June 3, 1951 near Saginaw, Michigan
“Dorie, ring the dinner bell, please.” Millie Pearson, her blond hair pulled back with one of her husband’s handkerchiefs tied as a babushka asked her five-year-old daughter. Barely 30 years old, Millie tipped the scales at a plump 152 pounds and stood all of five and a half feet. Being a mother, a housekeeper and the wife of a farmer had been her dream for as long as she could remember.
Dorie was a cherubic child, Daddy’s Little Angel, who had John Pearson under her control from her first breath. She had her mother’s hair and build and she wore a blue blouse that clashed with her brown and green striped shorts and yellow sandals.
“Yes, Mommy,” Dorie answered.
Dorie toddled out to the porch and down the two steps to the gravel drive. The dinnerbell was in the center of the turn around in front of the two-story farmhouse whose white paint was chipped and dull. From the windows of their upstairs bedrooms her two brothers, three-year old Mark and ten-year-old Peter watched her jump to reach the pull rope. The clanging reverberated from the house to the old wooden tool sheds, a barn that housed twenty milk cows with a milking addition on the left and twin silos to the right towering over the family’s 80 acres.
Out in the largest toolshed, John Pearson, her father, was working on his tractor. Hearing the bell he climbed on his tractor to drive it to the house. Normally, he would have walked the fifty yards to the house but he needed to make sure his repairs had been successful.
The deep putt-putt-putt of the old Model A John Deere announced to the family that their father was home for lunch. Millie called them together. “Kids, come to the table. Now that your dad is here we can eat.”
John, still clad in his striped blue overalls, Purina Dog Chow emblazoned tee shirt, green and yellow John Deere ball cap walked through the kitchen door. Tall at 6’2” and strong, sandy hair and yesterday’s stubble completed his face. That and a big grin as he found his children: Dorie, Mark and Pete arrayed around the kitchen table. Millie brought the roast in as John took his place at the head of the table. Millie took her seat opposite.
“Mark, will you say grace?”
“Yes, Daddy.” Mark always had a bit of the devil in him and as the baby of the family had made irresponsibility one of his major traits. “Now I lay me down. . .”
“That’s not right!” Besides being Daddy’s Angel, Dorie knew how to pray and how to complain.
“Is, too,” Mark said.
“You don’t know anything.”
“Hush!” Millie ordered. “Peter, why don’t you give it a try?”
“Give us this day our daily bread and butter, meat and potatoes. . .”
“Mom! He’s not saying it right either!” Dorie offered her input.
“John, you’re the father. Do something!”
“Lord, if you would not be too offended,” John implored, “I’ve been working the whole morning and I’m tired and hungry so could we just get on with the eating?”
“Amen!” Dorie concluded.
“Peter, pass the roast to your father please,” Millie said.
Peter was almost as tall as his mother. Rather than a physical presence he was more of a scholar and helping his father on the farm was not a very high priority.
Millie followed John to their bedroom after lunch. She had a sense about these sort of things but she hoped her instincts were wrong.
“It’s not like you to be taking a nap when there’s work to do, John.”
“I guess that great meal just tuckered me out.”
“I’ll try to keep the kids quiet for you.”
“Thanks, Honey. Please wake me up in an hour, OK?”
True to her promise, an hour later, Dorie was asked by Millie. “Dorie, wake up your daddy.”
Dorie entered her parent’s darkened bedroom, calmed by her father’s regular snoring.
“Daddy. Wake up.” She shook his shoulder. “Wake up, Daddy.”
John felt terrible. His joints ached and felt numb. His head was hot and his feet cold. He panicked remembering all the work he still had to do. Those navy beans would not plant themselves.
“Get your mother, quick!”
“Nothing, honey. I just need to see your mom. Please be quick!” Dorie ran from the room and skidded to a stop in front of her mother.
“Mommy, he won’t get up. He wants you.”
This was not like her man. After a dozen years of marriage she pretty well knew what to expect. Taking a nap was very out of the ordinary. Not getting up when there was work to do went beyond scary.
“Pete. You and your brother go outside and play. And take your sister with you.”
“Do we have to?”
“I don’t have time to argue. Just git!”
Millie stormed into the bedroom. The green walls enclosed a space barely large enough for their bed and two dressers. John lay on the chintz bedspread. Millie saw in his eyes something she had never seen before – fear. Her heart clutched.
“Honey. What’s wrong?”
“Can’t get up.”
She sat down next to him.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, I can’t get up.”
“John, you’re scaring me.”
“Millie, I’m sorry. My legs and hands are numb. I can’t lift them or make them do a thing.”
“I’ll call the doctor.”
“Not yet. I’m sure I will feel better in a while. Just let me rest a little longer.”
“At least let me call the ambulance.”
“We can’t afford it.”
“We have to do something.”
“Have Pete help me to the car.”
“Then we drive to St. Mary’s Hospital.”
Dorie sat beside her mother weeping. Pete paced the floor while Mark played with his model tractor. Every three minutes Pete asked Millie, “What’s wrong with Daddy?” This was followed by Mark’s worried question, “Is Daddy going to die?” All Millie knew and all she could share was, “Your daddy is just a little tired is all.”
“But he can’t walk,” Dorie wailed between her sobs.
“Kids, hush! Dr. Osher will be out in a minute. Everything is going to be OK.”
She could see it in Osher’s eyes as he emerged from the ER and walked slowly to the family he knew so well. He was old enough to remember birthing Mille and John and then a generation later their three children. Now he had to tell them.
“I’m so sorry, Millie, but your John has polio.”