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Depth Perception

Posted Nov 03 2008 9:00pm
Fifteen years ago my grandmother wrote a short memoir called Memories of My Mother. My own mother typeset the narrative, trimmed the paper, bound it between cardstock and produced enough copies to distribute among family members. The "book" is twenty-eight pages long, the size of a folded handkerchief.

Thinking of my grandmother this week, I got the little book out for the first time in ages. I remembered her delightful way with words, but was surprised at how many of the details I'd forgotten. I hadn't remembered, for instance, that my great grandmother, Doris Grace Golder Romig, was born to an itinerant salesman named Adelbert, nor that he had learned optometry through a correspondence course when Doris was still very young. Stranger still, I had forgotten that Doris developed a serious eye problem, diagnosed as iritis, when she was in her early teens. In my grandmother's words:
Treatment for this was to avoid light and any close work. Mother was kept out of school for a year and remembered the whole experience with distress. One incident she described graphically. She was enjoying the exercise period of a pet canary which was allowed out of its cage to fly about. The room was kept dim for her sake and when the bird perched on the arm of the davenport she unwittingly lowered herself to rest on the broad arm. She shuddered and said she could still feel the tiny body.
Re-reading it the other day, I was surprised I hadn't remembered the odd coincidence -- Adelbert becoming an optometrist years before his own daughter would contract a serious vision ailment -- but I was even more surprised I'd forgotten the story because of another coincidence: since childhood, my mother has been legally blind in one eye.

I think it was in grade school that I first learned about depth perception, how if you cover one eye and try to touch an object on the table before you, it is nearly impossible to judge how far to reach. You would never guess that my mother has any impairment, however, so seamlessly has she learned to compensate. In fact I regularly forget she has a blind eye.

If life were a book, it would be a funny choice indeed to give my mother an eye that doesn't see. It would be ironic in the sense that she has always been called to, and excels in, the visual arts -- but that's not even what I mean. She is a passionate seer, stubbornly so. She insists on recognizing and showing truth. Sometimes she even makes art from it.

Once she showed me a little book she had made, a memoir of a different sort. It was an alphabet book, traditional on the face of it, each page given over to a single letter, A-Z, and a simple paper collage. But the images she'd designed, page after page, were like keys to hard memories; they told a disquieting story that had never been spoken aloud.

I think now of my grandmother's gift for storytelling, of my mother's gift for seeing and showing, and the fact that both of them are the creators of small books. I think of literal blindness, figurative blindness, and of that little songbird unwittingly silenced so long ago. It amazes me to think how history plays out, unspooling itself so richly with theme and variation, and it makes me curious about what's to come.

Note: If you click on the butterfly on my homepage, you can get the recipie for my great grandmother's truly wonderful apple pie.
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