A memoir excerpt by Lynn Strongin
Miss Mary’s was a small hamburger joint in Miami Beach in 1952, a tiny restaurant with her name on a rose awning over a strip of sidewalk one block long. It was the shortest village in the world.
I’d caught polio and been paralyzed a year before. We were re-visiting the South, which we did during dire events: War, divorce. Mother Marcelle, Rachel and I, we always did find a way.
Miami triggered memories of childhood.
Skeeters am a hummin' on de honeysuckle vine,
It made me cry silent tears. I raided the past and came up no longer a beggar, but overwhelmed with dark pewter coin: Mother Marcelle used to take Rach and me to Miss Mary’s during a long evening of swatting blackflies—-jumpseats out of the forties, and a soda fountain with the town soda jerk. I learned to balance on one crutch, eating a hamburger with my other hand.
“Indigo,” Marcelle said on the way out, “watch that little riser. You could throw yourself on your face again.”
I’d had the teeth knocked out of my face. I had an upside-down V for victory in my mouth. I looked like a pirate. Miss Mary had crimped hair, a powder-pink uniform, and rouged cheeks, plump in her fifties.
This constituted my getting out: Marcelle would say, “Stop pulling at those knots or they’ll start pulling at you.” She had bought me a record: Music on growing gardens. We had a scruffy try at a garden out in back of the second-rate hotel in Miami. There’d been an oil slick a few buildings down at the dock some nights earlier. Firemen had come with inflatable orange lifesavers round their necks and a chain-like rope to contain the oil. I thought of sorrow in our lives over-spilling like oil.
“You’re taking a tan nicely this time, Indigo,” Marcelle said, “And your hair’s come up a pretty color blond.”
“Rachel’s tanner,” I said.
One evening, covering her right eye with her right hand, Marcelle announced, “My floater’s back,” which caused her to be out of sorts this trip. The oculist didn’t know why it appeared and disappeared. “And I’ve got to wax my legs.”
We’d stopped in Milledgeville and Picayune, in Chattahoochee where we bought lettuce and new shoes. We’d gone on a tour of Georgia Perimeter College because Mother had a friend who had gone there.
What I missed most was snow, and roughhousing in tall drifts. I wanted to make a snow angel, lying flat back swishing my arms.
Miss Mary’d had breast cancer and always feared its return. She kept her chemo suit in the closet. Marcelle knew my illness was once and done.
The birds down south were cellophane. I missed marble mornings. I missed homeschooling. This was another experiment. Marcelle said I was moody in those days. I used to love curling up in the window seat and read when I could walk. I sat stiff-backed in my steel-boned corset and long leg braces in a horsehair wing chair whose stuffing was popping out, its springs bust. I’d sit so quietly that people hardly knew I was in the room. “Indigo!” Marcelle exclaimed once, “You scared me. Sitting there like a Pincushion Nanny.” Kids learn in hospital to keep mum. “You can keep yourself still as though you were in the tomb.”
“Miss Mary’s?” I looked up, smiling.
“Not tonight, Indigo. I’m busy packing.”
“How’s your floater?”
“There,” she shook her head. “We all have our imperfections, you should know.”
There was a fried chicken place just down the road. Those baskets of fluffy chicken were to die for in that snowy-white, pure-driven napkin. We learned to dine off the smell mingled with honeysuckle in the night wind. A kid learns to concoct favorites six months in a ward, food fit for a king. Vanilla beans. Banana splits. Burger-on-a-bun from Grayble’s Drugstore where I went my last year walking.
“Grandmother’s meeting us at the airport.” Grandmother Rosenblum. I could smell roses, not the sick-sweet honeysuckle which a bee always blew out of and stung my hands. Our mailbox would be jammed. “Bills mainly”, Marcelle would snort but in there just might be my Seventeen which I got to replace Mademoiselle when I turned thirteen.
Thirteen years, destined to be no one’s sweetheart at the winter Bee-Bop sweater hop, or next spring at the prom. I had learned to lie on my back or side when I was stronger, and see the tiny villages glowing in the radio tubes. The bundle of books I’d acquired were tied with white string.
Mother Marcelle held her right hand over her eye. Her left hand held a cigarette. “Out, out, damned spot!” Marcelle had, in her ravishing twenties, wanted to be an actress. “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creep by in their petty pace,” she misquoted Shakespeare. “That’s how time is for me, girls.”
“I’ve got a cold sore on my lip just when we’re going home,” she said, stubbing out her Phillip Morris end in the glass ashtray—she’d switched wardrobes and cigarettes when we went South. Home was Muscatine brown: Our Manhattan Apartment, music lessons, books read with reverence. Home would be lamplight in evening. Maroon sofa covers, my homeschooling with Mrs. Gould—that’s what catching polio the year before meant. I’d be glad to be quit of the daily struggle in and out of my bathing suit, of the hotel dining room where after all we had not succeeded in being happy.
I thought about Miss Mary’s on the flight home. Our father handled the fear end of things. Marcelle, first thing we unpacked, would begin sweeping dimes from counters with one hand and scooping them up with another, depositing them in the “pig” made of clay. Filled with electric energy, scrubbing ashtrays, flushing old butts from before we left home.
“Your goldfish died, Indigo.” Rachel stood barefoot in the doorway, scratching her calf by twisting her foot behind it.
“They always do,” said Marcelle. “Girls, our goldfish are doomed.”
Now that I’m sixty-five I have a floater too and catching polio is far away. I was a girl my last time south, thrilled over two budding breasts, having prayed for them as a farmer thirsts for rain after a season of drought. Twelve I was, the age when Christ wandered into the wilderness. Never look back, Mother Marcelle taught us, touching her right hand to the rose cloth cover with Mogen David on it, the cover for the miniature Torah, whenever we moved home. It began with that magnolia light and scent, that mild melancholy. Grafted upon being five years old, life was being thirteen. The grays of the South washed over me. The spires of the northern night riveted me.
The film was changing: The story of our lives floated, each gesture heightened in black and silvers, the classic silver screen. Pushing through the undershirt I wore underneath the steel-boned corset to save my skin, crisp nipples that tingled when I ran my fingers over them in the shower or in bed at night up north. I was leaving the littlest village in the world, for the Empire state, the stone canyons. My younger sister stood before me like an orphan.
Rach had poor circulation and had been anemic, born with a touch of jaundice as a war baby. I ate liver and my blood was always high in hemoglobin.
“I’ll make up a mess of scrambled,” Mother Marcelle said our first night home, missing Miss Mary's. She drew out the black, cast-iron fry pan, with which, she advised us girls, you could kill someone. Marcelle cooked us up a pan of eggs that night and turned the jazz radio on. It made me feel lonesome like the night train slicing across Albee Street down by the tracks and tar shacks. You could never step into the same river twice in the same place. I was fearful, but could not say of what. Mother had a death to rinse out, poured boiling water from the kettle into the bowl where the goldfish, Hector, had died.
“My next goldfish I shall name Kaspar,” Rachel announced.
“Kaspar?” I asked.
“Ishmael. You know, Indigo. Kaspar Hauser,” she said, showing off having read about the Bavarian boy who suddenly, mysteriously appeared one day at Nuremberg town gates, a wolf child, with only one sentence to his credit: “My father was a horseman.”
I’d have a ton of things to tell Nabeela in the morning, but not what I most wanted to tell her: That my period had come. I romanticized a royal purple stain. Hers had begun, but then girls from a warm clime get on the rag young.
I’d cried all the way on the flight home, silent tears. I would not miss the place I was leaving.
Ishmael. Was it true that Rachel identified with this wolfen creature? How was she to know I identified with him too, ever since my half-year in the state hospital. As I fell into a fitful sleep, I saw again that strip of sidewalk, that sign looming like Annunciation: “Miss Mary’s” in a pale, anemic southern rain.
Lynn Strongin was born and raised in New York City, and moved around a lot during World War II. She writes: "Polio in 51, the experience of living in a children's ward has never left me and I have spent large portions of my creative life trying to capture the isolation of hospitalized children." The Sorrow Psalms: A Book of Twentieth Century Elegy, Lynn's first anthology, will be published next spring by the University of Iowa Press.
Miss Mary is a chapter from Lynn's memoir INDIGO, which is being published in installments in various venues.
Photo of the author courtesy of Jim LeCuyer.
Lyrices of Kentucky Babe by Richard Henry Buck.
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