Friday, April 3, 2015

God Bless Jonas Salk

Died of polio six months later.
When I recently moved, I uncovered a sealed cardboard box filled with one hundred year old infant clothes: rompers, smocks, robes. Each piece had been hand sewn by my paternal grandmother in the early twenties, and they were exquisitely fashioned from white linen or muslin, festooned with crocheted lace, tiny perfect pin tucks, embroidered bibs. They had not been worn by my father, but rather by the child my father had been conceived to replace: Melvin. Melvin had died of polio at the age of two, a tragedy that was said to precipitate my grandmother's descent into psychosis. 

My grandmother spent most of my father's childhood institutionalized in the state mental asylum in Steilacoom. The diagnosis was "manic depression with psychotic features." After years of undergoing electroshock therapy, she was deemed fit (or at least sufficiently subdued) to rejoin society and was released. For the rest of her life, her illness continued to manifest itself in the form of religious mania. I dreaded visiting her sweltering house in Wenatchee every summer; it was like sitting in an overheated mausoleum: the walls plastered with mirrors, plastic flowers, crosses, and pictures of Melvin, "the dead baby." I even came to resent Melvin (or at the least the memory of him), that chubby, jolly blonde cherub who had drained my grandmother of all the maternal attention that my father was denied, thereby rendering him incapable of loving his own children.

Now I wondered what to do with these relics. Neither my sister nor I have children to pass them on to, and even if we had, chances are they would not want the clothing of a distant relative who died in infancy. Yet the items were in remarkably good condition except for some yellowing, and still seemed infused with emotion, so I couldn't bring myself to consign them to Goodwill. Instead, I carefully washed and pressed each piece, and repacked it in tissue paper. I thought perhaps I would someday find a museum or historical house that could display them.

The polio vaccine was introduced the year I was born and I grew up hearing my mother speak reverently of Jonas Salk, and of how fortunate we were to have been born into an era of vaccinations and antibiotics. The evidence was clear: I knew several adults my parents' age who were confined to wheelchairs, or had withered arms.

Born of the first generation to escape the scourge of polio, I nevertheless
RIP, little Melvin
suffered from the various childhood diseases for which vaccinations would only later be developed: measles, chickenpox, mumps, rubella. They were not as feared as polio, of course, although the sudden and unexpected death of Roald Dahl's daughter reminded us that measles was nothing to trifle with. They were just mundane miseries to be expected and endured.

The older I get, the shorter everyone else's memories seem to get. How else to explain the resistance to childhood vaccinations?

I never met my Uncle Melvin, who died thirty years before I was born, and yet I am the last person alive who remembers who he was, or any of the particulars of his very, very short life.


  1. Your grandmother's fate reflects my own worst nightmares, I couldn't take it if anything happened to SJ. Do you think the reason she couldn't devote the same love and affection to your father was in part because she couldn't risk investing so much in a child only to lose them again?

    I'm also scared by this current trend against vaccination. I've yet to see any genuine scientific evidence that vaccination is linked to autism. Even if there was, is autism so terrible that it's worth risking the life of your child and others around them?

    I've read some anti-vaxxers raging against hepatitis vaccinations, though nothing like that has been offered to us here in Britain. SJ had the vitamin K shot when he was born, then TB, MMR and a couple of booster shots since then. He's still the picture of mental and physical health.

  2. Cinzia, thank you-- extremely compelling writing.

  3. that was really moving and interesting, Cinzia. I hope you find a place for the baby clothes. Surely SOMEWHERE would want century-old baby clothes? Melvin was really an adorable cherub! Losing him must have been truly devastating to your grandma and I can imagine growing up as a "replacement" must have left some lasting marks on your father.

    yeah, I think a lot of the current anti-vaccination sentiment comes of a whole generation having no experience with vaccine-preventable illness. Plus I think living in a culture that puts a premium on individual liberty vs group outcomes plays into it, too.

    Though... there has been anti-vaccination sentiment for as long as there's been vaccination, far as I know. Humans just aren't very logical a lot of the time. :/

  4. "I never met my Uncle Melvin, who died thirty years before I was born, and yet I am the last person alive who remembers who he was, or any of the particulars of his very, very short life."

    And now thanks to you, Cinzia, and the internets, many others have gotten to know of Melvin. He was a sweet and precious baby. If I were a believing person, I'd hope he was an angel in Heaven.

  5. Lovely post. It resonates much with me. My father was of that era and hailed the Salk Vaccine as the greatest gift to mankind. Anyway, your post brought back some great memories of conversations with my parents. Thank you. :-)


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