Thursday, April 19, 2007

My Darling Sugar Cube

Today I received my old immunization card in the mail. I have two of them. One is from when I was a toddler in the seventies and the other is from when I first arrived in New York City just before my 22nd birthday. Due to my new gig, I have to provide proof of immunization and/or booster shots for a host of maladies that were eradicated in the last 50 years. I called my mother and asked her for the New York card since it is the most recent and I had mailed it to her for safe keeping over a decade ago. Since then, I have lived in so many different apartments and countries I am extremely proud of my forward thinking.

These immunization ruminations have made me realize that one of my earliest memories is that of my beloved polio sugar cube in Durham, North Carolina. The memory starts with my mother walking through automated doors; I am hanging onto her left hip, with my feet secured around her lower belly and her left forearm hooked midway under my backside. My mother had already obtained some sort of registration card. I was aware that there was an assembly line like quality to this doctor’s visit, and I must have been drawn to the number of children running around me. Also the array of children's furniture, the orange sherbet color of the sheetrock and the light yellow pastel color of the wood panels that stretched from the floor halfway up the wall like giant flatten reeds alerted my senses to the fact that this place was a sanctuary for kids. There is also the possibility that my mother told me what was going to happen. She had a knack for giving clear instructions to me, even though I was barely a toddler. I believe it was due to her being a graduate student. Her thesis concerning the Black Church was the pinnacle and homage to the type of activism that my grandfather had done in Anniston, Alabama. She has always been extremely conscious about not "dumbing down" any of her children and demanded clear speech from me at all times. This was balanced by her over-protectiveness which was so sublime and ready made I had made up a totem for my mother before I was in kindergarten. I have always imagined her as a deer.

A female doctor or nurse approached my mother and told her what I already knew, which was that I should congregate with the other children sitting at a large plastic table. The table to my mind's eye and bodily proportions was like a miniature round table in King Arthur's court. My only concern from the point my feet touched the floor was the snack I was about to receive since everyone else seemed to be having something to eat.

Now that I think about it, my mother may have been checking me in while I went to this waiting area. I don't remember her coming with me to the table, what I do remember is my mother whispering something in my eye before placing me down. She re-assured me in someway, but she was nervous about my eagerness. It was as if my slightly hyper-anticipation without the fear of being separated from her stuck in the back of her mind. Now and then we joke about my first day of pre-school at North Carolina Central University -- the picture shows me waving with my lunch box and backpack, while she is busy crying behind the camera -- it should have been the other way around -- at least it was for the other kids who I consoled at my table on the first day, but that was sometime after my polio sugar cube. Plus, I do remember crying later at the table because in all the mass hysterics I thought there was something to be afraid of, maybe school meant I would live here all the time and just visit home.

I remember walking, with this woman sort of guiding me from behind. She wore a white coat and had long red hair with big shaggy winged curls. I don't remember her face, but I remember her presence, she felt like some sort of teacher or coach. It was also odd because I sensed that she was very nervous about loosing me, or maybe she had not been around kids and was too apprehensive about the entire situation. I must have been taught to follow instructions very well, as I mentioned before, because I did not contest. Plus, I was in a trance; a table with kids meant a snack, which I always appreciated more than actual lunch or dinner.

Once I got to the table, I remember seeing a boy with black curly hair get up and walk away. It must have been his mother that got him. He had on a gray sweater, a white shirt and slacks. He was a bit older than me. And across the table, I remember seeing a dark haired girl in a dress. The exact color of her corduroy dress escapes me, but it seemed to me we were about the same age, which means I must have been sizing up all the other kids according to age and their abilities to communicate, which I believe most toddlers do. I was not intimidated, but I do remember feeling a little bit humbled because I did not really understand what we were suppose to do. I was awaiting instructions very patiently as my mother and grandmother probably drilled into my head by that point. I do not remember saying anything, but I remember the longing to communicate and ask questions. And, I remember being happy to be away from adults and being with others my own size. At that time I was an only child in a world of graduate students.

Immediately after sitting down in a hard plastic chair, I remember wondering if someone had wet their pants in the seat before I sat down. I must have had an experience where I had sat in some other kid’s cold piss, and it alarmed me that the seat I had chosen could have been a booby trap. I also remember looking at the red seats to my right and left, wondering if they had puddles in them too. I surmise I was starting to make judgments about things, because I have the faint recollection that depending on the condition of the seats I was going think the place a total unsanitary dump or I was going to get on with the wonderful meal I was anticipating while my mother was away working on the paperwork . . . whatever that meant.

I remember thinking that anytime my parents were at a counter, that I was suppose to be quiet and not interact with the person they were talking to, nor was I to interrupt them directly. I remember thinking, well if it is an emergency and I don't say anything she is going to ask me why I didn't speak up, while if I interrupted her transaction with something I deemed important and she did not, I would receive a verbal lashing. So, sitting at the table, I was glad to be away from that moral dilemma.

I also had an awareness that I was at a doctor's clinic (I don't think I understood the concept of a hospital until my sister was born), which meant that I had been to enough by now to know what was going on. I did not have white coat syndrome, and doctors did not mean anything particular to me. It was like I was going to get a bunch of task to do. Sometimes they were mental, like responding to auditory stimuli; and sometimes they were physical like looking into a light that made me tear-up, which really proved to be a test of nerve. I remember my father in these instances, and not my mother, giving stern instructions to look into the light, not to blink and implicitly somehow ignore the strange white man who was breathing heavily through his nostrils, with intervals of vulgarly heated air tickling my upper lip. I remember wandering what is this guy thinking so hard about, but I interpreted the test as a sign of strength with a reward at the end.

So, staring at the young girl across the table, I wanted to ask her something, and maybe I did. I remember a boy that was maybe three and a half or four sitting next to me on my right, and then there was another kid a few places to my left at the three or four o'clock position that started to cry. I expressed to the kid next to me, in a manner that I forget, that I had no idea what was going on because a crying kid is not a happy kid, and a happy kid has food. All I remember is him looking at me weird, and then swallowing a sugar cube in a small white cup. He looked at me with minor disdain that made me feel strange, but I somehow surmised that he was not in charge so who cares about his approval.

Now, I believe I have this as an early memory because I had not seen a sugar cube before that very day. It was in a little paper white condiment cup, and a nurse passed them out. In fact there were two different nurses hovering around the table at the seven and eight o'clock positions. Both had dark hair. Both had completely different temperaments. The larger of the two had short cropped hair and was working at a stainless steel cart with two or three shelves. I imagine she was placing the cubes in the cups, and then soaking them with an eye dropper. She seemed to be fairly excited and smiled throughout her task and I vaguely remember her smiling at me. The second one was skinny and looked a little like Linda Carter, but this vaccination was before the Wonder Woman series. I think I remember the women more so than the men because I was paying attention to long hair. Even men with long hair seemed to fascinate me, like the hitch hikers on the road in the 70's. I remember watching them from the car, totally spellbound by how their body sizes and figures changed according to how far away we were. As soon as I got a good look, I wondered how good a look it was; their perspective must have changed three or four times from the vantage point of a moving car. I vaguely remember the car seat, but I do believe my father and mother took me out of it early, as well as my baby stroller. My mother and father carried me everywhere.

So, I received my sugar cube and stared at it. The child that was crying was being taken away by his mother, and the tall skinny brunette looked at me unlovingly, and told me to eat it. That is all I needed to hear, I was there waiting for instructions, so I chewed it. I remember the less-than-child-loving-nurse looking over me while I felt this grainy block of sand disintegrate, making sure it went down. I did not turn to look at her. I was still staring at the girl that had caught my eye with her black hair. She was rushed off with her mother, her face without any emotions; she was in this confusing and crazy race of life just like me.

The number of children at this fair was enormous, because as I finished the flavorless morsel of sugar, I remember a feeling of disappointment that this was not going to be a real dessert or even a freakin’ meal for that matter. Somewhere in my brain I remember thinking it an injustice and that somehow my mom would make it right. Maybe it was the sense that my mother could go ask the evil nurse to bring her son out a tray of food like she was suppose to.

To be fair, the mass of kids and parents coming to this event was also the reason behind the nurses running in a mind numbing stupor of limited joy. They were probably scared they would loose an independently minded toddler or were fed up with dealing with literally hundreds of little temperaments, possibly having to force feed a sugar cube or twenty.

I don't remember much beyond being summoned from the table. I believe it was my mom who came and got me just as I had finished my cube. She smiled and grabbed me by the wrist. I don't remember turning around all the way, I kind of knew she smiled and I knew it was her automatically. But my eyes were fixed on the table and the kids coming to take my place.

This fair went on for some years because my younger sister Rosaline who is three years and eight months younger than I went to a similar set up. I remember that either it was not my turn or I was too old to participate when they dragged us back behind a curtain in assembly line fashion again and a nurse stuck a thermometer in my sister's butt like she was changing oil at Jiffy Lube. My sister screamed and cried and refused to smile at any one else that came into that little curtained off area. I remember that the curtain was not closed at first, and the nurse ran and partitioned my sister's bare buttock off from the rest of the public while she was screaming and kicking to high heaven. We were causing a scene, which my sister’s yelling did on many occasions. There was something visceral and revengeful in her tantrums and as she has matured to a woman I am slow to anger her because I don’t want to deal with the torrent of her rage, that remarkably out trumps my own calls for battle.

I was so shocked to find out from my childhood immunization card that I received my sugar cub on November 23rd 1973 a couple of days after my father's 29th birthday. I was not yet two years old, I was 21 months old. I was given a series of 4 different immunizations from birth to 21 months and this was the last one. I do not remember getting another shot until I was in my 20’s. I asked my mother if I was walking then and she said yes with a motherly giggle (I don't know too much about baby development). I don’t know why, I asked, I remember walking. I guess it just seem impossible and implausible that I was already a real person. I remember the beginning of that doctor’s visit so clearly, it is the rest that escapes me.

I don't think my vocabulary was very good because I remember wanting to say things, but not being able to, and I remember observing intensely everything going on around me. I guess it was partly because it was a new experience, but I guess it was also just mother nature -- some vestigial awareness that made me suspect of any possible dangers.

Until the revelation of this date, my mind had a slightly different picture. I thought I was older and I thought that I was bigger. Maybe I had an Afro, because I do remember it, but maybe it was just not as large and round as I had thought. The hair cut I had from pre-school until I was in the 3rd grade was called a New Yorker, because it was round on in the front and then completely square in the back with a thick kitchen. I remember my father picking that part out and me kicking and screaming to high heaven.

I talked to my father last night asking him what date we exactly moved from Kansas City, Kansas, where I was born, to Durham, North Carolina. He said it was September of 1973, so I guess that would make sense. I think I remember the drive from Kansas to North Carolina because it was such a long trip. I vaguely remember the change in landscape and watching the mid-day sun turn to twilight. I also remember a sense that we were not coming back to Kansas, or maybe my memory was sparked by the change in my total environment. In the recesses of my mind, I remember my yellow stroller with blue, red and white asterisks that spun around, and I remember the beaded curtain that hung like a veil before I walked out of one room into the hallway. It was like a shower of amber. But I surely remember the highway and traveling. My mother said that I did not make a sound during the whole trip and that they had a great sense of pride traveling with me. Then again it could have been a drive to my grandmother’s that I remember, crossing the Grandfather Mountains and my mother talking about the mountain range in very clear sentences telling me to look out of the window. “Aren’t they beautiful.” she would say.

The date also rings true in the practicality of me getting immunized at this fair. My mother and father must have felt a sense of relief that this fair was going on. I needed my last course of shots, and being new to Durham and balancing commutes to Raleigh, the event must have been an easy solution to a possibly stressful time in our young family’s life. Both of them started to teach in the university and there must have been a rush to figure everything out at the beginning of the semester.

My father answered the question, but there was also this sense that so much time had elapsed, and such a bold faced question about dates made me feel aware of my lifetime, just as it must have made him aware of it also. I wish I could find the proper way to end this entry, but I can’t, I just feel like explaining more about this time in between, especially the woman that kept me sometime after we arrived to the Southeast. She was a sweet elderly lady who cooked all day, keep a scant distance to me, but could make me fall a sleep on her big quilted and afghan covered bed in a ritualistic fashion. I remember getting up and wandering around from room to room, every wall was a freshly coated blazing choice of white. She was clean. She sometimes kept more than one of us. She set up a gate at the kitchen door. She was so slow, and seemed all knowing and totally trustful of me. I remember playing in her back yard full of crab apples, then coming in, to eat chicken and rice. I miss women like that, this calm, gardenia perfume smelling breed of women. You know the ones that only made cake out of Swan brand flour and hand picked walnuts from their sister’s backyard. Or received visitors from next door, but took the time to introduce you to a feisty eighty-year-old like you were an adult yourself.

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