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Maid of Honor
by Emily Wharton
From the Editor: This article first appeared in the Winter 2002 issue of the Minnesota Bulletin, the publication of the NFB of Minnesota. It was the winner of the 2001 Metro Chapter essay contest. It provides another illustration of what happens when a person truly embraces the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind. This is what Emily says:
Late last fall my sister Mandie called me to tell me that she was getting married. I was thrilled for her. I had met her boyfriend Ben several times. He's a great guy, and they are adorable together. She asked me if I would stand up for her. She said that she wanted both our other sister Kim and me to serve as her maids of honor. I felt very grateful, but a little nervous. I couldn't remember the last time I had been to a wedding, and I had no idea what it was like to be a member of the wedding party. Knowing Mandie, I knew this wedding would be complicated and extravagant. Mandie is a younger, louder version of Martha Stewart.
Within a few weeks I learned that my first task would be to write a poem that I would then read during the wedding ceremony. I couldn't refuse, but I felt really uncomfortable. Mandie was having her wedding in my parents' church-–the church I had grown up in. I hadn't been in the front of that church since the seventh grade, and I had had no intention of ever getting up there again.
When I was a child, I had essentially the same vision I have now. I was blind, but I could see well enough to read print. So the powers that be decided that I didn't need to learn any blindness skills. I wasn't given a cane. I could manage in good lighting, but I stumbled a lot in dark places.
Every year our Sunday School presented a Christmas Eve program. We memorized lines, and the children in band played their instruments. When I was in seventh grade, I had to recite my lines at the lectern and then cross in front of the altar to where my saxophone was waiting. The lights were low, and I couldn't see where I was going. I stepped on the leg of the second grader who was playing Mary and tripped. I was mortified. When Christmas came around the following year, I was so afraid it might happen again that I couldn't bring myself to perform at all, so I faked a stomach ache and stayed home.
After college I received adjustment-to-blindness training and learned to use a cane and read Braille. I joined the National Federation of the Blind and developed a positive attitude toward blindness. I now use a cane and have even taught cane travel. I often get up on stages at coffee houses and literary centers to read my poetry without a second thought. But there was something about going back to that place-–it brought back that memory and made me really nervous.
I finished writing the poem the day before the wedding. I knew the best thing to do would be to memorize it, pound it into my brain so that my nerves wouldn't get the better of me. But I had very little time left, and I knew that with all the last-minute preparations I would have to learn it on the go. So I wrote it out in Braille and took it with me everywhere I went. I read in the car, at the beauty shop while I was getting my hair done, at the church between photographs. But I wasn't satisfied that I wouldn't freeze up or forget a line, so I put my Braille copy on the lectern just in case.
The rehearsal was the night before the wedding. My sister had eight bridesmaids, and her fiance had only six groomsmen. So we decided that my dad would walk Kim and me up the aisle and then walk out the side door to meet Mandie. I had been wondering what I was going to do with my cane. I knew that I needed it. Some very oddly-shaped steps lay between where I was supposed to stand and the lectern. I knew I wouldn't have another incident like the one in seventh grade.
But I also knew that I wanted to have my cane with me. Growing up, I not only lacked blindness skills, I also had no idea that being blind could be anything but embarrassing or shameful. People always seemed to talk about my blindness with whispered euphemisms, referring to me as "the Wharton girl who can't see very well." So I did everything I could to hide my blindness. I pretended to see things that I couldn't, like slide shows or people's outfits. I even scored poorly on history tests because I couldn't read them fast enough and was too embarrassed to ask for help. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't totally hide my blindness, and I ended up frustrated, exhausted, and miserable.
When I learned the skills of blindness and joined the National Federation of the Blind, I learned that I didn't have to put all that effort into hiding my blindness. I met competent, confident blind people who showed me by example that being blind is okay. They taught me that being blind isn't shameful; it is perfectly normal. This lifted a huge weight off my shoulders. It was a wonderful relief to enter a room without having to wonder, "Do these people know I can't see?"
There were going to be at least 350 people at the wedding (which is a third of the population of the town). I wanted them all to see that I am comfortable with being blind. I wanted them to know that they don't have to whisper anymore.
But I wasn't sure how my family was going to react to my carrying my cane up the aisle. Just as it had been a difficult process for me to become comfortable with my blindness, it had been difficult for them. They had to learn to let me do things for myself. They had to hear me talk about blindness and see me walk around with my cane in order really to know that it was okay. They had made a great deal of progress, but I live 250 miles away, and they see me perhaps five or six times a year, so they sometimes have a tendency to see me as I was and not as I am now.
My mother was the first to broach the subject. She said, in a roundabout way, that I probably wouldn't need my cane since I would have my dad's arm. But Mandie, the real decision-maker at this event, didn't seem to worry at all. She told me to do whatever made me most comfortable. This made me feel very happy and helped me to relax quite a bit.
The whole ceremony went off beautifully. I made it to the lectern and back easily and delivered the poem smoothly, though my voice quivered from trying to hold back tears. When I left the sanctuary, I was elated. Mostly I was happy for my sister and the wonderful new life she was beginning, but part of my happiness was for myself. I felt as though I had written over those childhood memories of fear and embarrassment with memories of confidence and grace. I was able to do my part to make my sister's wedding a beautiful day she will always remember. But I don't think I could ever have done this if I hadn't learned to use a cane and read Braille. And I know for certain that I could not have done this if my friends in the National Federation of the Blind hadn't shown me that it really is respectable to be blind.
You can create a gift annuity by transferring money or property to the National Federation of the Blind. In turn, the NFB contracts to pay you income for life or to your spouse or loved ones after your death. How much you and your heirs receive as income depends on the amount of the gift and your age when payments begin. You will receive a tax deduction for the full amount of your contribution, less the value of the income the NFB pays to you or your heirs.
You would be wise to consult an attorney or accountant when making such arrangements so that he or she can assist you to consider current IRS regulations and calculate the earning potential of your funds. The following example illustrates how a charitable gift annuity can work to your advantage.
Mary Jones, age sixty-five, decides to set up a charitable gift annuity by transferring $10,000 to the NFB. In return the NFB agrees to pay Mary a lifetime annuity of $750 per year, of which $299 is tax-free. Mary is also allowed to claim a tax deduction of $4,044 in the year the NFB receives the $10,000 contribution.
For more information about charitable gift annuities, contact the National Federation of the Blind, Special Gifts, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230-4998, (410) 659-9314, fax (410) 685-5653.
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