CHILDREN, FRUITCAKE, AND RECTANGLES

by Barbara Walker

Barbara Walker is no stranger to readers of previous Kernel Books—her sensitive and thought-provoking stories having appeared in a number of them. Here she reflects on the key ingredients of her own childhood, which enabled her to find her place in the world—as a leader in her community, her church, and the National Federation of the Blind. Here is what she has to say:

When my son John, at the age of three, said he wanted some fruitcake that had been in the refrigerator for quite awhile, I said: "Just a minute, please. I need to see what kind of shape it's in." His response was immediate: "It's in a rectangle shape, and I want some." Somehow, his response got me to thinking about my own childhood.

I have always been blind. My sister, Laurie, is also blind. Our older brother, Lani, isn't. There was, to our parents' knowledge, no history of blindness in our family. Discussing my sister's case, the doctors said they didn't know the cause of blindness, but thought there was probably a one in a thousand chance of recurrence. Since I arrived—blind—fourteen months later, either I'm one in a thousand, or they didn't know what they were talking about. All of us are now grown, married, and have children—none of whom is blind.

Our parents knew nothing about blindness. They struggled with stereotypes as all of us do, but their hope for us was the same as that for our brother—that we would eventually be contributing and fulfilled adults, no longer needing or wanting to live under their care.

My sister, from what I remember my mother's telling me, crawled, walked, and talked at about the same time as neighbor kids her age. She ran away from home more than once while still in diapers, handled everything she could get to, was adept with her fingers, questioned incessantly, and insisted on a prominent place in her world.

I, on the other hand, neither walked nor talked until I was about two, showed little visible evidence that I was particularly curious about my environment, and was clumsy and awkward with my hands and body—breaking many things with which I came into contact.

As toddlers and preschoolers, we continued to show contrasts. Laurie, at age two, walked along the piano reaching up to pick out melodies on the keyboard. She generally chose gentle play— interacting with others, real or imaginary—and was afraid of high slides, going on carnival rides, and the like.

I loved rough play—wrestling, running hard, swinging and/or climbing high, flipping over and off of bars, throwing and catching balls, etc.—and I loved high slides, carnival rids, and the like.

Mom, the more verbally expressive of our parents, said there were many times when she didn't understand how we would or could do things, and it scared her to have us try. But she didn't stand in our way. She learned Braille so that we could correspond privately. She persistently went to bat for us when we were left out or mistreated—not in ways that made us dependent upon her, but in ways that preserved respect and dignity for everyone, and provided us with experience in everything from fielding questions to finding alternative methods for doing things ordinarily done with the use of sight.

Dad showed his acceptance of us in other ways. He showed us how things worked. He pointed out nonvisual qualities of things generally perceived visually, like the contrasting cool and hot pavement where his shadow passed. He made us doll cribs and a playhouse. Dad also took me fishing and encouraged my interests in competitive sports.

My sister and I were given hands-on experiences whenever their availability and our interests coincided. I was a very shy child, and sometimes my self-consciousness prevented me from taking full advantage of these opportunities. If Laurie was along, I generally asked her later about whatever we had seen, and she would explain it in detail—sometimes creating a replica to show me.

Underlying all of these things were our parents' respect for us as people and their encouragement toward our finding a place in society—not a pigeonhole created by them or anyone else, but a place we could earn as others do. That genuine attitude of respect and affirmation of our worth and dignity did more than all the experiences and skills combined in allowing us to grow and become contributing members of society.