literate behavior, I believe, and I want to honor it as practiced by my mother and grandmother. It’s a model for many things.
My mother and grandmother never treated me like I was blind. I remember nightly sessions of lap reading where I could touch and smell the pages held in my mother’s hands.. Most of the time these readings came from a book collection called “My Book House” I still have one of those books. Besides lap reading, we had a beautiful old wood Philco console radio and I was a fan shows like “The Romance of Helen Trent”, “The Guiding Light”, The Shadow”, “Lucky Strike Hit Parade” “Arthur Godfrey Show”, and many more. I knew all the words to “The Tennessee Waltz”.
Between the davenport and the wall, in a small space, my mother helped me build a collection of scraps of paper, pencils, crayons, colored pencils, scissors, records (the old vinyl 78’s) and hand made note books. I had my own little record player. It was plastic and shaped like a figure 8. One loop of the 8 was the turntable and the other held the tone arm and needle. My favorite record was a Hopalong Cassidy album; the kind with a follow along picture book showing the story playing on the record. Topper, Hopalong’s horse, whinnied each time I needed to turn the page. I played and replayed that record so many times I wore it out; one day the needle broke through the vinyl. I also remember how important it was for me to turn the page when Topper whinnied even though I could not see the pictures. I think that’s where I learned voluntary compliance to rules; a behavior absolutely necessary to live in and keep a free society.
My mom called this little space my den. When mom and grandma sat on the davenport listening to soap operas or “Mercury Mystery Theater”, I sat in the den and wrote or drew pictures. Of course the writing was emergent writing and the pictures were vague scribbles at best. But my mother and grandmother treated me like a real writer and reader, I read my stories to them and they read them to me. I didn’t know I was blind.
All the rest of my life, wherever I live I always have a den. The space is cramped even if more room is available. The den fills up quickly with den equipment. There is an over-abundance of pens and pencils, journals, note pads, post’ems, rulers, markers, scissors and reading lamps. There is always more than one writing surface – a table, desk, drafting table, plywood on top of stacks of books or bricks, a rocking chair with a writing board (like Robert Frost’s before I knew he used one) – and the den is always cluttered, messy; the more cramped, cluttered and messy the more comfortable and useful the den. Everyone who looks at the den thinks how can he find anything. To me everything has a place and everything is in its place. I believe that because of learning what a den was and how to use it when I was blind.
Another reason I believe literacy works is because stories awaken all your senses. It was summer and I was 4 maybe 5 by now. On a piece of paper I drew a map of our backyard and the backyard of the next-door neighbor. My vision had improved and the map probably had some verisimilitude. I went outside to play, which meant taking the map.
What I remember with reassuring affection is the sound of taking out the map unfolding it, “reading” it and folding it up again. To me, the sound of my map (writing) being folded and unfolded was as real and connected to the actual world as anything that ever happened to me up till then. Remembering that still makes my mouth water. Somehow that sound made me feel so good I have never forgotten it. I often wonder why that memory is so striking and enduring; I think it has to do with the power of “stalking with stories”, it was an opportunity for getting in touch with fundamental awareness. It showed me my literate behavior was important and possible. It told me I could make contact and sense of the world in other ways than seeing it. In the legal sense it is true today, but living day-to-day, I still don’t know I’m blind.
It is the narratives of our lives, sometimes connecting to the narratives of ancient ancestors, which guide us through a world those ancient ancestors could never imagine but make manageable for us to live today. That is wisdom we cannot afford to lose! And that is literate behavior, I believe.