Few Words

Picture of father and daughter

My father, Charles Marston, home on leave during WW II, holding me

My father was a quiet man.

Every weekday morning, he got up early, and in the silence and emptiness of the morning, he slowly, methodically polished his black shoes and the brass buttons and belt buckle of his Canadian army uniform. I never knew what he did on base. He never talked about work.  Years later I would joke that he must have been a spy. He would have made a good one, my pale, thin, ordinary-looking father who knew how to keep secrets.

On warm evenings, he sat alone on the front steps, smoking a cigarette, gazing somewhere off in the distance. I thought him wise. Better, I thought, to think deep thoughts in silence than to reveal oneself with absurd chatter, like my mother. Still, I puzzled over what he liked…who he was…if he loved me.

The summer I was sixteen I was away from home for six weeks, working as a mother’s helper. I didn’t talk to anyone in my family all that time. The evening I came home, my Dad said “hello” to me; then, during dinner,  “please pass the beans.” That was all.  Years later I made it into a funny story, except that he should have said more and someone in my family, anyone,  should have heard the stories of my first time away from home alone.

But I was quiet too.  My mother liked to tell a story of me when I was four. A friend of hers had come to visit. I did not speak a word. After some time, the woman asked, “Can she talk?” My mother sputtered, “Of course she can talk. She just won’t, that’s all.”

I  believed my father cared for me,  though he never said so. I saved up bits of evidence as my mother saved snippets of string to tie together.

He and I rode together when I was a girl. He would talk enough to say where we should ride and how we should ride and take care of our horses. But we didn’t chat. Once I asked him, innocently and out of the blue, what a gelding was. He gave a brief, honest answer. My mother would have been evasive. Though I didn’t say another word, he cared  about me, I decided, because he answered my question.

When I was a senior, my parents took me shopping for a prom dress. My mother and I were ready to settle on a so-so dress for twenty dollars. He said no, it wasn’t pretty enough, and he suggested a beautiful dress, aqua with embroidered chiffon layers.  It was  thirty-five dollars, a lot of money in those days. Proof again, I decided, that he cared about me.

When I went away to university, he wrote me only once. In fact, it was the only letter he wrote me in my entire life. It was odd. He said that he was being sent to Moncton, on the East Coast. On the way home, he’d be changing planes in Montreal, spending several hours there between flights. He didn’t mention the airline company or the time and flight number, and he didn’t write about anything else. I read the letter several times. Since he had never written me before, I felt certain he must be telling me he’d like me to meet his plane to spend time with him at the airport.

I didn’t have a car and the airport was far from the university. But I was able to get there very, very early in the morning by taking several buses. I met the first plane that landed from Moncton that day. I watched as every passenger got off the plane. I met every other plane that landed from Moncton, scanned every face until it was night and no more planes were scheduled to land. He did not come.

I made my way back to the dorm, arriving late at night. I was exhausted and confused. Why did he write the letter if he hadn’t meant for me to come? Where was he? Had I somehow missed him? I don’t think that I ever felt so much like an abandoned waif as I did that long day in the airport in Montreal.

In the weeks that followed, no letter came from him or my mother explaining what had happened. I never mentioned it either. If I had misunderstood, if he had not meant for me to go to the airport, I might make him uncomfortable by bringing it up.

Years passed. I never mentioned it, ever, to my father, but I never forgot it, either.  I never mentioned it to my mother until the last months of her life.

“Do you remember the time  Dad wrote me a letter saying he’d be coming through Montreal?”

She remembered.

“What happened?”

“Well…,” my mother said casually. “As I recall, his plans got changed.”

I didn’t say anything else to her. But something didn’t quite make sense. Why did my father write that letter in the first place? And why did he never explain what happened?

Frankly I don’t pretend that I ever guessed what my father was thinking. I knew even less about his feelings. I clung to that image of my father as silently thinking lots of deep, wise thoughts. Never did I think of him as a man who brooded or felt insecure, and surely it wasn’t shyness that prevented my father from talking to me.

Long after my father died, I had a thought sharp as a stab wound. Had my father  written that letter hoping for a letter back from me to let  him know that I wanted to see him, that I wanted to meet him at the airport, that he could plan on my coming? Had he expected me to ask him what time he’d be arriving? And when he didn’t get any letter, had he changed his travel plans?

Perhaps he never mentioned it to me in the years before he died because he was too embarrassed or annoyed or hurt by what he took to be my indifference? I had not even responded to his letter.

Or maybe he did what I had done: never mentioned it because he didn’t want me to feel uncomfortable by bringing it up.

Like father, like daughter.

I was such a quiet girl.

Home to Plaster Rock: In Search of Stories

I have lots of stories about trips gone awry. About falling in a temple pond in Kyoto, losing my purse the first day of a cross-continent trip, car troubles in Maine and a night with strangers.

It’s the joy of being a storyteller. Mishaps, absurdities, and everything unexpected can be transformed into story.

This morning I’m on the road again. And I’m hoping for and expecting new stories before I’m done.

There’s my destination, Plaster Rock, a village in New Brunswick, Canada. It is not one of those quaint fishing villages on the Bay of Fundy. It’s deep in the interior, not far from Caribou, Maine.  A place of potato farms surrounded by vast stretches of forest.

The town is having a homecoming for all those who left for more prosperous places, like Alberta, or Ontario, or the States.  For sure, I’ll go the parade on Saturday afternoon. Maybe I’ll stop by the dance Saturday night. I expect loud fiddle music and lots of beer. The last time I went to a Plaster Rock dance, fifty years ago, a stranger swung me round so hard and fast my feet left the floor.

My father’s family has lived in New Brunswick for more than 200 years. My father was born on a farm near Plaster Rock and his father before him. We go back to the 1700s, when Abraham Marston left the United States after fighting in the American Revolution–on the British side.

I’ll meet my cousin there. Wayne grew up in Plaster Rock. Life was tough, and his was tougher and more tragic than most. Our grandfather had hanged himself when our dads were kids, and they grew up poor. The Depression didn’t help. My father left when he was a young man. but Wayne’s father stayed behind. Wayne now lives in Ontario…and he’s a member of Parliament. How did he overcome such hardships and why does is he going to the homecoming too? I want to hear his stories.

My brother’s wife, Patti, will meet us there too. She’s visiting her mother in Saint John and they will both drive over to meet us, a four hour trip. Turns out that Patti is a distant relative of Wayne’s mother. Good company and more stories.

We’ll visit graveyards and homesteads and talk to the old people who stayed behind. Erv from Bangor will meet us. I think our grandfathers were brothers. More stories.

And I expect a few good stories about the journey itself. Today I’ll start the 600 mile trip north to Montreal, past Quebec city, along the Saint Lawrence River to Riviere du Loup, and then over through the deep woods of the provinces of Quebec and New Brunswick to our family’s home.

The last leg of the car trip is on a road voted one of the ten most dangerous in Canada. It’s twisty and hilly, built mainly for loggers. The soft soil and big trucks mean the road is always in need of repairs.

“At least there’ll be no snow,” Patti said over the phone.

“But you must watch out for the moose,” I heard her mother say. “Whatever you do, don’t drive after dark.”

And I promise not to. And coming home, I’ll come the other way, down through Maine. I’ll  see new places, and, of course, I’ll stop at the L. L. Bean outlet in Freeport. Even for someone who loves stories, sometimes it’s just about the shopping.


My father and I riding. In this photo we're visiting the Crippled Children's Hospital where my brother was staying.

As a child I was afraid of cows, dogs, kittens, chickens, and bugs. Anything that moved might bite, sting, kick, or scratch me.

I was afraid of water; I might drown.

I was afraid of death. Definitely afraid of suffering, death, nothingness.

I was afraid of people, all of them. This drove my tough, feisty mother crazy. When I was a preschooler, she complained to anyone who would listen about my scaredy-cat ways. Once I hid under the bed when a friend of hers came to visit. Another time I sat solemn and silent until her friend gave me a long, pitying look and whispered “Can she talk?”

My mother shot a withering glance my way, “Of course she can. She’s four years old! She won’t, that’s all.”

I can’t say that my parents ever tried to soothe my over-sensitive little psyche. Instead, they exhorted me to acquire gumption. (An approach that doesn’t work, by the way. And I don’t think it’s what child psychologists recommend.)

By the time I was eleven, we lived in Calgary, Alberta. We owned two horses that we boarded in the Army stables, and almost every day my father and I went riding. I liked riding and spending time with my father. He was a mostly silent man, but that was all right with me. I was a mostly silent kid.

I still had most of my old fears and many new ones as well. I was afraid of being kicked by my horse, Toolie, when I went into her stall. My father had told me that horses need to know when you approach them from behind. Every time I went to groom her, I talked, patted her rump and trembled as I wiggled past. As I put her saddle on, I worried that she might jump sideways and accidentally squish me.

I never talked to my parents about my fears, but of course they knew. Once my father, exasperated, had said “My god, Margaret, you’re gutless!” The words stung. Unfortunately, the few words my father did speak tended to be painfully blunt. Neither he nor my mother had ever learned how to measure and soften their words.I can’t imagine my sons or daughters-in-law ever saying such a thing to one of my beloved grandchildren. But it was a different time and my parents had endured hard lives.

One summer evening he and I went riding, out from the stable where we kept our horses, through the camp on tracks made by Army tanks, to the countryside beyond. My father had warned me that there might be explosives not yet detonated hidden in the grass near the tracks. If my horse were to step on one, we would blow up. Occasionally the massive tanks rolled towards us. We’d trot our horses off to the side and stand out of the way, until the tanks were safely past. At such times I worried about being blown to smithereens.

When we were safely out of the army camp, I watched for gopher holes. If my horse stepped in one, she could stumble and fall. My father had told me so. But gopher holes were hard for a near-sighted kid to spot from atop a horse. And even if I did, how could I get Toolie out of the way in time, especially when she was running? One more thing to be afraid of.

It was almost dusk when my father suggested we race. He would surely win because the big, Palomino gelding that he rode was faster than my little bay mare, and my Dad was far braver than I. But I urged Toolie to run until I was close behind. I still don’t know if I liked to race. I enjoyed the exhilarating feeling of running. But there were those deadly gopher holes. Greater than my fear of gopher holes, however, was my dread of my father’s disapproval if I lacked courage.

We were racing round what my father called a “yes ma’m,” a dip and a curve to the left in the narrow dirt trail, when the Palomino fell and my father with him. For a brief terrible second, the horse was on top of my father.

There was no time for me and Toolie to get out of the way. Before I realized what had happened, she had jumped over both of them. The jump was a first for both of us. I fell off in the unceremoniously easy way of kids and nothing got broken.

My father wasn’t so lucky. His shoulder was dislocated, and he was in a lot of pain. Slowly we rode back to the stable. By the time we got back, it was very late. My father awkwardly eased himself off his horse and sat on a stool near the tack room.

“Margaret, I need you to unsaddle both horses and take them to pasture.”

I did what I was told, took off their bridles and replaced them with halters, unsaddled them, brushed and curry-combed them. I was scared, as always.

“Now lead them to pasture.You can take them both at once.”

Both? At the same time?! I took a halter in either hand and began the walk to the pasture. I could feel the power of the two horses as they nudged my shoulder. I knew they were much stronger than I. What if they pulled away from me and ran away? What if they trampled me?

When I got back to the stable, my father said, “You’re going to have to go get the provost. I can’t drive us home.”

I had never walked through the part of the camp between us and the camp gates, where I’d find the provost, the military police. We lived in the married quarters beyond. Family members never passed through those gates unescorted. And it was very late.

On the other hand, on those quiet streets, no animals threatened, so I was less afraid of the walk to the provost than I’d been of the walk to the pasture with the horses. I scurried to the provost, told them my father was hurt, and they drove back with me to take us home.

My father did not recover for many weeks. When he talked about that night, he was pleased with me.

“Proud of her. She walked all by herself through the camp late at night to get the provost.”

It had not really been the walk to the provost that had frightened me; rather, it had been everything else. But I chose not to tell him so.

That was long ago. I like to believe that my parents’ over-the-top toughness helped me to learn, over and over again, that we do what must be done, despite our fears. And I’ve been lucky, for my fears have gradually shriveled up over the years and mostly blown away.

But I will always remember and treasure the night my father was proud of me, the night he thought me brave.

Family Resemblance

Harold, Dorothy, & Faye1“Got a letter from Edna. Your second cousin,” my mother said. “She lives in Rocky Mountain House. She’s having a reunion of the Marston family. Wants us to come.”

I had no idea that I had a second cousin in Rocky Mountain House.  I had assumed my distant relatives were still living down east in New Brunswick. Apparently we weren’t the only Marstons who hadn’t stayed home on the farm.

We could easily go. It was only a three hour drive from Edmonton where my mother now lived. An easy trip.

I’d wanted to learn more about my family for a long time. I didn’t remember my first cousins, let alone second cousins, third cousins, or cousins once or twice removed. I’d been too young when we moved west. I knew next to nothing about my ancestors, and I didn’t know the family stories.

I was achingly curious. What kind of people were we Marstons? What did a generic Marston look like? How did an ordinary Marston talk? What did a garden variety Marston do for a living? Maybe some had had distinguished careers or were fabulously wealthy or had devoted their lives to the poor and suffering. I’d heard about a few of our black sheep, but I was hoping that some of our stories would be better.

We arrived on a Saturday morning at the community hall where a gaggle of Marstons (75 to 100) had gathered. We mingled and we talked. Nothing in the conversations stood out in my mind though I was paying close attention. Nobody said anything brilliant, though nobody was rude or crude or foolish either. We were, I suspected, only middling conversationalists.

We ate salads and beans and chicken and cookies. The usual. Little kids played.

And I looked around at my new-found relatives. I was on a mission to find out who my people were and fix that knowledge in my mind. Everyone here was a Marston or married to a Marston or had been a Marston before she got married. I could find out what we had in common, what set us apart from the other families of the world.

I wondered if any physical characteristics were typical of our people. Noses. foreheads. chins. butts. But nothing stood out.

Nobody was extremely tall, nor very short. No  one was very heavy or very skinny, No one was super fit either.

No one had jet black hair or red hair or pale blond hair. Every last one of us had brownish hair. Dirty blonde, light brown, medium brown, almost–but not quite–black.  Some of the men were bald. What’s the expression? Typical male pattern baldness? That’s it.

No one was ugly and no one was beautiful. In this and every respect, we were all…average. As a clan, in every measure I could think of, we were medium.

We dressed the part too. None of us had worn anything fancy that day. No flashy jewelry. No ultra stylish clothes. But no green hair or visible tattoos, either. Conventional to the core..

All in all, we were not bad. Could be worse. Nice enough. Every last one of us–eminently forgettable.

And so were our kids.  No doubt all the parents thought them special and beautiful, and maybe they were. But the specialness was not visible to a casual observer.

No, wait. I did spot one little girl, four or five, who stood out from everyone else in the room. She was strikingly adorable. Piles of curly hair around a lovely face. A wonderful smile. She didn’t look medium at all.

“I said to someone near me, “What a beautiful little girl.”

And the woman answered, “Isn’t she, though?!

She added, “She’s adopted.”

Challenges in Contemporary Living (kids, chores, & subterfuge)

Tom Sawyer, foisting off chores

In the olden days, kids milked cows and chopped wood. When my sons were growing up, we didn’t own cows or wood piles, but I still thought they should do chores.

The desire-to-work didn’t seem to come naturally to them. So I looked for ways–devious ways–to encourage the impulse.

When they were preschoolers, I paid them–and any neighborhood kids who’d stopped by–to clean. Admittedly they didn’t do the best job in the world, but they were almost quiet for a couple of hours, and it cost me only loose change.

At lunch time, each neighbor kid went home clutching several sweaty pennies in a chubby little fist.

“Guess what, Mommy. I swept their porch and wiped the toys and dusted a coffee table. And look what I got! Seven pennies!”

One good thing about innocent little children–they don’t know the going rate for house cleaning. Their mothers never complained, at least not to me. Why would they? Their kids were happy and out of their hair all morning.

Now I realize that many modern parents find this hard to understand. First, their preschoolers don’t wander over to the neighbor’s house by themselves. Second, modern parents cherish their children and never ever want them out of their hair. What can I say? Some of us were shallow then.

As the kids got older, six or so, I began offering them a penny for every five Japanese beetles they collected from the row of pink shrub roses by the sidewalk. Any kid was welcome to join in. For a little while, the Japanese beetles were under control and the roses flourished. But too soon they decided the thrill of dropping beetles into a bottle was gone. No matter. Winter had temporarily solved the problem.

I wondered what other chore-opportunities I could foist upon them. I reminded them that this was the 1970s. They were growing up in a world where more women worked, so husbands, in all fairness, should do their share of household chores. I repeated this often. I swear to god I was sincere. This was not entirely personal sloth.

Paul, my oldest, turned ten. He was a sweet, bookish kid, ever so slightly gullible. Perfect. I got my supplies in order and sidled up to him.

“Paul. I have this great idea. I call it ‘Challenges in Contemporary Living.’”

I paused to let the fine big words roll around in his head.

“I have these index cards, see? On each card is a chore–I mean challenge–and each challenge is broken down into steps.”

I sped up. I had to get to the good part before he lost interest.

“Each challenge is assigned a point value, depending on its level of difficulty. And here’s the best part….

“As you successfully master each challenge, you earn points. We keep track of your progress. With graphs…drawn with colored pencils..on graph paper!

“And best of all (I paused as long as I dared to build the suspense) you can earn stars. These stars! dumped them out on the table: a tantalizing shimmer of red, blue, silver and best of all, gold.

Paul was intrigued. I was pretty sure he would be. Not only because I knew him, but because I knew about the magic of foil stars. I’d learned to read because my first grade teacher had ceremoniously affixed red, blue, and gold stars on my Dick and Jane reader whenever I read without mistakes. I still like to read, and I adore stars.

Paul learned a wonderful variety of household tasks: to vacuum, to do laundry, to bake birthday cakes for his brothers so creative and impressive that the neighborhood was stunned with admiration. Best of all, he won points, his line graphs ran up the graph paper, and he earned lots and lots of stars.

A few years passed. The challenges had faded from memory. Raj, my next son was now ten. It occurred to me that he could also learn to do useful tasks around the house. And if my system worked so well for one, why not the other?

I put the packet together: the directions, the cards, the colored pencils, the graph paper, and the stars. I motioned to Raj to come over. He eyed me warily.

“Hey Raj, I have this great idea. I call it challenges in contemporary living.”

He looked suspicious, but I explained the entire, wonderful system. Then I paused. He took a quick glance at my treasures on the table. Then he spoke, too quickly, in my opinion.

“You’re asking me to do the laundry?!”

It was over: My marvelous system had disintegrated before my eyes, never to be put back together.

The boys, now men, have never forgotten. To this day, Raj will say,

“I’m still glad I didn’t fall for it.”

And they all laugh.

I don’t mind. They grew up to be pretty fair-minded and accomplished, even at home. Maybe subterfuge has its uses.

Getting to America: me, Indians, everybody else, and immigration law

Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free....

One gray-haired, elderly woman and I were the only people who’d come to the Indian Consulate in New York City to take the six hour, two part examination in beginning Hindi. We were both married to men from India and wanted to learn our husbands’ language.

At lunch, between part one and part two of the exam, she shared her story with me. She was a physician who had spent most of her adult life in India.  In the 1930s she had married in the United States, and when she did, her American citizenship was taken away from her.

I could not believe it! She had no earthly reason not to tell me the truth–but it was inconceivable to me that the United States, land of immigrants, would take away a native-born American’s citizenship just because she had married an Asian. I smiled and nodded, but vowed to myself to go home and do some research.

She was telling the truth. In 1907, with the Expatriation Act, any American woman who married a foreign national lost her citizenship. In 1922 that part of the law was repealed–but not for American women who married Asians.

After she married, she went to India and lived most of her life there, practicing medicine. That was easier, I suppose, than to live as a woman without a country, here, in the United States, where she was born and raised.

It occurred to me that her husband should have applied for American citizenship before their marriage. Then she could have kept hers.  I was naive: he could not. In 1923 the Supreme Court had ruled that Indians from the Asian subcontinent could not become U.S. citizens. Although anthropologists deemed them Caucasians, the Court decided they were still not white. Only whites and Africans, by law, could be citizens.

Over the years, Congress has often sought to adjust the ingredients in the American melting pot. The Immigration Law of 1924 established quotas on how many people from each country could come to the United States based upon the numbers already living in the US in 1890–before the huge–and unwelcome influx from Southern and Eastern Europe. Preference would henceforth be given to British, Irish, German, and other Northern Europeans. Asians were not welcome at all.

My own immigration story began in the 1960s. It would have been relatively easy for me to emigrate from Canada to the U.S. There were no quotas on people from the Western Hemisphere.

But I had married an Indian who wanted to come to the States. By this time, a new law was in effect, the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952.  It retained quotas, but got rid of the racial restrictions. Immigration was possible for him…just extremely difficult.

The quota for India was 100 per year. It was also 100 for Pakistan, the country where he was actually born. (In 1947, when India and Pakistan had gained their independence, his family fled to India.) It was also 100 for many other countries as well–the lowest possible number allowed by law.

Other quotas were more far more generous. Of the 154,000 annual immigration visas allowed, Great Britain received 65,700; Ireland, 17,800; Germany, 25,900.

No wonder there were so few Indians living in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s!

In 1965, the year I married, Lyndon Johnson signed a new immigration law that abolished quotas by nationality. Immigration laws now favored those with family in the States (my former husband had none) or skills needed by the U.S. (he had a PhD in chemistry). In 1966, he and I and our baby boy drove across the border in our little blue VW bug to begin our new life in the United States.

We were not the only ones who came after 1965. Nowadays several million Indians live and work in the States. Several have won Nobel prizes. They’ve started successful companies, teach in our universities, practice medicine, write novels, go into politics, become engineers and IT specialists. They are part of the mosaic that is the United States. As a group, they’ve been wildly successful and they contribute a great deal.

Their story is like the story of many others who have been drawn here by the promise of a better life.  Still, I worry.

In the 1960s, when I came of age and when immigration laws were changed, the mood in our country, especially among the young, was more liberal than I’ve seen it before or since. Many of us who were young believed all the lyrics in our folk songs:

“Come on people now, smile on your brother. Everybody get together, try to love one another right now.”

But the sixties are long gone. Laws can change for the better, but they can also change for the worse. We’ve been anti-immigrant before, many times.

We know the story of the Japanese-Americans: well over 100,000 were sent to internment camps during World War II. They were not the Japanese who had bombed Pearl Harbor.  It didn’t matter. Thousands of Germans and Italians were placed in internment camps too. We treated these people badly because we were afraid. We’re afraid now.

In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, we deported or coerced hundreds of thousands of Mexicans who were mostly legal residents or American citizens to leave the United States.  We did it because jobs were scarce. Jobs are scarce now.

These days, anti-everybody-else rhetoric has reached a fever pitch. Nonsense is fervently repeated until it sounds true. We need  immigration laws, to be sure, but surely they should be based on rational and fair principles.

In Yeat’s poem, “The Second Coming,” written in the aftermath of World War I, he writes

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Maybe, if we believe in liberty and justice for all, it’s time to stand up to all that passionate intensity.


Copyright by Margaret French, October 9, 2011

Polio Summer

Fearing Polio

That summer, none of us kids in Calgary were allowed to go to the movies on Saturday mornings. Nor were we allowed to take the shortcut to the school playground past the shallow pond that people in the West call a slough. And even if the day was a scorcher, we couldn’t go swimming in any of the public swimming pools.

It was 1953. And that summer, not for the first time, polio was lurking in crowds, in water, in god knows where else. All our parents were afraid, and we were too.

Everyone knew that polio mostly affected children. Lots of kids got sick. Some died; even more were crippled. Just down the street from us, David, a boy younger than me, had fallen sick. Now he wore a heavy metal brace and lurched when he walked.

Even scarier were the pictures of iron lungs. We kids imagined ourselves spending the rest of our lives inside a huge iron cocoon, with nothing but our heads sticking out, our bodies trapped inside, helpless, forever. The thought terrified me.

The iron lung. The braces.

Then one evening, my older brother Vance, fifteen,  fell desperately sick with a high fever and a stiff neck. And before we three younger kids understood what was happening, he was gone–to the Red Cross Crippled Children’s Hospital. He had polio too.

For a few days my parents were afraid that he would die. They barely left his side. A doctor came to our house–we were quarantined if I remember rightly–and gave us shots of gamma globulin. I knew it wasn’t a vaccine, that we might get polio too, but I gathered it was better than nothing.

In the first few weeks Vance was at the hospital, the staff used the Sister Kenny method to treat him, the most promising and newest treatment available, so our parents told us. Nurses placed hot, damp, flannel packs on his body and stretched and massaged his muscles.

Even though I was only ten, that method sounded primitive, like being treated with mustard poultices or castor oil. And this was the best modern medicine could provide?! Apparently it was. Before Sister Kenny, polio victims might be immobilized in plaster casts. That treatment was worse.

The first good news was that my brother was going to live. The second was that he could breathe on his own. He wouldn’t have to go inside an iron lung. The bad news was that he was paralyzed from the neck down. We could only hope that he would improve.

We kids couldn’t visit him. In those days, kids were never allowed to visit hospitals. Everyone knew that we carried all sorts of nasty germs in our little bodies that we might pass on to the sick.

Vance was in the hospital for sixteen months. I saw him once, at the other end of a long hallway, safely out of reach, sitting in a wheelchair. And once my father and I rode horses to the lawn outside the hospital to amuse the kids inside. Goldie, the horse I often rode, could stand on her hind legs, like Roy Roger’s horse, Trigger. Underneath the windows, I made Goldie stand on her hind legs, over and over again. My brother was one of the faces at the windows, too far away for me to see.

When Vance finally came home, he was a pale, skinny, slightly lopsided teenager. Forever after, he would lean in the direction of his cane. His chest looked oddly caved in. Polio had affected many muscles in his body.

He would need a cane for the rest of his life. He would always have to pick up his leg to get into a car. He coughed softly and oddly, his damaged chest muscles never letting him cough thoroughly. He couldn’t attend high school sports events: he wasn’t strong enough to sit through the games, and the benches were too hard for his skinny butt. My father had a special leather book bag made for him that he could sling over his shoulders so he could carry his books.

But he was lucky. He could walk and he didn’t have braces.

He never talked about polio and I never asked. Once I reached in a drawer to get a bottle opener for him and my gentle brother snapped at me, perhaps for the only time in my life.

“Do you think I’m a cripple? Do you think I can’t get it for myself?!”

He had a set of barbells in his bedroom, and he worked out almost every night, striving to become closer to normal. It seemed unfair to me that he had to work so hard but could never be strong again. I couldn’t see that all his work made much of a difference.

He and I sat in the kitchen most evenings and played chess. I hated chess, but I loved him.

He went to university, studied engineering. After he graduated, he became a patent examiner and then a patent agent. My parents worried about him–he seemed too lonely. They were happy when he married Nora, a very nice woman. They never had children of their own, but he was a loving stepfather to her two girls. He was always kind, but always quiet and a little remote. I suspect he was never quite happy.

In the last years of his life, his back became more and more bent. Post-polio syndrome made life more difficult than it had always been.

One night, in his sixties, he suddenly died. He’d had the flu. The doctor suspected a heart attack. But I wondered whether or not his weak chest muscles, so incapable of coughing, had just not been strong enough to deal with a bad case of the flu.

It still seems ironic to me that on March 26, 1953, just months before my brother got sick, Dr. Jonas Salk had announced that he’d successfully tested a vaccine against poliomyelitis. The vaccine wasn’t approved and an inoculation campaign begun until 1955–too late for Vance.

Finally a vaccine for polio

I remember hearing the news that an effective vaccine had been developed. I felt elated and relieved. A dreadful killer and crippler of children had been conquered.

In the years since then, polio has been almost eradicated, but not quite. The numbers are creeping up a little in Africa and South Asia from an all-time low. People’s fears and resistance to vaccination are part of the problem.

No case of polio has been reported in North America for years. Still, a report by WHO, the World Health Organization warns that

As long as a single child remains infected, children in all countries are at risk of contracting polio. In 2009-2010, 23 previously polio-free countries were re-infected due to imports of the virus.

We should be vigilant. Diseases that were almost unheard of in the States for awhile, like mumps, measles, and whooping cough, are on the rise. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly forty per cent of parents have delayed or declined one or more of the shots recommended for their children.

Frankly, I have trouble understanding this. I suppose none of today’s young parents who choose to spare their children from improbable dangers, their fears fueled by shaky science and internet rumors, had a brother who suffered for a lifetime after one polio summer.


Copyright by Margaret French, September 2011

Lady White Snake, a Chinese Folk Tale

Image from the Summer Palace, Beijing, China

Several years ago, Jay and I visited China. At the Summer Palace, near Beijing, our tour guide took us to a long covered walkway beside a beautiful lake. The inside was entirely painted with colorful traditional scenes.

“During the Cultural Revolution.” she told us, “this walkway was painted white to hide its beauty, so that the Red Guards would not destroy it. After the bad times, the paint was washed away to reveal the pictures beneath.” She stopped beside one painting.

“This represents an ancient and popular tale called Lady White Snake.”

She paused to tell a haunting story. When I returned home, I looked for it online and found a hundred variations. Here is mine.

In ancient times, a snake and her companion studied diligently for centuries and centuries to become both good and knowledgable in the use of magic. They had even learned how to change into human beings. Lady White Snake was now an extraordinarily beautiful woman, but scarcely less so was her companion, Miss Green Snake.

But Lady White was not content merely to assume a human shape. She longed to experience the joys of human love. One autumn, when the leaves of the willow tree were changing color, the two were walking beside West Lake near the town of Hangzhou. A young man was standing, umbrella over his arm, waiting for the boatman to come and carry him across the lake. As soon as Lady White saw the handsome young man, such violent feelings of love consumed her that she had to lean on her companion for support.

Miss Green glanced at her friend and smiled. She used her own magic to cause it to rain. (After so many centuries of study, this and much more were easily possible.) Loud enough to be overheard by the young man, she said,“Please forgive me, Lady White, I’ve forgotten our umbrellas and we’ll soon be soaking wet, waiting for the boat to take us across the lake.”

The young man, whose name was Xu Xian, heard her and offered his own umbrella. During their short boat ride, Xu Xian and Lady White talked of many things. He was a student of healing potions and herbs. Once across the lake, they would soon have parted, for the rain had stopped, but Miss Green again caused the rain to fall and again, Xu Xian offered his umbrella.

“Only if you promise to come to tea tomorrow so we may return it to you,” said Miss Green. “You’ll find us easily enough. We live in the red mansion.” (The mansion that she would create before morning.)

The next day, the lovers talked for hours in the red mansion until Miss Green grew impatient. “Look at the two of you. Can’t you see love on your faces? Marry straightaway; marry today.” And with only minor blushing and downcast eyes, they did as she suggested.

Miss Green bid them farewell for a time and, for many months, their lives together were happy. They opened a shop selling medicines. Lady White already knew which herbs cured every disease, how best to prepare them, and how often the patient must swallow them down. If someone could not afford to pay, they offered their services with a generous heart, free of charge, so they were soon beloved by almost everyone in the town. Soon Lady White was expecting a child, which added to their happiness.

In every tale, there must be a villain. In this case, it was Fa Hei, abbot of the Golden Mountain pagoda. He too had studied diligently, but his heart was filled with envy and spite. He was determined to learn more about these female strangers and spent long days reading arcane signs. When he was certain, he approached Xu Xian.

“What have you done, you fool? Do you know whom you have married? You think her a pretty woman? No. Lady White is a venomous snake who has disguised herself to seduce you and soon will devour you whole. You have not been chosen as husband but as a tasty morsel when her deadly hunger returns.”

Xu Xian was outraged at the abbot’s suggestion. He felt certain his wife was loving and good and entirely human. But Fa Hei persisted and pointed out the indications and read from the ancient texts.

Finally Fa Hei said, “If you are so sure of your wife, test her at the Dragon Boat Festival.”

It was the the custom at that time to drink wine infused with bitter realgar to fend off all spirits. Fa Hei gave Xu Xian a package wrapped in silk.

“Here is wine and realgar. Let her drink and prove herself true.”

Xu Xian angrily defended his wife, “Lady White could drink a thousand cups and withstand every enchantment that you cast upon her.”

But, truth be told, in his heart a spot of icy doubt was growing.

When the Festival came, Xu Xian longed to throw the wine in a ditch and trust his wife. He dreaded hurting her with the outrageous, nonsensical claims of Fa Hei. Nevertheless, Fa Hei was known for his scholarship. Could he be right? No, never!


The evening of the Festival, Xu Xian still battled his doubts. Finally he thought to prove himself right. If she drank just once, he could expose Fa Hei as a scheming charlatan. Even a single swallow would prove Fa Hei wrong. And the happy life he had known would return. He offered her the wine. He pressed it upon her.

Lady White turned pale. She resisted. “You know I’m pregnant. This is not good for the baby.”

But Xu Xian persisted, tormented by his poisoned thoughts.

“I am strong,” she thought. “I can handle a tiny sip.” And she raised the cup to her lips and let one drop pass down her throat. It scorched her lips and throat and she felt like retching. She ran to the bedroom, saying as she closed the door,

“I am ill. You must leave me alone for awhile.”

In the bedroom, despite herself, she lost control. When Xu Xian ran after her, he saw not the beautiful Lady White, but an eight-foot long white snake coiled upon their bed, an ugly, loathsome creature, head raised, eyes fixed upon him, ready, he feared, to strike. He imagined himself sliding down that dreadful gullet. He felt the horror of imagined betrayal. In that dreadful instant, Xu Xian fell dead on the floor.

Soon Lady White resumed her human shape. She saw her beloved husband, lover, father of her child lifeless. Wild with grief, she flew to Kunlun Mountain. Only there could she find a cure for death. A magical plant, the galanga, grows under a giant tree on an island in the center of a lake on top of the mountain. The mountain is guarded by the keepers of this herb: the brown deer and the white crane. They led their battalions against her in a battle which raged for days. All her magic was pitted against the powerful guards. Boldly she fought, sword in either hand, leaping from rock to rock. She grew tired, weaker because she was soon to give birth to her child. Her body crumbled in exhaustion. From the clouds appeared the ancient god of the mountain. He had seen her courage and resolve. He pitied and pardoned her. He granted her a single stem of the galanga herb to take home.

And there, slowly, Lady White was able to draw out the magic of the herb. Slowly her husband was restored to life. And in those long days her child was born.

When Xu Xian saw his wife again, he trembled. Was she truly a vile beast that had tricked him into loving her—as Fa Hei claimed? How else explain that dreadful form he had seen lying on his bed?

Lady White struggled to explain away the change. He had not seen her because she had hidden under the bed when the white snake appeared. It had been sent by Fa Hei to trick them. Xu Xian wanted but wasn’t quite able to believe her.

Sadly he took up his child and went to consult Fa Hei.

“Fool! Do you doubt your own eyes and your own reason?” Fa He’s words lashed Xu Xian. “Have you never heard of the deceitful cleverness of the serpent?”

Xu Xian still wavered, so Fa Hei imprisoned both man and son in the pagoda. “For your own safety,” he said. “Because you cannot see the evidence of your eyes. Because you would mock the laws of nature.”

Lady White called Miss Green to her side. She was determined to free her husband and child. United they stood against the cruelty of the powerful Fa Hei.

“What wickedness separates those who love each other?” Lady White demanded.

Fa Hei retorted, “What perversion leads a snake to desire the love of a man?”

Battle lines were drawn. Fa Hai called upon the forces of the skies, and Lady White on the creatures of the sea, the crabs and the fish and the giant sea creatures, to come to her aid. She caused the waters to rise to swallow up the pagoda of Fa Hei, but he used his own magic to raise the ground below the pagoda again…and again…and again.

Her magic was not sufficient to destroy the hard-hearted Fa Hei and the cruel forces that supported him. “You will never,” he vowed to Lady White, tempt Xu Xian, or any man, again. From this moment on, you will spend the millennia buried under Thunder Peak Pagoda. And Lady White vanished beneath the ground.

Miss Green fled to her home but never stopped trying to free her friend. She studied the art of battle and recruited a huge army of animals. Centuries later, she was finally victorious over the forces of Fa Hei, and Thunder Peak Pagoda crumbled into dust. Lady White was free at last.

By this time, of course, Xu Xian, a mortal man, had lived the remainder of his life, grown old, and died. And his son had died too.


copyright by Margaret French

Angeline Tubbs, the Witch of Saratoga

Intro: In an earlier post I mentioned the strange story of Angeline Tubbs, the witch of Saratoga. Here is the entire story. Some of it is true.

She came from England as a girl of fifteen. Engaged to be married, she was, to a British officer.  He came to fight the rebels in America, and she was beside him on the long voyage over and during the hardships of wartime.

She was beautiful then, with piercing black eyes and long flowing hair.  And summer or winter she wrapped her red shawl round her. Maybe it was her British officer who gave it to her.

After the Battle of Saratoga, he jilted her.  When the British troops marched south towards Albany, she was left behind in a foreign country. She walked alone from Stillwater, where the battle had taken place, through the forest to Saratoga Springs. Back then it was not a city, just swampy, rocky places, with wolves and bears all around and never a man to protect her or a woman to keep her company and give her comfort.

She lived off what is now route 9, north of Saratoga, at the bottom of a hill they call Mount Vista–or Angeline’s Hill.  She built herself a miserable hut, not fit for any decent creature to live in.  And she trapped and shot wild animals and ate them for food.  Summer or winter, sun or rain, she scrambled up the hills and over the rocks like a wild goat.  And she kept stray cats for company, twenty or more.

Some say she was never the same after she was jilted.  She was certainly not a beautiful woman when the townspeople of Saratoga knew her.  She was a wrinkled crone with a hooked nose.

Some said she had been arrested early on and sentenced to be hanged. They said the hanging failed, and the noose left its dreadful brand on her forever, robbing her of beauty. But no newspaper I could find said it ever happened.

Some said she was touched in the head.  Others claimed she was a granny woman, a witch.  But she said nothing at all.

She was in Saratoga when George Washington visited High Rock Springs though he never came to call on her.  And she was in Saratoga when Gideon Putnam, the founder of the city, built his tavern.

Mrs. Putnam, Gideon Putnam’s daughter-in-law, befriended her.  But most respectable people shunned her and laughed at her and pulled their little children away from the muttering old woman in the red shawl.  Once the townspeople mocked her and laughed at her when she came to a prayer meeting, and she ran away, shamed.

When she got too old to trap and hunt, she started coming to town to beg or tell fortunes for a few pennies.  Lots of the fortunes came true, some said.  And those same people believed she truly was a witch.

One time, William Stone and the Reverend Francis Wayland stopped at Crabb’s House at Bear Swamp, east of town.  Crabb had drawn the signs of the zodiac on the floor with a piece of charcoal.  He was standing in the middle holding a skull in one hand and a witch hazel rod in the other. He had little fires burning all around him.  Nearby, Angeline Tubbs was on her hands and knees cutting open a frog.

Old Crabb was saying, “You see?  You see?  It’s plain as day if you know what to look for.  That there quivering in the frog’s hind leg?  Well, that’s the sign we was waiting for.  You’ll live as long as every last one of your cats.  And if I was you, I’d take good care of them, cause when the last one dies, you die too.  And I ain’t got nothing more to say except you owe me what you promised.”

William Stone wrote about it in his diary in 1826, so I expect it must be true.

And Angeline Tubbs grew old and older and older still.

She saw the town grow rich, and she saw the wealthy tourists in their fancy carriages.

Seems like she cared nothing for the scorn of the townspeople.  Once a traveling photographer took a picture of her, called it “The Witch of Saratoga.” She sold copies of it to the tourists and earned herself a little money.  But whether she was ashamed or proud, no one knew.  No one asked.

Folks often claimed they’d seen a woman on Mount Vista, Angeline’s Hill, standing tall on the very edge of a cliff, arms stretched out, hair streaming in the wind, red cloak flying in the middle of dreadful storms, lightning all around her. She seemed to be talking with the spirits of the storm.  And the woman was surely Angeline Tubbs, herself.

One by one, her cats died, all twenty or more.  And when the last cat died, she died too.  Not in her own home, but in the poorhouse, in 1865.  By her own accounts, she was 104.

It was years later, in 1932, when the gilded age was a memory and only local historians remembered Angeline at all, that a man named Ben Carradine spent time in Yaddo, that special retreat for writers and other artists just on the edge of town.  By the little lake thereabouts in the early evening, he was terrified to see two ghostly spirits, one a young woman and the other a man walking beside her in a bright-red military jacket.  The young woman looked dreadfully unhappy.  Others there just laughed at Ben Carradine for being a darn fool, thinking he saw ghosts.

Years later, in the spring of 1955, he was visiting Saratoga once again from his home in Ohio.  He was driving north of town and stopped to admire a sunset.  He even got out of his car and started to climb a hill, Angeline’s hill.  Halfway up, a fast moving thunderstorm moved in.  He sought shelter under an overhanging rock.

He was in darkness in the rain when a flash of lightning lit the top of the hill on which he’d sought refuge halfway down.  A lone figure was standing on the stone ledge at the top, silhouetted against the sky.  She stood erect, arms stretched out to the raging sky.  Her long hair and wet cloak streamed out behind her. And he heard her piercing scream above him.  Another lightning bolt illuminated the woman.  She screamed again and again as the lightning flashed, the thunder cracked, the rain fell, and the wind howled.  Finally the clouds moved away, the screaming stopped, and the woman vanished.

You may believe that Ben Carradine was just a crackpot would-be writer, that he probably invented the whole thing.  Maybe so. But many of us in Saratoga suspect that Ben Carradine had seen the ghost of Angeline Tubbs, a woman more at home with the raging elements than in the town that failed to comfort or protect its own lost soul.

Copyright by Margaret French

My Mother’s House

My Mother's house now. The giant spruce is gone.

“I’ve always taken out the garbage myself. I don’t intend to change now!”

But an instant on an icy brick sidewalk shattered my elderly mother’s fragile, sponge-porous femur.

“Put on a cast and let me go home! It’s just a broken leg. People get them all the time. I’ll be fine once I get home.”

Instead the doctor had a serious talk with us. He explained why he couldn’t operate and added, “If her leg heals–a big, big if–it will take many months, and she’ll be very weak. At her age–she will almost certainly never walk again–or go home.”

Her months-long hospital stay began. For awhile, she was sundowning at night, lost in elderly delirium. She lashed out at nurses and us, disinherited my brother and me often, repented in the morning. My sister-in-law, my brother, and I sat beside her nights to prevent her from unstrapping her splint to get out of bed. Her plan was to call a taxi and go home.

“Brace yourself, “ she once warned my brother. “You’re about to hear some language you might not have heard before.” He waited, looking forward to choice new words.


He smiled wryly: “Heard that one already.”

Once she asked, “Why did you let them lock me in this dark, dank basement with rats everywhere? I want to go home.”

“Mom, You’re in the hospital, the Royal Alec. The sun is shining through your window.”

“I’m on a dirty old scow. And you know how I hate boats. See the people scowling at me? Get me home.”

Another time she said, “Margaret, last night I heard a terrible ruckus in the middle of the night, outside, on the grass. A little girl, maybe six, climbed through my window into my bed. She was afraid, so I let her stay all night.”

“That was kind of you,” I said.

When her delirium was under control, my sister-in-law, brother, and I took turns at the hospital. Evenings I went to her home: the home of a woman forgetful, legally blind, and never much of a housekeeper anyway. I needed to be busy, so I cleaned out her refrigerator, threw away the jars of jam with the blue mold on top, the dried out cold cuts, the casseroles with the funky smells, the stale lemon cookies. She’d always objected to my re-organizing her belongings. Now she’d never know.

Every morning I drove back to the hospital, and she begged to go home. She swore the hospital would be the death of her, and she would not go anywhere, except home. Once an orderly came to take her for X-Rays, but she stuck her good leg out sideways to prevent him from getting the stretcher through the door. It took several aides to gently force her leg close to the stretcher. At the elevator, she challenged the orderly:

“So, where are you taking me? The morgue?”

It was pretty funny. But the orderly looked away because he didn’t know what to say to a cranky, funny, very old woman with a huge cast on her leg.

The leg refused to heal, despite excellent care and a succession of splints, a brace, a cast. The doctors and social workers recommended a nursing home.

“But she wants to go home. Can we possibly take care of her there?”

“No.” They explained why not.

I knew they were right. It took three aides to get Mom from her bed to a wheelchair. Her cast was unwieldy and she was rarely cooperative.

The social workers promised to help her accept this decision, promised to play the heavy so she could blame them, not us or our failing resolve.

“We want to take you home, Mom. But they won’t let us.”

Her house in Edmonton had been the first she’d owned since she was a young farmwife in New Brunswick. One day, so long ago, she’d had to run to her neighbor’s house, carrying my older brother in her arms:

“Get help,” she’d said. “Our house is on fire.”

She’d left her baby, rushing home to salvage what she could. It wasn’t much. Later she’d joined the line of neighbors passing buckets of water from the well to the flames. But the house had burned to the ground and they’d lost most everything.

“I miss the photographs the most,” she’d said.

She and my father had built a new house, board by board. But then came World War II, and my father enlisted in the army. They never lived in a house of their own again until he retired. Instead, we lived mostly in a series of PMQs, permanent married quarters. Houses she was not allowed to paint. Houses where she wasn’t allowed to plant flowers more than eighteen inches from the foundation. Houses that looked just the same from one coast to the other.

After Dad retired, my parents bought a little three bedroom, white ranch. Dad moved hundreds of wheelbarrow loads of topsoil and compost to prepare a bed for the lawn. He planted an apple tree in the back yard that produced bushels of tart green apples every year, and a blue spruce in the front yard that eventually grew huge and shaded the house too much. The rugged yellow and pink rugosa roses that he planted in 1962 were still blooming decades later. Mom’s raspberry bushes outgrew the narrow strip between garage and fence. That house was her refuge, and it was there she planned to die.

Almost a half century after they moved into the house, my sister-in-law and I were visiting nursing homes for whatever life Mom had left. We found a beautiful place, near enough for her friends to visit. We moved in her favorite recliner and her red comforter,  bought a flat screen TV and cheery houseplants for her window. But she never bothered to watch television, never remembered her plants.

Come evening I began to sort everything else she owned. My sister came from her farm and together we emptied and cleaned the huge freezer in the basement where freezer-burned hamburger was nestled beside years-old packages of homemade applesauce and frozen raspberries.

I emptied the cold room in the basement where Mom had stored canned goods and staples. Many labels looked quaintly old-fashioned, some from a grocery store out of business for a good fifteen years.  I emptied cans, rinsed them, put them in recycling. When I opened one, it exploded and sprayed pumpkin over me, the kitchen walls, the ceiling—even into the dining room.

Daytime, at the hospital, I took her to hairdressing appointments, to cooking classes, to the Friday afternoon parties. She begged me to take her home instead.

Evenings I created piles of sheets, tablecloths, pillowcases, napkins, dishes, and frying pans. The basement and the garage had their own piles–of Christmas tree decorations, fabric remnants, gardening supplies.

How could I wait? Afterwards, I’d be flying home to my husband. My brother and his wife worked, and my sister and her husband lived on a farm a hundred miles away. This was my job to do.

I joked that if my mother knew what I was doing, my life wouldn’t be worth a plugged nickel. If my mother knew–it would break her heart.

Mom’s leg didn’t heal and was always unmanageable and excruciatingly uncomfortable. In the end, the doctors amputated, knowing full well the risks, but hoping to relieve her discomfort and lack of mobility. Sadly neither her body nor her mind accepted this last assault.

In her last days, she continued to ask to go home. But the home she talked about was a different place, a two-story house out of her past that I had never known, perhaps the house that had burned to its foundation so long ago.

She died two weeks after the operation, shockingly sudden, much too soon.

Soon after the funeral, we all gathered at her house, surveyed my neat piles, chose the things we wanted. I flew home.

The people who bought the little house cut down the big spruce tree, dug up the roses in the front. Now the sun must be shining inside the living room. They have young children who may be playing on the old apple tree. I am happy that life has come back to the house that my mother loved.

As I remember my weeks of sorting and discarding the belongings in her home, I ache over my sad necessary betrayal. And, more than I expected, I miss that contrary, stubborn woman who was my mother.


Copyright by Margaret French