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Mirror, Mirror

By: Ardis E. Parshall - April 10, 2013

From the Relief Society Magazine, October 1951 –

Mirror, Mirror

By Marjorie Linthurst

Julie Patten’s thin hand shook as she clenched the back of the doctor’s chair. it was time again to see if her little son, Johnny, would be able to walk, and again, looking at the big mirror at the end of the exercise room, she felt the old familiar chill start up her spine.

Miss Cassier supported Johnny’s five-year-old body carefully in readiness for the doctor’s signal.

He’s so thin, thought Julie.

“You see that mirror over there, Johnny,” the doctor was saying, “now what we want you to do is to walk right up to it until you touch yourself.”

Johnny nodded eagerly, leaning forward as though he would surely break away from Miss Cassier and run across the room. When she eased him to his feet, however, only one foot would hold him. The other gave away as it had the time before.

Julie winced at the surprise and resentment on his face.

“I used to do it, Mommy,” he cried, “I used to walk!”

Julie turned away to hide the tears in her eyes. Opening the screen door that connected the clinic with its sunny patio, she limped to a bench in the corner. It was an old limp, one she’d had since the childhood polio attack that had almost robbed her of life.

This is not I, she thought, this could not be happening to my son, too.

Oblivious to the soft-footed nurses who moved swiftly to and fro behind the bright zinnias that bordered the path, she was thinking of Philip, who’d always wanted a son, and how happy he had been when she gave him one five years after they were married – the only child ever to be given them.

The clinic door clicked open and from behind his little wheelchair, Johnny smiled across the lawn to her.

“We’re going out for our swim now. Don’t you want to watch?” The cheer in his voice brought an edge to Julie’s mood, with a recollection of that same forced joviality which had been a part of her own childhood.

She cleared her throat. “No, thanks, I feel tired. I think I’ll rest here.” She waved and smiled.

Johnny raised his bathrobed arm, wiggling his fingers.

Julie looked after them, feeling the warm solitude closing in once more. When they’re little, she thought, you warn yourself not to care too much, then, lulled by the good years, you find that already they are a part of you.

She caught a strand of brown hair away from the brisk little breeze and held it against her cheek.

It had been only last year about this time that the three of them started off so gloriously to the beach where Philip had rented a cottage.

Oh, if only we had stayed home, thought Julie, leaning back against the stonewall, if only we could go back.

That August afternoon when Philip brought Johnny up the weathered wooden steps to where she was sitting with a friend on the cottage porch, she knew. The familiar terrible headache, the weakness, the fever – polio.

They had taken him at once to the children’s hospital, and waited. Actually it was only eight hours before the nurse called her in to see him, but it seemed as though she had already waited all of his lifetime.

The doctors had been cheerful. For months they believed that he would recover completely. Later, they told her that her son would walk always with a limp.

What a duet, she had thought bitterly, mother and son.

Miss Cassier would be bringing Jimmy back soon now. Philip was due at noon to pick them up. “How’s my boy?” he’d say, more to Johnny than to her.

Later she’d tell him that Johnny had failed to walk again. In front of Johnny she could say nothing. How can you tell a child that this thing is going to be a part of him all his life – that a limp will become his personality.

She knew all of these things because once, she, too, had faced a mirror like the one in the clinic and had seen herself, a strange little girl, dragging a thin, crippled foot along the floor.

She was still thinking of these things when Philip and Miss Cassier came back from the pool. Philip had been around watching Johnny perform. They were both grinning as Philip pushed Johnny’s chair toward her.

After they were settled in the car and Philip had gone around to the driver’s side to get in, Miss Cassier came over to tell Johnny goodbye. He smiled cheerfully and waved to her as they drove off.

Molly and Joe Larsen, who were partners in Philip’s advertising agency, and some new people, the Calhouns, were coming to dinner that evening. Coming up the steps behind Philip, Julie thought of these people in connection with him. What of a man tied to a family such as this one? Had Molly and Joe and all the other friends wondered why Philip had married a cripple, dark, handsome, clever Philip Patten who could have had any girl?

They came through the hall to the kitchen. Already Nina had steaming bowls of her delicate onion soup and little brown crackers and cheese set out on the table.

“You’re wonderful,” Julie told her. She threw her jacket upon the dinette chair, smiling at this middle-aged woman who was more friend than servant. “How did you know I thought it might be a day for soup?”

“Leaves are starting to drop, and there’s a nip in the air.” Nina smoothed the cushion behind Jimmy’s back.

“He didn’t make it again, Nina,” said Julie.

“He will,” vowed Nina quickly. “Some day you’ll never know there had been anything the matter.”

Geraniums and sunshine, clean, shining blue pottery, cheer. Oh, Nina, she thought, how I wish that I could believe in fairy tales, too.

“Oh, Mary Benton called,” said Nina as Philip came back from washing Johnny’s hands and they sat down. “She’s dropping by this afternoon. Says she won’t take no for an answer.”

An unpleasant tremor hit Julie. She would, she thought.

They ate lunch and Nina took Johnny into his room for a rest. Julie came around to sit beside Philip at the table.

“Don’t let Mary worry you,” he said, narrowing his dark eyes, smiling.

Julie looked at him, sensing both his concern and impatience with her mood.

“She makes me feel inadequate.”

“But why?” Phil’s hand touched the curve of her chin.

“Well, there was a job we were both applying for once, a very good position. She got it, although I was better qualified. I told that to the personnel director and I could see by the look on his face that it was my limp that disqualified me. Mary and I got to talking after the interviews were over …” Her voice tapered off, and Phil jumped to his feet and looked at his watch.

“Don’t let her worry you,” he said, kissing her, “forget about that old job. That was years ago.”

“She still has it,” said Julie.

He left for the agency, and Julie slipped on a fresh dress, going over I her mind the little details that needed attention. Mustn’t forget to put a light blanket over Johnny, or put the little crab sandwiches Nina had made before going out, into the refrigerator.

When the doorbell chimed she stopped, dead calm, with what she was doing, and then with the same tense, withdrawn air went to answer the door.

Mary came in with a flourish, swooping into the sunroom and into a gay little chair like a bee dips into a flower. She was all bee, yellow hair, fuzzy brown lashes, tan eyes.

After she was settled, Julie handed her a glass of cherryade and sat down carefully on the bright tropical flowers of the couch, tucking the awkward foot under her body.

Suddenly Mary leaned forward, her vivacious face bursting with pride.

“Remember Stan Townsley?” she asked.

“Son of the store owner, Townsley?”

“The same,” Mary flicked a thread from her nylons, and a diamond blazed out at Julie from her left hand.

“How nice,” Julie said numbly. The best job. The richest husband.

“Don’t let her worry you, Julie,” Philip had said. “Remember Stan Townsley has been married before.”

Julie said, with an effort, “I’m so glad, when is it to be?”

“We want a December wedding.” Mary leaned back in the chair, stretching her arms above her head. “Can’t you imagine the Caribbean by moonlight?”

Julie made her lips form appropriate words.

“But Johnny, poor, poor baby, how is he?” Mary asked, solicitously.

It makes her feel surer of herself, seeing me so unsettled, thought Julie.

Johnny was up when Julie came back in the house after waving Mary off down the hill, and Philip came in as she was getting the clothes from the closet. He dropped his coat limply on the vanity bench.

‘Hi.” She put the coat on a hanger briskly, patting his face as she limped by. “We don’t have much time, Phil.”

“I know.” He sat up straighter. “I’ll take a quick shower.” Getting clean things from his dresser, he said, “Nina works too hard, do you know it?”

You do, too, thought Julie, buckling her black evening sandals, you work and work and work and come home at night to play with Johnny because he can’t get out like other little boys.

Quickly, she got into the black slip with its soft black overskirt and straight mandarin jacket. Red. Philip liked red. The first time she’d worn this dress she and Phil and Joe and Molly had gone out to dinner together to celebrate Johnny’s arrival, when he was only three weeks old. That had been, as Molly said, the event of the first baby sitter. Julie had worried all through dinner, but, according to Molly, that kind of worry was as things ought to be.

Philip finished dressing, knotting his tie with an expert hand, but by the time Julie arrived in the kitchen, Johnny was already finished eating and he had been tucked on the big low couch with his bright little cars to play with.

“He just wouldn’t wait, Mrs. Patten.” Nina’s capable hands were busy opening olives, rinsing them, as she spoke. “He didn’t eat much lunch, you know.”

“Oh, I know.”

There were voices in the living room, which meant that the company had already arrived. Julie stood irresolute, watching Johnny who had slid off the couch and was now playing much as any normal child would, upon the rug. Bending swiftly, Julie kissed the back of his neck.

“May I come in, too, Mommy?”

“Not now, dear.”

Not all of Philip’s pitiful family for the company at once.

Julie limped to the door. “Nina’ll bring you in later. Uncle Joe brought some new people tonight.”

“Wish I could come now.” The little red automobile trembled in his hand.

She blew him a kiss. “Later.”

“Mommy!” The urgency in his voice made her turn to look his way. “Mommy, am I going to ever walk?”

“Yes, oh, yes, of course, Johnny!” Quickly she knelt beside him, cradling his head, but he pushed her away with those same sturdy little hands that had trembled a moment ago.

“Will I limp like you?” he demanded.

Julie was silent, her face miserable. Finally she sighed and said, “Yes, Johnny.”

“But limping never made any difference to you, Mommy.”

Julie hesitated. Now was the chance to tell him how hard it would be to live with a defect.

But no, she thought, I’ve been a pattern so far. I think it’s a blessing to both of us that I’ve been allowed to be a pattern.

“No, not really,” she said. Quickly she handed him his crutches and helped him up.

As they went into the living room together, Julie caught sight of herself in the mantel mirror. The girl in the red mandarin jacket limped, yes, so that the gold earrings swung like pendulums upon her bright cheeks, only now the limp was a banner for her small son.

“Hello, everybody,” she said gaily, “we’re here at last. Crutches are slow, but he’ll be walking without them soon.”

“Wonderful,” said Joe, “Phil was telling us.”

“Of course,” Julie continued casually, “the doctors say he’ll always limp, but in a man it’s quite distinguished, don’t you think?”

And although there was not a sound in the room except the crackling fire, Julie could hear the clear, beautiful laughter of their applause.



2 Comments »

  1. “When they’re little, she thought, you warn yourself not to care too much…”
    We’re not very far removed from the days of anxiety and terrors of childhood diseases and mortality. Now we need to remember a slogan from Easter Seals that I saw long ago, “We all have handicaps. But for some of us, they show.”

    Comment by charlene — April 11, 2013 @ 12:14 pm

  2. It’s amazing how prevalent and frightening polio was, and now we hardly remember that such a thing existed just a few decades ago.

    Comment by lindberg — April 11, 2013 @ 5:34 pm

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