Kurt Sipolski was born in Streator, Illinois. At the age of two he was struck by polio, the only case in town. After graduating from Northern Illinois University in Journalism, Kurt was hired by Rupert Mudoch to work as a reporter for his chain of newspapers in Sydney, Australia. Kurt's sense of adventure was heightened, and after two years, he moved back to the States, worked in Florida for Tropicana, and then backpacked through Europe, eventually running a coffee house in Paris. Homesick for Sydney, Kurt returned to Australia, eventually working for Qantas Airways and traveled extensively. After a few more years, Kurt asked for a transfer to a branch office in San Francisco where he then founded and published San Francisco Gentry magazine, incorporating his journalism experience. He now lives in Palm Desert, California where he freelances, and is working on a screen adaptation of his memoir-based, Too Early for Flowers: The Story of a Polio Mother.
LK: Your self-published memoir Too Early for Flowers is a tribute to your late mother Iris who stood by you throughout your struggle with polio. Can you talk about the difference between a tribute and a memoir? Are these alike in any way? Do you have to keep some distance from the experience in order to write an effective memoir?
KS: My story had to be fiction....there were too many things in my mother's background I could not know, and she was never one to wear her heart on her sleeve and never one to burden her kids with her troubles. There is much poetic license.
For instance, I got polio in Illinois, but thought it would be more wrenching for Iris to return home from Virginia in the dark, to the town she vowed to leave forever, burdened now as a widow with two small boys, one with polio for whom she had no idea how she could cope, knowing childhood would be miserable but maybe she could salvage his adulthood.
It was very difficult to write so personally, and that is why I changed the little polio boy's name to Gray for objectivity. That, and 'polio' is the Latin word for Gray.
LK: What is your earliest memory of your mother? What is the earliest memory of living with polio? Does the aftermath of this disease still affect you today?
KS: As I said in the original memoir, The Story of Iris, my first memory, about the age of 5, was my mother putting on my full leg brace and me crying because it was so tight and hot and heavy. One must realize how terribly hard that was for her to see me in pain, and at the same time she had to be insistent, which I thought as 'mean.'
The boy had a gentle soul, and Iris cherished that, but knew one has to be a fighter in life.
Most every kid gets bullied at some point in life, but a shy kid in braces is tantalizing red meat to the offenders. Iris had to teach him to fight, physically and emotionally.
Post-Polio Syndrome affects most survivors, in which the muscles become much weaker from overuse and I certainly am no exception. I gym daily, but use a cane often.
LK: How was your mother "rare"? What defined her?
KS: Iris was 'rare' both in the old-fashioned sense and in the modern sense. Every girl has a dream, and in many ways I killed Mom's dream of a carefree, healthy family but she never burdened me with guilt, as perhaps some mothers might.
Of Mom's first two sons, one was an athlete and one was disabled.
Only she could decide the balance between encouraging the athlete without simultaneously discouraging the disabled boy. And what is more important...a kid hitting a home run to the cheers of a crowd, or a kid walking up the stairs?
She alone had to learn how to balance nurturing without suffocating. She absolutely succeeded in that. And she never made me feel guilty or ungrateful about spending so many years overseas.
Iris had a new family, and finally, a little boy who brought her nothing but joy, as her two older sons had brought so much grief. He knew she was content.
Today's moms of special needs children have a myriad of resources, but no mother did then. It just required guts and dedication and instinct.
She sensed that the body and the mind both needed to heal. By firing the little boy's imagination with world travels, and hobbies and working at an early age, she strengthened and challenged him, in mind and body.
As I imply in Too Early for Flowers, it was not until years later that we realized how a disabled child changes the whole family, making it stronger, more sensitive, and more aware.
LK: If you could go back to any time in your childhood what would it be? Would you choose to live through polio again? Or take another course?
KS: There is nothing, nothing in my childhood I would revisit. My world changed when, ten years after I got polio, I was told I no longer need braces. The world opened up. I had conquered polio and nothing could stop me now. Mom was triumphant that day, because all her years of hard work and inspiration had paid off.
Her instincts had proven right, and she knew that his drive would carry him far from her, but she knew sacrifice is part of being a mother.