Bill Stothers; Age 11; 1951; Thistletown, Canada
A little dust has accumulated, giving the thin black felt background a touch of gray. Perhaps that’s fitting for a product of an occupational therapy (OT) session 60 years ago.
I was in the first year of my polio life, confined (I’m using the term deliberately) in a rehab facility in the suburbs of Toronto, a hundred miles from home. I turned 11 that summer of 1951, and I was shell-shocked I think, taken far from family and kept on a big ward, segregated by age and gender, regulated by strict rules, and unhappy.
We all pretty much got along in Thistletown, but to a greater or lesser degree each of us wondered what the hell had happened to us. We weren’t all polio people, but we were all young.
My life was a stream of physical therapy as well as OT. And trips downtown for surgery (2) and examinations by doctors (who remembers how many of these embarrassing events?). There were no freeways, and visits from family (only two hours on Sunday afternoons) took place every two weeks. The only “treats” they were allowed to bring were ginger ale and oranges. We longed for more: the menus were awful and badly cooked. Some parents smuggled in tuna sandwiches and such, but faced disciplinary action if they were caught.
Memories of Thistletown are somewhat blurred, and I have few mementos. This creation is one. I vaguely remember using a wheelchair far too big for the skinny kid I was. It had angle brackets up the back and over the armrests, holding forearm slings on springs so that I could move my arms. Painstakingly, I picked up bits out a clutter box of seashells, glued them to black felt and made this little picture as a present for my mom and dad.
They kept it in their living room forever afterwards.
And now it has come back to me. As I look at it today, it seems like a yearning – if not quite a cry – for family, with the adult seahorse and two little ones swimming freely in a garden.
I finally did get out of Thistletown after about a year and a half. What a happy day that was. As it turns out, however, my return home was relatively brief, as I was soon packed off to a number of rehab places, including Warm Springs, Georgia, for another couple of years before finally coming home.
I learned a lot in those institutions about being alone and adapting to new situations, things that helped me thrive in later years. But I never really ever reconnected to the sense of family I see in this frame.