Excerpt from Warm Springs by Susan Richards Shreve, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Warm Springs

Traces of a Childhood at FDR's Polio Haven

By Susan Richards Shreve

Warm Springs

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All week I’d think of the conversation I’d have with my parents the following Sunday after church, collecting imagined victories, social engagements, popularity, good behavior, although I had not told them I was going to Mass every Sunday or how little I missed the long silence of Quaker Meeting, only that noon was the best time for them to call.

I had it in mind to draw the picture of a busy twelve-year-old girl living an ordinary life in a hospital at which children got better and better and never died. I would tell them of crushes and best friends and compliments from doctors on my progress and athleticism, from nurses on my good citizenship and work on behalf of others. I was, in short, deliriously happy at Warm Springs, as they desperately hoped I would be, and grateful for the opportunity to get better for free, costing my parents almost nothing, as a result of President Roosevelt’s March of Dimes, money collected in a highly successful campaign held every year on the anniversary of the president’s birth, which supported, among other things, the treatment of children at Warm Springs.

Stopped in my wheelchair in a corner of the courtyard, thinking of the dead baby, some dead baby passing sinless into heaven, substantial or insubstantial — I just didn’t think it was possible or desirable, and the thought of it, dying and going to heaven, was unacceptable. I wanted to call my mother, my darling mother, and tell her, “A baby died today in the Babies’ Ward,” and hear her soft, magical voice pressed to the receiver, saying my name. “Susan.” But of course I would never tell my parents that a baby had died. It would frighten them, so far away from me, so vulnerable to my fate.


My plan for the day, after Joey Buckley got his wheelchair, was to go with him to the candy shop, where we got to go sometimes twice a week, always on Fridays, and this was a Friday. We’d get cheese crunchies and Grapette and sit in the sun behind the buildings, where no one would expect to see two patients sunning. I’d buy him bubblegum with baseball cards as a present for getting over surgery and we’d talk. I was an excellent listener.

And when we’d finished our snacks and I had hold of little pieces of Joey Buckley’s life, we’d race our wheelchairs down the steep paved hill where on Saturday afternoons the stretchers and wheelchairs wound their way down the path between the buildings from the courtyard to the movie theater.

I wheeled across the courtyard to the top of the paved hill and looked down. I was good with a wheelchair. I could push the chair up to a high speed, take hold of the right wheel with a strong grip, and make a 180- degree spin so that my body, like a keeling racing sailboat, was nearly parallel to the sidewalk. I could wheel up that hill without stopping, without slipping backward, my hands like little vises on the wheels, the bone showing through the skin. I wanted to move as fast as the chair would go — crouch my body down low so my head was just over my knees stretched out in front of me. I stopped at the top of the hill on level ground just before the bend, but if I were to move inches into the downgrade, the chair would be off on its wild ride to the bottom of the hill and I’d be holding on for dear life. That’s how I saw myself, and imagining the speed, imagining Joey Buckley flying beside me, our hands on the wheels, ready to stop on a dime, I decided we’d do just that — we’d race down the hill this morning, early, before too many people were sitting around the courtyard on such a fine day. First, before doing anything else, we’d race to the bottom and secure our friendship like surviving warriors. We’d make it to the bottom and fall into each other’s arms.

Copyright © 2007 by Susan Richards Shreve. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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