother, Marianne and I were on a 5 PM television show. On live television, Marianne and I received some of the first Salk polio inoculations to demonstrate their availability to the public.
Blessed with good health, I had perfect attendance throughout grade school and high school. However, for four days in the summer of 1954 I was very sick. Each day was different. One day I had a severe sore throat. Another day I burned with fever. Another day I vomited. Finally, I hurt all over. I stayed upstairs in bed the entire time. Marianne brought me chicken noodle soup and crackers.
After I emerged, my Mother said that she and my father wondered if I had a mild case of polio. Even while thinking that, they could not afford to take me to our only local doctor. I have only remembered their saying that now, 42 years later. This recollection of our family's encounter with polio has occurred because I have just read a book by Kathryn Black called In the Shadow of Polio. She described cases of polio that were extremely mild with no sequelae. Sometimes one member of a family after another had this illness. Unfortunately it sometimes left its final victim, often the breadwinner, a quadriplegic, as if the virus gained strength with each victim. Most mild cases left no "scars." Others left nondescript damage never attributed to polio.
My childhood association with polio ended in 1965 when I married and moved away. Fifteen or so years later, working in the state Division of Public Health in North Carolina, I read about a newly recognized phenomenon labeled "post-polio syndrome." Realizing it explained the myriad changes in Mother's condition -- developments called "loss of milestones," I sent the information home for Mother and her providers. After reading it, they knew why she could no longer do many things. My impression is that knowing about post-polio syndrome is the most helpful benefit of having that second diagnosis.
Decades ago, my office operated several hospitals that served polio patients. We receive requests from some patients for their old medical records, which we retrieve from state archives. Each request stems from the development of post-polio syndrome. Only a few weeks ago, helping a co-worker respond to a frightened man, I printed out information on post-polio syndrome from the Internet for him.
I can never appreciate the impact of the disease on my parents. I do know that my four children, and I their mother, never lived in dread through long hot summers. They have grown to adulthood healthy and unscarred. The millions of dimes contributed by Americans everywhere to the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis financed research that led to successful vaccines. We have much for which to be thankful.
August 22, 1996
The water surrounding Capri is turquoise.
Jutting out of it are enormous rocks, probably remnants of volcanoes.
The village streets, on the edge of the hill, are over the water. There
is no sand or grass. There is just the island, a mere five miles in
size, protruding high from the Tyrrhenian Sea.
Some people were jumping off the
island into the clear turquoise water. Others were diving off rocks.
Seeing their thrill, and surrendering to my husband's pleas, I finally
jumped in. He was sure he would catch me. I was sure I would drown.
Over and over, until I felt the thrill, until I knew I was alive, until
I stepped on a sea urchin! They were ubiquitous. Now one's spines were
in my foot. Someone sent us to the pharmacy where we were sold tweezers
and iodine. I remember returning to our hotel with our supplies in a
little brown paper bag, and I remember Pat pulling out the spines.
We took a boat ride into the grotto;
a cave of arches erupting from the water. Having someone row while I
soaked up the beauty mesmerized me, the way a massage pushes away worries.
I remember that boat ride whenever I see the Little Mermaid, Ariel,
in the boat with her prince.
The only other thing I remember
about Capri is my reaction to it. Capri is another world. Beautiful
and fragrant, Capri is ethereal, too good to be true.
Because our sons awaited us, returning home wasn't disappointing the way returning to work is after a vacation. Mundane responsibilities resumed their control, and I forgot to remember. Just as bubbles children blow fade before breaking, the turquoise and shocking pink faded and then were gone. I forgot to remember. The lesson learned now, 26 years later, is the importance of remembering joyous times. Those memories provide balance while we cope with life's stresses and challenges. Problems can be suffocating and we can feel helpless. Remembering the good times prevents fear and sadness from skewing our outlook. It even instills hope if we dream of re-expriencing what, for now, are only memories.
Ocean Isle Beach, April 13, 1996
During a workshop not long ago I filled in a personality
inventory. My score made me feel good about some of my behaviors.
The ones that come to mind here are neatness (a stack of papers should
be straight), quality (a craft that I make should deserve an A), and
correct (I do what's "right"). The Myers-Brigg Inventory
said persons with scores like mine need structure, derive a sense
of security from decorating their homes in a traditional manner, and
follow the rules.
Those values and behaviors came into play the night in September 1989 when I made the hat and the cake. A few months earlier, the North Carolina General Assembly had ratified a bill that merged the agency for which I work, the Division of Health Services, with another, the Division of Natural Resources. We became the Department of Environment, Health and Natural Resources.
Staff in my office still were very anxious about the merger when an Employee Appreciation Day poster appeared. We were invited to a pig pickin' on the grounds of the Natural Resources building downtown. Hat and cake contests would be held. I decided immediately to enter both contests and to attend the pig pickin' to show support for our new agency and for the organizers of the event.
My quest for ingredients began the afternoon before the event. A coworker in our Family Planning Program office gave me a card of birth control pills, a wrapped contraceptive sponge, and a hypodermic needle. Next, after work I drove around Raleigh gathering other "ingredients." From a soggy corner of a walking trail at Lake Johnson, I collected handfuls of 4-inch tall pine seedlings. The trail also supplied pecans, sweet gum balls and pinecones. From craft, toy and baby stores I obtained miniature black and white babies, baby bottles, diaper pins, a pacifier, birds, eggs and fish. My last stop was the grocery store for cake ingredients.
Our kitchen counter became my workshop. I mixed batter for a recipe for hummingbird cake recipe that had recently been published in our local newspaper and put the three layers into the oven. While they baked, I made the hat. Using glue melted in a pie pan, I arranged the pine seedlings around the center of an old straw hat. Then I added the hodgepodge of items representing both programs in our office of maternal and child health and also natural resources. I included seashells and a few dried flowers.
Finally I made the frosting and decided how to transport the two items. After the cake cooled, I frosted it. It was after midnight and I was so tired.
The last step was the most fun. I took the decorated hat, a 6-inch rubber turtle and a bottle of glue into my office. I waited for my boss Tom to arrive because he had promised to bring the most important item. When I found him, he was talking to our coworker Barry. I said, "Hurry, Tom. I need it. The submission deadline is in 30 minutes." Tom pulled a condom package out of his pocket. Barry was speechless, appalled! I rushed into my office, slit the turtle's mouth open and unwrapped the condom. Never tactful, I blurted out, "Ooh, Tom, you didn't tell me it was lubricated!" I rammed the open end of the condom into the turtle's mouth. It represented a turtle swallowing a balloon, the cause of death for sea turtles off our coast, but it also represented both public health and the environment. I glued the turtle on top of the hat and then rushed downtown to submit my entries.
When I went to the pig pickin' at noon, I felt like an outsider among strangers. Almost everyone there was from the natural resources part of our new agency. Yet they kept stopping to examine the hat that I now was wearing. Finally, our new department head greeted the crowd and told us how valuable we were to North Carolina. Then the winners were announced.
I won first place in both contests! It was incredible! Everyone congratulated me, took pictures and asked for the recipe. I had never tasted the cake, didn't even know what a hummingbird cake was. I looked for it on the dessert table because I wanted to try it, but I couldn't find it. Someone explained, "Oh, the judges ate the whole cake!" The recipe for Hummingbird Cake, now a family staple, is on the following webpage along with my other favorite recipes.
I wanted to share my elation. When I returned to my
building, they already knew. My coworkers came in to see the hat and
ask for a piece of cake. One precious one in particular, our director
Ann, was quite put out that I hadn't saved a piece for her!
My entire life I had been plagued with what used to
be called an inferiority complex. I thought everyone was better than
me and everyone could do everything better than me. There was no middle
road, no moderation -- only a warped exaggeration of their skills
and my weakness.
The hat and the cake day, my blue ribbon day, was the turning point. It was the day I learned that when I trust myself I can excel. I was proud to have represented our half of the agency. The cake is still a hit. If you'd like some, check out the recipe on this website. You can see the hat too. The saplings are shriveled, but the passage of time has not diminished my satisfaction. The emotions I felt that day were new for me. In the years since then I have experienced them again, much more so recently. It takes conviction and commitment to be myself. I have to remind myself that what I feel is real and worthwhile. Those feelings are a valuable resource. If trusted, they hold the key to happiness.
Ocean Isle Beach, November 15, 1996
The Basilica of Health
That might as well be its real name, but it actually is
the Basilica dei Ss. Cosma e Damiano. I don't know what led my husband
and me to the church. Perhaps we had heard about a "folk Mass"
held in its crypt each Sunday. We began attending. I enjoyed singing
to guitar music. The other attendees enjoyed our young sons, Paul and
Bruce, who were three and two. It was here that I felt community in
Among the friends we made at the crypt Masses were Father
Roland Faley and Brother Paul. They were American members of the Third
Order Regular of St. Francis who were assigned to the motherhouse or
convent adjoining the basilica. Sometimes we had them over for dinner
or we went out to dinner. Roland and I frequently talked by telephone
in mid-morning to enjoy a break from our work.
Continuing to live in my world of diapers, pacifiers,
marketing and pregnancy, I failed to appreciate my surroundings. A fragile
newborn son, Sean, who was baptized in the crypt, and my husband's recent
job loss consumed my thoughts. Yet several times Roland bemoaned the
fact that there was no English guidebook for his basilica. A member
of the Order had written an Italian version years earlier, and subsequently
died of a brain tumor. Because I always like to be helpful, I offered
to translate the little guidebook. It was a mere 43 pages, small pages
at that. Roland accepted my offer.
Suddenly, early in 1973, I had a life. Because my Italian was limited, I hired babysitters or left the children with my husband in order to go to the basilica to see and comprehend what I was reading. Our experience thus far had been in the crypt. Now, to understand what I was translating, I examined great masterpieces in the basilica itself. I typed a portion at a time and my husband corrected my errors.
The history of the saints and of basilica, in a nutshell,
The noble brothers Cosmos and Damian and their three
younger brothers practiced medicine with loving sacrifice and practiced
Christianity with equal fervor. For the latter, all five of them were
beheaded in 303 AD. Roughly 200 years later Pope Felix IV, a devotee
of Cosmos and Damian, decided to have a basilica built in their honor.
Five Roman churches already were dedicated to them. Felix convinced
a friend, under whose jurisdiction they fell, to give him a library
and the Temple of Romulus. The temple had been built by an emperor around
307 AD in honor of his son who died in childhood. The new basilica was
constructed by using the temple as an entrance and the library as the
church proper with the addition of an apse. The focal point was a monumental
mosaic of the apostles Peter and Paul leading Cosmos and Damian to Christ.
Roughly 1,100 years later, after extensive deterioration,
the basilica was transformed. It was split in half horizontally by new
pavement. This new level was also installed in the Temple of Romulus.
The lower half of the basilica became the crypt, which still contains
the original altar and pavement. Most of the above-level basilica dates
from that period with the exception of the enormous mosaic and altar
pillars brought from below.
That I learned from translating. I also read about a well
with curative water and a mosaic of the two saints with the Madonna
and Child. Roland and Paul were unfamiliar with them. My understanding
was that they could be reached by passing through the Temple of Romulus,
which was always closed. Because I doubted that I could translate words
about things I had never seen, I decided to find out how to see them.
I called an Italian guide who had led a group of us through a bone-decorated
crypt under another church years earlier. This woman told me to go to
a certain Ministero, a government office in charge of antiquities. The
guide woman told me to wear a very short skirt. That worked! My request
was granted. The next day a gentleman would meet me at the Temple of
Romulus at 10 A.M. He probably wasn't expecting me to be accompanied
by two clerics!
Oh how I wish I could capture the scenario that unfolded
with more than words. Roland, Paul and I watched with astonishment as
the man opened one of the bronze doors. The keyhole was jagged, the
size of a one-liter bottle. The man inserted the original key, a bronze
wedge that matched the hole. After one turn we helped push open the
The light shining down on Mickey Mouse when he opens a
movie always reminds me of the scene that we saw. Light streamed down
through a round hole at the center of the dome and came to rest on broken
statuary. The temple was being used to store statues needing repair.
The man said, "This is all there is." I replied, "No,
wait. There is more." I went forward until I found a short stairwell.
Below was darkness. We had not brought flashlights. Desperate, not willing
to leave when we were so close, I fashioned torches out of pages of
my yellow legal pad. We lighted them and descended, bending to fit in
the short space. First we found the mosaic in a niche -- a little alcove
in the wall. It was perhaps four feet high and three feet wide. Unlike
frescoes and mosaics high up on church walls and ceilings, this one
was a few inches from our faces. I have never been closer to the saints.
Tiles of the design were individually placed and angled somewhat, rather
than being flush against their neighbors. I remember the purple and
the gold glistening by torchlight.
I insisted we go further. We found the well from which
people drew water to prevent and cure illnesses such as malaria. I dipped
my fingers into the water and prayed for my young family.
We ascended the stairs, confronted the bright sunlight
in the temple, and stepped out into the real world. The wide key once
again locked away our secret.
We were thrilled. I was light-headed. I was so proud of
myself for having the drive to find those two relics. I believe that
was one of the first times in my life I felt proud.
Soon the little guidebook was finished and printed. We moved home to the United States and I forgot about it. Fifteen years ago I spoke to Roland who reported that it was "selling like hot cakes." Last month he said the same thing. It met the need. Translating it was a discovery of self that I forgot about until now. Remembering the effort, the solo trips to inspect the basilica, and our foray into the darkness, I am strengthened in my belief that I can be useful to others by being myself.
April 14, 1996
In 1969, when my husband Pat and I lived in Rome, Italy with our firstborn son Paul, Pat decided we should take a train trip to and around Austria. When I told Pat that my grandfather had emigrated from there, he enthusiastically decided we should visit his birthplace.
Several years later, Crescentia's sister died, perhaps in childbirth. Her husband Engelbert married Crescentia, which changed my grandfather's surname to Marth. My mother revealed that my grandfather's original family name had been Waldner.
Armed with this information, we departed for Austria. We arrived by train at the foot of the Furgler, the Tyrol Mountain on which Serfaus rested, late on a Friday in September. In contrast to Southern Italy, it was cold! Pat and I traveled up the mountain in a bus with other passengers. I clenched his hand and buried my head in his shoulder, certain we would plunge over the edge of the mountain right outside the window and die! We checked into the inn, shivered our way to bed, and warmed up under a thick down comforter. My memory of that toasty rest remained so vivid that I finally purchased a down comforter a quarter of a century later.
The next morning we awoke to the most moving weekend of my life. My husband, who spoke German, asked our innkeeper if there were any Waldners still living in town. She, herself, was one. Because everyone attended Mass on Sunday morning, she said that would provide an opportunity to locate close relatives. Later, we strolled through the cemetery and found graves marked Waldner. Some were mere infants when they died. Others had been roughly my grandfather's age when they died within the last few years. My grandfather died two years early, in 1967, in Illinois.
In pleasant contrast to the small cemetery, the mountainside loomed in all directions. We were 1427 meters high in the Alps. Snow crowned the mountains, including the Furgler. We strolled away from town, upward toward the sky. I clearly remember sitting on a large rock with a brook gurgling at my side as it tumbled downward. Small log huts for storing hay dotted the landscape the way tobacco barns stud Carolina fields. In this Sound of Music setting, I sang the songs Maria von Trapp had sung decades earlier.
This was a special Saturday in Serfaus. Men and boys led cows down from their grazing fields to stables for the oncoming winter. Bells and rings of flowers decorated their necks. We watched their owners parade them through town and recognized the splendor of their simple pleasure.
That evening, to celebrate this
cow march, everyone gathered in a hall of some sort. Although the surroundings
were plain, the merriment in the room was palpable. There were folk
dances, with some revelers dancing on tables. There were tall steins
of beer and my laughter as I imbibed the atmosphere. And later there
was that inviting down comforter.
Before Mass on Sunday morning we examined the primitive chapel. Residents said that it had been built in 407 or 804 -- they argued about this -- and that it is the oldest church in the Tyrol. It has an allegedly miracle-working image. A golden, Aztec-like carving ringed with thick spikes, I am sure it frightens both demons and disease out of those who approach it.
Note: thanks to the expansion of the Internet, now -- 2011 -- I have found this information:
"427 A.D. was the year of the pilgrimage "To our Beautiful Lady of the Woods". On "Matschöl" ("small market" in Raetoromanic) peasants were cutting down trees when suddenly the call came from above "Dont cut me down!". Later the Serfaus people built a Romanesque pilgrim church on this spot. It was completed in the year 804 and sanctified by the Mother of God. Today the pilgrimage is still alive and well visited by those seeking help from all over Southern Germany, South Tyrol and Austria." Source: http://www.alpina-serfaus.at/serfaus-hotel/serfaus/english/hotel-serfaus.html
My husband Pat and I sat at the back of the church to observe the congregation, and exited a few minutes early to study each member. When two tall, distinguished gentlemen came through the door, I knew they were close kin to my grandfather. My husband introduced us and, indeed, we soon learned that they were his first cousins. We accompanied them to a restaurant that had diamond patterns on the windows. Although it was morning, they ordered wine that came in goblets that had silver grape leaves curling around their bottom halves. The men's names were Rudolph and Hermann Waldner. They were confused because, while maintaining I was their relative, I was blubbering away in elementary Italian, which is how I addressed anyone who did not speak English. Pat, meanwhile, was speaking German and saying he was not related. Again, he explained about the emigration in 1888. We knew they understood when one of them said -- in German, of course -- "Ah, that one. When we were growing up our mothers always said that if we were bad, they would put us on a ship and send us to America, like Crescentia." Pat translated this for me and I burned with shame as if a scarlet letter were etched on my forehead.
Before we departed, I bought five
souvenirs: a pair of wall candleholders made of black metal in the shape
of grape leaves, a needlepoint pincushion, a carved wood letter opener,
a Serfaus charm for my bracelet, and a wall hanging for my parents.
Our weekend in Serfaus planted a
warm ray of happiness deep in my heart. I was proud of my husband for
taking me there. I was inoculated by the crisp air and eternal green
slopes, by the prattle of the stream, the pure merriment of the townspeople,
and especially our "reunion."
Yet, there were two even stronger
emotions. One was awe at being in an ethereal setting. Never in my life
had I stepped back in time to a place where ageless patterns prevail
and into a community with my genes.
March 28, 1996