A pretty ordinary childhood

Etta and Fred Reid, who are both visually impaired, held down successful careers, had three children in quick succession, and raised them with hardly any outside help. Here, their daughter Julie Reid remembers her childhood.

Mine was a pretty ordinary childhood. But not everyone saw it that way. One word sums up people’s response to the news that my parents are totally blind: incredulity. Incredulity that they could cook, get around, perform the general tasks of everyday life – let alone raise three children, including twins, while holding down successful professional careers.

My father Fred and mother Etta were both born, fully sighted, in Glasgow in 1937, but lost their sight during childhood. They met at the age of 15, married at 26 and had three children, all fully sighted,15 months apart: Gavin in 1966, then, in 1967, my twin brother Leslie and me.

They did not meet overt hostility when they decided to have children. They were not told by a maternity doctor, as one of their blind friends was, that: “You shouldn’t be having children”. All the same, it was a rare thing that they did.

As a schoolchild, I was always asked what it was like to have parents who were blind. I had a stock response: “My parents are just the same as yours”. They weren’t, of course, but as far as I could see, my life was pretty much the same as that of my friends, except that we had a few more strange gadgets: the bleepers that let you know when a mug was full and when a light was on, and one that told you when it was raining so you could bring the washing in, the weird contraption for writing Braille and, later on, a talking microwave.

We lived in a handsome, four-storey Victorian house in Kenilworth, a small, affluent town in Warwickshire. My friends assumed that we children must have had lots of chores to do: “Who does the cleaning? How does your mother turn the cooker on?” But aside from the occasional shopping and washing-up duties and lawn-mowing (which I was paid for), we did little around the house except mess it up. My mother had weekly hired help with the cleaning, but she still spent all day Friday in a whirlwind of scrubbing and polishing. The stair carpet would be swept at the edges before vacuuming and the entire basement floor would be scrubbed on hands and knees. Windows would be cleaned, lightbulbs changed – mum thought nothing of skipping up a stepladder.

My mum cooked every night. “I went for a session of 12 cookery lessons for blind people in Glasgow just before I got married,” she says. “It included making pastry, cakes, scones, savoury flans, and fish and chips in the oven, which was safer.” In our house, there were Braille markings on the cooker knobs to indicate the temperature, and the timer also had Braille on it, but beyond that, the job was done with easy precision. “You knew how long a dish would take, so you would just prod it with a fork to check it was done,” Etta says.

Fred says that his peers at the blind school used to challenge him about the practicalities of having children. He would argue it out with them and challenge their reservations. “They’d say things like: ‘You can’t see the spots when they’re ill,’ and I’d say: ‘Well, children show other symptoms other than spots; they cry and are in discomfort and so on’.”

Etta says she knew of one totally blind couple living in London. “They had a child and I went to visit them when I was a physiotherapy student, aged about 24. And they managed perfectly well with their child, who was about a year old. A few years before that, I met a blind woman on a train and she told me that she had five children. And she managed all of them and she did the cooking and everything. So I knew that some blind people had done it. The thing is,” she says, “you just don’t listen to sighted people because they haven’t a clue anyhow. They think, ‘Oh, I couldn’t do that if I couldn’t see’.”

When I ask mum how she managed to get to the shops with the three of us plus a guide dog, her explanation conjures up an extraordinary picture: “The dog was in front with my left hand and I was guiding the double pushchair with my right hand behind me, with Gavin walking along beside me”.

Some other adaptations were necessary to bridge the gap between blind parents and sighted children. Mum says: “We bought the ordinary Ladybird books and we had readers who used to come in, people from Kenilworth who volunteered to be readers, and they would tell me what was on each page and I would write a caption at the top in Braille. I knew the stories anyhow. So I read out the stories reading the caption”.

We had the usual array of toys and activities. “Bricks, Lego, Plasticine and Play-Doh, these were great games that anyone could play,” says Fred. Dad was a particularly skilful modeller – he could produce fantastic miniature figures of animals from Quality Street wrappers. “And I used to play the piano and sing to you and get you all singing and jumping about,” says mum, who is a brilliant pianist. As we got older, dad would come home with weird-looking games, such as the chess set with spiky-topped white pieces and a board with raised squares.

How did their being blind affect us? I think that the experience of providing a running commentary on the world for my parents, for so many years, means that, so my husband Mark tells me, I am unusually observant. I like to think that this is a quality I might pass on to my children.

More significantly, the general admiration directed at mum and dad (I grew up hearing the phrase: “Aren’t your parents amazing?” on an almost daily basis) made me feel that I was special. And I was very proud of their achievements.

I was always asked as a child: “Don’t you feel sad that your parents have never seen you?” But that thought seemed to trouble others far more than it did me. When I got married, my best woman, Melanie, had a poignant line in her speech that drew spontaneous applause from the guests: “I’d just like to tell Etta and Fred how beautiful their daughter looks today”.

What saddens me now is that mum and dad can’t see my children. But when we discuss this, my parents give me their own empowering perspective. “I’d like to have seen you but I don’t think it is as important as people think,” says Etta. “I think seeing is so primitive. Even a dog and a cat can see. Knowing a personality and knowing how you speak and what you say and how you say it, I think that’s more important than how people look. I don’t think seeing is knowing.” Fred agrees: “Sight is a very misleading and beguiling way of understanding people. Philosophers have raised this question: is sight misleading? Is it possible that listening and touching get you nearer to people than sight does?”

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006 Edited version reproduced by permission of Guardian Newspapers.

First published in Disability, Pregnancy & Parenthood international, Issue 56, Winter 2006/2007.

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