From Dorothy Ellen Palmer’s Memoir

Sep 14, 2017 by

From Dorothy Ellen Palmer’s Memoir

RUN, GERALD, RUN

 
From the knees up, Gerald was the cutest boy I’d ever seen.

California Surfer Boy cute. Blue eyes. Unruly blonde hair a still-respectful tad too long. And a slow, crooked smile. He had a Muskoka cottage, was President of the Debate Team, and had been to Paris, France. In 1971, when I was sixteen and he was eighteen, he lived up the hill from me on Delma Drive, in our Toronto suburb of Alderwood, where all the mothers loved him.

Even mine. And she didn’t love anybody.

When Gerald passed our front porch, when he stopped to chat up my mother, I glimpsed what my father must once have seen in her. She smiled. She laughed. Sounded smart and sassy. Gerald relaxed her in a way I never could. Watching him converse so effortlessly with the woman who seldom spoke to me felt like comfort food, like home should be.

But when Gerald smiled at me, I puked.

In September, the first time he knocked on my front door and asked for me, I flushed the toilet, climbed out the bathroom window, vaulted a hedge, and vamoosed through three back yards. I refused to acknowledge, I flatly denied, I could not risk, any kinship or solidarity between us. I had to be seen as a normal teenage girl. I needed to believe I was one.

And you can’t be normal with a gimpy albatross around your neck.

You won’t pass for normal if someone spots a gimp then stares at you. I’d prevent that scrutiny at any cost. With effort, I could mask my limp. And thanks to teen years that saw the undisputed reign of elephant-ear bell-bottoms, my shoes didn’t betray me. Like a cloak of invisibility, my pants fanned out over my feet to scrape the floor. I told myself nobody knew I crammed stunted nubs of feet into boy’s orthopedic oxfords, reinforced black leather: size two.

Bell bottoms would always be in style. I could hide my deformity forever.

If friends and neighbours remembered my operations and childhood crutches, I told myself they wrote it off like a skiing accident, as something from which I’d fully recovered. I’d never been teased in public; that was the barometer. I gave no credit to the fact my father was the Akela of Alderwood’s thriving Boy Scout troop, and thus held the badge and camping fate of my male peers in his hands. I equally dismissed what was likely an even greater deterrent: my mother had the most cutting tongue on the street and sharpened it there daily.

I told myself only this: I walked to high school with my friends. I belonged.

Knowing I stood on the precarious edge of that able-bodied circle, in daily fear of being pushed out, I certainly wasn’t going to take myself out. To be a normal girl with every right to a normal boyfriend, I had to reject Gerald on principle. This is where it gets complicated, and shameful. Because I was very attracted to Gerald. I imagined burying my California boy waist-deep in the sand. Then, when other girls walked by, they’d look at me with envy. I fantasized miraculous operations that cured my not-so-Tiny Tim, sent him running tanned and healthy into my arms. Then he could be my smart, good-looking boyfriend. We’d be a match that matched.

But without a miracle cure, Gerald was as good as dead to me.

He was a “boot baby,” a “feeb,” a “polio retard.” We casually used multiple insults that are deservedly verboten now, but were every-day common then. My teacher and minister used them. Some frowned on words like wop or kike, but all of Alderwood waved at Gerald with the same “joke”: “Hey, Gimp Boy! Where’s the circus?”

My parents’ generation grew up with polio, had friends live with it and die from it.

But I knew only Gerald. In 1952, using the now famous HeLa cancer cells, stolen from a black woman named Henrietta Lacks, Dr. Jonas Salk developed the poliomyelitis vaccine. He released it in April 1955, two months before my birth. Thanks to the Canadian health care that paid for it, and a public wise enough to embrace it, the vaccine effectively eradicated the disease. My experience of polio was limited to Franklin Roosevelt and those lovely blonde children with slim silver braces tucked under their chairs, the angelic poster children for the March of Dimes.

Only two years my senior, Gerald had not been so lucky.

He couldn’t wear bell bottoms. Two heavy black boots entombed his feet and calves. Six leather straps and buckles cinched up his shins. Studded with metal knobs, his boots hooked into the metal braces that armored both sides of each leg. A metal rung pierced under each boot. In summer, he used a crutch in his left hand; in winter, he needed one in each hand.

The second-time Gerald came calling, he knocked on my side door.

In a calculated geometric precision, he then backed off to the exact spot where he could see if I tried to exit from either my bedroom window or the front door. My mother pushed me to his door and made me open it. All three of us sat in the living room for one half hour. Then she stood up, shook his hand as if he were a charming Fuller Brush salesman, and invited him back for Sunday lunch. After that lunch, served to us on trays in the basement, I invited him back.

Gerald pitched me a woo that moved me as no man has ever done since.

Books. He brought me books. Not library books, not lenders. New books. Ones he’d chosen for me. Bought with his own money. He’d walked all the way up to W.H. Smith in our new mall, Sherway Gardens. In an extravagance no one ever offered me, he bought two copies of three novels. Ears turning scarlet, he asked me which book I might like to read together first.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou.

The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart.

And Look Homeward Angel, by Thomas Wolfe.

Two novels I longed to read and the book of my heart. The stone angel on its cover took wing. When I told Gerald I’d already read Thomas Wolfe, he grinned. He asked my opinion. He took notes. He promised to go home and read it that night if I’d agree to talk about it with him tomorrow. Look Homeward, Angel is five hundred pages of dense, lyrical microprint. Discovering a coquette I didn’t know I possessed, I said he could only come back if he’d read it by tomorrow. I worried all night he might fail and want his books back. He arrived with his favourite passages meticulously underlined. Complete with marginalia.

By Thanksgiving, we’d shared our reading lists and I’d set our boundaries.

From opposite corners of my basement, we worshipped Dickens and despised Moby Dick. We marveled at Steal this Book and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; memorized The Lorax and John F. Kennedy’s Inauguration Speech. Hot off the presses, we devoured Lives of Girls and Women, by Alice Munro. It’s impossible to explain what a miracle it was, four decades ago: A book by a living Canadian writer, by a woman writer, a young woman, still in her thirties.

There’s a moment in life when you first feel appreciated as an adult. You never forget it.

And if you’re lucky, especially back in 1971, there’s a moment as a young woman when you know a young man respects you as his thinking equal, when together you see a future you didn’t dare admit you wanted. Gerald and Ms. Munro gave me both moments. I’m happy to finally thank them. He did it by saying something extraordinary about her book: “I’m not a girl. I’ll never be a woman. You’re both, Dorothy. I’m here to listen.”

I may have become an English teacher because of that moment, but Gerald was the kind of natural mentor I’ve never been. Patient. Empathetic. Encouraging. Empowering. He made me feel like a grown-up Nancy Drew cracking The Mystery of the Tortured Teenager. He loved ideas without needing to take credit for them. Disagreed without judgement or ego. Debated without needing to win. By example, by not even trying, he helped me see beyond myself.

There was no kindness or generosity in my home. Those I learned from Gerald.

And hope. Just as his parents assumed he’d go to university, he assumed I would. When I said no one — no teacher, family member, or friend — had ever suggested such an unspeakably impossible thing and certainly no one would ever pay for it, he brought me scholarship applications. His belief in me made me believe I could be both teacher and writer.

And I told him we couldn’t leave the basement. I insisted ours was a purely literary friendship, like Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, before he got it into his silly head to scoop an invalid into his arms blanket and all. That embrace I would not be repeating. As long as Gerald kept the basement blanket over his legs, I told myself I could agree to see him without having to be seen with him. He embodied the 1970’s “friend zone.” No benefits considered.

By Remembrance Day, once it got dark by suppertime, I agreed to meet at his house, but we never went out together. Not to a movie. Not to Il Paesano, our local pizzeria. Thankfully, his commuting father drove him downtown to private school, so Gerald never asked to walk me home from school. I’d have said no. By my decree, if we passed in the street, we kept moving. I said nothing to my girlfriends. I kept him in his basement box, my guilty pleasure.

But I knew I was being courted by a real live boy. Slowly. Honestly. Irresistibly.

The boy who couldn’t sing, wrote funny new lyrics to my favourite Gordon Lightfoot songs and asked me to sing them to him. He gave me standing ovations, pulled himself to his feet when it clearly hurt his legs and his pride to do so. When I let it slip that I disliked my frizzy red hair, longed for a yard of pin-straight blonde hair like Peggy Lipton on Mod Squad, long before Google, he found every ginger heroine in print and portrait and sang her curly praises. Best of all, he stopped talking to my mother beyond required pleasantries. He saved all his charm for me.

In December, telling myself my basement really was chilly, after the umpteenth invite to share his blanket, I did so. I wasn’t really holding his hand if both hands were under said blanket. Eventually, I closed my eyes and let him kiss me. Inevitably, we kissed like a hot Jacuzzi. But it went no further because, for the first time, I was the mobile one. Fast enough to escape, strong enough to keep a boy from holding me down for a quick feel or worse.

That power was new to me. And I liked it.

Today, some half a century later, I wonder if that was the real reason all the mothers liked Gerald. If they looked at him and saw the sexually neutered: a safe man-child. His disability and escapability were double-checked proofs that he could neither seduce, nor rape, their able-bodied daughters. If they saw him as a eunuch, that’s certainly not how he saw himself.

On Christmas Eve, Gerald invited me over to trim his tree.

Expecting that more than the tree would get trimmed.

Ordinarily, I’d be thrilled to be seen going uphill to the grander houses, but that night I took another route. In 1971, Alderwood was a young suburb fed by factories. Few could afford fences. If I skulked through its backyards like a furtive thing, I wasn’t alone. There was this very cute boy named Leo I’d been waving at since junior high as he cut past my bedroom window to Catholic school. He’d seen my nighties, my training bra, and sometimes on purpose, my birthday suit. That suited me fine because he did something no boy I knew ever did: he gawked. He whistled. He made me feel like a girl. When I posed at the window, he couldn’t see my feet.

Lately, I’d seen the Leo on Gerald’s face.

Appendages under our blanket had grown too hot for my basement. We’d graduated to Gerald’s bedroom. But, in premature denouement, I still kept pushing him off me before our rising action reached any kind of climax. He thought it was because I was a good girl. He was wrong. More than blood on the bedsheets, being called a slut by my mother, losing my virginity, or even getting pregnant, I couldn’t bear the thought of being humped by a boy in braces, braces that banged and pumped into my stumpy black shoes. But that’s not all the truth. What I truly feared was this: that he’d want to take off both his braces and my socks, that seeing each other naked below the knees would make one of us puke. And this time, it wouldn’t be me.

So I was already ambivalent, as I pussyfooted into his backyard that Christmas Eve.

It wasn’t that I didn’t like his parents. I liked them far better than mine. His father was a lawyer. His mother was the only woman I knew who worked outside the home, at a glamourous literary job: typist for a parenting magazine. With a home full of art books and paintings, they introduced me to Tom Thompson, Emily Carr, and Paul Cézanne. In equal novelty, they were the only adults I knew who were still demonstrably in love. I admired their quipping affection, marveled at their tenderness for their child. They complimented him. Hugged him. Told him they loved him. And I, who’d never seen or heard such things, was no end flattered when they asked me to please call them Dan and Denise.

Once the tree was trimmed, to escape Dan’s off-key caroling, Denise got up to make cocoa. Being a dutiful girl child, I followed her into her red and white kitchen and added the baby marshmallows. That’s when she handed me two steaming Santa mugs, put her hand on my cheek, glanced down at my frayed, floor-scraping jeans and smiled. “I’m so glad your mother and I decided to put you and Gerald together. You’re so well matched. Two peas in a pod.”

Cocoa splattered like shit on her clean kitchen floor. I ran for my coat and the door.

Of course Gerald couldn’t catch me. I only stopped when I reached my door because I didn’t want him trying to follow me through it. Not that Christmas Eve. Not ever. I kept my back turned until his chugging boots caught up to me and then I whirled on him.

“You only called on me because our mothers set it up? You agreed to that? And you never told me, not in all this time. What am I, your pity friend?”

He tried to reach for my hand. I pulled away. He tried to explain.

“No. I wanted to get to know you. Right from the start. And —”

“The start? Who bought those books? Was that a set up, too?”

When he avoided my question, the rest of his words didn’t matter. “Forget that. Now it’s more than that. You know it is. I’m glad you’re my girlfriend.”

“Your girlfriend?” I spat it like filthiest word I’d ever utter. “I’d never be that.”

“Of course you are. You know how I feel about you.”

I slapped his hand away again. “What about how I feel about you? Do you think there’s something wrong with me? There isn’t. I’m not—” I paused but didn’t stop, “I’m not a cripple.”

He took a step backward. Love still in his eyes. Love I couldn’t stand.

His face should have cracked my heart. It hardened it. I saw only that I hadn’t hurt him enough. That he’d leave my door tonight, but be back tomorrow, or next week. He’d convince me I’d spoken in anger, say he could forgive and forget, that he knew I hadn’t really meant it. He’d grin that lopsided grin and tell me I was a better person than I thought I was. And he’d mean it. And he’d be wrong. So I did the only thing I could think of to keep that from happening.

I leaned forward, grabbed his crutches, and kicked his boots out from under him.

I pushed him face-first into the snow. Then I did the worst thing possible – I laughed.

When I closed the door on him, he did not come after me. Not then. Not ever.

 

I hear he married his law partner and had five children. I hope so. I like to think of him as a legal Merlin in his crystal cave, even if this caged bird remained as tethered as Wolfe’s stone angel. It took twenty years before I made him the smallest of apologies. It took Forest Gump.

It took me that long to hear it: “Stupid is as stupid does.”

In 1994, in a crowded movie theatre, I finally saw that in refusing to be the true-hearted girlfriend Jenny to Gerald’s worthy Forrest, the fault wasn’t all mine. At the nastiest moment of fairy-tale ableism, at the “Run, Forrest, run!” moment when he ridiculously sheds his braces and discovers not only that he can walk, but run — instantly, painlessly, and effortlessly, faster than boys on bicycles — I stood up and yelled, “Horseshit. Fuck that. Fuck you for making me think he had to run. Fuck all of you for making me run from him.”

As the usher escorted me from the theatre, I glowed. Because of course I didn’t just mean Forrest. I’d finally called out the most crippling lie of all: that we should all want to be cured like Tiny Tim, that our disabled selves aren’t good enough, aren’t equal, unless we are cured. Forrest couldn’t out run his authentic self. None of us can. And none of us should ever be asked to try.

I hope Gerald has forgiven me. I’m working on that myself.

In this, the first time I’ve told our story, I confess that I treated my first boyfriend the way my world treated me. I didn’t deserve Gerald, but neither of us deserved the crippling ableism of our day. That wielded true power, did more lasting damage than any teenage heartbreak.

This shared blame is a complexity I understand only now that I’m in my sixties and my life is no longer like a brand-new box of chocolates. I know exactly what I got. At fifty-three I got a crutch; at sixty I got a walker. I appreciate the karmic irony of losing both my bell bottoms and my mobility. And regret is as regret does. Since my theatrical debut, in on-going apology, I’ve tried to practice what Gerald taught me about generosity. I use his favourite line from Cézanne: “The view contains the viewer.” Contains as in defines: Today, I see disability as an identity to be proud of, to celebrate. Contains as in includes: Thanks to two boys in braces, I belong to a disabled community. We outrun ableism together. And contains as in holds: It took six decades, but today mine is a body to have and to hold, respected and cherished, like home should be.

On that long-ago Christmas Eve, after I dumped Gerald, I went straight to the basement and threw his books and my scholarship applications into the trash, proving sixteen really is as sixteen does. Some two weeks later, when my mother correctly assessed sufficient time had passed for the onset of regret, three beloved books magically reappeared on my bed. She put the scholarship applications on my desk, all with application fees and postage attached.

My mother didn’t love anybody. But there were times when she tried.

 

An excerpt from, This Redhead and her Walker Walk Into a Bar: A Memoir, published with permission of Wolsak and Wynn, release date 2019.”
 
 

Dorothy Ellen Palmer is a retired English/Drama teacher and improv coach, mom, binge knitter, disabled, senior writer, and author of When Fenelon Falls (Coach House, 2010 ).

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