Quarantined

When I was a boy I contracted scarlet fever and was quarantined in our tract house in a suburb of Philadelphia. God knows how I got it, probably from school. No one else in the family became ill, but I was sequestered for what seemed like an eternity, though it was probably only a couple of weeks. I don’t remember any symptoms, any physical discomfort, but I remember the solitude. I was five years old.

The good part was that my father brought records and comic books home to me as languished in my bedroom (though it may have been a den or office converted into a bedroom so as to separate me from my brother, who was only two). Despite my father’s penchant for family photography, there are surprisingly few surviving photos of this period, but one shows me wearing bib overalls, bent over a 45 rpm turntable the size of a toaster in a state of utter transport.

The records were yellow vinyl 45 rpm recordings of children’s stories, and in my solitude I played them incessantly. (TV was a thing, but families usually had only one of them, and ours was of course in the living room, which might has well have been the far side of Mars.) In my memory I had hundreds of them strewn about the room — Grimms’ fairy tales, Disney cartoon music (Song of the South was big, and Br’er Rabbit got many plays), Davy Crockett stories, the occasional space adventure. My dad brought one or two home with him almost every day, or so it seemed to me. I’d wait in rapt anticipation for the bedroom door to open and for him to enter in his suit with some paper-sleeved 45s in one hand, a drink in the other, and some comic books under his arm. It was like daily Christmas.

One record’s indelible narrative involved the approach of a very large bear, which was signified by slow tympanic drumbeats of ever-increasing volume, so terrifying to me that I would have to scurry across the room and hide with a pillow over my head until they were over. It never occurred to me to simply lift the needle and skip the bear. Come to think of it, “skip the bear” is not a bad life motto.

The comics Dad brought home were intended for readers older than me, a fact that eluded my busy father, who’d scooped them up at a drugstore somewhere. Casper and the Thing were all the same to him. Comics were the ultimate in entertainment, lots of bright colors and bulging muscles and big words on the covers. I remember asking my mother what the “aqua” in Aquaman meant, and being told, simply, water. It was thrilling, this idea that there were these wildly unfamiliar words that could be translated, and tamed.

After the eternity had passed and I was free to go outside again, I remember wanting to buy some ice cream from the ice cream truck that circulated through our neighborhood every few days. My mother gave me the required quarter, but I was either too slow or, more likely, too shy to chase the truck. So she did. Seared into my consciousness is the image of my slim, pretty mother in her pretty blouse and A-line skirt, jogging down the street after the ice cream truck, waving her hand in the air and repeatedly calling out “Ice cream, ice cream!” in what seemed to me a plaintive, pleading voice.

I was utterly mortified that my dignified mother was doing this at all, and that she was doing it for me seemed a moral failure on my part, a betrayal of her and of some unspoken pact of reciprocity and care that I hadn’t known existed until I violated it by causing her to run down the street to get me an ice cream cone because I’d lacked the strength or simple self-confidence to do it myself.

Some forty years later, I would recount this memory to my therapist, a rumpled, avuncular old guy with drooping eyelids and a tendency to drift off during our weekly sessions, and he sat quietly for a while, and then told me that this was an important memory, because this incident may have been the origin of what he called, in his sepulchral voice, my “extreme sensitivity to shame.”

A thought I quickly quarantined. Skip the bear.

And now we are all quarantined, with our memories of other illnesses and how we muddled through them with boredom and stoicism and scary stories. We can’t skip the bear, but we can remember how we were rewarded in the end by the care of others that shames us, even now, with its selflessness.

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