Thanksgiving Memory: Mom Gives Up Dreams to Help Polio-Stricken Son to Walk

PHOTO: Kurt Sipolski, fourth from the left, and his mother Iris Mondy and other members of his family when they lived in Illinois.Courtesy Kurt Sipolski
Kurt Sipolski, fourth from the left, and his mother Iris Mondy and other members of his family when they lived in Illinois.

Thanksgiving Day brings powerful and painful memories to California writer Kurt Sipolski.

On Nov. 30, 1948, a month after his second birthday, he was diagnosed with polio. And the mother who supported him through the medical ordeal died at the age of 80 on that same date, 50 years later, on Thanksgiving weekend.

Sipolski, who is 67 and lives in Palm Desert, writes about his personal journey and the strength that his mother gave him, in a self-published memoir, "Too Early for Flowers."

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"I suppose the first memory of her was when I was about 5," he writes in the memoir. "We were sitting on the bathroom floor, and I was crying. My older brother, Jim, had dressed and had run out into the warm Illinois sunshine.

"My mother, Iris, was trying to put my steel leg brace on, tying the orthopedic shoe, the leather calf strap, the knee pad, the thigh strap and buckling the steel belt around my waist. The room was hot and the heavy belt bit into my hips as she struggled to pull up my jeans over the shoe and the brace."

Iris Mondy was 30 years old then, living in their hometown of Streator, Ill., where her son had been diagnosed with the dreaded disease.

"Why me, Mom? Why did I have to get polio?" he writes. "She stopped and took my hands in hers. … 'But Kurt, Jesus only chooses the bravest boys. God picked you above all the boys in town.'

"I bit into my lower lip in an attempt to live up to her words, Sipolski writes. "'Am I brave?' I asked. 'Of course you are. And God will always watch out for you.' She pressed her handkerchief to my face, and ran her hand through my blond hair."

Mondy met Sipolski's father, a young soldier, in 1943 while working as a secretary at the newly completed Pentagon in Arlington, Va. "It was there she met President Franklin D. Roosevelt," Sipolski told

"The awe of reaching down to shake his powerful hand never left her," said Sipolski.

But Sipolski's father died of a cerebral hemorrhage after serving in World War II, and so in 1951, the family, which included Sipolski and his brother, Jim, moved from Virginia back to a hardscrabble life in Illinois, where they lived with his maternal grandmother.

His mother eventually remarried Bill Mondy, but her professional dreams were dashed. And when her son was diagnosed with polio in 1948, Mondy knew she had to push him to the limits if he was ever to walk again.

Later, Mondy visited Sipolski in California in March 1998, but when returning home, she was in a car accident. The incident triggered a stroke, and she lay alone in her Illinois apartment before worried neighbors found her.

"My mother was hospitalized … for some time, so the phone call from my brother … was not a great surprise," said Sipolski.

"I had visited her earlier that summer. She needed three caregivers for round the clock care, and I was there for moral support, helping her remember things after anesthesia wiped things out, and to help her walk with her broken hip."

But Sipolski said he saw it as a way to repay his mother for all the care she'd given him when he was a little boy in leg braces.

"I remember the many years of our kitchen table leg exercises, and how Mom would try to distract me from the stretching and reshaping of my muscles," he said. "She talked of the world that had waited for her to see, but she had fallen madly in love with a young soldier and sacrificed her dreams of a career at the Pentagon and to see the world, to become a wife and mother."

Sipolski said he made his mother proud after he graduated from college and accepted a job as a reporter from media giant Rupert Murdoch in Australia, and later in Paris. He eventually went on to publish San Francisco's Gentry magazine.

Retired, but still freelancing, Sipolski said he still struggles with post-polio syndrome, and has difficulty walking and uses crutches.

"I don't think the pain of my polio ever left her," he said. "Because you see … [on the day she died], 50 years earlier, was the date I was diagnosed with polio."