Wood, Wicker, and the Ghost of FDR

Growing up by getting well

By Susan Shreve

I got polio when I was a year old living in Toledo, Ohio, during an epidemic that spread throughout the Midwest. For American parents in the 1940s and early '50s, the polio virus was a constant fear. I was left without the use of my right leg and with a weakness on my right side. When I didn't walk with crutches, I used my bad leg as a peg, swinging it to move forward. That life was the only one I knew, and although it didn't upset me, the occasional ridicule of other children did. I longed to be normal.

Between 1950 and 1952 I lived off and on in a spa hotel turned hospital in Warm Springs, Ga. I arrived at the age of 11 on a soft, sunny morning in June, having traveled south in our Chevrolet with my brother in the back seat, my parents riding up front, listening to songs of love and loss on the radio with the volume turned up to drown out our arguments. It was my first time away from home. We had passed through the small village about two hours from Atlanta named for its mineral springs, and approached the setting of the former Meriwether Inn.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt had purchased the Meriwether in the late 1920s, after he contracted polio. He transferred its ownership to a nonprofit corporation and had the former Victorian resort, with its warm water pools, converted to a rehabilitation hospital for victims of polio, primarily children. He also made it his occasional home. The inn was replaced in the '30s by Georgia Hall, built in the style of a southern plantation with porticos and columns forming one side of a quadrangle, painted white and blinding in the sun. By the time I arrived, the buildings had what I remember as a faded elegance, with peeling paint, worn columns, grass sprouting through the cracks of walkways, and the heavily perfumed summer air of the lush South: a sepia sense of time suspended, and of ghosts.

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