Polio: The Saddest Stories in Our Family
Today's blog post, written for National Immunization Awareness Month, is by P. Loughman.
The photograph of a young woman and small boy is so precious that my cousin won’t take it out of the oval frame. He was her father and kept the photo on top of his bureau until the day he died. She was Seraphina (according to my mother some years ago); maybe Filomena (ventured my uncle when studying the family tree); definitely Josephine (said my cousin who knew best). No one agreed on her official first name, but everyone knew exactly who she was and how she died. The oldest child born to a stone mason from Naples and a multilingual Greek mother from Alexandria, Josephine Rosiello was a confident girl and capable helper with nine younger siblings in early 20th century Brooklyn. Her immigrant parents preferred nicknames and the family called her Fina. Dressed in fashionable flapper styles, she forged ahead into the new modern world, the epitome of a first generation American, until she succumbed to polio in October of 1924.
Josephine’s legs, which had strode through Sheepshead Bay and Charlestoned at parties, suddenly grew weak. Though her family was now solidly middle class and could afford medical care, doctors could only wait and see what course the disease would take. Her death certificate states anterior poliomyelitis ascended her body and reached her intercostal muscles and diaphragm causing asphyxia. She died blue lipped and exhausted at the age of 17. The baby of the family, Margie, also contracted polio around the same time and survived with a deformed foot. Bea, my grandmother and second oldest child, escaped the disease herself, but in 1948 her four year old son complained of a headache during yet another summer epidemic in New York City. He spent a year in the hospital and was discharged with leg braces and crutches used for the rest of his life. Polio was the scourge of my grandmother’s family for two generations and is found in the saddest chapters in our family history, until the discovery of an effective vaccine in 1952.
When my uncle first saw the photo he asked, "Who is that? She looks like my Aunt Isabel." He recognized the face, but didn't at the same time. I replied, “It’s the oldest child in the family, your Aunt Fina.” Silence. “So that’s her,” my uncle said slowly, his voice choking, “My mother missed her sister for the rest of her life, and my grandmother cried about Fina’s death for years.” I hung up the phone thinking about this young woman whose brief life and terrible death was still palpable in our collective memory ninety years later.
P. Loughman’s genealogical research includes the medical, historical, cultural and economic milieu in which her ancestors lived.