Ancestor Olive

My maternal aunt Olive was a Polio survivor. Born in 1912 in Nebraska, she was stricken young, at age four.

It wasn’t until 34 years later in 1950 that Jonas Salk developed a Polio vaccine. Before that time there was little available to halt the progression. The majority of people who got the disease remained asymptomatic or recovered within a few weeks. In about 1% of those afflicted, the virus entered the central nervous system and an even smaller percentage of those ended up with paralysis.

Olive was one of the unfortunate ones, suffering paralysis and deformity. Her left arm and hand were twisted, her right leg shriveled and crippled, and a large hump formed on her right shoulder. She never married and never had children.

At age 15, a charitable organization arranged for Olive and another polio victim from Craig, Colorado (where her family had moved and homesteaded), to travel to a hospital in Minneapolis for surgical intervention. Through a series of operations, a stout leather vest fitted to her torso, and a metal brace attached to her right shoe, she was able to gain better use her left arm and walk with less of a limp.

Olive then pressed on to graduate from High school and moved to Denver. She attended the School of Opportunity to learn secretarial skills while living independently. Later she worked, at among other places, the Denver Public Library. Given to letter writing, during World War II, she made her contribution by corresponding and offering comfort to servicemen all over the world, including her three brothers.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt was an inspiration to her. In 1921, at age 39, he also was stricken with Polio and only through therapy and braces was able to walk. In spite of his challenging physical condition, Roosevelt dynamically led the United States through the worst depression and war the country had ever seen. A part of his New Deal programs, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), enabled thousands of unemployed young men to gain work, including Olive’s brothers.

Roosevelt was elected to an unprecedented fourth term just as the great war was winding down. However, with failing health, he died on April 12, 1945, less than three months into his last term (having served as President since 1933). The country was shocked and many deeply mourned the loss.

Olive, herself, coming of age during a time of depression and war, contended with lack of financial resources and severe physical disability. In spite of all this adversity, she persevered and those who knew her were warmed by her independent and generous-hearted nature. But her condition was taking its toll and when her mother, with whom she had always been close, died in 1950, the heart just went out of Olive. A little over one year later she died on March 21, 1951, at the young age of 38. Through her employment she had managed a small life insurance policy and savings, enough to cover her own burial expenses.1

Olive provides guidance in living with limitations. The grace of acceptance. The wisdom of knowing yourself within your own boundaries. The courage of being exceptional in spirit and bodily form.

Each step was taken with effort and intention, as she navigated Denver’s winters to get to work. There were no throwaway steps.

All our ancestors that have gone before us, each contributing in some way to who and where we are today, give us pause as we consider their courage.

To live such a life, as Olive’s, is to be intimate with the teachings of the Hindu Goddess, Dhumavati – the Smoky One. In her we recognize the parts of life we may have trouble looking at: disappointment, ugliness, deformity, weakness, solitude. Teaching us it takes courage to see things as they are and to move on from there. Dhumavati, and I believe my aunt Olive, in her essence, helps us to be unattached; to let go of ego and let go of self-pity; and freely dance our unique rhythm on the stage we’ve been given.


4 thoughts on “Ancestor Olive”

  1. Patty Duetting says:

    Thank you, Justine for your beautiful stories and writing. The woman in the Dermatologists office gives me pause to look at my own attitude and gratitude . Also, it reminds me how we often don’t get to know our impact on others. You didn’t know her and I never met her but she affected my heart.

    The story of your Aunt Olive is a hard one to take in. How did she live with such Grace? I have a disease which limits me considerably, and Olive reminds me of how I can employ more grace and acceptance in my day to day life.

    Congratulations! Your website with photos and metaphors is magical and beautiful.
    Thank You, Patty

    1. justinedurrell says:


      Thank you for your very thoughtful response.

  2. sarah says:

    Love your blog Justine.

  3. ah olive, – gets me on one of my favourite spins – not much adversity in our kids lives these days yet they definitely feel like there is. i wonder if adversity doesn’t do us in then we rise to the occasion of it with many coping and surviving skills, like a plant who has made it through the harsh weather.

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