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Las Vegas, Nevada, United States
"No, really!"

My Favorite Bit of Paper Cup Philosophy

The Way I See It #76

The irony of commitment is that it's deeply liberating - in work, in play, in love. The act frees you from the tyranny of your internal critic, from the fear that likes to dress itself up and parade around as rational hesitation. To commit is to remove your head as the barrier to your life.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Turn a Blind Eye to Human Frailty

I've blogged several times about my maternal grandmother, my Granny-O, born in 1899, mother of 12, grandmother of more than 40, and the unconditional love giver in my early life. There's my Granny, less than a year old, on her mother's lap. The little boy standing between the parents is Ralph, my great uncle. No, he didn't blink when the photo was taken. He was blinded by the measles at the age of 18 months in about 1896. Here he is about 4 years of age. In a few short years, he will be put on the train and sent to the Tennessee School for the Blind, which I believe was in Nashville. But wherever its location, it was "away". Not near Knoxville. Granny was 4 when Ralph went away on the train, but she spoke of his sobs 70 years later. He was a scared, blind child going off on the train alone, away from his family. He stayed away many years. He returned in his late teens, confident, able to read Braille and write, skilled at a number of crafts including broom and brush making, as well as recaning chairs. He knew how to keep his clothes and possessions clean and in good repair, including sewing on buttons and doing his own laundry. He could get around expertly on public transportation and he knew all manner of ways to ask for just a little accommodation for the fact that he was totally blind. For all of his life, when he cashed a check at the bank, he asked the teller to fold the different bills in different ways - $20 bills folded in half vertically, $10 bills folded in half horizontally, and so on. I would wager that Ralph never "got taken" for his money by a sighted person.

Ralph lived with his parents after his return from school. The day after Granny graduated from high school, she, Ralph and her mother boarded a train for Denver. I do not know why Denver was the destination. No friends or relatives awaited their arrival. None of
Granny's 12 children ever met their grandfather. I do not know why the marriage split up. I do not know anything about that Great Grandfather after June, 1917, nor very much about him before that time. For the next 30+ years, Great Grandma and Ralph shared a home and followed Granny's family from Denver to Los Angeles, always living nearby, always in daily contact. Ralph never married. Great Grandma would not have approved of any woman on the planet, so Ralph didn't even try. He enjoyed his many nieces and and nephews, who also loved him. The brood were intrigued with the Braille books and his abacus and accordion. They wondered how he could perfectly recane a chair or weave a basket without sight. He read aloud to them often, sometimes reciting literature from memory. My mother and her siblings recall teasing Uncle Ralph by asking him what he thought "plaid" looked like and how he would know a horse from a mule if he woke up one morning, able to see, and was presented with a view of those two animals.

Great Grandma died in 1950 at age 96. Ralph bought himself a tiny one-bedroom bungalow in old Los Angeles, continued to work and made extra money by playing his accordion in the streets at holiday time. This required him to take a number of buses, making transfers often. I never heard of Uncle Ralph getting lost. Not once. He was 58 years old the year I was born, slim, tall, upright, shoulders back, a nice looking older man. His shirt was never buttoned up incorrectly and he did not sport clashing clothes. He took care of his business in a businesslike way. I think he was admirable. Some years later, he would sit beside Gary's crib, holding the child's hand and reciting something - maybe Longfellow's Hiawatha - and the little boy's head-turning took a slower pace.

I do not know how or where Ralph met Martha. She was also a southerner, but I don't know specifically where she called home. She was certainly age appropriate for Ralph. She became blind in her 30s or 40s, and I don't know what caused it. She was a tall, buxom woman with a backside like a brewer's horse, large hands, legs and feet. She looked like a typical older matron of her generation: pastel floral dresses, serious black "witch" shoes, gray pincurled hair, and the ridiculous pair of eyeglasses some blind people wear for reasons I do not understand. My god. I have just described a woman of the approximate age I am right now. I don't look like that in any way. Whew. When I was old enough to catch quietly spoken partial conversations, I drew the conclusion that Martha may have "had a past", whatever that meant. I do not know how the women in the family reached that conclusion, or whether it was a fair one. Martha brought her own money to the marriage, causing eyebrows to be raised because she liked to shop at Saks Fifth Avenue, not Sears or J.C. Penney like most of our family's good women. She had some "no account" adult children whom I did not know, but who were deemed to be scandalous for some reason. I don't think the marriage was about fire and passion. I think much of it, for Ralph, had to do with the companionship of a mature woman. He must have missed that after his mother died. I don't know what the marriage meant to Martha. Importantly, Granny-O accepted her because Ralph wanted Martha in his life.

Martha had not adjusted well to being a blind person. She constantly bumped off of walls and doorjambs in her own home. Her sweater was frequently worn inside out and she often wore shoes that were not a matching pair. Her dress and blouse buttons were usually one or two levels wrong when she presented herself for the day. She wore large clip-on earrings almost always, and almost always, they did not match. She did not master the use of a cane, and was a danger to any innocent bystanders when she attempted to use one. She preferred to have one or two people at her elbow(s) to guide her along through life. Martha was also known to cite her blindness as the reason for unfortunate events that had absolutely nothing to do with one's ability to see. After her death, Granny-O and some of the family women went to Ralph's house to pack up Martha's belongings to be shipped to her children. It was discovered that Martha had an apparent affinity for bourbon. Read this, enough bottles stashed throughout the house to choke a landfill. It made one wonder if all of Martha's clumsiness and general difficulty navigating through her day was entirely attributable to blindness. It made one wonder if, when Martha had been loud and belligerent, it was the bourbon presenting and not angst at having been struck blind.

A little rivalry grew up around taking Martha shopping. Whichever young woman was selected for such duty was in for a treat. For Martha would pay for a babysitter, pay for the bus or taxi rides - a taxi was quite an extravagance! - buy a nice lunch, and buy a little gift for her shopping companion of the day. My mother's sisters and sisters-in-law engaged in a little healthy competition for the honor. They all knew the ropes: dress up nicely including hat and heels, elbow-guide Martha through the store to the department that would display what she sought to purchase, describe the selections to Martha with many words, enjoy the lunch with mimosas and select the gift that Martha offered to buy. A nice outing by anyone's standards.

My mother's turn finally came. She was young and cute and dressed herself adorably for this outing. She knew what she would choose for her gift, because good, lacy slips didn't grow on trees. She wanted a red one. I was deposited at Granny-O's and my mother walked to Ralph and Martha's house. This may be a good point to remind the reader that my mother, in her early 20s, hadn't exhibited the strongest of coping skills. She wasn't good in a pinch and didn't always know what to do when things got hairy. Martha was in rare form that morning, gesticulating to make a point in conversation, perhaps a little loud. The taxi arrived and my mother must have felt like the tiny tugboat piloting a massive steamer out to sea. My mother admits today that the first moment she fully realized the disproportion of their body masses was approaching the taxi. Martha was a leaner, a clutcher, a grasper. But my mother was made of tough stuff. [She thought.] Mother and the driver finally got Martha situated in the taxi, and they set off for a very long ride to Wilshire Blvd.

Saks Fifth Avenue was a revelation to my young mother and she got to take it all in at a leisurely pace, as Martha was bulky and slow. They arrived in the department where Martha was given a chair to sit on and my mother ferried girdles, nylon stockings and other 1950s mature lady foundation garments back and forth from the display counters. Martha wanted detailed descriptions of each item and comparisons between one item and the other. She felt everything with her hands, stretching some of the garments to test their elasticity. She was damned touchy about the exact color of nylon stockings, pinning my mother down hard about the difference between beige and dark beige. Finally a $50 purchase was made - a huge sum in my mother's view. More old lady lingerie in a bag than the law allows.

It was after paying for her purchases that Martha loudly announced her need to "pee". My mother was a little touchy about such language in such a fine store. Her eyes darted about and she looked over her shoulder to see if anyone had noticed such an indelicate pronouncement. She also realized she was in the belly of a mighty big department store and she didn't know her way around. Mother asked a clerk where to find a restroom and was given directions to one on the floor below. As she steered Martha toward the elevator, the older woman continued to announce her urgent need, and mom began to sweat it. She rang for the elevator, which arrived fairly quickly. Pushing Martha into the elevator car, she heard the torrent begin to hit the wooden floor. The elevator operator visibly recoiled, and Martha loudly announced, as if it was a really good reason for wetting on the elevator floor, "I'm blind!" Mom began to cry and the elevator operator asked, "What do you want me to do, young lady?" He took them to the ground floor where my mother steered the dripping Martha out to the curb and hailed a taxi.

I was eating a favorite with Granny, pineapple and cottage cheese, when we heard my mother's sobbing on the back porch. Granny-O jumped up to see what was the matter. Was someone hurt? What had happened? My mother had to lie down on the sofa to start telling the story. She wept, she wrang her hands, she gnashed her teeth. "No lunch, no mimosas, no red slip." Granny was appropriately sympathetic, but she didn't give the event quite the weight my mother did. Until . . . "I had to give the taxi driver $10 of my money to clean his back seat after dropping us off. When I asked Martha to cough up the $10, she said, 'I'm blind.' "

In my ears right now: Manfred Mann, Blinded by the Light, what else?

Something that charmed me: Last night I got the loveliest, sweetest "good night" . . .


  1. Well, I went through the range of emotions with that one. Openly weeping at the image of Ralph holding baby Gary's hand - on to:
    outright laughter at the pronouncements of "I'm blind."
    Did your mother ever get the red slip? Just in this picture? Is your mother still living? I can't remember if I've read of her departure.
    This was a MOST interesting post. Thank you.

  2. Uncle Ralph was a kind, gentle soul. He was good to all of us. So independent. So admirable. Very much like his sister (Granny-O) just in male form.

    My mother is alive - she's only 74 and a very young 74 at that. I think it's fair to say my mother has owned 10 of everything she ever thought about wanting, so there have probably been countless red slips. Best guess for back then, though: my dad would have bought her a red slip immediately, or sent her out to buy one.

    I'm glad you enjoyed the post. The BEST Ralph and Martha story will be next.

  3. I guess Martha couldn't see her knees to cross them.

  4. If you don't want to post that comment, I understand. I just couldn't resist.

  5. That's pretty irreverent, Kirk. And so am I! I told you yesterday I can laugh at most things at least sometimes.

  6. Limes, nice story contrasting the independence of Uncle Ralph with Martha's dependence. Maybe they were absolutely right for each other.

  7. Good point, Tag. Because I was SO young, I don't have a good take on their relationship, but you could very well be onto the core of it. Yin and yang, perhaps. They were only married about 5 years when she died. He lived another few years.