When you grow up with something, you tend not to think too much about it. It's just there, like your family's weird fondness for peanut butter, lettuce, and mayonnaise sandwiches or my grandfather’s kindness and my uncle’s polio.
I can't remember a childhood summer that didn't involve water in some way. Mama would pack us up in the car and off we'd go almost every day to one
Northern Virginia pool or another. Or even
better, we might spend a few blissful weeks visiting the aunts - Aunt Dotty at Uncas on Connecticut Thames or Aunt Nell in . Often my mother's brother,
Uncle Sam, would be visiting. He and my mother were both excellent swimmers,
with an effortless freestyle stroke, cutting through the water, arms rotating
as regularly as a paddle wheel, heads rising for air. Madison
There was a reason for their expertise. Both of them had contracted polio when they were young. My mother bore little evidence of it, aside from possibly shortened stature, but my uncle was - as they would have said in the 1930s - severely crippled. Swimming had been an important part of his therapy and as a result, they both became adept in the water.
As a child I gave no thought to Uncle Sam's appearance or how his much smaller left leg looked below his swimsuit when he was there on the beach with us. I was just glad he was visiting - in spite of being single, he always brought my sister and me the best gifts. Yes, he walked differently, his hips rotating with each step, the delayed swing of his weaker leg. But that was Uncle Sam. It was what made him who he was, just like the occasional ear-shattering shriek of my grandmother's hearing aid was a part of her.
His was not an easy childhood; most of it was filled with painful operation after operation, followed by months in bed. He did become so proficient at knitting that as an adult he made all his own argyle socks, and I'm sure the hours spent reading were a factor in his becoming an English professor.
Like everything else I never questioned or thought too deeply about, his father was just my grandfather, the kind retired geologist poring over oil leases in his retirement, or the person who told me pixies really did live in the shade garden under the big magnolia. I gave no more thought to my grandfather’s inner life than I did to those pixies.
Before Uncle Sam died I said something to the effect that wasn’t it wonderful how determined his father must have been, trying to conquer this horrific disease with all those operations.
Uncle Sam just looked at me with a jaundiced eye.
That adult moment with my uncle suddenly made me wonder exactly who my grandfather did it for.