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Saturday, October 8, 2011

No. 73 "Blind Lilly"

Aunt Lilly was blind and had been since birth. Like many others with her condition, she learned to compensate for the loss of one sense by sharpening another. For her, it was her touch. Her fingers became her “eyes” of a sort. With them she not only negotiated around the home and neighborhood, but more especially, she learned to recognize faces by their feel. She would make her way around a room, touching faces to learn and then recognized the chins, noses, ears, and eyes of the people she knew and loved.

Lilly Larson, known to the family as "Blind Lilly"
She was the oldest daughter of my great-grandparents, Louie & Emeline Larson. Left fatherless at only two years old, she became part of her mother’s new family after Emeline married Calvin Farr Willis and moved her two small children, including my grandmother Agnes, to the spot near what later would become Hancock Landing where they would all live the remainder of their lives. She was soon surrounded by a mushrooming group of relatives, including two half-brothers, and seemingly countless cousins, nephews and nieces.

Others most certainly could see and sense her disability, but she remained happily oblivious to any distinction and was a special part of her extended family. She moved freely about the pack of houses that made up her small little world as her friends and family served as both her eyes and her guardians. As she grew older her physical deformity became increasingly pronounced and apparent, but by then she was so familiar that it was more a distinction than a difference.

Rather than intimidating the children she met, her soft hands accompanied by her gentle voice evolved into a welcoming ritual that was comforting and un-frightening. It was familiarity as much as sensation that allowed young children to feel so comfortable in her presence.

Lilly had passed on before I was born, but she was very much a part of the day-to-day lives of my older brothers and sisters. Once, looking at a picture of her as a seemingly aged old woman, and noticing the obvious deformity in her eyes, I asked my older brother, Tommy, if he was uncomfortable or scared by her in any way. “Scared?” he responded, “Why would you be scared of somebody you loved so much?”

An aged woman, carrying all the baggage of a lifetime without sight, was comfortably at home around an entire neighborhood of children of all ages. She, like dozens of her contemporaries was not confined to an institution, or even to a secluded corner. She remained very much a part of the world she had known from her own childhood. For Tommy and the others of his age group, familiarity and intimacy had allowed love and compassion to overcome the innate tendency of children and adolescents to shy away from anyone they considered unfamiliar or unusual. A lack of the same, especially with older people, could be why many, if not most, of today’s youngsters seem so uncomfortable in the company of some adults; even if their only deformity is being older and a stranger.

Except for a few formative years with Ole Pa, my paternal grandfather, and his enduring influence and aura, I never knew my grandparents. But that does not mean that my childhood was devoid of time with and around older, even aged, people. On the contrary, old people; aunts, uncles, older cousins, and scores more whose exact relationship I didn’t really know at the time, were a constant part of my daily childhood experience. Indeed they were and are both the source and subject of most of the tales that have formed the fabric of these stories.

In a time before rest homes and assisted living there was no place for aging, even infirmed seniors to be other than with their younger family members, either nuclear or extended. Even as I learned to love and respect that older generation, I also gained an appreciation and confidence in interacting with them individually and as a group. Having to listen more attentively and speak a little clearer and slower was a small price to pay for the lessons they told and taught.

As an adult, my professional, civic, and church responsibilities have often brought me in contact with children of all ages. Gowning old(er) I have observed a seismic change in how children and adolescents relate and engage with their elders. Many, if not most of the youngsters I meet seem uncomfortable, even frightened, when they are obliged to interact with seniors with whom they are not familiar. Often they hesitate to look me in the eye, and then respond in mumbled tones, if at all. Sometimes they look to their parents as if to ask longingly, “please rescue me from having to talk to this old man!”

Admittedly, I may have less to render than Ollie (Willis) or Aaron (Moore) or Cliff (Guthrie) did to me. But there are many of my now “graying” generation who have much to offer if allowed to be a friend. Today’s children may someday look back with regret at the stories they did not hear or even at the questions they did not ask when the opportunity was there just for the taking (see No. 17 "Mullet Fishing, an Old Man, and World War I").

1 comment:

  1. I always enjoy reading your stories. You're not THAT old, but you could share a lot with the younger ones, if they'd listen, because I don't believe you've ever forgotten a day in your life! Love ya. "Kate"