Dark sweet cherries. Plump and flawless. Give or take five pounds rinsed twice under cold well water and set to air dry in a ceramic colander. The heaping mound glistening on the counter is tempting, but all I can hear is my mother’s fearful voice warning us to stay away from cherries. Not because we might gorge ourselves on the juicy nuggets and twist our bellies sour– No, no that wasn’t her fear. Her fear was polio. Do not swim in cold water or public places. Do not eat cherries.
Rosy cheeks, she’d sing. My mother’s pincher squeeze of thumb and forefinger. The natural rouge was all I needed in first grade. A sign of good health. It was 1958 and I could walk to Allen Creek Elementary School. There, the primers smelled like new baby dolls. The wide hallways were paved with dark brown linoleum and polished to shine like water. Everything shimmered. The buzz of children in the cloakroom, hanging up their hats and jackets, and lingering until the bell rang; then the scramble of feet to designated desks. The classroom went silent. All eyes on Mrs. Cunningham. It was quiet enough to hear the lights hum, and then that quiet was broken by the slow scrape of leg braces, followed by Meg’s huffing and puffing. Her lips pursed, blowing her thin brown bangs away from her eyes as she tried to part her chair from the wooden desk with the nub of her crutch. All of us watching her in sidelong glances with our hands folded on top of our desks. Had she eaten cherries, or waded in the creek? No one asked. No one said Polio out loud.
I didn’t fear polio as much as I feared the shots. My father was a doctor. He brought home the serum in glass vials and placed them in the refrigerator next to the eggs. The vials were there for two weeks, and every time we opened the refrigerator door, for milk, or butter, or eggs, we were reminded that the shots were close at hand. We pretended that we weren’t going to get the shots, until one night after supper, Dad took out Mom’s Revereware saucepan and started boiling the glass barrels and plungers and needles that were at least 20 gauge with blunt rounded tips.
Twenty minutes, thirty minutes, an eternity– an accident we prayed for an accident. No luck. He called us to the kitchen. I went first. Hoisted up on the counter, legs dangling. I watched him swab down the glass vial, insert the needle and draw the serum into the glass barrel. Why was the needle so big? It looked like it could go straight through my upper arm. Booster, he said.
He gripped my arm tight and swabbed it with alcohol. It felt so cold. Hold still, he said, and I looked away, holding my breath until big fat tears squirted out of my eyes. My sister Karen, on the other hand, ran– all arms and legs, wheeling through the house, hiding under beds and chairs, in closets; trying desperately not to be caught. She was a puny 13-year-old, and so easily bruised. She slipped out of my dad’s reach more than once, which made him all the more determined to get this done. Even my mother was vaccinated that evening. Taken by surprise, I remember her howling protest, No, Lou, no, no, which didn’t make a bit of difference. Once inoculated, we were sore for days. The black and blue and green tenderness reminded us that we were fighting polio from the inside out.
Deliciously forbidden cherries. Fruit from another paradise– an orchard market on Long Pond. I saw them as rubies, a fresh picked stash in a paper sack, eating them by the fistfuls under the summer trees. Mother saw them as dangerous– something that attracted blackbirds, and this was unhealthy. Even washed, they were flawed and prohibited. Her jaw clenched words: No cherries, ever. Yet, when she wasn’t looking, we used to suck the flesh clean off the pits, and spit the pits in a distance contest, and when that proved boring, we’d spit them at each other in a fast game of tag. Dark red stains ringed our mouths and speckled our white tee shirts, leaving us no choice but to soak for hours in the lake, finding the cold spots, and fearing what would happen if mother found out.