Future Reflections Special Issue: The Teen Years
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The Memoirs of Mary L. Day
Blind people have lived in every nation and era, representing every stratum of society. Until recent decades, however, few have left accounts of their lives. Before the twentieth century only a handful of blind men and women had the chance to become literate, so the vast majority had no way to record their lives for posterity.
Mary L. Day is one of the rare exceptions. During her lifetime Mary published two memoirs. The first, Incidents in the Life of a Blind Girl, appeared in 1859, shortly before she graduated from the Maryland Institution for the Blind in Baltimore. A sequel, The World As I Have Found It, was published nearly twenty years later, in 1878. Mary's writing is full of Victorian frills and flourishes, and she sprinkles her chapters with lines of sentimental poetry. Her meandering sentences may challenge the patience of many twenty-first-century readers. Nevertheless, Mary's memoirs give us a glimpse into the life of a young woman who, like many blind teens today, struggled to come to terms with her blindness and to find a place for herself in the world.
Mary was born, fully sighted, in Baltimore in 1836. Her father, a tinsmith, hoped to develop a business on the frontier, and when Mary was a year old he took the family to the edge of the wilderness in Michigan. The Days lived in a cozy log cabin with four rooms, two on the ground floor and two above. They had an uneasy relationship with the Native Americans who lived nearby. White settlers formed close bonds, as they needed one another's support to survive the hardships of frontier life.
Over the next few years Mary's family moved from one frontier settlement to another as her father tried to establish a business. Mary helped her mother with household chores and occasionally attended school. Then, when Mary was ten years old, her mother suddenly fell ill and died.
Her mother's death shattered the family. Mary's father dispersed his five children among several scattered frontier families. He promised to come back for them as soon as he found work and settled down, but he never returned. Eventually Mary learned that he had remarried and started a new family.
For the next two years Mary passed from one loveless home to another. Wherever she lived she was expected to earn her keep. She cooked, scrubbed, and tended babies from dawn until she collapsed into bed. In one household her mistress was taken sick, and all of the housekeeping duties landed upon Mary's young shoulders. "Every night it would be twelve o'clock before I laid my head upon my pillow," she writes. "I would then cry myself to sleep, my limbs aching, and indeed my whole body weary and full of pain" (Incidents in the Life of a Blind Girl, p. 56).
At last, when she was twelve, a kind family took Mary in and made her one of their own. Mary enjoyed an idyllic summer, but at the end of August her life underwent another radical change. "I was attacked with severe pain in my eyes, yet I could not discover that they looked differently from what they usually had. ... I suffered intensely with them that night, and by the morning they were painfully inflamed. ... They continued in this way until noon. I went to the lookingglass, and after wiping them about five minutes I could see distinctly. They then closed, and in less than twenty-four hours I was blind! forever blind" (Incidents, pp. 62-63).
Her blindness sent Mary on a long odyssey in search of a cure. She passed from one well-intentioned neighbor to another, each claiming to know some healing remedy. Physicians were called in, and they too promised to restore her sight. Each attempt by the doctors resulted in failure and disappointment, and most of the treatments were agonizing. One doctor "directed me to be kept in a dark room for four weeks, with bread and molasses as diet; besides this, I had every second day to undergo an operation upon my eyes, giving me the most intense and excruciating pain" (Incidents, pp. 66-67). Since anesthesia was virtually unknown in the years before the Civil War, it is safe to assume that these operations were conducted while Mary was wide awake.
When it seemed clear that Mary's blindness was irreversible, her benefactors began to complain that she was a burden, suggesting the time had come to send her to the poorhouse. "This terrified me greatly," Mary writes, "as I had always imagined it a dark, dismal prison. In this part of the country there were officers appointed to look after the sick and the friendless, and if a certain amount would cover their necessities and the services of a physician, these were rendered; if not, they were sent to the almshouse" (Incidents, p. 69). At the last moment another generous family, the Cooks, came to Mary's rescue. They welcomed her into their home, and she lived with them for the next five years.
Mary quickly learned her way around the house and grounds, and could walk to a neighbor's house "without a guide, quite alone." Her adoptive siblings enjoyed reading aloud and introduced her to the world of literature. Her adoptive mother taught her to knit. "At first I thought this impossible as I could not see," Mary writes, "but they persuaded me to try. Often when I would become impatient at my slow improvement, and almost in vexation, would toss my knitting from me, Mrs. C. would pick it up, repair my errors, and cheerfully say to me: 'Mary, if at first you don't succeed, try, try again.' ... In about a year I learned to knit a pair of stockings, and I assure you it was no small gratification to me, my acquired knowledge" (Incidents, p. 72).
When she was fourteen Mary turned her skill with the knitting needle into a full-time occupation. "Being now able to knit pretty well, I felt anxious to do something towards supporting myself. I thought I would ask one of our neighbors to let me do the usual winter knitting her household required. ... She appeared pleased with my desire to do something towards making a livelihood, and said I should come to her house and knit by the week. ... My remuneration was a dollar a week. From this time I could command as much and more than I could possibly do, and in this way supported myself for four years" (Incidents, p. 75).
Three years after she joined the Cooks, Mary received a letter from a long-lost sister, now living in Chicago. For two years Mary's sister urged her to go to Chicago and live with her, but Mary was reluctant to leave the Cooks. The deciding factor was the lure of yet another doctor who might be able to restore her vision. At seventeen Mary set off for Chicago, first by stagecoach and then by railroad or "the cars," as she calls the train. Mary does not point out how unusual it was for a young woman to travel without the protection of a brother, father, or female chaperone; for a young blind woman to do so must have been quite unheard of.
Throughout the three-day trip fellow passengers offered Mary their companionship and assistance. Gentlemen even bought her meals, paid for her train tickets, and handed her gold pieces to help her on her way. In her memoir Mary expresses appreciation for their kindness and seems quite comfortable with this special treatment. Her life had been a hard one, and she seems grateful for human kindness in any form.
Reunited with her sister and two of her brothers, Mary underwent another painful and unsuccessful series of operations on her eyes. The best doctors in Chicago could not help her, but they urged her to seek medical advice in the east. Determined to pursue every hope, Mary once again set out alone, this time to join relatives in Baltimore.
Mary's experiences as a solo traveler were not always pleasant. When her train was scheduled for a long layover in Toledo, Ohio, she asked the conductor to guide her to a hotel near the station. The conductor failed to arrive when the train stopped, and Mary was left by herself when the other passengers left the car. At last she got the attention of a workman who agreed to help her. "Placing my sack on his arm, he took me by the hand, and literally dragged me over the seats until I began to think my life was in danger. ... He led me in this way to the parlor, where were other of the passengers, to whom he said: 'Ladies and gentlemen, I want you to take good care of this young lady, for she is in the dark sure'" (Incidents, pp. 117-118). In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Mary faced another overnight stopover. She grew deeply suspicious of the conductor who guided her to a hotel. His behavior seemed evasive, and she was convinced he meant to do her some harm. "[At the hotel] I locked my door, and commenced a thorough investigation of every nook and corner," she writes. "I should not have been at all surprised in my search to have put my hand on the conductor. The evening was extremely warm, yet I lowered my only window, fearful lest someone might be able to make their way in through it" (Incidents, p. 131).
After her arduous journey, Mary reached Baltimore and was lovingly welcomed by an aunt and cousin whom she had never met before. Within three days she embarked upon yet another course of treatment for her eyes. "The doctor bathed my head with some kind of liquid until I became so weak I could not speak a word nor help myself. He then blew another liquid into my eyes, which occasioned me great suffering for an hour or more. ... I was under treatment six months, daily undergoing the most acute pain" (Incidents, p. 141). This treatment, too, was completely ineffective.
At last Mary accepted the fact that she would be blind for the rest of her life. In 1855, at the age of nineteen, she entered the Maryland Institution for the Blind, today the Maryland School for the Blind. Her fellow students--seven of them in all--welcomed her as though she were an old friend. "This is the usual manner of the blind," Mary reflects. "They are never strangers to each other, a common sympathy seems to link them wherever they meet" (Incidents, p. 165).
Braille was not yet in use at the school, and Mary learned to read and write using raised print letters. She also studied music and sewing, and she learned to do fancy beadwork. Occasionally the students gave musical performances that were open to the public.
Mary was keenly aware of public misconceptions about blindness. On the days when the school was open to visitors, she and her classmates enjoyed "a fund of after-merriment" over the questions and comments they received. "They appeared to regard us as a race distinct from themselves," she writes. "Some would ask if we closed our eyes when we slept as did seeing persons. Others would inquire, 'Do you not have great difficulty in finding the way to your mouth when you eat?' ... They would also stand close beside us and pass remarks upon us, as though they thought we were as unthinking and unfeeling as might be a breathing statue. I have known them to say aloud and immediately by our side, that we were the ugliest people they had ever seen. ... These and similar comments were constantly being made in our presence, as though they thought because we were blind we had also been deprived of reason” (Incidents, p. 174).
Mary grew to revere the school's founder and superintendent, Professor Loughery, a highly accomplished blind man who served as a mentor to his students. Her first memoir closes with the sad news of Loughery's death and the appointment of the school's new superintendent.
Mary's second memoir, The World As I Have Found It, resumes her story with her graduation from the Maryland Institution. Her first book proved to be her ticket to financial independence. For nearly twenty years she criscrossed the nation, usually accompanied by a paid companion, selling copies of her book wherever she went. She also sold beaded baskets and shawls, drawing upon the skills she learned at the school for the blind.
At a boardinghouse where she spent several weeks, Mary met and fell in love with a young businessman whom she refers to only as "Mr. Arms." After a long courtship, often interrupted by Mary's travels, she and Mr. Arms were married. Even after she became a married woman, she continued to travel widely, supplementing her husband's income through her book sales.
In an age when women were expected to be quiet and submissive, Mary Day Arms was not afraid to assert herself. In every town she visited, she went straight to the newspaper editor, the mayor, and other civic leaders, asking them to help publicize her memoir. Shortly after she left school she even arranged a visit to the White House, where she had tea with President James Buchanan and sold him a copy of her book.
Among the countless people Mary met on her travels was the great woman suffrage advocate Susan B. Anthony. Although Anthony was a fierce champion of women's rights, Mary's encounter with her was acutely painful. She writes that "an impetuous hand pitched at me one of my own books. The voice asked: 'Were you ever in Michigan? Are you married? I knew a blind woman there who had five children, and they were all deaf and dumb! I think Congress ought to pass a law to prevent these people from marrying and bringing such creatures into the world!' These burning words came with the fierce force of the tornado ... She was beyond hearing before I could sufficiently recover to reply. Words I would have spoken burned upon my lips, and emotions welled up from the depths of an affection as deep, true and unfathomable as ever struggled in such a heart as that of Susan B. Anthony. Long did I dwell upon the cruel words, wondering [how] they could have emanated from a woman who advocated the inviolable rights and bewailed the deep wrongs of her own sex, or if Congress had the power to exclude the blind from loving and following the holiest impulses of their natures, like other human beings" (The World As I Have Found It, pp. 180-181).
Mary's story ends abruptly when she settles down with her husband to write her second memoir. There is no record of her remaining years. Thanks to the books she left as her legacy, we know she was a woman who pushed beyond the limitations that constrained most blind people during her times.
Arms, Mary L. Day. (1878). The World As I Have Found It, Sequel to Incidents in the Life of a Blind Girl, Baltimore: James Watts.Day, Mary L. (1859). Incidents in the Life of a Blind Girl, Baltimore: James Young.
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