by Marc Maurer
From the Editor: The following story first appeared in Remember to Feed the Kittens, the sixteenth in our Kernel Book series of small paperbacks.
There are oddities in the lives of blind people which are hard to explain, but we try to explain them anyway. One of these oddities happened to me in Williamsburg, Virginia.
When I was a boy, our family had very few vacations, as these are sometimes understood today. "Vacation" had two meanings for us in those days, and maybe it still does. "Vacation" meant the time school was not in session, but it also meant taking a trip for the purpose of enjoying the company of family members in unfamiliar places and circumstances.
Our family had plenty of the not-going-to-school kind of vacations, but we were short on the other kind. We enjoyed being with each other just fine, but we almost never "went" on a vacation. Because this is the way I grew up, I have very few firmly established notions about what a vacation trip is supposed to offer. I am quite certain that vacation trips are supposed to be fun, but that is all.
Christmas is (for my family and me) the most important and joyous holiday of the year. I love the giving of presents and all of the planning that is a part of the preparation for the day. I also love the wonderful Christmas smells, the good food, and the togetherness. Christmas is important because it is a time for the expression of love for others and for the performance of small miracles. Bringing delight to the hearts of others is one of the fundamental purposes for this most joyous holiday.
Dr. Kenneth Jernigan served as President of the National Federation of the Blind for almost twenty years. He and his wife became a part of the Maurer family, sharing the Christmas holidays with all of the warmth and joy that they possess.
Dr. Jernigan loved Christmas and the Christmas season as much as the rest of us. However, he had died in October after a yearlong fight with cancer. I wondered how we could spend Christmas without him; I also wondered how Dr. Jernigan's wife Mary Ellen would face this first Christmas alone.
Although we would not want to change any of the Christmas traditions--a big Christmas dinner together, prayers, attendance at church, the exchanging of presents, and all that is a part of the holiday--I wondered if a change of setting for at least part of the Christmas season wouldn't be worthwhile.
Consequently we decided--the Maurers and Mrs. Jernigan--to take a vacation between Christmas and New Years. We planned a visit to Williamsburg, Virginia, a place noted as the provincial capital of Virginia prior to the American Revolution.
Because the adult Maurers, my wife Patricia and I, are both blind and because the children, David and Dianna, are not old enough for driver's licenses, Mrs. Jernigan would drive. Two days after Christmas we packed the essentials for the trip--hand-held computer games designed for entertaining children riding in a car, a portable CD player with headphones for private music listening, several different kinds of Christmas candy, and (almost as an afterthought) a few clothes.
The Jernigan house is less than a block from our front door, and, as we carried our bags toward the departure point, we met two of Dr. Jernigan's kittens coming through the front gate into our yard. Some years ago Dr. Jernigan adopted a family of stray kittens who had shown up in his yard. After that he always made a home for others who appeared from time to time.
I thought of him then, and seeing his kittens reminded me how he had always taught us to share whatever we had with others. I remembered what he had done for me and my family and for many other blind people who had had no place to be until he showed us how to hope and believe.
Blinking back the tears, I stopped for a moment to ask the kittens if they had had their breakfast, but they seemed in a hurry. When we reached the Jernigan house, we spoke to Mrs. Jernigan, wondering if the kittens would be O.K. She told us she had made provision for them to be fed while we were away.
There had been an ice storm, and a number of trees had fallen. These trees blocked the roadway and slowed our progress. Furthermore, the reports on the radio told us that Williamsburg and the surrounding area were without electricity. Fortunately, when we arrived, our hotel had power. We would not have to use candles, and there would be hot water, operating elevators, and coffee.
Mrs. Jernigan and I stepped to the hotel check-in desk to fill out our room registration papers. Although I was standing before the desk, the clerk asked Mrs. Jernigan what kind of room I needed. Then she asked Mrs. Jernigan if I had any special requirements.
I myself responded to each question. However, the desk clerk seemed almost unaware of me. She asked Mrs. Jernigan if she would sign the registration for me. Then she questioned Mrs. Jernigan about how I would pay my bill. Again I responded myself.
The peculiar nature of the conversation created some awkwardness. There are those who find blindness so threatening that they want to ignore it. Others believe that the blind are incapable of the most rudimentary activities, and they automatically assume that any sighted person in the company of a blind person is in charge.
We tried gently to persuade the desk clerk to understand that I myself am capable and responsible for my own family. I answered the questions put to Mrs. Jernigan as if they had been addressed to me. However, I was completely unprepared for the last of the questions. The desk clerk handed Mrs. Jernigan a parking pass to be placed on the dashboard of her car. Then she asked Mrs. Jernigan if I had also driven to the hotel and if I would like a parking pass for my car.
I spent some time wondering how to account for this question. The desk clerk knew quite clearly that I was blind, yet she refused to speak to me. Nevertheless, she offered Mrs. Jernigan a parking pass for the car she thought I might have driven to the hotel. It reminded me that, although we have made much progress, we still have a way to go in helping blind people achieve opportunity in America.
During our visit to Colonial Williamsburg we participated in a reenactment of courtroom proceedings which had occurred more than 200 years earlier. As we stepped into the courtroom, the bailiff said to us that jurors must be selected for the trial. The members of the jury were required to be adult, white, Protestant, able-bodied males. All others were prohibited from serving.
As I sat in the body of the court, I reflected that, although I am a lawyer, I could not have served on the colonial jury of those days. The bailiff did not tell us whether my blindness would have prohibited me from representing clients in the court.
One of the cases that afternoon was brought against a man who had failed to go to church. The laws of Virginia in the 1770's required citizens of the state to attend the officially recognized Protestant church service at least one Sunday each month. The defendant in the case said he was a member of the Catholic faith and that his religion prohibited him from participation in Protestant worship.
During the course of the trial it was argued that his attendance at the Protestant service would be a mortal sin, which would subject him to eternal damnation. As I listened to the presentation of each of the parties involved, I thought about how I would defend this Catholic if I had been his lawyer, and I wondered whether I would have been permitted to plead the case.
The King's representative in court pointed out to the jurors that church service was not merely a religious matter but a secular one as well. Edicts from the Crown, from the House of Burgesses, or from the local city fathers would be read at church. Consequently, it was the civic duty of every citizen to be in attendance.
Although the position of the parties seemed irreconcilable, I could imagine myself attempting to touch the hearts of the jurors. The very arguments of the King's counsel, it seemed to me, suggested that if the civic duty could be met, there would be no need for the Catholic to participate in the Protestant worship service.
The argument that the civic duty was important implied that the law had been established to serve the government rather than God. If God were being served in some other way, this should satisfy the court.
As we left Williamsburg on our way back to Baltimore, I thought about how far we as blind people have come and how far we must still travel to become self-sufficient. I am a practicing lawyer today, and I have been summoned for jury service. In Colonial Williamsburg I might have been a minstrel, a storyteller, or a beggar; but I would probably not have had the opportunity for other employment.
Nevertheless, despite my learning and ability, sometimes I find that the desk clerk refuses to speak to me because I am blind. We must help people come to be at ease with those of us who are blind. In the National Federation of the Blind we are making an effort to bring this change into being. We appreciate our friends, and we hope to find more of them. We are willing to work and to learn, and sometimes we will take a vacation. We will do it for ourselves and our friends, but as we do it, we will remember to feed the kittens too.