Four-year-old Kathryn Black spent her days waiting.
In 1954, she waited for someone to tell her where her mother had gone, then for the polio virus in her mother's body to run its course. Later she waited for her mother to shed the iron lung that sustained her in the hospital, to come home and live in the family's dining room, to spend all of each day in the rocking bed that helped her breathe.Kathryn waited for the return of life as she knew it, and after her mother's death on April 24, 1956, she waited to become just "Kathryn" instead of "the girl who lost her mother to polio."
Somewhere along the line, waiting became a habit that dogged her through a fragmented adulthood and left her feeling inexplicably depressed each spring.
At 39, newly divorced, in therapy and alone in San Francisco, she tried to make sense of her deep, daily longing.
Only then did she realize how little she knew about the disease that killed her mother and drove away her father, leaving Kathryn and her brother to be raised by their grandparents.
Like millions of Americans, Black had spent more than 30 years blocking memories of the virus that made headlines in the '40s and '50s, then disappeared without a trace.
"Research stopped in mid-sentence because the funding dried up," says Black. A generation frightened by an unknown enemy breathed a sigh of relief, then returned to everyday life.
Her story was one of the bleakest. Her mother, then 28, came down with one of the worst polio cases on record. It left her unable to move, breathe, swallow or cough on her own. After more than a year in hospitals and rehab centers, she was sent home to a family that had disintegrated in her absence.
Black's father turned to alcohol, spent random days at home with his paralyzed wife and children, then abandoned the family altogether after Virginia's death.
"We went many years never knowing where he was," Black remembers. They were reunited in 1988 when he had surgery for a heart aneurysm, and she began to ask him questions about her mother.
"He told me things I didn't want to hear," she says, "about their arguments and how she left him on several occasions."
She came to understand how rootless she was, to see her life as "a whole series of moving and starting over, always erasing what I had done before."
To mark her 40th birthday, Black sent letters to 30 lifelong friends and asked them to write down a memory of her. She left their responses unopened until the set was complete, then took them to her favorite coffee shop, ordered a latte and started to read.
"It was the beginning of me trying to put together a past," she says or, as she visualizes it, to rebuild the picket fence around her childhood. Each memory became a plank in that fence.
At first she compiled information for herself. Over time, her research project grew into a social history of an era Americans swept under the carpet the instant Jonas Salk invented a polio vaccine.
"In the Shadow Of Polio: A Personal and Social History" (Addison Wesley, $23) is the result. In it, Black combines her story with a narrative about the polio epidemic that haunted post-war Americans through the 1950s.
Although only one in 1,000 people fell prey to the crippling virus, no one alive at the time survived unscathed.
Epidemics of diagnosed polio cropped up every few years from 1916 through 1954, striking randomly and gradually growing in size. By the time Virginia Black got polio, scientists knew only that caseloads grew during summer months and struck more children than adults.
"Fear hung like heat in the summer," Black writes. "No one knew how you got it. Did you breathe it in, swallow it in contaminated milk, drink it down at a public fountain, or get it from flies on your picnic lunch?
Mothers admonished children who forgot to wash their hands or thoughtlessly chewed on pencil erasers: "Do you want to end up in an iron lung?" Local swimming pools and movie theaters were closed, and parents were urged to put their children to bed before dark and give them afternoon naps.
Although much is still unknown about the virus, we do know that it has been around since at least 1500 B.C. and until the 20th century was probably spread throughout the population in contaminated food and water supplies. It gave most infants mild flu-like symptoms and lifetime immunity but crippled some and killed a few. Only after open sewers were closed did Americans avoid exposure and lose their widespread immunity.
Most of the time the polio virus went no further than the digestive tract, causing temporary discomfort, sore throat, upset stomach and flu that was misdiagnosed as a bad cold. Then it left the body through the bowels and the saliva.
In 3 percent or 4 percent of those exposed to the virus, however, it coursed through the blood, finding the central nervous system and destroying the cells that direct the muscles to move. Tragically, it avoided the cells that sent pain messages to the brain, leaving polio victims to suffer excruciating pain as they lay motionless in their iron lungs.
Polio's connection with summer is more puzzling, although scientists have concluded that warm weather gave people more contact with other people. It was the crowds, not the swimming pools, flies or drinking water, that allowed the virus to spread.
Black and her brother most likely brought the virus home from school. Both had high fevers and flu the month before their mother fell ill.
Ironically, a few weeks before Virginia Black was diagnosed with the most deadly form of the disease - a combination of two forms called bulbospinal polio - 2 million school children across the country participated in the national field tests of the Salk vaccine. By the time she died in 1956, the vaccine was widely available.
Forty years later, Black has her own family - husband Jens Husted and sons Ian and William.
"I think the family I have made gives me something firm to stand on so I can look back and write about the destruction of my family of origin. Without them, it would have been too bleak."
Black lives in the Boulder, Colo., neighborhood she lived in when her mother died and in which she was raised by her grandparents.
She sees "In the Shadow of Polio" as a story of renewal and hopes it can show that "out of sorrow and pain can come a life that is happy and fulfilling. My family's catastrophe was polio, but it's something anyone with loss can relate to."