I was only five years old, but I knew that something was wrong with my Uncle Bob. He had already told me that he had cancer. He had shown me is prosthetic leg which looked like it belonged on a mannequin. He explained that he had a form of cancer called melanoma. I remembered the name because it sounded sad to me. My mother and aunts seemed to believe that I knew nothing about Uncle Bob’s illness as they whispered around the kitchen table. I already knew that my Aunt Speedy was in town because Uncle Bob was in the Medical Center being treated. I obediently left the room whenever they shooed me away.
Sadly Uncle Bob had already explained to me that he might not make it. He insisted that we would all be okay even if he had to go to heaven. He told me not to feel bad if anything happened. He wanted me to remember how much he loved me and how much fun we had together. Somehow I was prepared for the worst as it inevitably came.
In the meantime my mother and aunts came to the conclusion that I needed to go to school, so my father enrolled me for the first grade at St. Peter’s Catholic School. I was unaware of this development until the last moment when my mother showed me the many school dresses she had made for me and presented me with a Roy Rogers lunch box. I did not tell my parents that I was terrified by this sudden revelation.
On August 17, 1954, my brother William Patrick Little was born. When my father told me that I had another brother I was admittedly disappointed that once again I did not have a sister. In between knowing that Uncle Bob was very sick and that I would soon be going to school I pouted around the house. My pique mostly went unnoticed because the the adults in my world were so preoccupied with all of the happenings.
When my little baby brother came home with my mother I showed little interest in seeing him. It did not take long for my curiosity to get the best of me, so I tiptoed into my parents’ bedroom where my mother was resting and Patrick was sleeping in a bassinet that had served both me and Michael. I was stunned when I saw how beautiful Patrick was. He instantly melted my heart and I no longer wanted to trade him in for a sister.
After Labor Day my first day of school began. My father drove me there and took me to my classroom. I felt as though I was walking through a frightening dream as my teacher, Sister Camilla, greeted me and showed me to my desk. Then Daddy said goodbye and and I was all alone, wanting to cry but daring not to do so because I did not want anyone to know how I was feeling.
At first my school days were like torture. I envied my brothers who had the privilege of staying at home with our mother. Before long I realized that Sister Camilla was a great teacher and a living angel. I also found a friend named Virginia who was incredibly kind to me, explaining the way things work at school. I realized that I enjoyed learning how to read and write and do arithmetic. Even the homework was fun because Mama sat with me while I read assigned pages, learned how to spell new words, and practiced making my letters. It was a special time during which I had her total attention and my progress made my father so proud.
My Uncle Bob did not make it, just as I had feared. In February of 1955 he died leaving my Aunt Speedy to raise their daughter Sandra who had been born the previous October. There was little talk about his death. I suppose that the adults did not think that I understood the impact of such a thing. I’m certain that they thought they were sheltering me, but I knew and I grieved in my little girl way without telling anyone how I was feeling. I knew even then that he was one of the most remarkable people I would ever know.
Patrick only became cuter and cuter as time passed and I found myself feeling a special attachment to him, as though I was a secondary mother to him. My friends in the neighborhood often told me how lucky I was to have such a sweet and beautiful baby brother. Somehow I felt personally responsible for his perfection. Playing with him was so much fun and I loved him deeply.
At school the members of my class prepared for First Communion but I was too young to receive that sacrament. Even though I went through all of the instructions with them I would have to wait until I was seven years old and in the second grade. I am certain that I understood the essence of that sacrament, but as usual adults around me seemed to believe that I was too immature to fully grasp certain concepts.
First grade was the time when the polio vaccine became widely available for the school children of the nation. I remember lining up for my first jab with my classmates. My heart felt as though it was beating in my throat and my anxiety rose higher and higher as I inched toward the nurse who was giving the shots. I was admittedly frightened of needles so I said a few of the prayers that I had learned since starting school. When it was my turn for the injection I thought I was going to faint, but the ordeal was over more quickly than I had imagined it would be.
Later my mother expressed her relief that I would be protected from the terrible scourge of polio. She reminded me that President Franklin Roosevelt had ben afflicted by the virus. She pointed out that the little boy at my school who walked with braces on his legs had contracted the disease and become paralyzed. Now, she assured me, I would never have to worry about that horrible illness. It get a few more jabs but eventually I only had to swallow a sugar cube to complete my vaccinations for polio.
My first year of school seemed to be the year of catching diseases. I was the first in our neighborhood to get the mumps which made me the center of attention. All of the moms sent their children to visit me because they purposely wanted their kids to get sick with the mumps as children rather than waiting for later. The same thing happened when I came down with the chicken pox. I seemed to become the celebrated Typhoid Mary of the neighborhood as word spread that I was a good source for getting yet another childhood disease out of the way.
All in all with the exception of Uncle Bob’s death life felt good. It had been a year of new beginnings. I left first grade able to read, write, spell and calculate with ease. I had many friends, including a boy who had a crush on me. I would never again have to worry about contracting polio, mumps or chickenpox. I loved my little brothers and my parents were wonderful, but as it always seems to be in life more changes were on the way.