by Tim Gilmore, 3/27/2020
1. Callings and Ciphers
The drawing of a man driving his horses over an arched stone bridge bore the caption, “This card was drawn by mouth by Ann Adams, a polio patient in Jacksonville, Florida.” The logo on a box of her greeting cards depicted Ann signing her name with the pen in her mouth. “Most Unusual Greeting Cards and Stationery,” the cover said, “Drawn by Mouth.”
Ann V. Adams, Harry said, “is more than a name. Ann is a way of life.” When he met her, “she was in an iron lung, very ill and far away from her home in Florida. Paralyzed from the neck down, she couldn’t wiggle finger or toe, but she could play on the heartstrings.”
Harry Doll, a former Bell Telephone Laboratories worker, spent his retired years helping disabled people in assisted living facilities and halfway houses in Greenboro, North Carolina. The December 29, 1967 Fort Myers News-Press story carried the headline, “Polio Girl Paints Christmas Cards,” no byline.
“She had to be rocked to give her the vibratory therapeutics to keep her alive,” Harry said.” In a 1951 peer-reviewed article called “Use of the Rocking Bed to Augment Ventilation in Patients with Poliomyelitis,” Dail, C.W. Et Al explain, “The rocking bed will give artificial respiration in cases of respiratory weakness, but will not provide enough tidal air for the patient with paralysis of the muscles of respiration.”
Ann loved to read. So Central Carolina Convalescent Hospital, informally known as Greensboro Polio Hospital, provided her with a “rocking page turner” covered with a screen that blocked out the rest of the room. The page turner rocked with the bed, allowing Ann to read for three or four hours every day with a paradoxical sense of stillness.
A 1968 New York Daily News story explained, “She uses an automatic book holder and turns the pages by pressing a button with her chin. Ann can use only a few of the muscles in her mouth and neck.”
“When she announced she wanted to type,” young workers with Bell and Western Electric helped Harry build “a rocking electric typewriter.” She’d lie in her bed or iron lung and watch them work. “Now,” the 1967 story said, “Ann spends about four hours a day in a wheelchair with the aid of a new electric breathing device” that embraced her tightly like a corset.
As a teenager, Ann had felt that strange calling. Art had come in search of her. It summoned her through the eyes of belovèd beasts and odd angles at windows. What to draw, she’d not known, but she had to “decipher the fire,” as the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote of how poetry came to him.
I come down to Inwood Park, 18 stone steps to the river from the end of Inwood Terrace, and read the old newspapers. The house where Ann lived with her parents before her marriage and after her divorce stood once above me and these tides. New owners demolished Ann’s pre-polio home in the late 1980s to make room for a much larger house. I want the tides to tell me what to write. Instead they repeat what they’ve said for untold time. I’m listening.
“Through perseverance,” the caption on her 1967 Christmas cards says, “she trained herself to draw by holding a pencil between her teeth. Each original drawing takes up to two months to complete.”
2. Orphic Force: Kittens and Puppies and Iron Lungs
Depictions of young men and women with withered limbs likely showed the effects of Poliomyelitis, or Infantile Paralysis, in ancient Egyptian stelae 3400 years ago. At the turn of the 20th century, “small localized paralytic polio epidemics” blossomed mysteriously in the United States and Europe. For the next 50 years, Polio crept through the States and the British Commonwealth countries, inching ever toward “pandemic proportions.”
The first half of the 20th century, unbeknownst to most citizens in Duluth, Minnesota and Duluth, Georgia, in Christchurch, New Zealand and Christchurch, Newport, Wales, in Oldtown, Idaho and Oldtown, Castlelost, County Westmeath, Ireland, lit a pandemic slow boil toward 1952.
In 1948, Dr. Jonas Salk accepted a position, funded by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, the organization created by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt a decade earlier and now known as the March of Dimes, to develop a vaccine for Polio.
In 1952, Americans reported close to 58,000 cases of Polio, of which 3,145 died and 21,269 survived with paralysis. In surveys, Americans said only nuclear war scared them more. Few hospitals could afford an “iron lung,” the common name for the “negative pressure ventilator,” generically known as a “pulmotor,” a metal chamber providing an “effectively oscillating atmospheric pressure” for patients who lacked the muscle control or strength to breathe on their own.
Ann Adams’s iron lung accompanied her from house to house, from the house over Inwood Park down Inwood Terrace and back again, through a succession of addresses always close to the river. From house to house, Ann’s Dachshunds and German Shepherds and Corgis migrated with her.
Her drawings depict puppies and kittens and childlike cherubim and Christmas scenes. A simple line drawing took her as long as two months. She drew for mass production and a New York distribution company printed her drawings on coffee mugs, t-shirts, stationery and holiday cards.
Newspaper accounts accidentally slighted her, saying, “She was an artist prior to her illness.” Capitalizing on her story, captions on mass-produced holiday cards called her “a polio patient who, prior to her illness, was an artist.”
In April 1955, Jonas Salk announced the success of the vaccination trials. The trials took seven years and included 1.8 million schoolchildren, 20,000 health care workers, 64,000 public school workers, and more than 200,000 additional volunteers. Though the 1918 flu epidemic killed more Americans than all 20th century wars, by the mid-1950s, Salk seemed to rival Hitler for one man’s balance of good and evil on the world stage. A movement arose to make his birthday an international holiday.As for Ann, was she no longer an artist? Was that the reason, her tragedy, to buy the drawings she presently produced? Were consumers buying a shadow of what would have, might have, could have been? Did a woman, having once received the calling, automatically give up as powerful an orphic force as art just because of an epidemic, for no other reason than a virus randomly paralyzing her whole body?
3. Traveling in Place
Polio struck Ann at 20 years old, a year before she might have participated in Salk’s vaccine trials. She’d been married for two years and had a baby. An art student at Florida State University, Ann illustrated books and pamphlets for the Florida State Board of Health. The irony was bitter before she could find it funny. Her husband Kenneth was a naval officer and physician, cardiovascular disease his focus.
She’d lived with her parents at 812 Inwood Terrace, a modest brick riverfront house in South Jacksonville, once its own city across the river from Downtown. When she married at age 19, she moved down Inwood to the other side of Hendricks Avenue to a small modest house by St. Augustine Road.
She must have dreamt of walking. My mother did. From deep in her paralysis, my mother understood walking as the healthiest, most basic and essential, most psychologically necessary human activity. Ann told Sidney Fields of The New York Daily News in 1968 just how surreal her illness felt. “One day you’re walking around and the next day you’re in an iron lung.” Did she dream of descending those stone steps, smelling sea salt in the air, where Inwood Terrace meets the St. Johns River?
One physical therapist picked up Ann’s limp arms and told her, gently as possible, “We cannot help you.” Polio, Ann said, “produces the most excruciating pain imaginable.” When Dr. Frank Anderson in Augusta, Georgia promised her, “I’ll get you sitting up in a wheelchair,” she asked him, “What difference would that make?”
Before she became famous as the artist who drew with her teeth, Associated Press stories held headlines like “Polio Victim Sues Husband, Cites Abuse” and “Paralyzed Victim of Polio Accuses Mate of Cruelty.”Ken, Ann said, “deliberately operated the hoist in such a manner that I was practically thrown into the iron lung.” Once, angry and drunk, he slammed Ann’s head into the machine so hard she suffered a concussion. He’d said, so her alimony-without-divorce suit charged, that what kept him from killing her was that her “parents would not let him forget it,” though he also told her, she said, “he was glad I was helpless as he could do anything he wanted to me.”
Ann wanted to kill herself, but she had no means to do it. At rock bottom, she felt like accepting her condition would kill her. So she did it. And became someone new.
In a 1982 Jacksonville Journal interview, Ann said, “I couldn’t even cause my own death, and that’s the ultimate frustration. I discovered that you still have to accept a terrible thing, even though you think doing so may kill you. After that, you have the strength to want to do something with what you have.”
Dr. Frank Anderson answered her question about what difference sitting in a wheelchair would make by saying, “You’ll paint and draw again. You will.”I never met Ann, but her story reminds me of my mother’s. She too was paralyzed from the neck down, though not until ALS, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, began debilitating her to death in her late 40s. She’d been deathly ill before I was born, her hypothyroidism misdiagnosed while her abusive alcoholic husband left her with three daughters to raise and her thyroid rotted in her throat. Joan Irene Gilmore was a writer. She was the first time I knew what a writer was. She was the first time I knew I was a writer.
People thought my mother was a saint. She’d written two books, both based in her sicknesses, the last one as she lay dying.
“Ann Adams finds it very hard,” writes Sandra Earley-Marsh in a January 1972 article in Florida Today, “to deal with people who think she’s a saint.” Yes, Ann slept each night in an “iron lung,” including “a portable iron lung in a small bus that allow[ed] her to travel.”
Though after her divorce, she’d moved back in with her parents, Ann began to to make good money by mass distribution, moving into increasingly more prestigious houses.
A dentist had customized a “mouth grip” in which Ann held brushes and pencils, while an “adjustable easel” moved paint trays and racks of paper across her field of vision. It took her 10 weeks to learn to control vertical and horizontal axes. In 16 weeks, she began her first drawing. Ten years after first contracting polio, Anna finished her first mouth drawing, “a night scene of a chapel at the end of the woods.”
Ann liked houses on the water. By 1973, she moved from Harbor Oaks Road in Empire Point, south of downtown, to 3600 San Vizcaya Drive on the riverfront in San Jose, south of her childhood home. Her son, by that time, had disappeared from public records, and Ann, though publishing her home address on order forms for greeting cards, became increasingly private. In 1983, further south yet, she moved into a new 8100 square foot house, five bedrooms and five bathrooms, at 13880 Mandarin Road. By 2020, its estimated real estate value was just shy of $2 million.
4. Make the River Joyful with the Story
The Dead End sign stands crooked. Descending 18 steps, each stone wider toward the bottom, down into and through the river wall, Ann walked and I walk. I don’t take walking for granted; I knew my mother’s wheelchair too well.
Ann woke every morning at seven. It took her an hour and a half to get into her chair. She had four hours. She drew, most days, the whole time. She spent 11 to 12 hours a night in the iron lung. She always tried to work ahead, for some days she’d be too sick to work at all.
Someone’s painted the steps blue and the river wall waves of rose, saffron and purple. A pair of dolphins swim through a mural painted on the concrete blocks that extend toward the river. I’d like to cover an iron lung with candles, set them alight, push this strange boat to the middle of the river, watch it sink and become a reef, gradually disintegrating into the waters that take it, bit by bit, out into the ocean, mingling its molecules across and through and into all the earth. If I could do that, I’d could call it a poem.
On December 22, 1969, The Florida Times-Union reported the Christmas party Ann Adams gave at her home for fellow Family Psychology classmates at Florida Junior College’s Southside Campus. The school had offered classes for just three years. Professor William D. Dando, who’d taught psychology in Jacksonville for 11 years, had just taught his first FJC term in the former South Jacksonville Grammar School building.
Ann had not taken a breath by herself for two decades. “In order to find out more about herself,” the T-U’s Lynn Tieslau wrote, Ann enrolled in Tuesday night psychology classes that fall semester of 1969. In 2020, new residents make homes for themselves in loft apartments in that old FJC campus.
Filling her modest brick riverfront home with new friends from her junior college psychology class extended Ann’s sense of family. Her live-in nursing aide, 22 year old Rosilynd Jackson, said in jest, “This house is always busy, but we still have time to psychoanalyze people.”
I wait. I listen for the laughter from that Christmas party from the house that no longer stands. I will it to fall down here upon me where the shallows timidly touch my shoes. I hear, I don’t know why, Queen Gertrude’s description of Ophelia’s death in the rustling of willows and reeds.
“There,” declaims the queen, she “fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide, / And mermaid-like a while they bore her up; / Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes, / As one incapable of her own distress, / Or like a creature native and endued / Unto that element. But long it could not be / Till that her garments, heavy with their drink, / Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay / To muddy death.”
Well but Shakespeare’s best at tragedy. And Edgar Allen Poe wrote, “The death, then, of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.”
But Ann gave her own instructions for how to write of her. And the river has told me nothing else translatable. In her 1972 story, Sandra Earley-Marsh calls “Ann’s voice on the telephone” both “lilting and musical,” the “sound of a happy person.”
And Ann advised her, “I hope you will make the story joyful,” for her story, she said, “is not a tragedy.
“am not a tragedy.”
(“So make the story joyful.”)