I was in a rehab hospital for polio treatment in Santa Monica, CA, for six months, after an initial isolation stay of two weeks in a small tiled room in a general hospital in Los Angeles. The isolation period was heartbreaking for a three-year-old. My parents could not touch me and stopped coming to see me so that I, and they, would not be upset, after a particularly tearful early visit when I begged to be picked up, held, and taken home.
At the rehab facility, there were around thirty of us crippled children in a roomful of cribs. Every morning, carried or wheeled to be seated at long, low, children’s tables over toward the windows in our big room, we had either oatmeal, a fried egg sunny side up, or scrambled eggs. For lunch, we had soup, and/or cottage cheese with canned fruit. Dinners were totally unmemorable – it’s possible I only remember the foods I disliked or came to detest as a child. I don’t recall eating any other foods but these, though surely there must have been at least some variety. This was at least a nutritional menu – muscles affected by polio get their best chance for function on a high protein but balanced diet.
It took me decades after leaving the hospital to be able to stomach oatmeal, fried eggs (particularly the yolk), or cottage cheese without gagging, and soup often seemed a punishment. (Now there is no dish I love preparing from scratch in the autumn and winter more than a hearty soup, and I also love oatmeal and eggs.) I could never find the words to express these preferences to my mother, and she felt I should “learn to eat these foods.” She even said, “You ate this in the hospital all the time!” When a child is taken away and leads her own life, like a soldier away during war time, or an incarcerated innocent, there are experiences that cannot be fully described or understood. And if I’d been able to find the vocabulary for my young memories, I am quite sure they’d have been met with a “Tch,” and tight irritated downturned lips by my mother. After all, she had withstood being the eldest of twelve children and her first husband had left her. It was never too early to learn to be strong, if not stoic.
My mom’s cooking was okay, although she cooked meat as if it were the enemy – well-done, dry, and dead as a doornail. (Her baking was professional grade, however.) When I was old enough to reach the stove and also be trusted that I would not set something on fire or burn myself, I began learning to cook. Grilled cheese sandwiches, scrambled eggs, and eventually tacos. But that was way off into the future, and in my early childhood years I felt that eating was merely something I was required to do, a continuation of institutional meals, essentially, unless it was watermelon, popcorn or ice cream.