“You can’t go out and play in the sprinklers,” my mother anxiously warned me on a pleasant summer day. “There is polio in the neighborhood.” That is one of my vivid early childhood memories.
That fall, I entered first grade. I noticed a girl from a second-grade classroom using crutches. Her legs were in braces. That’s why my mother had been so fearful that summer day.
Later that year, polio shots became available in our town. Sadly, it was too late for the girl, her name was Peggy, who became one of the last children in America to suffer from the lifelong effects of the disease.
When I was in middle school, I can recall asserting on a winter evening my independence. “I am no longer a child.” I could decide for myself when I needed to go to sleep at night.
My mother disagreed. She told me we were having a bad flu season, so getting plenty of sleep was important. I wasn’t impressed. If I got sick, I might miss a little school. So what?
The flu was different, she said. I learned that my mother was named after her grandmother in Europe who had died of the Spanish flu in 1918. I was surprised when she told me that my dad was in second grade in 1918 when he became very sick from it. He missed so much school that he had to repeat second grade.
My father had been raised by poor immigrant parents and came of age during the Great Depression. He attributed his success in life in the face of adversity to his “positive mental attitude.”
He looked at things a little differently. He once explained to me that my mother was a worrier. She was worrier because her mother was a worrier. He was not. When I was a dour teenager, he would give me motivational articles intended to inspire “positive thinking.” They were about as influential to my adolescent self as water running off a duck’s back.
While my parents are long gone, I have been thinking about how would they be handling Coronavirus 2020 if they were still with us.
My mother, of course, would be worrying. Actually, she saw worry as a virtue. If only the people of Milan had been worrying more, they would have taken action sooner. My mother would be fretting that “things were going to get worse before they got better.” My father would agree, but emphasize that they would eventually get better.
Yesterday, my wife and I took a quiet walk along the harbor, listening to the sea gulls squabble and watching dogs play in the sand. The few walkers, bicyclists, and joggers were well spaced out — at least six feet from each other while adhering to the edges of the trail when passing.
We came upon a lonely small table on the trail below Sam’s Chowder House. On it, sat a plastic bin with a sign reading, “Take one! Hand-painted Kindness Stones.” Inside the bin were beautifully inscribed stones suggesting to us that kindness is an antidote to fearfulness.
This past week, I have been living more with the legacy of my mother’s anxiety than my father’s positivism. Yet, the peacefulness of that coastal walk along with message of those stones helps to remind me of my father’s positive mental attitude that got him through hard times. That’s why his age cohort has been called the “Greatest Generation.”
Now, it’s our turn.
Gordon Lewin moved to El Granada three years ago with his wife.