She disagreed that the eyes were the mirror of the soul. Had this been the case, her blind mother’s soul would have a faraway, disinterested feel. No, she knew hands did the trick. The way her mother held her close, gently, lovingly, as though she were an egg – yes, fragile, and full of life. Her mother’s hand unconsciously looked for hers when they went outside. They were attentive, in tune with her changing moods. You could have a conversation with those hands. They were animated and strong. They laughed and sang. My mother was full-blooded Italian. There was nothing shy or retiring about her. She owned her blindness. It did not own her by any stretch of the imagination.
My mom’s best friend was uncle Thomas, her baby brother, always at her side. He was sighted and took care of her. Mom said that she didn’t do much before he came along but when he did, they became inseparable. They climbed trees together, way high. She was not afraid of heights and she was uncannily good at finding foot- and handholds. He loved heights and was a daredevil. He pushed her out of her comfort zone yet was also fiercely protective of her. They made a good pair. When they were teenagers, she learned to apply makeup using him as a mirror. He was her confidante. She was strikingly beautiful with long black hair and dark eyebrows. She had many friends, but no boyfriend. They lived in a small community. Thomas would accompany her to the dance hall even though he was underage. He would get a Coke for himself, and a rum and coke for her. He was a good talker and a good dancer. They would meet up with her friends — he was never short of female attention. Still, he kept an eye on her while having a good time. One evening, she whispered to him “Thomas, who is the tall man?” He looked around. Sure enough, there was a tall man he didn’t know. “Do you want me to find out and invite him over?” “Yes. Don’t tell him I’m blind,” she added urgently. “Yes, ma’am,” he replied lightly.
He thought she must have heard something special in his voice. This was an unusual request. She never mentioned she was blind. It was as though it never occurred to her. But of course it did; she just didn’t make a fuss about it. Chastened, he headed over to the stranger who was talking with Charlie and Bruce. They greeted him and introduced him to Peter, Bruce’s cousin. “Good thing you came over, Tom. Peter was looking for a way to go talk to your sister. He’s a bit shy for a city slicker. You mind taking him over?” Tom looked at Peter. He looked friendly enough, did not flinch upon his gaze, did not look away. There was something frank and open about him that Tom liked. He didn’t grill him much, did not want to make him squirm. He also did not want to keep his sister waiting. He was curious. He tried to hit upon things they might both like to make the introduction easier. “Do you play any musical instrument?” he asked. We always marvelled at that when we heard the story. “How did you think to ask, uncle Tom?” “I must have been divinely inspired,” he would always reply. “I sing,” he replied. Well, that was unusual for a man to admit. “What do you sing?” asked Tom. “Operas, mostly.” “Would you like to meet my sister Bianca? She loves music.” And the rest, as they say, is history.
Our house was always full of drama – between an opera singer and an Italian mother, there was passion and laughter, screams of delight and fury. Sparks, they called it. “It won’t start a fire, darling, don’t worry,” they would reassure me. Dad took uncle Tom’s place. Uncle Tom was his best man, and he was uncle Tom’s when the time came. The two families were close, blindness a side story, like a woman who was a bad cook or a man who loved to dress up as a woman. Something odd that you might mention when whiling away the time, but not scandalous in our little community. The fact is, mama was a beauty and all the men were jealous of papa.
Even in old age, her hands were still beautiful, having mellowed with time, the age spots like wrinkles at the crease of her eyes. Her long pale fingers read the faces of her grandchildren as a smile spread about her face. In her melodious voice, she told fabulous stories of all she had seen. The kids were puzzled: “How did you see?” She would gently tell them to close their eyes and listen. “Let’s go for a ride,” she would say. They would push her wheelchair about, “No peeking!”, and listen with her to the sounds all around. “I bet that’s Mrs Wilson. Hear how she shuffles her feet just so? And the birds stopped singing – I bet Dr Darcy’s cat is lying in wait.” They would open their eyes then. Sure enough, there was Mrs Wilson, and in the tall grass, tail awhippin’ was the calico cat, ready to pounce. “What else did you see?” they would ask, again and again, pushing her among the rosebushes of the cemetery. It was handy to stroll in the graveyard. No fast cars, gentle slopes, and greenery all around. They would always end up at papa’s grave. She would get up and put her hand on the headstone, trace the writing with her finger. On the return trip, she would be lost in thought.
Papa was her only blind spot. Even when I would point out his obvious faults, reminding her of their epic fights, there was no convincing her. She would say, pensively, “Funny, I always thought you were his favourite.” The fault was never his, her faith in him unwavering.