Around age ten to twelve, I was visiting my older sister, whom I looked up to as a fascinating role model auntie. (Different dad; she was nearly nineteen when I was born.) I was allowed to take the three-hour Greyhound Bus ride to San Francisco and stay with her and her family. We were shopping one day, in the very early 60’s or very late 50’s, when one wore white gloves downtown in the city. We were buying me a heavy wool coat, which I not only did not bring but didn’t even own. My sister was a little taken aback that I did not have one; San Francisco in the summer is often cool and foggy. While walking along the sidewalk, enjoying the foreign atmosphere of a city, looking forward to riding a cable car or going to the huge Sprouse-Reitz for an ice cream soda, my sister commented, “I gave that lady a dirty look. I always give people a dirty look when they stare at you.”
I felt once again the pride at my big sister’s love for me. But, I had not realized that anyone was staring at me, other than the kids at school who had been so obvious about it (but eventually got used to my gimpy lurching gait). I was embarrassed that I had not known this. People were staring at me. On the streets of San Francisco. Probably everywhere I went. I felt so foolish. I never felt any resentment at my sister’s comment; I just felt that she loved me and was sticking up for me.
But I felt like I needed to do several things, maybe a little contradictory: buck up and deal with it — pretend I didn’t care, act proud of who I was even though I was ashamed of my crippled walk, my weird unfeminine walk, sort of pretend I wasn’t limping at all even though my smaller leg was two inches shorter – and try and learn to walk differently, to bend my left knee a little to make that longer leg seem less long. That was not going to help disguise the weakness and paralysis, however. A third option was to not walk in front of people too much unless I had to.
That last bit was going to prove almost impossible, especially as a lifelong approach, though I mastered it in many circumstances, particularly those involving meeting boys outside of school. If you stand on the sidelines, or spend the party sitting down, or stay in the car at the drive-in, no one can see how you walk. (Except that I loved to dance, and there’s no hiding paralysis when you’re dancing.) But I began to beg off doing things in PE at school more and more. I didn’t want to have people’s thoughts stimulated: “She can’t do this, she looks really weird, gimpy, stupid, crippled; our team will lose if she plays with us.” I didn’t want people to call me a “spaz” for spastic. And I sure didn’t want people to know that sometimes, in fact, one or another of my toes was a little spastic; I didn’t always have control over what little nerve action existed down there. I was just glad the toe moved at all, in its paralyzed foot environment.
Thank God for swimming pools, where, although the entirety of my weak, skinny, drop foot limb was laid bare when I wore a swimsuit, once I was in the water, I was free and able. I was almost equal.
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