Poet Serotte turns to prose to recreate her childhood as a Sephardic Jew in post-WWII New York.
Her memoir is filled with the requisite ethnic eccentricities, from hovering aunts to mouth-watering exotic foods. What transforms this from a predictable child-of-immigrants-coming-of-age saga is the author’s struggle with polio. Her carefree girlhood came to an abrupt halt in September 1954, when she collapsed one evening next to her mother’s mah-jongg table. Rushed to a hospital, seven-year-old Brenda learned that she was better off than some: She hadn’t contracted bulbar polio, a fate that would have consigned her to an iron lung. The polio ward she called home for several months housed some bulbar patients, and staff and patients alike were always listening carefully for the click of their tongues, the only way they could communicate if something went wrong—if, for example, their iron lung stopped working. Serotte brilliantly recreates the sheer dread the very word “polio” evoked in those pre–Jonas Salk days. Her description of her family’s response to her illness is unflinching. Her father doted without coddling, but her mother was barely able to cope. An emotionally withdrawn woman to begin with, she could not stand the fact that her lovely daughter would forever be crippled; her grief and shame culminated in an unsuccessful suicide attempt. During her long hospital convalescence, Brenda was forced to find a surrogate mother in Mrs. Cook, whose daughter also had polio. Throughout her ordeal, Serotte was terrifically brave, determined not only to live, but to learn how to walk before her cousin’s wedding in December.
An unquestionably heroic narrative that never sounds preening or self-satisfied.