The Magazine

A Girl's Own Story

Coming of age in the polio era.

Aug 6, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 44 • By ERIN MONTGOMERY
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I was a bad child. That was my perception of myself. I remember reading once about the strange attractor, a star that unsettles the planetary balance, which was the role I seemed to play in our family life. For one, I was always getting sick. And not just a little sick, either, in those days when most of the penicillin had been sent overseas for the soldiers. I was at the center of my parents' world and had every reason to trust their love, but I also knew that my life had stood in the way of theirs. I felt accountable, as if my illness were premeditated. As if I intended to make things difficult, or had too little moral strength to resist.

She missed her parents, especially her loving and glamorous mother who visited as often as she could, and her best friend back in Washington, Harold Ickes. Ickes was her classmate at Sidwell Friends--a private school known for its strong academic curriculum, Quaker values, and willingness to accept handicapped students--and the son of FDR's secretary of the interior; he would, of course, grow up to become Bill Clinton's deputy White House chief of staff. One might think that Shreve, who came of age in the high-powered political nucleus of Washington, is name-dropping here, but she's not: As a child dealing with the effects of polio, she was genuinely enthralled by the fact that her best friend's father was an FDR confidant. Shreve never met Roosevelt but, as she explains, this "was [her] effort to establish a personal connection to Roosevelt." Warm Springs is imbued with an unwavering respect for "Dr. Roosevelt," who set an example with his "drive to excel, a refusal to quit in the face of extraordinary odds, a determination to go forward and never look back, and a lack of evident self-pity"--qualities, she believed, that all patients at Warm Springs shared.

When not alone with her thoughts, Shreve filled each day at Warm Springs with activities and adventures: "As a child growing up in the years of birthday parties and sleepovers and exclusive clubs of girls, I must have come to the self-protective decision that in case I wasn't going to be invited to the party, then I would have the party myself." Shreve was a combination of mischief and maturity, of carelessness and compassion. While half her day at Warm Springs might be spent avoiding tutoring sessions or sneaking into the Boys' Ward to plan wheelchair races with Joey Buckley, the other half was spent trying to be a "good girl"--pleasing the adults in the hospital and adhering to what she called her "Florence Nightingale routine of good works," delivering mail, emptying bed pans, helping the nurses care for sick babies in the Babies' Ward, and converting to Catholicism with the help of the resident priest, Father James.

Shreve is a first-rate storyteller, moving easily from brooding passages to laugh-out-loud accounts of her hospital shenanigans, such as the time she paid a visit to the Boys' Ward wearing her sanitary belt as a necklace. There is also the story of another, more reckless, stunt that would lead to Shreve's dismissal from the hospital.

Shreve also takes time to reflect on her road to becoming a writer, claiming that her decision was made years after she left Warm Springs. But her writer's imagination clearly first took flight at Warm Springs, and partly as a result of the time she had on her hands: "Waiting was a condition of our lives, especially during the weeks after surgery. There was nothing to do. . . . In those long weeks of waiting I had hours of white space to fill. . . . I filled the white space. . . . I had stories and stories and stories as a gift from those months of waiting."

Erin Montgomery is a writer in Washington, D.C.