Starting School: Excerpts from Chapter 9

…“Grandmomma said I have to go to kindergarten,” I said. I directed this comment toward my brother, who I assumed was still sitting at the other end of the sofa. “Kindergarten is easy,” Billy said.

Grandmomma and Granddaddy want me to go to the School for the Blind in St. Augustine, but Momma wants me to go to school with sighted kids.” “You have to color pictures in kindergarten,” Billy said.  “That might be hard for you.” “I can see red,” I said. “But there are a lot of other colors,” Billy said. “Like there’s green and yellow and orange and blue and purple and brown and black and white.” “Also, you have to start raising your hand in kindergarten,” Billy said. “I’ll show you later how to hold your hand up.  You have to raise your hand a certain way and you can’t wave it around.”

Momma, Billy and I were all living in Grandmomma’s house. Momma stayed in her room, the middle bedroom, most of the time.  When I went to visit her, I could tell the room was very dark even in the daytime. It smelled like cigarettes.

Grandmomma took me for my first day of kindergarten. I wore a new dress. Grandmomma said it was pink and made of cotton. Clara starched and ironed it for me, and, when I put it on, she buttoned it up the back. She said I looked pretty and I should feel the smocking which felt like a design in the top front of the dress.

When Grandmomma dropped me off, Mrs. Brooks, the kindergarten teacher, took me by the hand and walked me to a table. I bumped into the corner of the table but it didn’t hurt my leg very much. One of the great frustrations of blindness is walking into things.  Not only did we sometimes hurt ourselves but it seems like other people think we are clumsy.

I heard the chair scrape on the floor as Mrs. Brooks pulled it out for me.  Somehow I got myself seated.  The kids sitting on each side of me asked, “What’s wrong with your eyes?” “I got lye in them,” I said. “What’s lye?” they asked. “Something you pour in the sink when it is stopped up,” I managed to say. I wanted to leave. The kid on my right said, “Oh, I am glad I don’t look like you.” The kid on the left said “Oooh,”

I heard someone clapping the way Grandmomma clapped when she wanted Billy and me to pay attention. Mrs. Brooks said, “We will now color a picture.” Someone put a piece of paper in my hands. I heard the rustle of papers being passed out to what I figured was the rest of the class. “Here are your crayons,” Mrs. Brooks said and put a box of crayons into my hands. I opened the box and smelled the crayons. I loved their smell. I held the box close to my eye and looked for a red one.

“Children,” Mrs. Brooks asked, “what outline do you see on your piece of paper?” The piece of paper looked and felt blank to me. “A house,” everyone else shouted. “Go ahead and color,” Mrs. Brooks said. I put my face down on the paper but I couldn’t see an outline at all. I wondered what a house looked like.

I decided to color up and down on the paper with the red crayon.  I had heard of red brick houses. “You’re not staying in the lines,” the kid next to me said.  “You must be blind.”


Grandmother’s House: Excerpts from Chapter 8

…Soon after we got to Jacksonville, Momma checked into the hospital for depression.  “What’s depression?” I asked Billy as we sat on a bed in our grandmother’s front bedroom.

“I think it means you cry a lot and are always sad,” Billy said. He began to describe the room we were in. “This room has eight windows and two walls,” he said. “It has a fireplace with another fireplace just below it in the living room. They share a chimney.  Grandmother has Oriental rugs in this bedroom and they are really old.”

“Peggy, Billy, come eat your supper,” called Clara, my grandmother’s cook. Billy ran down the stairs toward the front hallway with me in hot pursuit. I counted five familiar steps to a landing, then three final steps to the hallway. I made my way to the sitting room and felt for my TV tray, then felt for my place on the sofa to sit with the tray in front of me.  Clara always served us on TV trays with newspaper underneath to catch any spills. “I’m putting the newspaper under your TV tray right now,” Clara said. I heard the newspaper crinkle and the light thud of the tray as she set the legs on the newspaper.

I smelled fried chicken and in a moment Clara put a plate on my tray. “You have fried chicken and rice and gravy and squash and string beans and a hot biscuit all buttered. Don’t that sound good, darlin? Now, I’m gonna go get Billy’s.”

“Oh, go on, Billy,” Clara said. I knew he had jumped up and untied her apron. Billy and I ate in silence. I could hear my grandmother’s voice in my head saying, “Chew with your mouth closed.” My favorite part of supper was dessert. “Here’s your vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce,” Clara said. “The spoon is in the bowl on your right.” “Thank you, Clara,” I said. I stirred my vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce together until I had soup.


Divorce: Excerpts from Chapter 7

…“Momma said she and Daddy are getting a divorce,” a seven-year-old Billy said. “What does that mean?” I asked. “There’s a kid in second grade who said his parents are getting a divorce,” Billy said. “His father left and he just lives with his mother.”

“Why are Momma and Daddy getting a divorce?” I asked.

“I heard Momma say Daddy just lost another job and he drinks all the time.”

We were sitting on Billy’s twin bed in our room. I felt the satiny smooth headboard. I had a matching bed and Momma had told me the wood of the headboards was brown. “Who would we live with?” I asked. “Momma said we would go live with her and our grandparents in Florida,” Billy said.

“I’m scared of Daddy.  He bought me a doll stroller and I ran it into a new chair  and ripped the—what do you call that stuff that covers a chair?” “Upholstery,” Billy said sounding important.

“Well, I think Momma is a lot nicer than Daddy,” I said. “So do I,” Billy said.

In 1959 very few people got divorced. If they did, the person seeking the divorce had to have a good reason. Daddy separated from Momma a few years after my accident but it was Momma who ultimately sought a divorce. For years, I didn’t know what the formal grounds for the divorce were. In 1984, right before her death, Grandmomma said to Billy, “We had tapes.”

“Tapes of what?” Billy asked. “Tapes of your father with other women.” “What?” Billy asked in astonishment. “Your grandfather hired a private detective to follow your father around…So, the grounds for the divorce were infidelity.”


The Statue: Excerpts from Chapter 6

…I was four when Daddy bought a statue of a lady and put it on the sideboard in the dining room of our house in Houston. He said it was made of marble, and I was not to touch it. I had no interest in the statue. I loved my toys, which were in the bottom of the sideboard. I kept my Tiny Tears doll there. Her eyes were perfect and both of them opened the same amount. I also had a top. I could put the top on the floor and spin it, but then when it spun away, I couldn’t find it.

One day Daddy said I could hold the statue and feel it.  He said, “Here she is, Peep-eye.” My dad had called me Peep-eye since before I was blind.  He would hold his newspaper in front of his face and then lower it and exclaim, “Peep-eye.” The statue felt hard and smooth.  “Those are her breasts,” Daddy said.  I felt two round bumps on the front of the statue.  “Momma has breasts,” I said. “Nice ones,” Daddy said. Then I felt the statue’s hair which was hard. Her arms and legs were long.  I reached up and felt her eyes. They opened the same amount. “What color is our statue, Daddy?” “White,” he said.

The next day Momma said it was Thanksgiving Day. Billy and I were sitting at the dining room table playing Rock, Paper, Scissors. I felt the sun streaming in on my arms and face. Momma said she would be serving dinner soon on her beautiful plates with a different bird on each one. She said I would have the Scissor-tail Flycatcher and Billy would have the Canadian Jay. “I smelled that funny smell on Daddy again today,” Billy said. “You did?” I asked. “Somebody said it’s from drinking whiskey,” Billy said.

I wondered what whiskey was.  It smelled strange.  Sometimes Daddy smelled like cigars. Suddenly I heard Daddy’s footsteps running through the dining room and then the loud shattering of glass….



The Church: Excerpts from Chapter 5

…Momma and I went to church one Sunday when I was four. She took me to the nursery and told me to stay there. But the children in the nursery were crying and I started to cry. A man who smelled like Daddy and cigars carried me into the church and sat me beside Momma. It was cold in the church and I snuggled up to her soft mink coat. Momma smelled like perfume, I think she called it Arpege.

The organ began to play and I sat quietly in the pew. Momma stood to sing “Oh, Jesus, I have promised” and I knew these words because Momma sang them around the house every day.

After church Momma took me by the hand. We walked outside the church and I knew we had steps to go down. “Five steps down,” Momma said and she sounded cross. I carefully held her hand and counted down the five concrete steps.  I tried not to make a sound with my patent leather Mary Janes. Momma and I kept turning corners. This was not the way to the parking lot.  I put out my free hand and felt the bricks of the church wall as we passed by.  Something was wrong.

Suddenly, Momma stopped and said, “You should have stayed in the nursery.  I wanted to be by myself in church to listen to the sermon and read the Bible without interruption.” Momma grabbed me hard…

That night Momma was over being mad. She read Billy and me some books like “A Child’s Garden of Verses” and “Rikki Tikki Tavi.” I was well into adulthood before I understood what triggered my mother’s anger.


Star Light, Star Bright: Excerpts from Chapter 4

…Billy, age five, and I, age three, were riding on the hood of Momma’s Willys station wagon. The hood ornament, really a simple strip of chrome, was between us. We hung on to the strip as Momma drove through the countryside. “There goes a jackrabbit,” Billy said.

“I wish I could see a jackrabbit,” I said.  Then I asked, “Do you see any stars tonight?” “Yes,” Billy said.

“’Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight, I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight.’”

“I wish my sister Peggy could see again.”

“Y’all doing okay out there?” Momma called through the open window. “Yes,” we called back. If I tried hard, I could see the headlights of the Willys shining on the road in front of me.

I find it amazing that Momma had a blind three-year-old riding on the front of her car as she rode down a country road  I mentioned that to Billy not long ago and he said, “What about me?”

What happens to a normal child when a sibling becomes disabled?  I believe that I, the injured child, was brought to the forefront. Momma went with me to Boston and New York for surgeries in the mid-1950’s while Billy was shuffled off to relatives. I always thought that Billy didn’t suffer during those ears, but now I know he did.

When Billy could see the stars and I could not, the separateness and the closeness of our lives began.



Mother/Daughter: Excerpts from Chapter 3

…“Any chance of my potato chips?” Momma called from her bedroom.

“Oh, sorry,” I called back, “I just got bogged down in my own thoughts.”

“Isn’t this Beethoven beautiful?” Momma asked. “Sure,” I said as I made my way into her bedroom and tried to focus on the sounds of the orchestra coming from the Sirius radio. I managed to hand the napkin full of potato chips to Momma. “You’re a sweetheart,” she said.

I sprawled on the extra twin bed. “Brahms is next,” she cried. “I am so glad I can still play some Beethoven, Brahms and Chopin on the piano.”

The silent tension between my mother and me has always been this: She could have picked me up and prevented my blindness.  True, she was accustomed to servants watching children and servants ironing.  But the fact was, she didn’t have any servants and I was two and a half.  We never talked about my blinding, never.

Irresponsibility and poor judgment go hand in hand. Momma often showed poor judgment in her lifetime. Like, when she was a senior in high school and she and her friend Arvila sat across the street from their principal’s office the last week of high school, smoking cigarettes in Arvila’s parked car. The principal expelled both girls, but Momma’s daddy, a lawyer, got Momma reinstated so she could graduate. Arvila didn’t get to graduate. She was killed the next week while speeding down the road.

And what about my mother’s depression? How depressed was she the day I was blinded? Did irresponsibility, poor judgment and depression all come together?


Mother/Daughter: Excerpts from Chapter 2

…I suppose that day in Houston in 1955 began like any other day.  My brother, Billy, age four, and I, age two and a half, would have bounded out of bed early.  I understand that, on this particular day, Billy went to a playmate’s house.  As usual, Daddy would have driven off to work as a geologist at an oil well for Shell.  I’m sure I watched his brand new car as he backed down the driveway.  He always honked as he turned onto the street.

Later that morning, Momma said she was reading to me on the fluffy gray sofa in the living room.  She said I had refused to change out of my pink nightgown and insisted on wearing my red rubber rain boots even though it was a sunny day.

She read from “A Child’s Garden of Verses:” “I’m hiding, I’m hiding and no one knows where; For all they can see are my toes and my hair.”

The doorbell rang.  I jumped up and ran to the door in my red rubber rain boots and opened it.  Our white cocker spaniel, Snowy, flew to the door with me barking fiercely.  Snowy shot right on outside.

“Hooray, it’s the plumber!  He’s going to fix the kitchen sink,” Momma said. ”I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to pour hot grease down the kitchen sink.  By the way, I’m Mary Jean Paul and this is Peggy.”

“I’m Mark,” the plumber said.


Mother/Daughter: Excerpts from Chapter 1

…We stood in my mother’s living room and she said, “I’m getting in bed, Peg-a-Roo.  Fix me a ham and cheese sandwich on rye with mayonnaise and some potato chips and a cup of coffee.  Bring them to me in bed.  I’ve had a stomachache all day, but I just took my temperature, and it is ninety-eight point six.”

I was sixty years old, and had flown into Jacksonville, Florida the day before to visit my eighty-six year old mother in her brand-new cottage in a retirement center.  I was blind and had no idea where the refrigerator was, let alone the ham, the cheese, the rye bread, the mayonnaise, or the instant coffee.

I thought the kitchen was on my right, which turned out to be true, and I located a stove with a pot, a cup, and a jar of instant coffee on it.  Momma had never owned a tea kettle.  Feeling around carefully, I found a spigot and filled the pot halfway to the top with water.

“Well, I recently had a poem published in the retirement center magazine,” Momma said.  “It was called ‘On Envy.'”

“I’ll read it to you in a minute.  Out of 500 residents here, nobody even commented on it.  Don’t you like some recognition?”  Momma asked.

“Yes, Momma.”

Momma must have turned on her Sirius radio, because it sounded like a Beethoven symphony was playing forth.  I stood still for a moment.  I wondered how Momma had handled my blindness without ever really saying how difficult it was for her.



The Journey Begins

Welcome to In The Freedom of Space, a memoir on overcoming blindness in a number of ways. I begin with a scene involving my 85-year old mother and a 60-year old me talking but avoiding the topic of my blindness. I then flashback to the tragic childhood scene in which I lost my sight as a 2-year old. Join me as I travel through my story.

“When all other freedoms are lost, we have one freedom left: The freedom to choose our own attitude.” ~Viktor FranklMComin_SmallChild