FROM THE TRICYCLE TO THE COOKIE JAR

by Barbara Pierce

What special problem does a blind parent face? You might guess a thousand times without coming up with the problem many blind parents consider toughest. Barbara Pierce has been blind from childhood and is the mother of three children, who are now adults. Here she writes about her efforts to overcome a particularly worrisome problem—the one you probably didn't guess. All parents who take their responsibilities seriously are concerned about how to help their children grow up to be disciplined, honest, compassionate, and organized and to develop all the other virtues. But blind parents have one more responsibility: to keep their youngsters from absorbing the general public's poor attitudes about blindness and blind people.

My husband and I have raised three children, and in their formative years we tried hard to teach them that as their mother I was like other moms—helping with homework, fixing their favorite meals as birthday treats, and making them pick up their coats and books from the living room sofa. In our family there was always a division of labor: Dad drove and played catch; Mom baked cookies, bread, and apple pies. Dad trimmed hair and decided when fingers were infected; and Mom ironed clothes, sang songs, and sewed on buttons. Both of us listened to problems and helped to work out solutions.

Yet from the time the children were small, I knew that the world outside our happy home was lying in wait to complicate our lives. Evidence of this fact began piling up early and usually when I least expected it. I remember a day when Steven, our five-year-old, was at kindergarten. The baby had an appointment with the pediatrician, and I told Anne, then three, that she could ride her tricycle, which she had recently learned to pedal, to visit the doctor.

I put baby Margaret into her backpack, grabbed my long white cane, locked the front door, and prevented Anne from riding her tricycle down the seven steps of the front porch. Once we were safely on the sidewalk, we started the three-and-a-half-block expedition with Anne in front and me right behind, reminding her about stopping at the corner.

The first two streets we had to cross were very quiet, with cars seldom driving through the intersection, particularly in the early afternoon. Anne did well at the first crossing, stopping at the curb and waiting for my go-ahead before pedaling straight across to the other side. As we neared the second street, I dropped back a little to let her feel that she was making the decision of where to stop on her own. No cars were coming, so she was safe, and I was close enough to stop her if she decided to bolt for freedom. She halted at the corner, and I was opening my mouth to praise her when I realized that an older man had materialized beside her and was bending down to talk earnestly to her. To my horror I heard him saying, "You must take very good care of your mommy because she needs your help."

I was humiliated to realize that he believed I was incapable of keeping my daughter safe, and furious that he presumed a sighted toddler was more competent than I to walk the streets of our small town. I made a brief comment to the effect that in our family the parents cared for the children and whisked Anne across the street. I have always been grateful that I did not recognize that neighbor, for it would have been hard in later years to be civil to him. When we reached the other side, I asked Anne if she knew what the man had said to her. She shook her head vigorously and hopped off her bike to pick up a feather dropped by a passing bird. It was clearly more interesting to her than the conversation of an old man, and I was profoundly grateful.

The situation was a good deal different a few years later when our family visited a nearby amusement park. I rather like rides that swoop and twirl, and my husband absolutely does not. So I was the one designated to take the girls on the swings, a ride in which each person sits in a separate swing, is firmly strapped in, and then is whirled high into the sky for several minutes. We found three swings close together, and I made sure that each of the girls was strapped down before climbing into my own seat. When we landed again, the attendant handed me back my cane, and I gathered up the girls and herded them down the exit ramp.

When we reached the bottom, a woman hurried up to them and knelt down, fumbling with her purse. I asked her if there were some problem. And she explained rather hastily that she just wanted to give "these dear children some money," because she had been watching us, and she was so touched by the loving way they took care of me. She probably noticed my expression, for she quickly explained that they were so attractive and well behaved that she thought they deserved some reward for taking me on the rides. I hurried the girls away, but they were unhappy. After all, that woman had been going to give them money, which was more than they could usually persuade me to do. I hardly knew what to say to them. Finally I explained that she had wanted to pay them for taking care of me; but that, since they didn't take care of me, it wasn't fair to take her money. They thought about that for a moment; then Anne summed the matter up with, "That's weird. Everybody knows that Moms take care of kids." I told her she was exactly right, and the lure of the roller coaster ended the conversation.

I was beginning to learn that, when I was around at the moment people did odd things because of my blindness or suggested to my children that I was not a proper mother, I could combat the problem. But I worried about what was happening to them when I was not present.

One day, when Steven was in fifth grade, he came home to say that he had had a fight on the playground because a kid had called him a liar when he described his mom's homemade pizza. (It's a recipe from northern Italy, given to me by a friend, and my family has always loved it.) But this boy said that a blind mom couldn't cook.

Another time Anne's teacher suggested that perhaps the room mother could supply cupcakes for Anne's birthday treat so that she wouldn't feel left out. Meanwhile Margy began sitting close to me when we watched television together in order to "explain what's happening." When I questioned her about why she had started doing this, she admitted that her friend's mother had told her that Margy's mommy couldn't understand "Sesame Street" unless Margy told her what was happening. I realized that something had to be done.

I went to the children's teachers and asked for a chance to talk to each of their classes about blindness. In Margy's class we played games that taught the children just how much they could tell about the world by listening and sniffing and feeling with their hands and feet.

They discovered that there are lots of ways to tell what's going on. I showed the older children how to read and write Braille and taught them how to offer assistance to a blind person who needs help crossing the street, and I explained how I crossed streets without any help. I brought homemade treats to all three classes and talked about how blind people cook and take care of their families.

That seemed to dispose of the negative comments from friends and teachers; but, as the children grew older, I became aware that they were increasingly disturbed by the way strangers stared at me when we were out in public. I should explain that, like many other competent blind people, I use my cane even when I am walking with a sighted person, so there are lots of opportunities for people to see me using my cane.

The youngsters began to resent the stares that I received, and they decided to take matters into their own hands. They thought the staring was rude, and they appointed themselves the official phalanx of stare-backers. They were prepared to stare down anyone who began staring at me as we passed. I tried explaining that these people had probably never seen a blind person using a white cane correctly and they did not know what to make of the situation. But the kids agreed with each other: it was rude to stare at anyone; it was even more rude to stare at a person who did not know what you were doing. They believed they had a perfect right to call such rudeness to the attention of the person practicing it. Perhaps I should have protested and forbidden them to continue their campaign, but I decided that they needed to feel that they were doing something to counteract an activity they felt was inappropriate, unfair, and rude to me. As the years passed, I continued to wonder from time to time whether the children's attitudes about blindness and me as a blind person had been negatively affected by the peculiar notions of other people. Then, when Anne was a junior in college, I received my answer.

A friend who teaches in elementary school had asked me to come speak about blindness to all the sixth grade classes in her school. I was happy to do so, and, because Anne happened to be at home at the time, I asked her to drive me to the nearby town where the school was located. At the close of my talk I asked if anyone had questions about what I had said. My daughter had been introduced, and one child asked her what it was like to have a blind mother. Anne, who ran the citywide summer swimming program during college and had a way of making friends with youngsters, strolled to the front of the room and sat down on the edge of the teacher's desk beside me. She draped her arm across my shoulder and said quite seriously:

"It is really terrible having a blind mother! Do any of you have to do the dinner dishes sometimes?" A number of students groaned enthusiastically. "And does your mother expect you to clean up the kitchen too—I mean wiping off the counters, washing out the sink, and cleaning around the burners of the stove?" Again a chorus of agreement answered her. "Well, I discovered a long time ago that my friends only had to clean up enough to have things look okay. But, when you have a blind mother, you have to get things really clean because she doesn't inspect your work from the doorway; she comes in and touches everything. It has to be clean!

"And that's not all. Do any of you have cookie jars in your house?" A number said that they did. "We had one, too, and it was always full of cookies, which was nice for us when we could get at them. But we three kids learned when we were very little that, as long as Dad was the one watching us, we had a chance of sneaking cookies, if he wasn't looking. But when you have a blind mom, she hears the cookie jar lid no matter where she is in the house! It's terrible having a blind mother."

By this time they were all laughing with her and me. They had gotten Anne's message, that really life was no better and no worse with a blind parent, just a little different. And they were right. I left the school smiling that day. My lovely, compassionate, talented daughter had demonstrated without even thinking much about it that she does know that blindness doesn't have to be a big deal. Together we had come a long way, from the tricycle to the cookie jar.