.The Braille Monitor March, 2004
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Riding in the Streets
by Ramona Walhof
From the Editor: One of the most prolific contributors to the Kernel Book series of publications the NFB publishes to educate the public about what it is really like to be blind is Ramona Walhof. Her stories often focus on her experience raising two children on her own. This story appeared in To Reach for the Stars, the twenty-fifth in the series. It begins with President Maurer's introduction:
Ramona Walhof lives in Idaho. She is a longtime leader in the National Federation of the Blind, having served both as a state president and a national officer. Her stories have appeared in many previous Kernel Books. Here she writes about raising her children as a young widowed single mother.
Ramona Walhof with son Christopher and daughter Laura
I was a widowed single mother with a son in kindergarten and a daughter in second grade. I was proud of my kids, but I didn't get to do as many things with them in school as I would have liked because I had to work. I was working for a rehabilitation agency for the blind, and the job was pretty demanding. Sometimes I brought blind students home with me for dinner and the evening. Sometimes I had activities at work that meant I could not come home at the regular time. Other times there were trips out of town. On the other hand, sometimes I could take my children with me for activities with the adult students.
It was important for these students (many of whom were newly blind and needed to understand that they could return to a full and normal life) to associate with blind people who were involved in their communities and doing the things families do. I know that some of the students thoroughly enjoyed talking and playing with my children. So my life was busy, and I was satisfied with it.
One day I received a call from my employer. He asked me to go to a city about 100 miles away to testify in a custody hearing for Tony, another blind parent. I had met this man, but I didn't know him well. He was divorced with four children. He and his former wife had a co-custody arrangement; each had the children every other weekend and part of the school week.
The ex-wife was asking for full custody, saying that Tony's blindness made him less able to care for the children than she was. I wondered how I could help, since I knew these people only a little. My employer explained that the court needed to hear how a single blind parent could cope. I didn't think my methods as a blind mother were that different from what sighted people do, but I certainly could try.
I traveled to the location where the hearing was to be held the night before. A breakfast meeting was scheduled with Tony, his attorney, and two other probable witnesses. We were told that there would be three attorneys: one for Tony, one for his ex-wife, and one for the children. We would not be permitted into the courtroom until we were called to testify. I was not expecting this. I was hoping to hear some of the questions to people before me. Each of us was questioned by Tony's attorney, but he told us he could not predict everything the other attorneys would ask. He just advised us to answer the questions as correctly as we could. I hoped I could help because I certainly did not want any court to decide that blindness by itself was cause for a parent not to have custody of his or her children.
As it turned out, I didn't have long to wait. I was the first to be called. I was asked the standard questions about who I was and my family situation. I was asked if I experienced any special problems because of blindness. I answered that I did not drive but used other means of transportation. I said I did not expect my children to do most of my reading. It was up to me to help them learn to read.
I explained that the year before I had purchased some used first-grade reading books to help my daughter gain confidence in reading. She would spell the words she did not know so I could help her with them. But first-grade readers repeat the same word many times, and that helped her realize that she really was learning to read.
By the time of this court hearing, Laura had become quite a good second-grade reader. Her teacher had never thought she was having problems, but Laura did. I don't now remember all the things we discussed in that hearing, but they were not complicated.
Then the attorney for the children began to ask me questions. He asked how I handled discipline. I explained that I tried to be consistent. If I told my children that I would do something--something they liked or something they would not like--I did my best to follow through. He pursued this. I told him I knew that I had to be realistic. Once I told my son I would not let him play outside if he did not clean up his room by the time I came home from work. He said, "You'll forget." I thought about that for a minute, wondering how often I did forget such things. Then I answered: "I could forget, but then I might not. Do you want to take the chance?" He did not take the chance and went immediately and did his assigned chores. It had nothing to do with blindness, I thought.
Then I was asked how I supervised my children outside. I explained that much depended on the relationship you have with your children. I said that of course I could not watch them every minute, but nobody does that. My daughter wanted to ride her bike all over the neighborhood, and I refused to let her ride in the streets, thinking that she did not yet understand traffic patterns well enough and just wasn't ready.
She informed me that her friend Sarah rode her bike in the streets. That didn't change my mind. Laura asked, "Why can Sarah ride her bike in the street, but I can't?" All I could answer was, "because Sarah's parents make Sarah's rules, and your mom makes your rules." Then the attorney asked: Could I trust my daughter to follow the rules she was given?
I explained to the court that there were many ways I might find out if she did not. Her brother might let it slip. A friend might mention it. Laura herself might say something that would tip me off. Other parents in the neighborhood might say something. Laura tended not to want to take chances like that. While I didn't believe it was impossible that she would test, I thought it unlikely, and I was quite sure that (sooner or later) I would be told.
My children had learned to take what I said seriously. I told them about the time my son climbed on a ladder to the top of the garage and pulled off some of the shingles. I don't believe he intended to damage the roof of the garage, but when it began to leak, I first wondered whether water was running in under the door. The kids told me it was probably rain coming through the hole in the roof. They weren't being secretive about it. We all got to fix the shingles on the garage roof.
I told the court that, when my children were very small, they found it a privilege to choose which can of vegetables or fruit we would have for dinner. If my children had not wanted to do that, I would have labeled canned goods in Braille. Since they regarded choosing as a privilege, I didn't take the time to label. I gave some other examples, but I think what I said about riding the bike was the turning point. The attorney for the mother had no questions for me. No other witnesses were called. I was concerned about that, but Tony's attorney thought Tony had won what he wanted, continued co-custody of his children. He turned out to be right.
I thought about that testimony and raising children. I hadn't taken the time to read lots of books about child rearing. I hadn't had a lot of time, and not as many were available in Braille and on tape as there are now. I hadn't had the time to socialize with other mothers as much as I might have, because my husband died when my son was four months old, and I had been working ever since. I just did what seemed reasonable. I would do some things differently now, but I tried to keep my cool and talk with my children about what they were thinking as much as I could.
I often thought I missed much of the information about what happened at school because I came home every afternoon at least two hours after school was dismissed. By that time the news from school was old for little children. I went to some school programs, but not all of them. I did the best I could. Perhaps I did not have the time to enjoy my children as I might have. But we had some very good times. That is one of the reasons I am so glad now to have grandchildren. My big job with them is to enjoy them, and I do.
When Laura was eleven or twelve, she was permitted to ride her bike on streets that were not too busy. She was as tall as I was. We bought a tandem bike and used it for recreation and to run errands. By riding behind my daughter, I became very aware of exactly how good her judgment was about traffic and street patterns.
I arranged a special order to have brakes both in front and back of the tandem. I also had the dealer put the gears on the back handlebar instead of in front. The time came when that was not an asset, but at first I thought it would be better for me to have good control. I was quite a bit heavier than my daughter was, so I taught her to put her feet on the pedals while I pushed off to start the bike. This is not the recommended way, but it seemed wise for us. Usually the heavier person rides the front of a tandem bike.
I wondered if Laura was too young, but we both enjoyed it, and we skinned our knees only once--not too bad a record for as much as we rode that bike. I was so cautious that my son preferred to ride on his single bike while Laura and I rode the tandem. I didn't argue about it.
One summer we joined a swimming pool so that both children could swim as often as they liked while I was at work. They rode their bikes to get there and home again. Only one of the streets between the house where they stayed and the pool was heavily traveled, and they were instructed to ride on the sidewalk along it. By this time Chris and Laura were in the fourth and sixth grades. They stayed with a neighbor during the day while I was at work, but they were old enough to have a little independence.
My judgment was that they were responsible enough to ride in the streets and that their desire to swim was strong enough that they would not jeopardize it. The neighbor they stayed with had several children of her own, and they were most happy to report on anything that occurred in the neighborhood. One always has to consider the accuracy of such reports, but they can be useful if considered together with other information. All this came about little by little and felt right. Much depends on the individual children, but more depends on the relationship between them and adults, especially their parents.
Did I make mistakes? Of course I did. Still I am proud of my children. Both are college graduates, have wonderful spouses, own their own homes, are working in responsible employment, and are paying their own bills. I now have more flexible time than they do, even though I lead a busy life.
When to permit children to ride their bikes in the streets is a judgment call for every family. That is probably something I wouldn't change if I had it to do all over again. I think I understand better now why my testimony in that custody case seemed to have made the difference. My message was that blindness isn't nearly as important in child rearing as communication, relationships, and honesty. I must have succeeded in getting that across to the court, and I haven't changed my mind.
My experience in the National Federation of the Blind has made it possible for me and my children to regard blindness as a characteristic, not to be forgotten or disregarded, but not to be a roadblock or a distraction from other things either. Blindness is only one of my characteristics, and I hope not the only interessting one. Once the tandem was equipped the way we needed it, we never thought about it. We just thought about where we were going and why.
Planned giving takes place when a contributor decides to leave a substantial gift to charity. It means planning as you would for any substantial purchase--a house, college tuition, or a car. The most common forms of planned giving are wills and life insurance policies. There are also several planned giving options through which you can simultaneously give a substantial contribution to the National Federation of the Blind, obtain a tax deduction, and receive lifetime income now or in the future. For more information write or call 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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