Future Reflections Fall 2008
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by Julie Reid
Reprinted from the Winter/Spring 2008 issue of the British publication VIEWPOINT, The Magazine of the National Federation of the Blind UK under the title, “I’d Like to Have Seen You.” The NFBUK is not affiliated with the USA-based National Federation of the Blind, which is the not-for-profit consumer organization that publishes Future Reflections.
Editor’s Note: Our dreams for our children often include things that have made us happy in our own lives. My three children are the joy of my life, and so at the top of my dream list for my children (who are now young adults) is the wish that they, too, will have children. But is that dream practical and possible for a blind child? And even if it is, will his or her children grow up to feel deprived and cheated of a childhood because they had a blind parent? The following story, which comes from the United Kingdom, is the first-person account of the sighted daughter of two blind parents who dared to make their dream of happiness a reality.
Although not affiliated with the National Federation of the Blind in the USA, the Reid’s lives, as described by their adult daughter, demonstrate the essence of Federation spirit and philosophy. Their competency and no-nonsense attitude about blindness made a strong impression on their daughter; strong enough to mostly ward off the influence of the insidious and subtle as well as silly and blatant mythologies about blindness that filtered into their daily lives through the comments of well-meaning but uninformed townspeople. Sometimes Julie Reid falls into the stereotyped script modeled for her by those teachers, neighbors, classmates, or even family members. But a quote from one of her parents or her own personal reflections quickly get her back on track and focusing on her theme that despite the differences in how things were sometimes accomplished in her household, life for her was pretty much like life was like for all the other children growing up in their community.
The original title was “I’d Like to Have Seen You.” So, why the title change? Because I thought the implied pathos of the original title was misplaced (see below the full quote from which that title was taken), and I wanted a title that was more descriptive and accurate. Reid’s own opening words seem to capture the essence of her story. And, yes, I did note the inconsistency and irony between my title and the original editor’s introduction which refers to Reid’s “extraordinary childhood.” But Reid can tell her own story, and you can be the judge of whether or not she had an extraordinary childhood or an ordinary childhood which she describes with extraordinary spirit, charm, and insight. Here is what she says:
“I’d like to have seen you,” my mother says, “but it’s not as important as you’d think.”
Etta and Fred Reid held down successful careers, had three children in quick succession, and managed to raise them with hardly any outside help. No big deal--except they are both totally blind. Here their daughter, Julie Reid, remembers her extraordinary childhood.
Tuesday August 1, 2006
Mine was a pretty ordinary childhood. But not everyone saw it that way. One word sums up people’s response to the news that my parents are totally blind: incredulity. Incredulity that they could cook, get around, perform the general tasks of everyday life--let alone raise three children, including twins, while holding down successful professional careers.
My father Fred and mother Etta were both born, fully sighted, in Glasgow in 1937, but lost their sight during childhood. Etta was six when it happened; Fred, fourteen. My mum was involved in a traffic accident; my dad, I was told from a very young age, “got a germ in his eye.” (It was actually a condition called double detached retina.) They met at the Royal Blind School, Edinburgh, at the age of fifteen, married at twenty-six, and had three children, all fully sighted, fifteen months apart; Gavin in 1966, then, in 1967, my twin brother Leslie and me. They did not meet overt hostility when they decided to have children. They were not told by a maternity doctor, as one of their blind friends was, that “You shouldn’t be having children.” All the same, it was a rare thing that they did, and as I approach forty, with two small children of my own, I’ve begun to revisit my early years and wonder how on earth my parents coped with three small ones born so close together.
“I was aware of people judging me and people waiting for me to fail,” says Etta. “But my mother had ten of us and she had loads of energy, and I think I inherited that.”
My father has a slightly different take on it: “Every blind person in any walk of life, if they’ve got any kind of desire to succeed, has to work fifty percent harder.”
As a schoolchild, I was always asked what it was like to have parents who were blind. I had a stock response: “My parents are just the same as yours.” They weren’t, of course, but as far as I could see, my life was pretty much the same as that of my friends, except that we had a few more strange gadgets: the bleepers that let you know when a mug was full and when a light was on, and one that told you when it was raining so you could bring the washing in; the weird contraption for writing Braille and, later on, a talking microwave. (To this day, I give a very wide berth to the talking scales that announce the user’s weight to the entire household.) I did have one major gripe, though: I would have loved for us to have had a car. No school-run for me. We always caught the bus, cycled, or walked.
We lived in a handsome, four-storey Victorian house in Kenilworth, a small, affluent town in Warwickshire. My friends assumed that we children must have had lots of chores to do: “Who does the cleaning? How does your mother turn the cooker on?” But aside from the occasional shopping and washing-up duties and lawn-mowing (for which I was paid), we did little around the house except mess it up. My mother had weekly hired help with the cleaning, but she still spent all day Friday in a whirlwind of scrubbing and polishing. The stair carpet would be swept at the edges before vacuuming; the entire basement floor would be scrubbed on hands and knees. Windows would be cleaned, light bulbs changed--Mum thought nothing of skipping up a stepladder.
There was the occasional painless task: sometimes, on a Sunday night, a basket would be presented to me full of socks waiting to be paired up. And there was one almost daily chore that I hated as it tended to clash with “Grange Hill” [a television program]: tatty inspection. My mum peeled the potatoes herself, but would worry that rogue “bad bits” would escape her probing fingers, and ask one of us children to check them over for her.
My mum cooked every night. “I went for a session of twelve cookery lessons for blind people in Glasgow just before I got married,” she says. “It included making pastry, cakes, scones, savoury flans, and fish and chips in the oven, which was safer.”
In our house, there were Braille markings on the cooker knobs to indicate the temperature, and the timer also had Braille on it, but beyond that, the job was done with easy precision. “You knew how long a dish would take, so you would just prod it with a fork to check it was done,” Etta says.
She was an adventurous cook, always on the lookout for new meals in her Braille magazine to impress her dinner-party guests with. My dad could cook too, and I really looked forward to his fat chips when Mum was away.
Every few years my mother did go away. She would leave for three weeks and return, fully trained up, with a canine addition to the family, a new guide dog. Misty, Candy, Beauty, Roma, Katy, Sheena, Promise, Innis, Wendy, Ralph, Raffles, Rona--guide dogs were a constant presence during my youth, as both my mother and father had them. We all formed close bonds with these dogs and it was always very sad when one had to retire. For years I harboured an ambition to be a guide-dog trainer when I grew up.
People go weak at the knees when they see a guide dog. They would often stop, uninvited, to pat Mum’s or Dad’s guide-dog, which, I would officiously inform them, was not allowed when the dog was in harness. Sometimes I’d nag mum to leave the dog at home, anxious to avoid the relentless, unwelcome attention. On these occasions, I would do the guiding--considerably less well than the four-legged regular. I had not been trained to swerve for overhanging objects, would fail to stop at kerbs, and frequently omit to mention that we were about to step on an escalator. (By the way, let me clear up a bizarre misconception of a childhood friend: Misty, Candy, Beauty, et al., definitely could not count the number of bus stops so as to be able to let my Mum or Dad know when to get off.)
It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that my parents were universally admired in our small town, only marginally less than their guide dogs. One particular source of awe was the jobs they did. Until his retirement, Dad was a lecturer in history at Warwick University. He’d been an undergraduate at Edinburgh in 1958, and then did a PhD at Oxford before becoming a lecturer; and throughout his studies he depended on people reading to him. Many of the readers came from the church at the end of the road. “Nobody volunteered, I just barged in and asked them,” he says. A year into his studies he acquired, through the generosity of others, a tape recorder, which was new technology at the time and revolutionized his studying. His readers could record material and Fred could listen and re-listen to it as and when required.
Dad developed an extraordinary talent for listening to speeded-up tape readings to save time. As a girl, I would often lie in my bedroom, which was next door to his study, listening to the surreal sound of his readers’ Pinky and Perky voices coming through the wall and wondering how he could possibly make out what they were saying.
As for my mother, she not only cared for us with very little outside help, but also worked as an NHS physiotherapist for thirty-four years. Her first job was in Oxford, where she was living with Fred after they married. She was employed at the Churchill hospital, which had never appointed a blind physio before, and they took some persuading to take her on. “The doctor of physical medicine, who was in charge of recruitment, was very skeptical. He actually came to our flat and said he was sorry but there wasn’t a job for me, as he couldn’t imagine how a blind person could function. So we set about talking him into it. Eventually he said I could have a trial period for three months. After that time, the head of physio said I was just the same as any other person starting off.”
Later on, Mum worked part-time at the Warnford hospital in Leamington Spa, so she could be at home when we got back from school. She always took the bus to work, whatever the weather. Even during heavy snow, she would venture forth with good boots and make it into work while many of her colleagues phoned in to say they were stuck on the drive.
Despite some people’s misgivings, my parents knew in their twenties that they wanted children, and were confident that they would cope and be good parents. “We always thought we could,” says Etta. “My father didn’t want me to get married, because he always looked after me. And he used to worry when I took up with Fred. And my mother said to him, ‘But you’ll not always be there to look after her. She should get married just like everybody else.’”
Fred says that his peers at the blind school used to challenge him about the practicalities of having children. He would argue it out with them and challenge their reservations. “They’d say things like, ‘You can’t see the spots when they’re ill,’ and I’d say, ‘Well, children show other symptoms other than spots; they cry and are in discomfort and so on. And if you’re worried you can confirm it with a sighted person.’ If you reasoned it out you realized that these were unrealistic fears.”
Etta says she knew of one totally blind couple living in London. “They had a child and I went to visit them when I was a physiotherapy student, [aged] about twenty-four. And they managed perfectly well with their child, who was about a year old. A few years before that, I met a blind woman on a train and she told me she had five children. And she managed all of them and she did the cooking and everything. So I knew that some blind people had done it. The thing is,” she says, “you just don’t listen to sighted people because they haven’t a clue anyhow. They think, ‘Oh, I couldn’t do that if I couldn’t see.’”
As my eleven-month-old son, Theo, careens destructively around the house, I’m increasingly curious about how they coped with the domestic practicalities of three small children. “When you were really tiny we put you in a playpen when I was busy,” my mother says. “You weren’t allowed in the kitchen; there was a sliding panel that we put down between the kitchen and the dining room. There was nothing in there except the furniture--nothing on it, and nothing that you could pull around--and a load of toys.”
When I ask Mum how she managed to get to the shops with the three of us plus a guide dog, her explanation conjures up an extraordinary picture: “The dog was in front with my left hand and I was guiding the double pushchair with my right hand behind me, with Gavin walking along beside me.” It was a quiet area, she adds. There were wide pavements and grass verges and the local shops were a short walk away. “We bought the house because it was near schools, shops, and the park.”
Some other adaptations were necessary to bridge the gap between blind parents and sighted children. Mum says: “We bought the ordinary Ladybird books and we had readers who used to come in, people from Kenilworth who volunteered to be readers, and they would tell me what was on each page and I would write a caption at the top in Braille. I knew the stories anyhow, so I read out the stories reading the caption.”
Reading aside, we had the usual array of toys and activities. “Bricks, Lego, Plasticine and Play-Doh, these were great games that anyone could play,” says Fred. “That’s where it’s a huge advantage to have been able to see before.” Dad was a particularly skilful modeler--he could produce fantastic miniature figures of animals from Quality Street [candy] wrappers. “And I used to play the piano and sing to you and get you all singing and jumping about,” says Mum, who is a brilliant pianist. My parents’ musicality is a legacy of their time at the blind school.
“However beneficial inclusion in mainstream schools might be,” says Fred, “there’s no doubt that special schools were able to concentrate on things like music. The musical life in our school was so vibrant.”
As we got older, Dad would come home with weird-looking games, such as the chess set with spiky-topped white pieces and a board with raised squares. I remember fondly the chess games I played with Dad as a child, and found it strangely hypnotizing as his fingers darted around the pieces on the board while he weighed up his next move. The chess set, as well as the dominoes, cards, and draughts [checkers] sets we had, were produced by the Royal National Institute for the Blind, not for children but for blind adults. “In those days, the RNIB had few aids or devices to help families where the parents were blind and the children were sighted,” says Fred. “We had to fight to get things like Snakes and Ladders, Ludo, and Monopoly--and we got them in the end.”
Now that I have Maya, who is four, and Theo, I have the chance to witness my parents with them--a version of the relationship they had with us when we were small. I remember again the perhaps inevitable embarrassment. During trips to town with my mother I would sometimes moan about what seemed like the town’s entire population staring at us. “Just stare at them back,” my mother would advise. But I was too shy to do that.
There were the weekly swimming trips with my dad. He was a strong swimmer, but keeping a straight line in the water without sight is very difficult. As he dived into the water and set off on one of his tangential lengths, unsuspecting bathers were torpedoed from behind; the pool would not have cleared more quickly had a shark been spotted in the deep end. Then, when I was eleven, Mum decided that the time had come to buy me my first bra by catching me unawares and feeling my breasts (funny now, but I cringed about that one for years). I could go on.
Sometimes, embarrassment spilled over into annoyance; I was a teenager, after all. At times I would get stroppy about being required to act as a guide. I still do. In our twenties, my brother Les and I accompanied our parents on a series of trips abroad. “What can you see now?” Mum would ask when she knew that there was a view before us. Sometimes I would childishly refuse to say.
How did their being blind affect us? I think that the experience of providing a running commentary on the world for my parents for so many years means that, so my husband Mark tells me, I am unusually observant. I like to think that this is a quality I might pass on to my children.
More significantly, the general admiration directed at Mum and Dad--I grew up hearing the phrase, “Aren’t your parents amazing?” on an almost daily basis--made me feel that I was special. And I was very proud of their achievements.
I was always asked as a child, “Don’t you feel sad that your parents have never seen you?” But that thought seemed to trouble others far more than it did me. When I got married, my best woman, Melanie, had a poignant line in her speech that drew spontaneous applause from the guests: “I’d just like to tell Etta and Fred how beautiful their daughter looks today.”
Thinking back to my school days, I was always especially keen for my teachers to witness me doing things. Perhaps, I’ve begun to think in retrospect, that was why I was so sporty as a child. The hockey pitch or tennis court were arenas where I could literally be seen to excel.
The family photo album didn’t exist in our house. I am especially thrilled when relatives give me photographs of me in childhood with my family. I was in my late twenties before I saw a picture of myself as a baby because, of course, my parents did not own a camera.
What also saddens me now is that Mum and Dad can’t see my children--that they’ll never see Maya looking so pretty in that special dress doing her fairy dance, or see Theo flash them one of his melting smiles. And when I see my children’s puzzled faces when grandma or grandpa fails to respond to their eye contact, I also get a pang.
But when we discuss this, my parents give me their own empowering perspective. “I’d like to have seen you but I don’t think it is as important as people think,” says Etta. “I think seeing is so primitive. Even a dog and a cat can see. Knowing a personality and knowing how you speak and what you say and how you say it, I think that’s more important than how people look. I don’t think seeing is knowing.”
Fred agrees: “Sight is a very misleading and beguiling way of understanding people. Philosophers have raised this question: Is sight misleading? Is it possible that listening and touching get you nearer to people than sight does?”
As I watch baby Theo feeling the contours of his grandpa’s face, it’s obvious that touch is a primary sense for him. And I have started to explore these other ways of knowing with Maya. I recently bought her the scratch-and-sniff book, Little Bunny Follows His Nose, which I loved as a child.
Maya loves playing with Plasticine with her grandpa. He made her a fantastic racing car recently, a particularly skilful execution of a 1940’s model, as he was working from visual memory. Fred laughs. “I’m stuck in a time warp,” he says. “Milton has been described as having the blind man’s capacity to remember everything he had ever seen.”
A few years ago, at a family Christmas, Mum produced a tape recording of Les and me playing the piano when we were about seven. “Prelude,” we announced in turn in a high-pitched squeak, before stumbling through the piece and squabbling over whose was the better performance. It was magical to hear it, and the experience seemed heightened by the fact that it was purely audible, uncluttered by the visual.
During a couple of visits to Kenilworth we have made tape recordings of Maya, and will do the same of Theo. I’ll produce them one Christmas, God willing, in years to come. And I hope that they’ll find them as magical.
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