John and I were walking up the sloped path from the small port on the island of Guernsey. The waters of the English Channel lapped the concrete embankment to our left and sparkled in an unexpected sun. Ahead, strategically placed window boxes filled with colorful flowers contrasted with the gray stone buildings of Saint Peter Port, the island’s capital. For Anglophiles and history buffs like us, the day promised insights into life on the island, including during its Nazi occupation in World War II.
As another couple from our small tour group passed us, they turned and said hello, and together we commented on the beautiful day. When they were well ahead of us, the wife turned and trotted back, approaching with a smile.
“What happened to you?” she asked me. Caught off guard, I paused to shift gears.
“I had polio as a child,” I answered.
“That’s what my husband thought,” she said, nodding at his wisdom. “He’s a doctor.” With that, she gave us a little wave and jogged back to her husband, who was waiting but not looking back at his wife or us. It occurred to me that he might have been embarrassed.
The woman’s question was not unusual to me. I was walking with forearm crutches. Any observer could see that my left leg didn’t work right. A polio infection when I was two years old had weakened that leg to a point that made it virtually useless for weight-bearing by the time I was in mid-grade school. The crutches filled in for its absent steps.
In most cases, the questions don’t come from meanness, just curiosity. Some people show their compassionate side with a follow-up comment. Occasionally, however, a question or comment comes from someone breathtakingly clueless that their behavior is rude. I might have given the woman on Guernsey a pass, probably would have forgotten her entirely, if she had attempted some sort of caring comment after she had the confirmation to take back to her husband. Still, her impact on me was only a surface wound, memorable because of its cluelessness. If I had let every comment and query I’ve fielded leave a lasting sense of outrage, my life would have been spent in a dark place.
Often, the intent of an offhand comment is overtly kind. “I’ll pray for you.” “I’m putting you on my prayer list.” “Have a blessed day.” Some people stop and talk a little more. For others, it’s just a quick “You’ll be in my prayers tonight” as they wheel a cart past me in the grocery store aisle. Thank you, I say to each person with a smile.
We live in Texas, where these public expressions of religiosity are more common than in my childhood community in Kansas, the state of my birth. The result of this interstate juxtaposition is that, although I have lived in my adopted state for decades, the prayer comments still surprise me slightly. I grew up in a “Go ye into a closet to pray” type of household and Sunday School, an admonishment that shaped me. Still, I appreciate the generous spirit of people who say they will remember me in their prayers.
Only occasionally am I flummoxed by a new twist.
“Do you want to pray with me?” one woman in the grocery store asked as she extended both hands toward mine, an invitation for me to extend my hands to hers. This was new. My inner self: In the middle of the canned goods aisle? No. How do I handle this? External self, brightly and profusely: “Not right now, but thank you! You’re very kind.” The woman seemed disappointed by my refusal and turned away.
Sometimes one comment leads to another. I once received the most unexpected and delightful compliment when I entered the women’s restroom of my law firm. Two assistants to other lawyers, neither of whom I knew well, were chatting at the sinks. One turned toward me and said I was on her prayer list. Given the setting, I was not expecting the comment, but I smiled and thanked her for her kindness. The other woman then said, “You always remind me of Glenda the Good Witch.” Being a Kansas native and accordingly feeling somewhat proprietary about the tornado that propelled Dorothy and Toto to the Land of Oz, I stumbled over my “thank you” and burst out laughing. That broke the ice, and we all had a lively conversation about Glenda and her sister the Wicked Witch of the West.
I don’t know what it is about grocery stores, but they have been the site of more curious encounters than any other locale. For the most part, these encounters began in my early 20s after I had my first solo apartment, along with my first job, and started grocery shopping regularly for myself. My usual practice was to go to the store a couple of times a week because I could carry only so many items at once. Pushing a cart wasn’t feasible since my hands were occupied with my crutches, so I used a store-provided carry basket whose handle I could hold along with the crutch handle. Whatever I needed had to fit into that basket.
It was at that point that I began to be bothered by children staring and following me down the aisles to look at me. Part of me wanted to stare back, to scare them into turning around and leaving me alone. My more adult self cautioned that I was too old to act like a five-year-old myself. (To be honest, I did stare back once and felt like an ignorant fool afterward. It was not at all satisfying.)
If, instead of just staring, a child asked me “What happened to your leg?” I felt a strange sense of relief at the engagement. My stock answer was that I had gotten sick, and it had hurt my leg (although a part of me then worried that the child would be afraid that if they got sick their leg might become useless; the mind can go down so many bizarre rabbit holes). Sometimes a child would follow up with “how” or “why” – those follow-up responses were more difficult to frame – but most children were satisfied with my first answer, and both of us would go our respective ways. If an embarrassed parent got involved, and even though the experience was uncomfortable for me, I would reassure the parent that the questions didn’t offend me.
A grocery store was the site of one of my early, scary memories. I would have been four or five. My mom was a half aisle ahead, out of earshot, as I meandered behind looking at items on the lower shelves, my steel-and-leather leg brace helping me to walk. The area was almost empty, only my mom and me plus a woman at the beginning of the aisle.
“You must have done something really bad,” the woman from the beginning of the aisle said as she came up behind me. I turned from the shelves and saw a person I did not know, her head cocked slightly, hands resting on the handle of her grocery cart as she contemplated me. Looking up at her, a stern figure backlit by bright fluorescent ceiling lights, I felt a sense of distaste emanating from her. She disapproved of me.
I knew what her comment meant — that polio was my punishment for having done something bad. No one had ever told me that before. In my confusion I just stared at her, not saying anything.
She remained still for a few seconds, looking at me. Then, without another word, she pushed her cart past me, heading off purposefully. After a few steps, though, she stopped and looked back at me with a knowing nod.
“Or maybe your parents did.”
Her tone was self-satisfied, triumphant, like she had figured it out.
This second comment was the ice pick to the heart. Did this lady know something my parents had done wrong? It must be really bad if they were punished by my getting sick. But how could that be? They were my parents, the center of my world.
Then off she went, pushing her cart up the aisle toward my mom, who was still intent on her shopping, oblivious to the exchange. I watched as the woman approached my mom, hoping she didn’t stop in confrontation. She didn’t. She walked on at a brisk pace, steering her cart past my mom and around the corner.
Polio as punishment. That woman’s hypothesis that my illness happened because of either my or my parents’ bad acts – or more precisely her thrusting of the concept onto a defenseless child — strikes me even all these years later as staggeringly noxious. I have never found true forgiveness for her behavior.
Sometimes comments that take me by surprise end up making me think more deeply when I replay the encounter in my mind. This happens later, generally, because at the time I’m just trying to navigate how to behave.
One such exchange went something like this:
Random stranger: “What happened to you?”
Me: “I had polio as a child.”
Random stranger: “Too bad. How old were you?”
Random stranger: “Do you remember before you got it?”
Me, beginning to get uncomfortable at the rapid-fire questions: “No. I was too young.”
Random stranger: “Well, that’s lucky for you! If you had been normal and then it had happened and you could remember before, that would be a lot worse. This way you don’t know what you’re missing.”
I recall smiling weakly and mumbling “Maybe so” or something similarly noncommittal – and thinking the woman was way over the line. Who was she to speculate about my life when she didn’t know anything about how hard or how easy it was?
The woman was overstepping. Still, as dismissive as she sounded, she got me thinking.
Polio has been part of my entire remembered life. Every day has had its adaptations, so much so that mostly I didn’t think of them as adaptations, especially as a child. Using my stronger right leg to do all the pedaling was simply how I rode my bicycle. Gathering all my clothes and sitting on my bed to get dressed rather than moving around the room was the way I got ready for the day. Of course, walking with crutches was the big one, but a thousand less consequential adaptations didn’t even register.
Was the woman right, that not remembering how to do things with greater ease was in a bizarre twist actually a gift? There’s a conundrum to contemplate. I never ran or jumped. I never played hopscotch or skipped rope. (I really wanted to skip rope as a kid; the other girls looked so cute doing it.) I never walked a mile. Or played a team sport. Or danced. Would I rather have had those memories in place before being forced to deal with physical adversity? Impossible to say.
“You have such a tortured walk,” the man said. We were in a small town outside Copenhagen a few years after the Guernsey trip. By that time, we were traveling with a collapsible wheelchair for me to use on longer walks. An inoperable rotator cuff tear had forced the change, so John pushed the wheelchair, and I got out and walked short distances with my forearm crutches when we couldn’t avoid cobblestones or stairs.
On this day, our walking tour group was pausing for pastries at a local eatery on its lovely, whitewashed porch, two or three steps up from the sidewalk. The man watched as I exited the wheelchair and went to a table on the porch, expressing surprise that I could do so. I said yes, I was able to walk but needed to minimize steps as much as possible. That’s when he said, “But you have such a tortured walk.”
“I do?” His comment surprised me. I knew my gait was uneven, of course, but had never thought of calling it tortured. In my defense, I hardly ever saw myself when walking; I studiously avoided full-length mirrors.
“Oh yes,” he said. “And you use so much energy for each step.” Another “I do?” from me. “Yes,” he continued. “Every step you take is much more effort than for someone else.”
He didn’t strike me as unkind, just clinical, thinking aloud. And unaware that what he was saying might bother me. Strangely, it didn’t. His assessment was kind of interesting. I had never thought about my way of walking taking more energy, expending more calories. The man and I talked a little more, an unusual conversation but friendly. Perhaps it was his clinical acknowledgment of my challenges, more respectful than pitying or curious, that made me not resent the odd exchange.
These days, since the rotator cuff tear dictates that I should walk less to preserve the shoulder joint, I’ve begun using store-supplied electric scooters, the ones that sit waiting at the front of the store with the supply of carts.
That adaptation may sound like just one more tiny straw piled onto the camel’s back, but it almost broke me. I met the issue with tears and a level of frustration uncharacteristic for my normally easy-going nature. Yes, a scooter would allow me to go further and carry more. That point paled in comparison, though, to jokes about careless seniors careening around in scooters, terrorizing everyone in their path; the laughable stereotype made me cringe. Never mind the orthopedist’s dire predictions about what would happen if I didn’t give my torn shoulder a break. Moving to a scooter felt like giving up.
Then John found a bright spot. Kids would notice me less, he said, because people in scooters weren’t any big novelty. This was the logic that broke through my tears.
John was right. Children barely notice me in the scooter. If one does stop to look, I smile and say hello and maybe comment on their colorful shoes or sparkling tiara. Some children break into a smile at that point. If they do, and if they answer or even just wave and run off, it feels good, like we’ve made a connection. I like to think that maybe, in some small way, the child has realized that people who take on the world differently are not mere curiosities, just regular people like everyone else.
Priscilla Davenport is a retired attorney in Dallas, Texas, and a long-ago journalist, including at The Dallas Morning News, where her editing work included the book pages. Her passions in retirement are traveling, reading good books, and rescuing dogs, a job that is never finished.
© 2022, Priscilla Davenport