Jonas Salk's vaccine was licensed in 1955 and was being widely distributed by 1959. In 1962, there were fewer than 1,000 cases of polio reported. In 1963, there were fewer than 100. These days, polio is a quarter- page sidebar in a history book.
Along the way, of course, skeptics in all their towering intellect persistently pointed out the many reasons the virtual eradication of polio could never be accomplished.
My mother respectfully disagreed, efficient and undeterred in her daily purpose. Suzy and I were bundled into the family station wagon every weekend to accompany Mom on her various missions. It wasn't up for debate; it's what we did. I'm in the habit of saying Mom was a "tireless volunteer," but putting that on paper, I realize it's ridiculous. Of course, she was tired. She must have been exhausted by all she did, but she did it anyway, and without complaint, which makes her all the more remarkable. In addition to her organized charity work, there were always little personal mercies: a casserole for someone just out of the hospital, a freshly folded laundry basket of diapers, the weeding of a flowerbed, whatever she could do to lighten a neighbor's load.
That summer she had to be careful. Rather than risk bringing the virus into our home, she'd put together a basket of food and other necessities and leave them on the recipient's porch with a light tap on the front door. The lady of the house would move the curtain aside and wave, waiting to open the door until Mommy was safely out on the sidewalk. "Instead of dwelling on all the things you can't do," said Mother, "figure out what you can do. What you will do. My mother used to say, 'If you have to ask what to do, get out of the kitchen.' I'll bet you girls could come up with something if you put your heads together."
We piled into the station wagon and set out on our appointed rounds. Sweltering in the backseat, Suzy and I complained and deviled each other like a couple of spiny pill bugs.
"Girls, that's enough."
Mom sent a few ominous warnings over the transom as she negotiated the stop- and- go downtown traffi c, but Suzy and I kept at it until the old station wagon swung to the side of the street and lurched to a halt. Suzy and I rarely saw our mother's patience fail. Every once in a great while, there might be a flare of angry words or a swift slam of the silverware drawer, but even that was as startling and incongruous as a griffin landing on the Sunday dinner table.
Mother didn't raise her voice, but her tone crackled with aggravation.
Suzy and I looked at each other, looked out at the unfamiliar neighborhood. Surely, she didn't mean—
"I said, out."
Our parents didn't believe in corporal punishment; Mother disciplined by eye contact. We met her withering gaze in the rearview mirror for a tense Don't test me moment, then Suzy opened her door. We shuffled out onto the curb, and I instinctively reached for Suzy's hand, knowing she'd take care of me now that we were on our own in the world and would have to get jobs in factories or join the army or find a band of nomads to camp out with.
Mother stood in front of us in the blazing sun, shielding her eyes with her hand.