My First Polio
could a mother name her child after a polished Siberian stone,
Lapis-Lazuli: The densest, most opaque and saturated
blue. To live up to my name, I had to reach the sky. Alias Indigo,
a bolt of cloth dyed that peculiar blue-violet of early
American Indigo. Given a heaven, we imagine it to be blue. I
was taken aback when someone once told me to live up to my
face: it was the name I could not fulfill: either I must reach
up, or like indigo cloth, the famous strong homespun fabric,
shelter and clothe the young, the wounded around me. Rachel,
my kid-sister, was simply Rach.
we are all measured, cut to wear the cloth we are given."
spoke in measured terms, like a solemn music: firm, but not
I met a nun who said, "Before you had legs, now you have
God. You are selected for Daughterhood, a servant of the
Ambulance is overdue, I reminded myself (while she spoke,
both of us shadowed by leaves which danced over us like
mirror-reflections). Must return it Monday or will have a
North, dawn glazing to pewter, or down South, daybreak
bruising into saffron.
I should have known when the angel was knocked off our mantle,
her right wing severed from her body, that it was to prophesize
our lives. I caught her reflection in the mantle
mirror the split-second she broke. There was a bead of Lapis
Lazuli from Siberia for each of her eyes.
was wherever Rachel, Mother and I were together. My mother had
sung all night the night I was born, in New York city at the
end of the Dirty Thirties. She herself had been born in
Boston. A daughter of New England which revolves wholly around
water, a water star radiating in many directions: like a
pin-wheel round its pin, a carousel round its music, its
horses whirling, and its glistening brass ring. I cut my teeth
on Mozart and Chopin etudes she practiced late at night, in
those loneliest days of her life when
she no longer was in love with her husband and was trying to
figure out how to divorce while her father, Rosenblum,
the brilliant research chemist who bore the same name as our
father, Israel, was still alive, her father the brilliant
immigrant from Roumania, research chemist who—even then—had
won the family's fortune and who had predicted the marriage
would come to grief. Rosenblum had a cutting edge to his
tongue and my father avowed was the most brilliant man he had
ever met. My grandfather—I remembered mainly his stunning
silence and his velvet gardens. In homes with leaded glass
panes, diamonds, the kind of glass that wrinkles. His estate.
marriage did end in ruin. The angel's wing was shattered, that
with which she would have flown, her hand severed, that with
which she could have written. Yet the recording angel in me
South, the sky at times was parchment, was magnolia-fine,
bone-ivory or like Irish lace. Up North, the sky was a shell
out of Pieter Brueghel the elder: For me, the leader: that
teal frost of a lower heaven which interchanged the word Heaven
for Winter. "You were born to be torn in
half," said Mother.
all the moves, the distances, the trauma of the past fifty
years we have been singing back and forth to each other, three
women, the Three Graces we were called from the Mid-Forties
on. Wherever we were the compass pointed Home whether
Mother set us up for one week in a Memphis hotel room, or we
sunk our stakes into another Army Post on another Godforsaken
outpost of New York, the city which intersects my life.
Overflowing with energy, I'd thwack sign posts, when I was
four and five, leaving them resonating, their pipe ringing
till I was out of earshot. These were lonely rig towns, mining
and mill towns. Bricked-in linen mills began to haunt my
dreams: the boarded-up windows, nailed, against the red
thread-thin color, heavenly hue, of old brick which I was to
perceive later in Seventeenth Century Dutch artists. Those
were our rooms! Their gloom, their penetrating shafts
of light: their mirrors, their quiet heartbreak, which
nonetheless spilled over: the young girls and women with
intense absorption making lace, reading a letter.
absorption: that was what we had as adolescent girls.
"The graveyard is full of irreplaceable poets,
Indigo," Mother said. "Write."
patterns of choir were set up from the cradle. Mother played
Ravel at night on the old black upright piano in the hallway,
playing she tells me I came down and played the exact same
music in morning. This was a constant like The Settlement
Cookbook with its happy kids trailing a mother to the bake
oven on the yellowed cover was part of our lives; it stood in
every kitchen we ever had, "The way to a man's heart is
through his stomach," it said. The "Cheerful
Cherub" came out in the newspaper every morning during
the war, urging Americans to show the British trait of a stiff
upper lip. Mother turned to us, me especially when I looked at
war headlines. "What can one do? You can't leave
town." Then she put her arms around me and said,
""C'mon, Lapis, c'mon, Indigo." I'd smile. I
was the only one with green eyes in the family. Neither lapis
nor indigo but I wanted them to be. I coveted the eyes of
angel like those of almost all our dolls. Non-brown, that's
what my eyes were. Mother called me a dirty blonde, a natural
would look up to me in those early times, and say, "Keep
good care of me, Lynn." The cathedral-radios of our early
girlhood dignifying the background, playing. It amazed my
mother, my playing on the piano precisely what she had played
the night before, same key, same notes. My ear had recorded
it, memorized the melodies. It assuaged my pain, helped mend
my sadness, like lace, over our father being gone. The war.
have vignettes of my father: He did put in cameo appearances
during the war on leave.
Atov Adonoi, the gentle, slightly gravelly voice would say.
He took me to the Russian Tea Room right beside Carnegie Hall.
The war had been over only a year. In the air, euphoria. In
this historic tearoom, with its dark burnished wood, its buzz
of activity from musicians who came in before and after
concerts, there was a custom of presenting the prettiest girl
of the day with a rose. That day, a tall mustachioed gentleman
came over to me, "For you," he said extending his
hand with a pale pink rose. "Me?" I held it.
I smiled all the way on the drive home catching my rose
cheeks, my dirty blonde hair, my grin. What would mother say?
She'd say, "It wants water," and plunk it in a
mayonnaise jar filled with water on our oilcloth kitchen
Looking at Mother one evening, I noticed what a beautiful
breastbone she had. Sternum she told me it was called.
"Remember that, Indigo." It was near the heart. It
was the body's most vulnerable spot, where the pain was
and Augusts during the Nineteen-Forties polio epidemics raged,
whole families of children carried out on stretchers into
ambulances with it: the dread of catching the virus ignited
parents till panic spread, wildfire. Sidewalks buckled and
rippled like a washboard: you could see the heat shimmering
off cement and tarmac. You could pop tar-bubbles with your toe and chew them. Still your parents would not let you go to
a public swimming pool, a movie, even a grocery store to buy
nickel candy. You might get paralyzed like Hillary. That meant
wearing your leg in a brace, not being able to run like the
other children, to climb trees, hike ever again.
winter, ponds in New York and up in New Hampshire and Maine
froze silvery: cobalt you could almost see touch the frost,
ice particles hitting air like your breath. We lived in upstate
New York. 1945 on a chicken farm. The glacial Northern skies
under which we lived when the war ended, were reflective of
the pale bayou Southern skies. The songs of comfort about
Jesus which our Black nannies sang to us up North when we
couldn't sleep reflected the Spirituals we had heard chain
gangs of prisoners sing down South.
were Jewish, but non-observant. It became crystal-clear to me
that I had formed some mystical religion of my own. Some voice
said to me: "When you pass through the flames you will
not burn. When the waters circle you, you will not