I suspect that my mother would not be pleased about being considered historical. She had only gotten reconciled to the idea that she was “one of the old people” as she called it, in 2012 at a cousin’s wedding. Still, as I reflected on her life during what would have been her seventy-first birthday this past Friday, I understood that we make history all of the time, even if we don’t consider the accomplishments very meaningful.
I’m doing research on polio for a 1950’s novella that I’m writing, tentatively titled, The Sweetest Chocolate Drop. My mother had polio as a child. She had the misfortune of contracting the disease in the peak year of 1952, mere months before Jonas Salk brought forward his vaccine. It always pains me to think of her in the hospital, stricken, when in the same building, in the very same city, people were working to find a cure. The extremely high incidence of polio in that year created a big public push for finding a cure. Because my mother suffered, her younger siblings and cousins were saved from the terrible disease.
The “can do” mentality of polio survivors is well documented in David Oshinsky’s Polio: An American Story. Polio survivors adapted a kind of “red cape” mentality. My mother was no exception. People were often shocked to learn that she had a withered left arm. When she sewed clothes, she used her extraordinary sewing talent to construct her clothes and make her left arm look like her right arm. She was well known as an excellent cook and as a master gardener. Her talent with flowers and plants was such that her garden was featured regularly on garden tours in their neighborhood. I was married in that garden. She painted, crafted dolls and bears for those she loved and those who were less fortunate. She did all of this while she was the Vice President for the Campaign for the United Way of Allegheny County. Only one of a few female African American executives, she was making history, but she wouldn’t thank you for the recognition. “I just do what needs to be done,” she would say, and that was the end of it.
Her favorite spiritual was “This Little Light of Mine.” With her example, I’ve come to understand that if by “just doing what needs to be done,” and light is shed, that is historical. Over the next month, you may notice some changes to this blog, but it is all part of letting my light shine, as she tasked me to do. Happy Birthday, Mom.