My Grandmother's Attic
When I was a little girl, my mother got polio.
It was a terrible fear in those days, an epidemic. Public swimming pools were closed and Life Magazine featured pictures of people in iron lungs - huge machines that kept them alive. Did those poor souls have to live out the rest of their lives like that? I was horrified and mesmerized. And when they whisked Mommy away to that Gothic hospital in the city - I wondered if she'd wind up on one of those things, like a casket for the living. I wondered if she'd die.
I heard them talking. They thought I was asleep. But how could I sleep when Mommy was gone, when Mommy had polio? I heard about the live virus vaccine that I had received. My mother refused to be inoculated. Because it was a live virus, my mother caught polio from me.
So, I went to stay at my grandparent's huge, Victorian house with a wrap around porch, a carriage house, giant trees and rhododendrons. French windows, a pantry, and a pond. Next door, an abandoned house with a crumbling chimney and vines growing in through the windows.
My grandmother didn't know what to do with me. She never had any children and seemed almost uncomfortable around them. She wasn't my biological grandmother but married my grandfather after my mother's mother died before I was born. My mother, in some grief derived spite, had me call my grandfather's wife, Miss Katherine.
She was a pleasant woman, Miss Katherine, pretty with soft cheeks. She wore flowered dresses and kept a rose garden and went to club meetings with other ladies. And as she didn't know what to do with me, she let me wander around the house, and the yard, and eventually the attic.
My father stopped by to see me. In his suit and tie, coming home from work or on his way to the hospital to see Mommy. He'd sit distracted and nervous, Daddy, who in normal times, took me on long walks in the woods and helped me build a bird house. Poor Daddy, so wild eyed with anguish, I could smell the terror on him.
"Go be with Mommy," I said. His presence only underscored her absence. It seemed like, if he was with her, Mommy wouldn't die.
Alfred Cookman Leach and Family
Into the Attic
Miss Katherine's attic took me away from the world. Several rooms with angled ceilings held treasures like in a museum but I could touch everything! I pawed through boxes of old dresses and steamer trunks packed with photographs. I found an old Victrola and discovered that if I wound it up, I could play music - tinny old music and songs sung by long ago voices in the heat of the summer attic.
There were pictures of people in old time clothes and big hats, photos with faces that blurred and faded like a distant memory. I found a painting of a dirt road and a man herding sheep. Brass beds and folded quilts that smelled like mothballs. Porcelain tea sets printed with tiny violets. I was just a little girl but I knew that most of the people in the pictures were dead. Whoever painted that picture with the funny trees was dead. It was like a cemetery for dead people's things.
When I fingered the old lace, tried on the old glasses, paged through delicate old books, for those quiet moments in the corner of the attic, in the dry dusty heat, I almost forgot about my mother.
One afternoon, I heard the stairs creak. Miss Katherine's soft grey curls appeared first, then her soft round face.
"Dolores, it's so hot up here! Maybe you should come downstairs where it's cooler," she said.
"There are so many things...I."
I never told Miss Katherine what I thought or felt. It wasn't like that with us. No hugs or songs, no baking cookies together, no snuggling up with a book, just a dry pleasantness, polite chit-chat.
I started to cry. I felt guilty, forgetting about my mother. How could I forget her, kept in a Gothic hospital in an iron lung or some other mysterious contraption, my father weeping as she slept.
"Your mother is going to get better," she said in her matter-of-fact way. "She's very sick but she will get better."
She came all the way up the stairs and blinked in the dim heat. "I hardly ever come up here," she said.
She moved slowly around the room beneath the slanty ceiling, touching things.
"What do you do up here all day?" she asked. Sweat beaded on her pale forehead.
I sniffed. "I'm just looking at things."
I showed her the painting. She told me that her father painted it just like he painted the picture downstairs in the dining room, the one with the big sailing ship. He'd been an architect she said. A lot of the stuff up in the attic belonged to him, from the old house, from long ago.
"These are his glasses," she held the delicate old glasses up in the dusty light."My father liked to read books. These are some of his books."
She handled them gently, turned the pages carefully with respect.
"He was a quiet man. Very gentle and strong and kind." She smiled a little.
It seemed funny to think of her as a little girl with bows in her hair. She'd sit there while he painted with a little paint box of her own.
"I was a terrible artist," she chuckled.
I stared at the painting of that gone world, the twisty trees and the flock of sheep. "It's beautiful," I said.
"You like that?" She seemed confused.
"Why is it up here? Your father painted it. You should - " I stopped. Who was I to tell her what to do.
She straightened up and took the picture out of my hands. "It's time to go downstairs. It's too hot up here. Let's go."
We walked down the warped narrow steps. I could feel the sweep of cooler air brush my face. She held onto the banister with one hand, the painting clutched under her other arm.
"Are you going to hang the picture downstairs?" I asked.
She stopped. "Oh, no. I've got enough pictures and things. I'm giving it to you. I guess it's a silly thing to give a little girl."
Old Landscape Painting by Alfred Cookman Leach
My mother recovered. She could walk and talk and was perfectly normal, just the same as before. And some time later, she had another baby. I had a sister!
Sometimes, when we visited my grandparents, I took my father up into the attic. It was the kind of thing he liked to do, to wander off away from everybody and find something interesting to look at. So, everything went back like it was. Almost.
Lurking deep in the attic, I found a world that had disappeared, the faded artifacts of tenderness and love. That stuff once touched people I never knew. I could handle their things, I could peek into their world blurred at the edges, the way it looked through those old glasses, soft edged ghosts, whose spirits exuded tenderness.
I never knew my mother's mother. I had a grandmother. I never called Grandmom 'Miss Katherine' again.
Old Sailboat Painting by Alfred Cookman Leach
Information on 1950s polio epidemic
Contaminated Polio Vaccines
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