By Marc Maurer
A knowledge of the meaning of blindness is not automatic; it must be learnedor, in many cases, unlearned. When childhood fears are added to the mix, the combination can lead to frustration and anxiety.
Marc Maurer, President of the National Federation of the Blind, has two young children. Regular Kernel Book readers have followed the birth of his son David, their adventures in Cub Scouting, camping, cutting fire wood, and repairing the roof. Through all of it Marc has simply been Davids fatherwho happens to be blind. But now David is approaching his teens. As be begins to absorb societys traditional attitudes about blindness, how wi11 his father protect the relationship and keep it from deteriorating? In his heartwarming account of a family holiday trip, President Maurer explores this issue. Here is what he has to say:
In the Maurer household there are two adults and two children. My wife Patricia and I are both blind, but our children, David and Dianna are not. David is thirteen and Dianna is ten. We are a family in the traditional sensewe go places together; perform family projects together; cook, clean, repair our home, and maintain our yard together; attend church together; and explore new horizons together.
We almost never discuss blindness. We dont forget it, but it is rarely a topic of conversation. Of course, in the planning for our activities, we remember that blindness is a factor. We do not own an automobile because none of us can drive it. So travel plans include hiring taxis, buying airplane or railroad tickets, renting automobiles and hiring drivers, calling upon friends and colleagues who have cars, taking buses, walking, using the subway, or some combination of these methods.
Then there is mowing the lawn and maintaining the yard. We do this as a family. My part of the job includes maintaining the lawnmower and other gardening equipment. We have a hedge, which runs along the front edge of our property. I keep this clipped, using a gasoline-powered hedge trimmer. If you touch the trimmer in the wrong place, it will trim your fingers along with the hedgeso I dont.
I also spend part of my time mowing the grass. However, this job is usually performed by David. My wife and daughter undertake to pick up the sticks and stray papers in the yard. The combination of effort gets the job done.
David and I mow the grass differently. He is sighted, and he watches what the lawnmower is doing. I am blind, so I use other techniques. I often mow under low-hanging trees and shrubs.
David finds this frustrating because he finds it difficult to see what he is doing. I can follow the shrub line or use the branches to tell me where I am and how much of the space has already been mowed. He uses one technique, and I use another. Working together, we keep the yard neat and tidy.
Inside the family there is no misunderstanding about who is in charge or how responsibilities are determined. The parents make decisions, and the children must follow direction. If the children misbehave, they are reprimanded or punished as circumstances warrant. They are given assignments and expected to carry them out, and they must seek permission to go visiting or engage in other activities away from home. This arrangement is stable,and predictable.
Outside of our family this understanding is not always shared. From time to time we have encountered remonstrances from strangers. They tell my children that they must take care of their parents. They will stop my son or daughter on the street and tell them to be careful that I dont run into a telephone pole.
If I do run into a telephone pole, a thing which almost never happens, the children are sometimes chastised by strangers for their supposed neglect. My sighted children have been repeatedly told that they are responsible for their blind parents.
Sometime during the fall, Dianna asked me if we could go to New York. I was surprised. I have been to New York many times, and of course at one level of my mind I knew that she hadnt but I simply wasnt thinking in those terms. "Would you like to go to New York?" I asked.
"Yes," she replied. "Id certainly like to go. Can we?"
So we planned to take a trip to New York City.
Since I love my daughter, and since I like to please her, we began planning the trip immediately. The questions were numerous. When would we go? What would we do? What would the trip cost? Could we afford it? I considered waiting until another year. Expenses during the past few months had been heavy, and I wondered whether the budget could take any more travel. However, I am particularly fond of my family, and I want very much to give them the experiences they want if we can afford them. Besides, I am aware that postponed promises are, often never kept.
There is always something more important that interferes, or the yearning that caused the request to be made in the first place dries up before the promise is carried out. With all these thoughts in mind, I decided that we should travel to New York right after Christmas. The Christmas decorations would still be in place, and maybe the crowds would be a little smaller after the holiday had passed.
Dianna was delighted, but David was not. He did not want to go. He asked if we could invite someone else to go with us. As the time for the trip came nearer, he became less and less enthusiastic.
He wondered aloud if there wouldnt be some work assignment that would prevent me from going so the trip would need to be canceled. He told his mother and me that there wasnt anything in New York that he wanted to see. He said that he would just stay in the hotel and watch television. He worried about how we would get to the train station and what we would do to find our way around New York City. Finally, he became unresponsive and irritable when we discussed the upcoming trip. I wondered why, and when he asked once again if we could take somebody with us, the answer became clear.
David, my sighted son, was worried that he would be expected to serve as the responsible leader of our family that he would be called upon to know what to do and where to gothat he would be required to make decisions and plan the trip. He felt that he was inadequate to meet the challenge and that he would be expected to shoulder responsibilities that were beyond him. He was worried that he might fail his parents and that his failure would cause distress or danger.
Even if there were no danger, he thought the trip might be a failure because he would not know where we should go, therefore making the excursion to New York a isappointment,
a disappointment that would be his fault.
As soon as I -understood the problem, I knew what we must do. We would travel to New York and have a wonderful time. We would go together as a family, and we would do it alonetwo blind parentsprotecting, shepherding, guiding, and caring for our two sighted children. I decided not to tell David that I thought he might learn from this experience, and ultimately profit from it. Instead I reminded him about all of the wonderful places there are to visit in New York. But it didnt seem to cheer him up at all.
On a Thursday morning, the day after Christmas, we boarded a train in Baltimore and headed for New York. I had hoped that the crowds would have diminished because we were traveling after Christmas. However, this was not the case.
The train was jam-packed. We had hoped to find four seats together, but no such luck. We settled for two. Mom, Dad, and David sat in the two seats; and Dianna sat on the suitcases at our feet. There was nowhere else to go and nowhere else to stow the luggage. You could say it was cozy, but you might also have called it cramped. Fortunately, the train ride from Baltimore to New York takes only a little over two hours, and the excitement of planning the next few days kept us occupied.
We had tickets for the Thursday evening performance of the Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall. We talked about visiting Rockefeller Center to see the tree and watch the ice skating. David wanted a chance to visit the toy store, F.A.0. Schwarz; and Dianna expressed a wish to shop at the Warner Brothers store because she especially likes Tweety Bird.
As the train halted in Pennsylvania Station in New York City we stepped out into the cold air, and followed other passengers up the escalator. As we left the station, I welcomed the children to the sidewalks of New York sidewalks as crowded as I ever remember them in the Big Apple. We found a taxi and loaded our bags into it. In a short time we reached the hotel, where we would stay for the next three days.
Our room was what you would expect in a decent New York hotel, but David (still mistrustful) wanted to know why it was so small and why it didnt have fancier amenities.
He had seen the Plaza in a movie, and he thought we ought to go there. I told him to quit griping and put his bag away so that we wouldnt stumble over it during our stay. I also told him to get ready for lunch, but he told me he wasnt hungry. I got the idea that he was more nervous than ever. But I was not prepared for his nervousness and irritability to become the controlling factors in the trip. I gave him his instructions: hungry or not, he was going to have lunch; so he had better get ready. I wondered whether the trip had been a mistake, but we were in the Big Apple, and I intended to do all that I could to make our stay there enjoyable and memorable.
So the first order of business was lunch. In the hotel coffee shop Dianna and her brother both ordered chicken noodle soup, and they were warmed as much by the familiar food as by the steaming broth.
After lunch it was time to explore the city. We were planning to attend the early evening performance of the Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall, so on our way to the show, we decided to stop by Rockefeller Center (across the street from Radio City) to see the enormous Christmas tree and watch the ice skaters.
I asked the doorman at our hotel to give me directions to Rockefeller Center. We were on 47th Street, not far from Broadway. The doorman told me I should walk up Sixth Avenue to 49th and I would see it. He said we could get there in about ten minutes, so we started out.
The afternoon was chilly, and there were people everywhere. Street vendors offered us hot roasted nuts, hot dogs, soft pretzels, and hard goods such as sunglasses and electronic watches. But we were not yet acclimated to New York, so we kept on our way without stopping to bargain or buy. I was in the lead, walking with David, and Patricia followed with Dianna.
When we came to the comer of 49th and Sixth, we did not find Radio City, but somebody told us if we kept on for a block, wed be there. And a block later, there it was. On 50th Street, we came to the skating rink. The crowds were enormous, and the line for admission to the rink was exceedingly long. We watched the skaters and admired the dazzling Christmas tree, decorated with hundreds of colored lights and a big white star at the top.
As the afternoon became evening, we joined the line for the Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall. The story of Christmas is timeless, but there are many ways to present it. Santa Claus told us that he couldnt do his work in one night all by himself, so he recruited helpers. In a few moments, there were sixty Santas on the stage. A moment later Dianna laughed in astonishment when animated Christmas trees danced in time to the music. Then, there was the story of the Christ child. My small daughter confided to me that she thought the camel (a real one), which was part of this segment of the performance, looked unhappy and confused.
David enjoyed the show, too, but he still seemed nervous. When we started back for the hotel, he thought we were going the wrong way. He imagined that we were getting more and more lost in this big strange city, but I told him we were all right, and sure enough we were soon in familiar territory.
When he saw the nut vendor outside our hotel he obviously began to feel relaxed. He said to me that we had found the place, and without telling him that we had never lost it, I agreed.
The next day we started out for the toy stores, Warner Brothers and F.A.O. Schwarz. They are within a block of each other on Fifth Avenue, and across the street is the Plaza. This hotel, featured in the movie Home Alone, fascinated the children; and I promised to take them there for lunch. We did not merely eat; we dined. The children asked for spaghetti, which did not appear on the menu, but the waiter said they would find some. The surroundings were elegant; the service was impeccable; and the bill, when it came, was as impressive as everything else.
Then, it was off to the Empire State Building. More than fourteen hundred feet in height, this tallest of New York buildings has an observation deck on the 102 floor, from which we could see a cruise ship in the distance. A short walk from the Empire State Building is Macys Department store, a central feature in the Christmas movie Miracle on 34th Street. On the way there, we passed more street vendors. Dianna bought a beret, and David purchased a Nike watch.
On Saturday morning we set off for the Statue of Liberty. This symbol of American freedom is over a hundred years old. We hired a taxi for the ride to the harbor, but we were puzzled about the place the ferry docked. I asked David if he saw the spot to board, but he did not. I told him I would ask some of the passersby where it was. He argued with me, telling me that they were ordinary tourists, not public officials. I said that they didnt need to be public officials to give us information and that they might know the answers to our questions. When I asked, they told us what we wanted to know. David was astonished and relieved to discover that this simple technique worked so well.
The method for finding your way is much alike both for the blind and the sighted. In an unfamiliar place it may be necessary to ask for directions. If the directions are correct and complete, this solves the problem. If not, a request for more information may be made. This is how all of us learn how to get where we want to go.
On our ferry boat ride to the Statue of Liberty, we were at peace and enjoying the sightseeing as a family. David had stopped worrying that everything would go wrong.
He had been reminded, not in words but by example, that blindness does not prevent his parents from managing the family and protecting him and his sister. He came to recognize that he was not responsible for his parents but that the responsibility ran the other way. He felt good about this, and he relaxed.
In our walk around the base of the Statue of Liberty, a piece of history and the hope of the future came together. I could not help reflecting that the lessons learned by my children on the trip to New York are a small part of the process that will bring understanding and opportunity to all of humankind, including not only the blind but also the sighted.
Through the years, blindness has often been misunderstood, and that misunderstanding has prevented those of us who are blind from achieving our full potential. However, working together, we can change the negatives that have so frequently been associated with blindness. Sometimes it is done on the job, sometimes in a television appearance, and sometimes by what is written in a newspaper or a magazine. Sometimes it is done by a walk around the base of the Statue of Liberty on a holiday trip to New York.