by Glynda Shaw
No, this dress did not belong to Angela. I think she’d have liked it though. I bought it in the downtown Bon, told the clerk my size and that it was for me. She said it’s a Spring floral print. I would have gone into the dressing room to try it on if that had seemed necessary but I was sure it would fit.
People always tell me they don’t even notice my blindness and they think of me as being like everybody else. In the past thirty odd years though I’ve found that’s the first thing they notice and often the only thing. I’ve wondered if I were to show up someplace in a dress, would people say “That blind guy’s wearing a dress” or “the guy wearing the dress is blind?” Your reaction as I walked up here this evening shows that at least you noticed. That’s something. As to why? tonight I’m remembering Angela, my cousin and best friend.
It seemed I’d known her always which I guess I had. Following the accident that blinded me at age five, Angela spent a lot of time with me. She knew how to play with a boy who wasn’t the same anymore. But she wasn’t usual either. If I’d been, well, normal I suppose we wouldn’t have spent so much time together. She wasn’t my sister after all. Maybe we wouldn’t have been so close as we were. (Though people back then didn’t get quite so anxious over what’s called Appropriate Behavior as they do now. Not that we did anything wrong really. We were just different.)
“Something is going to happen tonight” she told me one evening. “Something wonderful!”
“What?” I demanded, eager to discover whatever it was that she would consider wonderful. No matter how I coaxed though, she wouldn’t tell. “Just wait till later.” Maybe Angela was afraid somebody would find out about The Plan and put a stop to it.
Bedtime found us huddled together beneath her covers with her new transistor which we really weren’t supposed to play at night, listening breathlessly to the little leatherette-cased radio. Newsflash by newsflash the announcer told about the moon rocket. This was before Neil Armstrong and Apollo 11, I guess about eight years before people actually landed there. It was a probe, unmanned, probably one of the Ranger craft. They’d just steered it toward the moon 238,000 miles away, where it would crash land and send back pictures to the very end. I hadn’t a clue how this might be done and imagined a steady stream of snapshot photos raining down from the sky. “We’re on the doorstep of the universe!” the commentator kept saying.
We’d slept together lots of times and I know what you’re thinking but all we ever did was talk, share secrets, sometimes stories; usually her telling them to me. I guess it was like I was her little sister. Being blind made that more okay than it might otherwise have been.
About this rocket though, this moon probe; not only was it fascinating like something out of a Saturday afternoon sci-fi thriller, but like the thriller this was something not just a little scary. Thoughts of space in those days were almost synonymous with thoughts of dreadful beings or grave disasters. There was this uncomfortable notion in a lot of people’s minds that if we went out there it might wake up something better left undisturbed as if three billion of us and our atomic bomb tests couldn’t accomplish that already. So there was a frightfulness about the whole thing.
I imagined the moon as someplace cold and dark and maybe full of monsters. When suddenly, the announcer said that no more signals were coming from the probe, it was as if something had Gotten It. There it was, up there all alone, and maybe frightened but doing it’s best–then whether it crashed or exploded or something else, it just wasn’t there anymore.
I wept for that brave little American rocket without quite understanding why, but as a seven-year-old you can still cry over a toy horse with a broken leg or a gingerbread man whose head you’ve bitten off.
Angela understood and she hugged me underneath the covers, declaring we’d try again and next time we’d win!
That’s how Angela was. She always had an answer and she never gave up. When I was saying to some kids once, that I wanted to be–I don’t know, a sea captain or something, one of them blurted out “You can’t see. You couldn’t do anything like that.” Angela told them I could be whatever I wanted. Years later when I met Col. Ed White, the astronaut, and told him I wanted to work on the space program, he said the same thing. “David, you can do whatever you set your mind to.”
What Angela wanted to do was science. People told her she couldn’t be a scientist because she was a girl, so I guess she knew how it felt when people told me I couldn’t do such and such.
We were both endlessly curious. Once when we were zapping things with a magnifying glass I passed my hand under the lens and found out how hot sunlight could get. We made focusing mirrors out of aluminum foil and cardboard. Once we made what today you’d call a terrarium with a mouse in it and enough plants to keep it alive on a space flight through two weeks time in Angela’s room. To go to the moon, Angela said, you’d need to travel as far as ten times around the world. To get there and back would take about two weeks, so this mouse could go to the moon.
One morning Angela wasn’t feeling very well. I’d stayed over night and Mom had forgotten my pajamas so I was wearing one of Angela’s nightgowns. Neither of us bothered to get dressed that morning because she didn’t feel up to playing outside. Still she wouldn’t give up finding something interesting for me to do.
“Do you know what a penny looks like Dave?” she asked suddenly.
“Sort of,” I said. I thought about it and though I could tell a penny from a nickel I didn’t know what was actually on either coin. She spent the rest of the morning sitting with me at the kitchen table making the form of the head side of a one-cent piece engraved in a sheet of wax. She intended to pour plaster of Paris into the engraving to make a penny I could really feel.
As she worked, Angela remarked “If a machine like a camera could scan something, then carve it in plastic or metal then in a way, you could see it with your fingers; (adding hastily) until science discovers a way to restore your sight.” Pondering this, she told me she was carving President Lincoln’s face. Then, “Do you know what a face feels like?” she asked. “I mean could you feel one face and tell it from another face?”
Well, I wasn’t sure. “I’ll show you,” Angela said getting up and going to her room. she came back, laying a doll in front of me. “That’s Lucy,” she said. I studied the over-chubby cheeks, the little button nose, the eyelids that went up and down, the baby bottle-open mouth. “Now feel her,” Angela directed, handing me a second doll.
“That’s Sally,” Angela echoed. I felt Sally’s face. She had a nose, cheeks, eyes and a mouth but they were definitely different from Lucy’s.
“Now I’ll show you one,” Angela said “and you tell me who it is.”
“Sally” I said.
“You’re right!” Angela laughed delightedly. “She’s my favorite doll. You can keep her company while I work.”
(You can look at me with your hands if you want to.)
Sally had long braids and wore a long, cotton dress with tiny socks and little plastic buckle shoes. (Don’t feel under my dress though.) I withdrew my questing fingers.
Angela was quiet for a while, which I assumed was due to her concentration on the task of engraving, I had been established that I could tell the difference between one face and another.
(Your nightgown is big. Is that one of Angela’s?)
“Yes” I said aloud.
“Yes what?” Angela asked.
“Oh, Sally wants to know if this is your nightgown.”
“Yes,” Angela said. “Sally likes you.”
(I like you.)
Angela patted Sally then allowed her hand to linger on the sleeve of the gown I wore. “It’s nice isn’t it?”
“Yes,” I said diplomatically, not having all that many nightgowns against which to compare this one.
I never saw the finished penny. Mom came for me about then and I had to hurry up and get dressed to go home. Next morning Angela was really sick. Two days later she died. It was strep throat I believe. Children died of it more often than we like to remember.
For a long time, a month or more, I didn’t go back there because I might catch something. Only Angela wasn’t quite gone. Somehow I sensed this and I kept asking to go back and visit Aunt Sarah. Eventually my parents, in a singular flash of insight realized that staying away from this place of former happinesses wasn’t doing me a great deal of good and I was allowed to return.
After being embraced by my aunt I made my way to Angela’s room, finding it just as I’d left it, nearly a month before. Some thought it morbid but Aunt Sarah left Angela’s things just as they were when, well, just as they were. I closed the door behind me and went to sit on Angela’s bed.
I felt about until I found the dresser and Angela’s dolls all sitting up there side by side.
“Hello Sally. Hi Lucy.”
(Hello David. We’re glad you could visit us today.)
I spent the night in her room. This time I’d brought pajamas but I didn’t wear them, choosing instead the same flannel gown I’d worn before, now washed and folded beneath Angela’s pillow. Sally said Angela’d want me to have it.
After that I visited when I could, staying in Angela’s room, having long talks with Sally and Lucy, sometimes changing their clothes for them out of the little doll suitcase Angela had from when she was little; sometimes running the tiny comb through their hair then rebraiding it, using the teeny rubber bands.
I’ve no idea when Aunt Sarah first knew. One day she just walked in to find me wearing one of Angela’s dresses, too large for me but she neither commented on it’s outsizedness nor the fact that I was wearing it. She just spoke as usual, asking “Will you join me in the kitchen for lunch?” In her gentle wisdom she must have understood this was our special way of mourning, yes, and for Sally, Lucy and me to remember Angela. Later Aunt Sarah found things from the time when her daughter was small. Later still there was no further need of those.
Of course many would say that this traumatic experience of losing my closest companion, my mentor at such a tender age caused me to choose this less than conventional life. Really though Angela just helped to validate the girl whose always been here inside. And when Angela no longer needed the place she’d had in our everyday world, that place stayed open, offering itself to me. A place of comfort. A place of a certain safe security.
In college and beyond I tended to gravitate to women’s groups. My blindness made me different enough from most men that other women sometimes forgot I was male, while my being a male person often caused them to forget I was blind. The two taken together added up to something that felt almost normal.
I’ve not built rockets so far but I’ve done much else and in all I’ve done Angela has a share. The other day I wrote a program which would allow a blind person, or anyone else, to make machine parts in metal, merely by typing on a home computer, not even a very modern one. In my two hands I held, still warm from the cutter, a pair of gears which actually meshed. In fact, here they are.
As Angela said, you can hardly be blind to something you can hold in your hand. And now we come full circle to this evening, this place and the awarding of the first Angela Barclay scholarship for women engineering students interested in visual to tactile or visual to artifact translation. Before I announce the name of the first recipient of this award, may I, my sisters, my younger sisters, for I am nearing forty-three and joined this organization more than twenty years ago, leave you with a final thought?
This summer rockets are again attempting the boundaries of knowledge, this time on Mars, in a bold attempt to put the question, is or was there ever life there? Clearly the sense of cold foreboding some of us experienced in those pre-Apollo days has been replaced by an earnest desire to know that we have neighbors, however small, anywhere. Discovery of even microscopic life, even long dead and fossilized would go a great way toward filling a void in the human spirit, a need for intrinsic newness, fundamental difference. We’d be richer for it’s ever having lived.
I don’t know what you’ll be doing when brave little rockets once more attempt touchdown on another world. Me, I’ll be at Angela’s house. Aunt Sarah is frail but very much alive. I’ve made reservations to borrow Angela’s bedroom. You may laugh and you’re welcome to that; to sleep in the same bed, my ear to the radio, while Sally, Lucy and I listen for reports of the Martian probes. My Walkperson is generations beyond that old six-transistor that Angela and I shared in that bedcover tent so long ago. Beyond this cash award however, no homage we could offer could be more sincere. I owe no less to all of us. Thank you for hearing me tonight.