The story goes that the neighbors would leave food out by the mailbox near the county road and then run.
It was the late 1920s, and the polio epidemic had struck a tiny Midwestern town. My pregnant great-grandmother suddenly found herself in quarantine in her own home with her husband and children. She had to send her little boy, my grandfather, to a hospital in Omaha when he had difficulty breathing. She stayed behind to care for her family.
She was a mother, farmwife, and homemaker. She was expecting twins when polio arrived.
She was a pioneer who had amazing courage and strength.
I have had a sick child in the hospital, but I was able to stay with her the entire time. I was there to hold her hand while they searched for a vein to start an IV. I was there to talk with the nurses and doctors in order to make the best medical decisions. I slept next to her bed at night. My heart would break sending my toddler to live in an iron lung. How did my great-grandmother say good-bye to her 2-year-old boy and not know if she would ever see him again?
I have carried twins, but my pregnancy was uneventful. Sure, there were uncomfortable days of having a gigantic belly and swollen feet. There were many doctor appointments to check on the twins’ development. There was time in the NICU to monitor oxygen levels and make sure the boys gained weight. There were long nights of double feedings and diapers, but my boys were always healthy. How did my great-grandmother cope with the knowledge that her babies could be born with complications or perish or she herself could become ill with polio while pregnant?
I have created self-imposed quarantines for my family when influenza or norovirus or strep throat has swept through our house. But we have Disney movies to entertain us and on-line grocery delivery to sustain us. And even though I tell the very nice delivery people they don’t have to bring the bags inside, they always insist on putting them at least in the entryway to help me.
What did my great-grandmother think of the isolation on the farm and the meals neighbors delivered during those long weeks and months?
At the beginning of every winter, I stock up on Clorox wipes, hand sanitizer, Gatorade, and crackers because it’s not a matter of if but really a matter of when one of my children gets sick, I want to be prepared. I don’t know if people were truly ready in the 1920s for polio. I don’t know if my great-grandmother had a pantry that was stocked with food and cleaning supplies. I don’t know if she had friends to call upon for emotional support. I don’t know if my great-grandfather helped her care for the family. I don’t know if her faith gave her the courage she needed. I don’t know what was printed in the town newspaper about the disease. But I do know polio is something we no longer have to fear. And I do know the people who came through that time in history had amazing inner strength.
Her name was Inez, and she’s rarely smiling in pictures. But I won’t hold that against her. She was a strong mother, wife, and Nebraska pioneer. Her children recovered. The family survived.
And I have no doubt her courage and fortitude gave her entire family strength. It shows through in the one smiling photo I have of her.
My grandfather lived for a year in an iron lung then spent another year in the hospital undergoing surgeries and treatments for his legs. He returned home at age four, breathing and walking on his own. A pony was waiting just for him, to carry him to and from school. My kids sit on that little, old saddle and pretend to ride bucking broncos. He had additional surgeries as he grew older, but he was able to have a full, active life.
The twin babies were born with only minor birth defects. I remember asking my great-aunt why her arm was so small, almost the size of mine. “I was just born like that, sweetheart. It doesn’t bother me much.” This was many years ago at a family party, but I recall how she and all her siblings were so happy to get together that summer weekend. Everyone together. Everyone healthy and strong.
My great-grandparents did very well with their family farm. They passed it along to my grandparents, and they raised their family in the same home. My dad and his brothers now take care of the family farm, and the house that was once in quarantine is still standing. We are here because of one courageous, pioneer woman. The strength of one mother cascading through the generations.
Strong women have come before us. Strong women will come after us. Strong women walk beside us. In sickness and in health, we are mothers.