where the writers are
At Home With a Ghost - 19

(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)

In past blogs I’ve described the many things my grandfather's ghost shared with me, across the dotted line between life and the hereafter. Now I’d like to mention his great genetic gift: the Kernochan legs.

They begin in the ordinary place, fitted to the pelvis and proceeding downward. And down. And down. About halfway down a Kernochan leg is where most people’s feet would sprout. But our legs continue their plunge endlessly. They hardly taper at the base of the thighbone, nor bulge as they pass the knee, but instead form a straight and narrow column. Any shapeliness is only achieved through strenuous exercise, which might produce a calf or two. The feet almost come as a rude interruption, with toes as long as fingers.

Not everyone in my family has the legs, but I do, my father did, and his father, too. Going back in time to trace the origin, the legs disappear into the mists of history; I don’t know whom to thank among our ancestors.

There’s a photo around here somewhere of Grandpa revealing his gams on the beach but I just looked for it and it’s missing (he probably hid it). However there is a De Vaya caricature of him, drawn at the time he was hobnobbing with the Stieglitz crowd on the 30’s New York art scene. Even covered by eveningwear, you can see the line of the legs from where they begin, which is just south of his hands: 

 

Here is my father’s whooping-crane version:

 

I often had to fold mine up to fit into camera frame:

 

When my daughter was a newborn bundle thrust into my arms at the hospital, the first thing I did was unwrap her blanket to check that she got the legs. She did. When she reached that self-conscious age of 11, she saw them as a problem. Once, when we were shopping for school clothes, I wanted to buy her a pair of velvet jeans with vertical stripes. She wailed, “Mom! They’ll make my legs look too long.”

I grabbed her arm and fixed her with a look of such intensity that she fell silent. I said, “If you don’t understand this now, you will soon. Legs cannot be too long. You will be very glad you have them.”

All the same, I remember feeling the same way as my daughter did. During my high school years, the ideal silhouette was curvy, and skirts were to the knee. I retreated into the shadows with my stick figure. By the time I got to college, the mini-skirt had hit the stores. From then on, girls with hips did a fade and now I owned the place. I hemmed the minis myself to make them even shorter. My legs exploded out of the gate and never came back.

They paused long enough to pose for both my RCA album cover, and the cover of my novel “Dry Hustle” (my editor-in-chief’s idea). 

 

 

 

 

There was another reason to be grateful for the Kernochan legs. They worked.

My mother’s didn’t.

During World War II, not long after my two older brothers were born my father was stationed in Fort Leavenworth to complete officers’ training. My mother fell very ill, very suddenly. The medical staff, hardly the best, had no idea what to diagnose. She got worse, until finally an doctor friend of Dad’s took a look at her file and said, “Polio.”

The virus stopped short of her lungs, but she lost the use of her legs, and some of the musculature in her arms and hands. At the time, her father Wayne Chatfield-Taylor was employed in Roosevelt’s cabinet as Under Secretary of Commerce, so Mom didn’t have far to look for a role model. FDR set the standard of courage for a lot of the polio victims of that wartime era. You just got on with it.

While her husband went overseas to fight the jerries, Mom scooped up her children and traveled down to Warm Springs, where she underwent rehab, learning how to use braces and crutches.

 

 Mom in Warm Springs with my elder brother

 

To us five children growing up, ours was like any other American family. We played baseball in the yard. The pitcher just happened to be in a wheelchair. We got spanked. I have an indelible memory of being hauled onto her lap, slung over a pair of thighs that were almost pure bone, my head pushed into the cold metal spokes and dirty rubber rims of the wheels on her chair; and then came the wallop on my butt, delivered with the formidable upper-arm strength she had developed from cruising on crutches and working her wheels.

Just like our peers, we were delivered to and picked up from lessons, school events and outdoor activities by our mother in a station wagon. She’d learned to drive at Warm Springs. I still have no idea how she operated the stick shift, lifting her foot from the brake to stamp down the clutch. Later, when automatic shifts came in, she invented some system using a thick book wedged under the brake, and crossing her legs to work both brake and gas pedal. She never used a handicapped vehicle. She just got on with it.

The only way we knew we were different was because people always stared at us. I recall my first worried reaction was that they were staring at me; but then that look of pity tinged with curiosity would cross their faces, before they quickly turned away. The look said, “Oh, that poor woman, she’s crippled.” And then we kids would realize, “Oh yeah, that’s right. Mom’s crippled.” Because we usually forgot. That’s what she wanted.

We were used to life slowing down when we walked beside her. We instinctively downshifted from allegro to andante while she looked down, saw the next spot, planted the rubber tips of her crutches, and swung herself forward. Look, plant, swing. Look, plant, swing. Stairs were even slower, but up and down she went. Just give her time, and she would invariably arrive.

Years later, when the four older kids left home for college and careers, she got fitted for a new clear plastic brace, threw away the old metal-and-leather-strapped monstrosities, and parked the wheelchair in the closet. Now she could go faster, speeding up the rhythm to a rather beautiful and graceful swinging, undulating stride. She only used the wheelchair provided at airports so she could get special treatment and not have to wait in line, for she had begun to travel a lot, alone, to the corners of the globe, visiting schools for Unesco. 

 

                                                     Mom in India with Indira Gandhi

We her children can’t remember her former legs. From photos, we can see that they were like her parents’: not too short, not too long, sturdy and well built for sports: the Chatfield-Taylor legs. In those photos she is most always in action, running, riding, diving, skiing, playing team sports of every kind: relentlessly, manically, ecstatically athletic. She once told me that, had she known she would never run again, she wouldn’t have done anything differently. In fact, it was almost as if she did know it was her last dance, because she could not have used her legs any more vigorously than she did.

People used to joke about the long, long Kernochan legs that, just when you thought they would stop, they kept on going. And Mom’s legs did the same.

 

 (To be continued)