Coming Home

By Brenda Serotte

[EDITOR: The following excerpt is taken from two chapters in Brenda Serotte’s memoir, The Fortune Teller’s Kiss, to be published in March, 2006 (University of Nebraska Press). It has been edited slightly for publication in New Mobility. In this section, the author writes of her coming home from “The Institute,” where she had been taken after contracting polio in 1950. The setting is a Bronx neighborhood where the author grew up in a Sephardic Jewish family whose first language was Ladino, a variation of Spanish. Now she must confront a more obvious difference, her disability, which will shape her life from this day forward.

To Brenda Serotte's family and friends, Brenda's polio was something shameful. In this wedding photo, the bride's skirt covers Brenda's legs to conceal her braces.

To Brenda Serotte’s family and friends, Brenda’s polio was something shameful. In this wedding photo, the bride’s skirt covers Brenda’s legs to conceal her braces.

It was full autumn by the time I came home from the hospital and the crisp Bronx air, that late November day, stung my nostrils. It smelled just as I remembered for that time of year, like peppermint and burnt leaves, a sensory treat I looked forward to in the fall because it signaled my birthday and the holidays after.

Dad drove a borrowed car I’d never seen before, a mint-green Buick with red leather seats, and I sat in the back, my metal legs stretched out on a pillow. He let me keep the window rolled down all the way from Manhattan. I saw that the majestic red maples lining the Grand Concourse had long ago laid their red and gold carpets of leaves on the ground, and most of them had been lifted up and carried away. The trees were as stark as they’d be in January. As we approached our building, I twisted around to see whether anything else in the neighborhood had changed while I was away. As far as I could tell, all seemed intact, from Matarasso’s Turkish grocery at the bottom of the 170th Street hill, to the no-sign Chinese laundry at the top. The Luxor’s marquee was blank, except for some scrambled black letters still stuck there, from which I could not make an intelligible word. They were preparing to change the movie; a tall ladder rested against the building.

Smitty, the super, was the only one out when we pulled up. The streets were empty, but for a solitary woman wearing a kerchief and pulling a shopping cart. Smitty looked older than the last time I saw her. Her thin, wiry body was bent over the threadbare patches of green we called a “garden,” really two small rectangles of dirt on either side of the building, and her wild, iron gray hair stood up like a board against the wind. When she saw us she straightened up, then ignored us to sweep brittle dried leaves and bits of paper off the steps with the same broom used to chase kids out of the basement furnace room when we wanted to watch the huge fire swallow up garbage.

Dad helped me out of the car to a standing position. The Milwaukee Brace felt as if it weighed 50 pounds. The bottom of it cut into my pelvis, and my braced legs ached from being in one position too long. Just getting out of the car wearing all those appliances was a production. It felt as if I were dragging along another person. But I managed to stand, in those clumsy, ugly orthopedic shoes, by holding on to the side of the car. My father removed his hat, wiped the sweat off his forehead, and exhaled with a whistle: “Ke moplaton!” What a dead weight!

Our building had a double stoop of four, fairly steep steps, “protected” on either side by two stone lions, painted green that season. Then came a landing, then a flight of 10 marble steps to the inner lobby. But there was something else, too, that I had never noticed before: No banister! My mouth fell open. I hadn’t given a thought to stairs or to holding on until that moment: Even if I balanced really well on the crutches, I knew I wouldn’t be able to maneuver the outer stoop by myself. No one had warned me about this; it was my first physical dilemma out of the hospital. I stood on the sidewalk in front of my building looking up, as if at the base of a mountain. Old Smitty, hands on hips, watched as my father, in one swift motion, lifted me and my crutches and carried me up the stairs.

We lived in the back of the building, so he had to go across the length of the lobby, carrying me, in order to get to the rear staircase. Then there was a landing of three smaller steps before the next two flights. Technically, there were only two-and-a-half flights of stairs to our apartment, 3A, but it felt like 10. Grunting, Dad assured me it wasn’t so bad, that I weighed next to nothing, but by the time we got to our door, he was breathing hard. He stopped, caught his breath, mopped his forehead again with a handkerchief, and then ran back downstairs to retrieve my wheelchair from the sidewalk. Finally, I was home.

I had lost a lot of my natural chubbiness since September. Clothes hung off my thin shoulders and the belt of my wool skirt had to be fastened with two safety pins. Mother stood by the door as we entered, unsmiling, dragging deep on her Philip Morris and blowing the smoke out of her mouth in short bursts. I struggled past her on the crutches, trying to walk steady because I knew she was watching. From the first day, my mother was loath to show any emotion regarding my physical struggles, nor did she give me any sympathy whatsoever, claiming later that she did not want to “coddle” me. She said she felt that I’d be much stronger if she “stepped back” and let me be, but that was only partially true. In fact, she was quietly fuming all the time, furious with me, with my illness, and with our whole situation in general. Usually on a short fuse, Mother had gone the opposite way, it seemed, and the heavy cauldron of resentments that rested on top of her flattened her personality. The one thing Mother’s attitude did do was make me push harder with everything all the time.

I hadn’t yet been told it officially, but I knew that I wasn’t supposed to count on anyone’s help to get around. The polio motto was, and would always be: Do it by yourself, no matter how hard, no matter how long it takes. Mother must have known this, too, because she made no attempt to assist me then or in the difficult months that followed. My father was different; instinct told him when to step in and he had no compunctions about helping me when I really needed it. But most often, out of necessity, I was forced to do for myself. I had no one to compare myself with, so I don’t know how other recovering kids’ parents treated them, but I flew solo. I came to depend upon my own ingenuity regarding my mobility and figuring out logistics.

Walking all by myself to my room that first day, which, luckily, wasn’t far from the front door, and positioning myself where I could reach everything I needed so I could get around without falling flat on my face, set the tone for all future physical endeavors. My dad would be the one to lift me, turn me, and strap me into the heavy Milwaukee and leg braces. Along with tying my laces, he’d give me moral support, love and encouragement–when he was around. The rest of the time I was on my own.

I had to learn how to handle a body different from the one I always knew, the one I had left the house with two months before. If I forgot to unlock my braces at the knee before I sat down, which I did that first day when I made it to my bed, I’d crash backwards, metal legs flying up in the air. This happened a few times, and I saw it really upset Mother. She’d catch her breath each time, hand to her throat, momentarily paralyzed. She didn’t know what to do when I became unbalanced; they were all so terrified I’d fall. None of us knew what to do. We learned as the days went by.

Brenda today.

Brenda today.

Practicing in Rusk’s gym with portable steps was nothing like walking up and down the stairs in my building. Going down by myself was not yet feasible, and even with somebody by my side it took forever to navigate the flights using only one crutch and the banister, then cross the lobby on both crutches, and then tackle the inner and outer stoop. I was getting better and better at stairs, but in certain spots the banister stopped and there was only the brick wall to hold on to. Mother got so tense I’d fall that she made me nervous. And when I finally did get downstairs, there wasn’t much I could do anyway, except stand still in one place.

One day [that first winter at home] Dad carried me down to “take air and sun.” This was an absolutely necessary habit for apartment-dwellers. Every day, no matter what the weather, in bitter cold of 16 degrees or during a light snow, they’d “take air.” You only stayed in the house if you were sick with fever. Although the weather was bleak and blustery on that particular day, it was decided I should take air anyway.

As usual, I was overdressed; I wore two sweaters, a red woolen hat I hated that covered my ears, furry mittens I was too old for, a woolen scarf around my neck, a long winter coat handed down from some relative, snug even though I was thin, and one red rubber boot on my right leg, big enough to fit over the orthopedic shoe. It wasn’t snowing out and the boot was horrible to look at, especially since I wore only one. Mother insisted, in case it did snow. I had never been so uncomfortable, and to top it off, my crutches had to be wedged under my armpits.

Dad stationed me below the “dentist” sign on the first floor, so that I leaned–was actually frozen in place–against the brick wall. Then he said he had to run across the street to Jaffee’s; he was out of cigarettes and needed to get the paper. So I stood there propped up under the sign.

“I’ll be right back, kiddo, okay? You okay? You’re good there?”

I nodded, but wished he wouldn’t go. I felt as “good” as I imagined a stuffed turkey felt, puffed up and rocking gently back and forth as the wind picked up. The moment he walked away, I regretted being outside. If they thought I’d be happier in the street watching the rest of the world come and go, especially the girls my age, they were wrong. I stood there for what seemed like a whole day, while the wind grew stronger and whipped my face raw. It’s an awful feeling to want to move and not be able; to be trapped in place.

Two old ladies passed by and stopped to ask if I needed help. They must have seen my unhappy face. Even so, they did not take one step toward me, and the minute I shook my head no, they hurried away. Next came the roller-skaters. Three older girls whom I recognized from the Astor Court zoomed past me to the corner, coats flying behind them. Then they zoomed back, their skates grating, making quite a racket rolling on the cement. Then they raced to the corner once more. Finally, they skated down the hill toward Sheridan Avenue, and the street got quiet again.

Apparently, it was Skating Day, because my friend Ellen and her cousin Carol, who was visiting, came down to roller-skate too. They looked over at me, said “Hi,” I said “Hi” back, and then they sat on the stoop to put on their skates and do something magical with skate keys. When they got up they sang out: “Ready, set, go!” and took off. One thing I had always wanted, for some reason, was not so much roller-skates, but a skate key. I had no idea what you did with it, but I wanted one. Standing there, I wanted one very badly, as Ellen and Carol found it necessary to continually skate back and forth in front of me. They’d look in my direction, giggle, whisper something secret to each other, and then skate off again. This happened five or six times, as if there were nowhere else, no other piece of sidewalk on the block or around the corner, or in the entire Bronx, to skate on.

Brenda and her parents, pre-polio.

Brenda and her parents, pre-polio.

My father was taking forever to come back, and I was really ready to go upstairs. I figured he had to be placing a bet in Jaffee’s back room, but for so long? How could he have forgotten me? Just to keep busy, I started counting cars that passed on the Concourse; at first, only the green cars, then I switched to counting only black ones. When I least expected, caught completely off guard, the worst happened: a fierce wind picked me up and knocked me right off my feet to the sidewalk. That there was no time to put my arms out and spread my hands like I had been taught. I landed face down; because I wore so many layers of clothing, my nose didn’t hit the pavement but my chin did, and I scraped the bottom of it pretty hard.

There I lay, on my belly, floundering like a fish. I knew for sure there was absolutely no way I would be able to get up by myself, I was too padded and it was too windy. Everything I had practiced in the Institute’s gym was useless. When I fell and got up there, it was in light clothing and optimum conditions, very well supervised by therapists. They hadn’t prepared me for the winter winds on the open plains of the Grand Concourse.

Ellen and Carol skated to a stop in front of me and stared, while I made eye contact with the roller balls on the bottom of their skates.

“Can you get my father?” I whispered, looking up.

“Where is he?”

“Jaffee’s.”

“But I’m not allowed to leave this block.”

“Please.”

“I can’t! I’ll get in trouble. And here he comes anyway.”

I lifted my head higher, and, relieved, I saw his shape, back facing me, about halfway down the block. He had stopped to light his Lucky against the wind, both hands cupped around his cigarette lighter, and had not yet seen me. Then, two things happened: he looked up and saw me lying face down on the ground, and his hat blew off at the same time. Ellen and her cousin laughed spontaneously. Under other circumstances, I probably would have thought it funny, too. I prayed that he’d go after his hat instead of running to me; I didn’t want to be the cause of him losing one of his precious fedoras.

But he let the hat go and, with only a backward glance at it as it danced away across the avenue, he ran to my rescue. As fast as that, the girls skated off, too. Once he righted me and I was propped up again, he took off after his hat, running for two blocks. The wind would stop, the hat would stop, he would stop, he’d reach for it, and again the hat would blow away. He never caught his hat, but he caught it good from Mother when she saw my bloody chin: “You left her alone, didn’t you? Para fumar! You just had to buy smokes! Then placed a couple of losing bets at Jaffee’s, too, right?”

Not only did my father lose a fairly new fedora, but he also had a huge fight with my mother over “responsibility.” That was the end of my “taking air” for the rest of the week. I felt so stupid, allowing myself to get blown down, like a hat, by wind. More important, I hated that I couldn’t roller-skate, that I had never roller-skated. The rest of the day I sulked because I worried that I’d never skate. I was jealous of all those girls who skated past me that day, and mad at Ellen and her cousin for taunting me. I don’t know what I did with that rage, where I put it, but I suspect I drew it inside of me and then closed up the zipper.

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