The Golden Girl
It was the l950's and all parents worried about it. After all, everyone now knew that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had caught it and had never walked again without heavy, painful braces on his legs and human props at his sides. If someone of his stature could have contracted Poliomyelitis, then it follows that no one could be safe. FDR died in 1945, and not of Polio but still, people were frightened.
Belle was the one. Nobody knew why. She'd swum in the same pools as all the other kids, gone to the same public places like movies and museums, picnics, playgrounds and dances. But Belle caught it, and no one else did.
She was well-named, was Belle. Tall and golden, and so intelligent it astonished everyone who chatted with her. Her hair was long and straight, thick, the color of tall grasses in the fall, and her eyes, widely spaced, took on the color of whatever sky Belle stood beneath.
She was one of those multi-gifted youngsters, so good at so many pursuits her parents frequently worried idly that she may never be able to settle on only one thing once she was finished college and ready to go out into the world. Their relief would have been great had they been able to read the future and see their beloved daughter would one day author 3 best sellers on important subjects, one written completely in French, and that she would teach at a fine and famous university.
Belle could play the piano perfectly without bothering to learn to read music. She won every school contest she ever entered--math, spelling, debate, writing, art, and so excelled at sports she never knew the meaning of junior varsity. Coaches chose her immediately for every team; schoolmates chose her immediately as captain.
And Belle was loved, which amazed, because it is the general rule that perfect golden girls are strictly disliked by their green-orbed contemporaries. But not Belle.
She had dozens of swains vying for her attentions, and so grateful for any glance or smile from her. These young boys all but fell to pieces when she agreed pleasantly to go to a dance or a movie with them.
And then, quite suddenly, Belle vanished one young spring and everyone wondered why and soon, everyone knew why. There were hushed conversations on phones and at gatherings on which Belle's friends eavesdropped, and they came away in great fear and terror of the iron lungs the adults whispered about.
Was Belle in one? Could she never breathe by herself again? Was she lying there silently on her back, staring up at the world in a tilted mirror? Would she never run or play or dance again? It was too horrible to think about so they would not think about it.
And they heard the word "therapy" a lot then in those quiet conversations they hid to listen to. A new word for them, and ominous sounding. They also heard the words "pain," and "paralysis" and "massages" and that quite soon there would be a vaccination or something, like all the kids got for Smallpox and which left a round, pearly scar on their upper arms or thighs.
Belle's young friends could not know then that she would one day walk, although her leg would have a terrible twist and bend to it and without a sturdy cane, she could go nowhere. They could not know their beloved friend would delightedly work that cane to great advantage all her adult life when she wanted a seat on a bus or a train, or when she chose to brandish it wildly above her head when she wanted to cross a crowded roadway, and she’d laugh delightedly when the cars screeched to a stop.
And then the word finally came that Belle was coming home for Christmas, two years after she'd gotten "sick." She would be in a wheelchair, they said. You mustn't stare, they said. Try not to notice, they insisted. Not to notice?
The kids were afraid. What could they say to Belle? Would she be very different? Scarred? Deformed? Twisted? Contagious?
Belle would come to the annual neighborhood Open House Christmas party, a huge affair. Everyone went.
The party began and people arrived. It was festive, a happy occasion, but all everyone spoke of was Belle's arrival. The pine-scented air was charged with tension.
"She's here." Everyone turned, their Christmas punch cups held in the space in front of them, the napkins soggy and shredding. They could hear thumps and mechanical scrapes coming from the front hall.
Belle's skinny, shrunken knees came in first, and then the rest of her. She sat in her wheelchair looking very small and flat, like a paper doll. A sprig of holly was in her now-short golden hair.
She looked up slowly into the tense faces of the people there in that big room, her blue eyes stopping at each person for an instant. And then Belle grinned broadly. "Merry Christmas, everyone," she said. "And my, how tall you've all grown."