The scents and sounds of my 1960s childhood summers at my grandmothers beach club would sizzle together creating the perfect summer cocktail.
Along with the rhythmic sounds of the ocean waves breaking on the beach, and the staccato click, clack, click of the Bakelite mah jongg tiles, was the constant swatting sound coming from the pink plastic fly swatter that, like Hopalong Cassidy’s six shooter, never left my grandmothers side.
Nana was the fastest swatter in the west, knocking down a formation of enemy flies with one shot.
Any fly zeroing in for a landing anywhere near a peach or plum wouldn’t stand a chance. “Who knew where that fly had been?” was a constant refrain heard all summer.
Shoo Fly Don’t Bother Me
From the time she was a little girl, no insect put the fear of God in Nana like the house fly.
It was no wonder people of a certain age had a fear of insects and flies.
These deadly pests, they were told, were carriers of deadly diseases. All insects were bad but houseflies were by far the worst since it was thought you could get polio through an insect bite.
Which helped explain why even “nice people” who lived in careful and sanitary homes could still get polio and other diseases.
A Cornucopia of Fruit
While we waited for the cabana boys to deliver our lunch, Nana rummaged through her bags for something for us to nosh on.
She never traveled anywhere without a menagerie of shopping bags and bundles, whether it was a three-week vacation or a three-hour visit.
Out of Nana’s huge summer straw tote, the one with floral appliqués and exotic bamboo bracelet handles that she got in Haiti, would emerge all sorts of goodies to nosh on.
But the best summertime treats were the cornucopia of fresh fruit from her neighborhood Italian greengrocer.
The fruit stand on Columbus Avenue with its open air grandstands of vibrant fruits and vegetables added a vivid blaze of color to the otherwise drab city block.
Unlike the chaste fruit found in our own supermarkets that were tucked into styrophone trays, hermetically sealed in sanitary Saran wrap, the seductive sprawl of luscious fruit may have been protected from the baking sun by an awning, but it lay defenseless to the random touching, squeezing even tasting, by perfect strangers.
Lunchtime By the Cabana
It wasn’t long before the accommodating cabana boys delivered our lunches to satisfy our ravenous sea-air appetites.
As Nana nibbled on her cool-la-la fancy cottage cheese salad, the pineapple slices curled and twisted decoratively dusted with a shower of paprika, Mom mindlessly picked at her Seafarers Surprise plate, tuna salad festooned with fancy stuffed olives and a creative use of pimento strips worthy of a Picasso.
Suddenly Mom let out an audible gasp, nearly dropping the bottle of Sucaryl lo cal sweetener she was pouring into her iced tea.
Just as I was innocently about to sink my teeth into a downy yellow peach plucked from a brown paper bag in Nana’s straw tote, Mom swiftly snatched the fruit away from me before I ever got a chance to bite into the juicy flesh.
Sternly I was admonished to make sure it was washed or else I would get a tummy ache.
Perils of Unwashed Fruit
But it was Nana’s look of panic at the sight of that unclean flesh entering my pristine mouth, that told me some greater tragedy would befall me if I bit into an unwashed peach, maybe the very piece of fruit that God Forbid-a fly had rested on for a mille second before being squashed to its demise.
The fly this most feared and dangerous beast that frolicked and feasted greedily in uncovered garbage cans, the gutter, rotting food, or a dead horse even, could have landed on your nice ripe peach wiping his poisonous feet on the food.
Diarrhea would be the least of your problems. For in the dirt and dust on the fruit, I was warned by Nana, were many little seeds of disease.
Since the polio epidemics had occurred in hot summer months when flies were so prevalent, a popular theory circulated that in the hot sun, the skin of fruits nurtured the infantile paralysis germs which had been left there by, who else –the dastardly fly.
Which is why, in my family, unwashed fruit seemed to elicit the same terror as flies.
Protecting the home front especially the food supply against the dangerous fly became a cardinal rule for three generations of mothers in my family.
Copyright (©) 20015 Sally Edelstein All Rights Reserved -Excerpt From Defrosting The Cold War:Fallout From My Nuclear Family
My mother shared your family’s horror of flies — the polio vaccine had not been invented when I was a toddler. We had screens on the windows, but meals would be stopped cold while a single fly was pursued to extinction. I was watching one, admiring its iridescent colors, when my mother literally dragged me away from the window before getting the swatter. We knew polio victims…. Public swimming pools were also suspect. No one knew what caused polio, so of course we were afraid.
Your description was one that was common in most households of a certain time period. Although I was born just as the polio vaccine was developed, old fears still lingered. It’s a summertime fear that so many generations will never know.
No! In those days – you’d get “barnförlamning” = “child paralysis” from playing in heaps of fallen leaves!
If you got cold, you’d get pneumonia or at least a “head cold”. At least in the late 40’s and 50’s in Sweden.
But now, in our time – the vaccines are the most dangerous on earth. Big Pharma are trying to kill all children just to make a buck. According to conspiracy theoreticians – and the Taliban. For the latter, it is a conspiracy from the US and Israel to make Muslims less fertile – and that is, as we all know, a big problem in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
A new, virulent strain of meningitis has developed in Japan, and in Saudi Arabia they’ve got MERS – Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. Better avoid jamborees and stay away from camels.
By the way – I’ve been trying to find a more detailed history of the epidemics and pandemics – blues singer “Memphis Minnie” described how she barely survived meningitis in Memphis of the early 30’s – in a blues song. And my own father (to be) almost died from the same disease in Malmo (Malmoe) at the same time, (If he hadn’t got it, I’d may have been about 10 years older – Ma and Pa had to postpone their wedding, as my father lost his job when the doctors told his boss that he wouldn’t survive. And the Great Depression was a bad time to lose your job… )
Dying in the City of the Blues // Sickle Cell Anemia and the Politics of Race and Health // by Keith Wailoo
Copyright (c) 2001 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.
“The discourse of black disease has often been stigmatizing and controversial, but occasionally narratives of black pathology have also been uplifting. In 1930, for example, a blues guitarist with the stage name of Memphis Minnie brought an obscure disorder into public light, seeking to sow the seeds not of fear or revulsion but of compassion toward ailing African Americans. In her “Memphis Minnie-jitis Blues,” the artist Lizzie Douglas sang:
My head and neck was painin’ me
Feel like my back would break in two
My head and neck was painin’ me
Feel like my back would break in two
Lord I had such a mood that mornin’
I didn’t know what else there was to do.
In the lyrics that followed, Douglas sang of the excruciating pain of meningitis, the diagnostic confusion of the doctor, and the enduring faith of her companion. The lyrics dramatized a common, often epidemic, disorder in the South, asking the listeners for sympathy and understanding.”
(A tough lady – she manages to make a pun about the similarity between her stage name and the name of the illness!)
My mother always kept a jar of vaseline for our chests and a bottle of castor oil. She firmly believed in these two cure-alls. Consequently my sister and I did not get sick a lot. Just the thought of the taste of castor oil was enough to cure the flu.