In 1998, I found a letter my mother (who died in 1993) wrote to my father when I was learning to walk again. He was in northern California looking for a home delivery milk route to buy while I was in the polio hospital in Santa Monica in 1951. I believe that this was so that we could get out of plague-ridden Los Angeles. Mother wrote to him that she’d been watching me with the therapists in my walking lessons, behind a window with one-way glass so that we children could not see our parents or others observing us. After the lesson, she told the therapists that she thought they were not being firm or strict enough with me. They said to her, “We find that Francine is a very sensitive three-year-old. She gets quite upset when she is reprimanded, and is discouraged by that type of instruction. However, when we encourage her, she is a model student and wants to do her best.” My mother found that to be an odd philosophy and was very surprised that it worked, given what a strong-willed child she thought me to be.
I wish that I could have known about this anecdote throughout my childhood, in order to remind her of this insight when her own strict Swiss-German-English upbringing was repeatedly visited upon me, the resulting effect being essentially to alienate me from my mother and confuse for many years my perception of what a mother’s love might look like. I wish I could have used the grownup words, “Mama, that doesn’t work with me. It just makes me more upset, especially when you spank me.” Instead, all I could do was cry – probably at times for purely selfish childish reasons – and become resentful toward her. Too bad in some ways that I couldn’t have been raised by the physical therapists.
Mother often told me that her dad would say that children should be seen and not heard, as an illustration of how much more liberal she was than her father, but also indicating that he may well have been right. I remember being held on her lap in the mornings (while she smoked) before I was school-aged. She sang to me and read stories, and she told me I’d call out in singsong from my bed, “Ma-a-a-m-a-a, come wrap-me-up-in-the-blue bla-a-a-nk-e-h-h-t” – an invitation to our morning cuddle. Mother loved babies on up through toddler age, but as children grew up, she felt they needed to be shaped and disciplined or they’d become lawless, ill-mannered heathens. Judging from families I’ve seen in supermarkets, she may have been right, but, I’d sooner have had a longer leash.
When rehabilitation was deemed successful, I was finally released, with bows on my Kenny sticks, bows in my hair, and a brace on my leg. Yes, I was a strong-willed girl, and perhaps I would have been in a wheelchair all my life had I not had that determination and the assistance of some kind people who saw my true nature.