It may have started with the Great Smog of 1952. I was three, and the air of London had become so polluted from coal-burning fires, that people were dying. There had been smogs before; London’s fogs were famous and they’d even been given an affectionate nickname. “This is a real pea-souper,” people would say, as they saw shadowy figures in front of them out of the cold, clinging smoke. I always found the fog mysterious and exciting, so long as I could hold onto my mother’s hand.
This time, though, I developed bronchial pneumonia. I don’t remember that. But I do remember opening my eyes briefly, only to close them again as I found myself in a nightmarish bottle-green world. Later, I realized I was looking through the tinted windows of an ambulance, its bell ringing to warn people someone very sick was being taken to hospital.
The next thing I recall is waking to find myself lying on my back, staring up at a mirror which reflected a room I’d never seen before. Around it and me, loomed a large metal contraption – an iron lung. Pale sunlight filtered into the room permeated by a smell of something sharp and unfamiliar. My parents were nowhere to be seen.
It wasn’t strange that the doctor ordered me to have this treatment. In the early 50s, polio often caused paralysis in children – the polio vaccine hadn’t been invented yet. The first symptoms were often a high fever and respiratory failure.
I don’t think I spent much time in the iron lung. But this stay constituted my first separation from my parents, who were only allowed to visit me once a day for half an hour. They must have been relieved to find I only had bronchial pneumonia, and would be home in a week or so, which felt like a long time to me.
For several years after, if we woke to a foggy morning, I wore a soft white muslin mask across my nose and mouth whenever I went outside. Once back home, I’d take the mask off and see a small round black mark where I’d been breathing in. Even this didn’t prevent problems with my breathing from time to time after my hospital stay.
Dr. Bailey would always come to see me. He would sit on the edge of my bed, peer over his half-moon glasses, and ask me to pull up my pyjama jacket so he could listen to my chest. He’d warm the stethoscope on his palm before placing it on various parts of my chest and back, while asking me to breathe in and out. I did the best I could, but was all too happy to drop back onto the large square feather pillows behind me, leaving my mother, her face anxious, to tuck me back in.
“Well, Mrs. Grajnert,” he said, mispronouncing her married name as everyone did, “it’s not bronchitis or pneumonia this time. I think she has asthma.”
I don’t expect my mother knew much, if anything, about it.
“But why can’t she breathe?” she said.
“I think the pneumonia weakened her lungs, and now I suspect she’s allergic to dust,” he said. “Also, the bedding is probably making it worse. You should get her a Dunlopillo.”
My mother looked blank.
“It’s made from a kind of rubber,” he said.
Mummy used to stuff the felt toys she’d made us with kapok fiber.
“No, that gets dusty too. This new type of pillow is quite comfortable, and the dust can’t get in. If you come down to my surgery, I think I have an order form for one.”
I don’t really remember this conversation, of course, but I imagine that’s how it went. I went on wheezing quietly as they talked above my head.
“And give her a nightlight with some coal tar. The vapors will help.”
The vaporiser, about six inches tall, held a tea light candle in the bottom. Into a small depression on the top my mother would pour a teaspoon or two of vaporizing fluid (made from coal tar) and the heat from the candle created vapours, said to help breathing.
She placed the lamp on the floor near my bed, so in theory the vapors would rise to my nose and mouth. The candle cast a small but comforting glow into the dark of my bedroom.
I’m pretty sure coal tar is considered a carcinogen these days, but at that time there was no other remedy. I still like the related smell of creosote, which reminds me of my mother’s care when I was sick, and of fences painted with it as a preservative. The painting always signalled the beginning of summer.
The Dunlopillo duly arrived. It smelled like the stack of tyres in the local garage, and I hated it. I couldn’t scrunch it up to make it fit my face, so my head felt as though it was bouncing off it when I tried to sleep.
When I protested, my mother explained with some patience.
“Darling, this pillow was very expensive and it’s just for you. None of the others has one.”
I began to see the benefits. They didn’t have one, so this made me special. Each time I recovered, though still expected to be in bed, it proved good for reading, just because it wasn’t too squishy. I read a lot as a child – everything from adventure stories, to classics, to comics sent by my cousins after they’d finished with them.
The asthma worried my parents more than it worried me. There were no inhalers in the 1950s, so when I had an attack, my mother put me to bed. I didn’t mind, though, because at last my parents were giving me their full attention.
I missed school when I had attacks, but my favorite elementary teacher, Mr. Vaux, would make light of my near death experiences by saying “I hear your breath has been coming in short pants again, eh?” This may have been the first pun I ever understood, and I thought it hilarious.
It didn’t seem to occur to anyone that psychological causes underlay my asthma. After my stay alone in hospital as a three-year-old, I’d gone to a summer camp the following year with my two older sisters. At six, I’d gone to a convent boarding school. I spent an anxious childhood, never expressing my anxiety directly.
In between times, there would be spells when my father was away, and my mother found it hard to concentrate on anything else. He was admitted to hospitals and convalescent homes whenever a flare-up of hepatitis-B, contracted via a blood transfusion in the war, got the better of him. In those days, this pernicious destroyer of the liver had no cure, and both my parents must have known it wouldn’t end well. As in all hospitals, visiting hours for adults were strictly limited, and children were never allowed to see the patients. The best we could hope for was to stand in the garden of the convalescent home, to spot my father sitting on the balcony, a blanket over his knees and a smile on his tired pale face, as he waved to us.
I now know these separations were reinforcing the idea of love being something which came and went, but my parents weren’t to blame. Back then, though, convinced I was smartest of the five of us, I knew the real reason – I was too naughty to be with my parents all the time. I discounted completely the fact that my blameless twin sisters accompanied me to summer camp and boarding school. They hadn’t deserved this – only I had.
I began to do everything I could to prevent my being abandoned again.
I treated my sisters kindly (most of the time). I did my chores when it was my turn. Each of us were given jobs to do: some days the washing up, some days drying the dishes, or clearing the table, or sweeping the kitchen floor. My father had drawn up a duty roster and scotch-taped it to the hutch in the kitchen.
I didn’t like tidying the bedroom I shared with Jane and Kay, of course, but I did it anyway, afraid, somewhere deep inside, of being separated from my parents again.