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August 1, 2009
Dear President Obama:
I invite you to read over my shoulder.
Dear Grandma Beulah,
When you drive down our road for the first time, you'll want to have your windows open so that you can savor the sounds and smells of the farm. You'll hear loose gravel pinging against your tires, while inhaling the aromas of freshly mowed hay, clover, wildflowers, and damp earth--all intermingled with the sharp, unmistakable odor of cow manure.
After all these years I am still composing letters to Grandma in my mind as I once did in Braille. It's a lifelong habit, I guess. Whenever something exciting would happen, I'd grab my Braillewriter and share my news with Grandma. Nowadays the phantom letters help me feel close to her, even though she's been gone for almost eight years.
Our story began back in the late 1950s, shortly after my birth, when the doctors told my mother and grandmother that I was blind. Although I had enough vision to read large print, I always understood that I would use Braille. I'm not sure what made Grandma decide to learn Braille. I always just took for granted that she did. At any rate, she was undaunted by claims that Braille was too complicated to master.
In those days Braille instruction wasn't offered until first grade. The night before my first day of first grade, I was so excited about learning Braille that I had trouble falling asleep. The first day of school our teacher asked for a show of hands for those who would be reading print and for those who would be learning Braille. My hand shot up for Braille.
I learned the Braille alphabet ahead of my classmates. My teacher gave me a little desk in the back of the room where I could write while she worked with the other students. Since I didn't know many words, I entertained myself by writing Braille numbers into the hundreds. Meanwhile, back home Grandma was learning Braille too. She bought a Perkins Braillewriter, slate and stylus, Braille paper, and books on Braille instruction.
Around that time I started receiving Braille books in the mail from our state library for the blind. One of my first reading ventures was The Little House by Virginia Burton. When Grandma asked what the book was about, I told her I couldn't read it because it was too hard for me. Grandma transcribed the book into print. For years the tale of the little house that moved from the country to the city was one of Grandma's and my favorite bedtime stories.
Grandma and I started exchanging Braille letters when I was in second grade. The first letters arrived at the school for the blind on heavy manila paper folded in fourths to fit into letter-size envelopes. With much of the Braille mashed in the creases, these early letters were difficult for small fingers to decipher. In her letters Grandma wrote about the weather, her garden, and Foxy, her fox terrier. These letters contained two or three pocket-size print storybooks for a teacher or a housemother to read to me.
By the time I reached third grade, the pocket books were replaced by poems. Grandma enjoyed poetry and frequently copied some of her favorites in Braille to share with me. Many of the poems dealt with nature: plants, animals, and the changing seasons. These poems inspired me to try my hand at writing poetry. Years later I won first place in a couple of poetry competitions.
In the late 1960s Revenue Foregone became law, allowing us to mail Braille materials free of charge. The law required that we leave the envelope unsealed and write "free matter for the blind" where the postage stamp would go. Gradually we moved away from standard envelopes to cardboard tubes. These letters posed a whole new set of reading frustrations. Out of the tube the pages would roll back up during reading. Eventually we discovered that the best way to send Braille letters was to fold the pages in half and print the mailing information on the back of the last page. With a few strips of scotch tape, these letters were good to go.
In the beginning Grandma's Braille skills far surpassed mine. She had been reading and writing for decades; now she merely needed to transfer her literacy to Braille. On the other hand I was just learning the nuances of language. But with continued exposure to Braille in and out of school, I quickly took the lead. Before long Grandma looked to me instead of the experts for answers to her Braille questions. Since I wouldn't have wanted to plead ignorance, it was crucial that I be knowledgeable about Braille.
Because her fingers lacked sensitivity, Grandma read Braille with her eyes. Many times I caught her reading over my shoulder. This was especially disconcerting when I was writing to a friend or writing in my journal. "What are you doing?" I would say with annoyance, as I covered the Braille with my hand.
"I'm just practicing my Braille," Grandma would calmly reply.
In sixth grade I started losing the precious little sight I had left. While some things such as travel and picking out my own clothes required a major adjustment, my reading and writing did not. Thanks to my early Braille training, my school work moved forward without a hitch.
Grandma's letters followed me into adulthood as I moved away from home. Often Grandma transcribed my letters into print so Grandpa could read them too. Grandma took literary license to tailor my letters to suit Grandpa. Once, when I had written that some friends and I went back to my apartment for drinks, Grandma wrote that some friends and I went back to my apartment for dessert.
When I announced to Grandma in a letter that I would be getting married, she wrote to say that she was "saddened" to hear of my plans. Angrily I wrote back accusing her of not using the proper Braille contractions in the word "saddened" and suggested that maybe she should focus more on her Braille and less on my business. She wrote back to say that I was probably right. Although she didn't use the proper Braille contraction for the word "right," I let that one slide.
Over the years Grandma seized many opportunities to use her Braille. If I wanted a recipe, Grandma would whip out a Braille copy and put it in the mail. For my children's birthdays she would copy their birthday cards in Braille so that I could read them. She also copied articles for me from the Reader's Digest and Prevention, two of her favorite magazines. Once I told Grandma that a friend and I had had a letter-writing contest to see who could write the longest letter. Grandma thought that sounded like great fun and challenged me to a letter-writing contest. This will be a breeze, I thought, recalling Grandma's two- and three-page letters. I'll beat her hands down. Imagine my surprise when a book-sized letter arrived in the mail for me.
Every time Grandma and I got together, our conversation invariably turned to Braille. Grandma asked me to create Braille worksheets to test her knowledge. "You really stumped me with that last worksheet you sent," she would say, laughing.
Grandma was outraged when I told her that blind children born in the 1970s and beyond weren't automatically taught Braille the way we had been. She strongly disagreed with the contention that Braille was obsolete and that cassette tapes and later screen-readers were an adequate replacement. Like me, she believed that Braille is literacy for blind people and that literacy is the key to success for blind and sighted alike.
In her late 80s Grandma reluctantly set her Perkins Brailler aside when her arthritis made writing Braille too painful. Grandma's Braillewriter, along with a catalog of my life (all the letters I had ever written to her), fell into my hands in 2001 upon her death. I cherished her Braillewriter for all the wonderful memories it evoked, but I didn't think I'd ever use it. Enter Alyssa Joy.
Born in 2002, our youngest child, Alyssa Joy, never knew Grandma. But early on she expressed a strong love for books. I borrowed books from our state library for the blind and bought books from Seedlings Braille Books for Children, but that wasn't enough. She would see a book in the store and demand that I take it home and read it to her. So I unearthed Grandma's Braillewriter and started Brailling Alyssa Joy's books. If I can Braille books to read to Alyssa Joy, the thought occurred to me, I can also Braille books for other children. In 2006 I started Brailling children's books to donate to the Braille Book Flea Market at the annual convention of the National Federation of the Blind. I call my project BRL, the contraction for the word “Braille” and an acronym for Beulah Reimer Legacy, named for my grandmother, the wise and insightful woman who empowered me to become proficient in Braille. BRL's mission is to put Braille at the fingertips of as many eager readers as possible.
Alyssa Joy is seven years old now, and, although she is sighted, like Grandma she is learning Braille. What would Grandma think? I sometimes wonder. Hmmmm. Perhaps I'll write and ask her.
April Lynn Enderton