Even with Polio, she always made lemonade

85th Birthday

Mom had a lot of hard knocks in her life, but few ever heard her complain. I first posted this article shortly after returning from her funeral.

Beulah McCormick was born in 1922 in a house (not a hospital) that had an outside toilet. Her dad was a mean, verbally and physically abusive Irishman (McCormick) who was in France during World War I. Growing up during the great depression. One of Mom’s journal entries states “there were no toys”.

At 12 yrs old, she was inflicted with one of the most cruel diseases ever…..polio.

She wasn’t as bad as some, who had to spend the rest of their lives in “iron lungs“, but her body developed (or stopped) as if there were a vertical divide between left and right. Her right arm and leg were smaller, shorter and weaker than her left. She had to buy two pairs of shoes because her feet were different sizes. She could write right-handed, but picked things up with her left.

She refused to allow her disability to handicap life. Her high school class of 1940 1/2 voted her “most athletic”.

Hobbies included hunting, fishing, horseback riding, swimming, and gardening. She was a proficient typist on an old mechanical typewriter. Later in life she spent most of her time reading. She was able to walk (with a limp) until her last four years when her back and knees just couldn’t do it any more.

She could have attended college, but her father’s stubborn pride got in the way. One of Mom’s teenage friends was Betty Swindler, who I met for the first time at the funeral. Swindler was in her wedding. Their friendship was so strong that the Swindler family wanted to pay Mom’s way to go to college, but the proud papa wouldn’t allow it.

According to my sister, one of Mom’s favorite stories was of my birth.

I was the first of the next generation, came two months early and weighed less than five pounds (I know, hard to believe, right?). Visitors were not allowed in the house and she would show me out the back door window when someone came. Oh, and she liked to talk about giving me my first baths in a mixing bowl. She handled that lemon pretty well.

Like some of the students I have taught, she turned out well in spite of her parents and their parenting. Grandpa McCormick didn’t believe in God and told me that he saw hell in the trenches of WWI in France. Part of Mom’s childhood included going with her parents (no choice) to area saloons to watch them drink and dance. Somehow Mom (I never heard that story) got involved in a local church where she met my dad in a youth group.

She had more hardship to go. Years later they married and had 5 children together before divorcing when I, the oldest, was 12 and my younger sister was about a year old. So how does a polio survivor (no car) find a job that can enable her to raise five children?

She was qualified, but never accepted welfare, although I do remember getting some government distributed cheese once and noticing how much better it tasted than the stuff we normally got from the store. Eventually she took a job and spent about 25 yrs as an Activities Director at the Nursing Home she would die in …. only two blocks from our house so she (and we) could walk to and from. I was in high school by that time, so I wasn’t there as much as my siblings, but I played my clarinet, set up bowling pins, helped with Bingo, learned lots of card games and helped transport people to/from their rooms. I used to tease her for getting paid to play games all day.

My sisters had to experience day care in a home nearby. Mom used to cry about having to do that.

Life was plain, but she didn’t complain. As the oldest, she would send me, often with a wagon, the half dozen or so city blocks to the milk store, the fruit store, or the laundromat. On Fridays we got a soft drink and a frozen pizza. On really special occasions we got a White Castle burger or even a coney.

She had to deal with doctors without insurance. Thankfully, the pediatrician who helped us survive allowed her to make $5/month payments. And yes, she did pay him all he was due. There were several years where I had to take some really painful allergy shots. We had to go to the far side of Cincinnati (by bus at first). My arm would be immobile for hours and we would sometimes stop on the way home at the local Frisch’s to share an order of onion rings. I remember asking the doctor once if she could take the shot for me and his response was,

“It would kill her.”

When we didn’t have a car, she walked us two blocks to and from a little neighborhood church. She always put a dollar in the plate and only told me of one church member who complained once about the six of us and her dollar a week. She swallowed her pride so we could get a better upbringing than hers. Kudos to the church for installing a handrail on the two steps it took to get into the sanctuary. They did try. 

We didn’t live on the wrong side of the tracks, we lived nine houses down from a dual set a half mile from a busy railroad yard.  I walked those tracks home from high school. (School was @26th street and we lived between 44th and 45th — not quite 20 city blocks).

She encouraged us to sell lemonade to the golfers at the course down the street. Those lemonade sales paid for my first 3-speed “English Racer” bike and then the half my dad required toward my high school Selmer Series 10 Clarinet.

Sometimes she got some extra sugar for her lemonade. Mom’s Aunt Georgia passed away and I distinctly remember walking with her and her uncle to the kitchen door that went into their garage. “Beulah, Georgia wanted you to have her car. Here are the keys.” It was one of only a couple times that I ever saw my mother cry. That was the car I eventually learned to drive in.

Chores were a reality. She organized us in rotations for washing and drying dishes, providing a step-stool for my siblings until they were tall enough to stand on the floor and reach into the kitchen sink. Until I left for college, it was mostly my job to push the manual, non-motorized mower to cut our grass and I was not always the compliant, cooperative teen.

There was one episode where she was following me back and forth over the lawn as I complained about the job…. convincing me with her belt that I should continue.

Another job I loathed was cleaning the dog pen. Dad trained bird dogs and had built a nice, fenced and gated, cement dog run with holes in the side of our garage as entrances to the inside dog houses. We always had a dog or two. Grass and hedge trimming, leaf raking and garbage taking were regular chores. The Christmas decorations weren’t so bad and I liked putting the flag out….but had to take it down at night.

The only trips I remember Mom making to college were for my senior recital and college graduation.

As much as we didn’t have, Mom always helped us understand that there were other people worse off and that they needed our help.

There were a couple times during my childhood when someone would knock at our back door and ask for something to eat. She would ask them to wait by the door while she fixed a fried egg or peanut butter sandwich.

At some of my earlier Christmases, I recall being asked to give up a toy to be donated to a needy family.

Both my parents were hunters, and when dad left, she kept her little (she couldn’t hold a full sized rifle) “over/under” gun that was a combination 22 rifle and 410 shotgun. I got to watch her use it once. There was a bad flood and the water from the river about a mile away covered the golf course, came up over the 4 foot wall at the end of our street and stopped about two houses from ours. But in the aftermath, there was a terrible, thankfully temporary rat infestation in the neighborhood. She instructed us to get into the house when she saw a huge rat on our side yard sidewalk. From the bedroom window where we watched, we heard the ‘pop’ and saw the rat stand up on its hind legs and then totter over.

Good shot, Mom.

I’m not sure how I got started in 5th grade band. With all the other bills, I have no idea how Mom managed to pay off that rent-to-own clarinet that I played at Tenth District School. Another of her favorite stories was during my high school band time. Watching the end of a rehearsal, she heard Mr. Copenhaver say, “Gardner, you march like a cow.” She went up to him afterward and went, “Moooooo” and then introduced herself with, “I’m the cow’s mother.”

It was Mom who taught me to drive, to shave, to do my own laundry (for college) and fold my own clothes, to polish my shoes, and to type. She made me take piano lessons, allowed me to take clarinet lessons and somehow managed to be there for most major events. She taught me conservation techniques; the thermostat seldom went above 60 in the winter, there was no air conditioning and the summer window fan had to be turned off before bedtime.

I learned the difference between a need and a want. She took care of my needs.

She wasn’t able to buy many gifts. One year, I had asked for a clock-radio. To make the gift opening last longer, she hid it and placed clues all round the property to help me find it. Like most teens, I wanted a car….so on my 16th birthday, she gave me a little battery operated VW bug and made it clear that would be the only car she would ever buy me.

There was an extended episode where her back was really messed up from her years of walking on two polio-inflicted legs of different lengths. There was a really hard-core brace that she had to wear for a while and I had to help her get it on and off every day. By the grace of God, she improved and was able to get rid of it. She confessed years later that she was afraid she was losing her ability to walk, which would have cost her the job she had….and she feared not being able to raise us.

We didn’t wear the latest fashions, but always had something respectable to wear.

My brothers always got my hand-me-downs. Sorry. We were all in band and had instruments and everything we needed for that. Three of us used my beginning clarinet. One of my brothers got my wooden clarinet after I had to get a different one for college. And I bought my younger sister a step up trumpet (I was a band director by then) when she needed something better in high school. We didn’t get to go cruising or to the movies with friends much, but I don’t remember having to say ‘no’ (or to have her say ‘no’) to too many things that I wanted to do.

Grandpa McCormick moved in for several of his later years. After living alone for several years (Grandma Mamie died my high school freshman year), he married a lady who stole nearly everything he owned. Terrified and trounced, he came to live with Mom.

So after all the terrible things she had endured over the years, she would be his care-provider.

I was off to college and then away, so I didn’t have to deal with him much. On visits, at least, he seemed to have mellowed, although he could still unleash a verbal barrage on occasion. I hope he paid some rent to help with the finances, but I never heard and never asked.

Mom did well raising the five of us. No one is rich, but all five are self sufficient and raising (or raised) a pretty good next generation.

As we married and had kids, Mom’s house was the meeting place for Thanksgiving and Christmas. It never mattered how many Thanksgiving dinners or Christmases were happening, one of them was always with her and almost always together. Over the years, when Joan and I would travel to Covington, when possible, my siblings would meet us there. We would almost always find Mom sitting at the kitchen table reading a book or working a puzzle. During warmer weather, she would be in her rocking chair on the front porch, often listening to a Cincinnati Reds game on her AM radio. We did take her to see a game in the newer All American Ball Park.

During her later years in her home of 50 years, my siblings took care of her. Jeff did all the grass cutting, hedge trimming and oil changing, and Missy did most of the personal care and errand running. During Mom’s last four years in the nursing home, Missy (and/or Jeff) was there almost every day for her, even when Mom didn’t know it.

In a 2001, handwritten letter, Mom wrote that,

“my life has been very fulfilling and rewarding.” As she lamented having to give up some of her hobbies and being confined to “cell 423” (the house number), she described a single day that week to say that she “went to the Reds ballgame (via radio) and “watched a horse race (TV) at Churchill Downs, tearing at the playing of ‘My Old Kentucky Home'” and ended in a “musical production in Branson, Missouri, where she had no parking hassels and had the best seat in the house.”

That was Mom, always finding the best in everybody, finding good in her situations and being thankful for what she did have instead of complaining about what she didn’t.

She used life’s sour lemons to make the best, sweetest lemonade.

Love you and miss you Mom…..and will see you soon.

PS Over the last several years, Mom always accused me of bringing the cold, nasty weather of Northern Indiana with me when I would come to visit. She would have said that again about her own funeral with the dismal driving rain that prevented the graveside ceremony.

“I know, Mom….. but I wanted you to know I was there.”


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