By Kathrine Nakumura
“This isn’t my first rodeo,” my mother asserted when I tried to give her the recipe for a bleach solution as cleaning agent against COVID-19. Not sure what she meant by that, I was just glad that, after returning from the hospital to her home in Hemet after a near stroke, my 94-year-old mother had immediately launched a rigorous decontamination campaign, leaving her shoes and purse outside, stripping off all her clothes to immediately put them in the washer, and then walking straight back naked to the shower. When I caught up with her by phone she was fully clothed and preparing to mop the floors, clean the bathrooms and wipe down the kitchen counters with bleach, concerned that COVID-19 might have hitched a ride with her back from the hospital. I was just concerned she didn’t fumigate herself in the process, but was clearly told she knew what she was doing.
But what had she meant by “rodeo”? Though she had first been a business woman who started her own company in 1954, then a beloved English teacher with impeccable diction, I am getting used to these uncharacteristic lapses into frontier terminology from my South Dakota mother as she has grown older. As in, “I just won’t trade with them, I just won’t,” when she learned years ago that the Wal-Mart that doesn’t offer health insurance to all its employees had decided to move into her neighborhood. I was tempted to remind her that trading posts were long gone, but thought better of it when I saw that familiar jut of the jaw and glint of South Dakota stubborn glaring back at me. Although I never once proposed that we shop at this suddenly nefarious company, her outrage at the injustice of it all still blanketed our conversation. But in this particular conversation, it was the word “rodeo” that stuck with me, and today I finally figured out why.
When I was growing up, my mother had often told me how as a child and later as a young mother she had lived in dreaded fear of polio. How they had all lived in fear of polio. It had struck several childhood friends in her town, had been the constant companion of FDR, the only president she had known as a child, and when she had children of her own, living in a small community of parents and children, they had all feared it terribly. Two particularly bad years of polio had made it worse, years when my brothers were just learning how to swim confidently on their own, swimming holes and even swimming pools being a known place to catch the disease. To this day, my mother loves to swim like a fish loves water. She still begs us to bring our bathing suits when we come visit, as though we were all still 8 years old. A champion diver, she could do a back dive off the high dive board when she was 4. The contradiction between the water she adored and the catastrophic disease she feared, must have been quite a struggle for her.
Then, on March 26, 1953, all that changed. So odd that my mother’s return from the hospital and her cleaning spree would be exactly 67 years later to that day, a day when she would have been just 27. On that day Jonas Salk announced his discovery of the polio vaccine on CBS radio. As one, my mother and her friends had all rushed out of their houses at the same time, embraced in the street, overjoyed, relieved and thankful they would no longer have to live in fear of polio, of infantile paralysis as it was known. Their children would live, would never need leg braces or be kept alive in iron lungs. It must have been quite a scene.
My mother has told me often of Salk’s miraculous announcement, the sheer joy of it. So she’s right. This isn’t her first rodeo. This isn’t her first bucking bronco or raging bull. Yet, how could I have forgotten? Or not realized? She must have mopped countless floors, wiped down innumerable counters and cleaned hundreds of bathrooms all those years that they waited for the polio vaccine, for antibiotics, for hope, for certainty. Her own mother must have lived with that same cold fear in her heart, must have used the same or similar recipe for the simple bleach cleaning solution that I had so assuredly tried to give my mother, as though she had never had to do anything like this before.
So what I realize from “rodeo” is what a privileged life I have lived to have never really known this fear that sits and visits with us all now in the form of COVID-19. The privilege of thinking my own mother didn’t know the recipe for bleaching solution just because throughout all the years of my childhood and even into my adulthood, we hadn’t once needed to hold that recipe next to our heart, or all the dozens of other things you needed to know to keep your family safe. Not really. Not like we do now as we face our own first real rodeo.
Katherine Nakamura, March 27, 2020
Guest Contributors include press releases, guest authors, and columnists who contribute less than 4 times a year.