Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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Another blind lady

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Rose Goodenough, widow of my cousin Ron, has written the history of her family and the community at Barrier Ford, Saskatchewan. Her parents were born in England, to families who lived comfortably, but were not wealthy. They thought to better their lot by coming to the Canadian prairies where free land was being offered.

Rose’s father, Fred Ham, was born in Devonshire in the 1880’s. He had rheumatic fever as a child, which damaged his heart. His parents were told that he would never be able to do heavy work. Nevertheless, he and his brothers came to Canada in 1910. Fred filed on a homestead at Barrier Ford in 1911 and worked hard all his life trying to make a living from the rocky soil in the bush country.

Eva Brown was born in London in 1890 with no vision in one eye and limited vision in the other. She received most of her education in a residential school for the blind, where she learned how to read and write with the braille system. She also learned to type, to weave and many other useful skills. Her mother, then a widow with two daughters, came to Canada in 1913.

In 1915 Fred and Eva married and this unlikely couple made a hard scrabble living, raised two children and came to love the country. By the time she married, Eva had 10% vision in one eye. Yet she managed to cook, sew, care for the two children and even milk their two cows.

I got to know Eva Ham in my childhood when we lived at Craik, Saskatchewan. Ron & Rose owned a grocery store and lived above the store. Rose’s Mom lived with them, having a couple of rooms of her own, including space for her loom. She was a sweet lady and got along well with my mother. I watched her read braille, write letters with a little frame and a punch to make the dots. I saw some of the letters she typed. Completely blind by that time, she said she could tell the difference between a window and a wall, she made very few mistakes when typing.

In 1954 she wrote an autobiographical sketch for a magazine for the blind. Here are a few excepts:

“I was almost eleven when I started to learn braille. Our teacher, a graduate of the Royal Normal College, was one of the finest Christian women I have ever known and had a lasting influence on us all. I had been rather spoiled at home and was not a ‘nice little girl.’ I remember my teacher calling me to her during the recess and kindly pointing out some of my shortcomings.”

After arriving in Saskatchewan: “Like all the English in those days, I had the notion there were no people as cultured as my countrymen. I felt myself superior to the neighbours who visited my uncle and I made up my mind to go home at the very first opportunity.”

Many years later: “Living in a mixed community, constantly coming into contact with people of different nationalities and creeds, has taught me that there are others just as cultivated as the English. I have learned to appreciate the views of different races and to acknowledge my own shortcomings. In my contacts with people I have found blindness to be an inconvenience and a handicap. Combined with deafness it is more serious – it is a double handicap. But even this double handicap can be overcome through developing patience and a good sense of humour, and through friendly co-operation with the many seeing and hearing friends who are always ready to lend a helping hand.”

Learning versus Education

I found the wooden alphabet block with the letter I wanted and added it to the row that was beginning to spell my name — R O B E R T  G O O D N . . .  I needed one more O.  I carefully rotated each of the blocks I had not used, but could not find another O.  This was a familiar problem; there are just too many O’s in my name.  Now I had to take the blocks I had already used, rotate them one by one to find another O, then find a block with the letter I had taken away.  Finally it is done: R O B E R T  G O O D N O U G H.

I was four years old.  This set of blocks was my favourite toy.  With it I could build fences, walls, barns, houses, towers.  When night came, I would gather them all into the wooden box with wooden wheels and put them away for another day.

One day, I don’t remember when, my mother began to explain the meaning of the mysterious symbols on the blocks.  She showed me how to spell words like M O M, D A D, C A T, D O G and then how to spell my name.  Soon I began to sound out words I saw in other places and found that there was no end of things to read.  An older cousin, who was once a teacher, noted my love for words and began bringing me a little book each time she and her husband made a trip to Moose Jaw.

The day that I began school, my mother went with me and informed the teacher, “Robert can read.”  The teacher didn’t believe her, stuck a newspaper in front of me and said: “Read!”  I read it aloud, smoothly, pronouncing almost all the words correctly, though I may not have understood all that the news story was about.  Thus I began Grade 1, and was introduced to the mindless Dick and Jane books: “SEE SPOT.  SEE SPOT RUN.”  Not very interesting to someone who was way beyond that at home.  After Christmas, I was in Grade 2.

How did it happen that I was reading at a Grade 4 level the day I started school?  I don’t recall that my mother made a formal effort to teach me to read.  Outside I had a trike, a wagon and a whole big yard to explore.  Indoors, my set of blocks was my multipurpose toy kit, serving any purpose my imagination could dream up. The incident in the first paragraph is one of my earliest memories and it was an incident oft repeated as I learned the sounds of letters.  I seem to recall that my mother did just enough to pique my curiosity, then forever after had to answer my many questions.

My mother was my first and best teacher.  Yet she had known only Low German until the day she started school.  She attended a private Mennonite school for six years, spending equal time learning German and English.  In 1920 the Saskatchewan government decided that all private schools would be closed.  When Mom went to enroll in the public school that fall, they told her she would have to begin the sixth grade again.  Her father decided that if that was the case, she didn’t need to go to school anymore.  Despite having only six years of formal education, I always felt that my mother had more learning than my father, who had considerably more schooling and whose mother tongue was English.

The explanation for my mother’s learning achievements lies in her physical handicap, her father’s disability and the special relationship between them.  My grandfather was blind.  Glaucoma had robbed him of much of his vision in his youth and he later became almost totally blind.  He still ran a farm and raised fourteen healthy children.

My mother was number six and she was born with congenital hip dysplasia.  Nowadays, this condition is corrected in newborns without surgery.  A hundred years ago, doctors didn’t know what her problem was.  They thought she had a back problem, as that was where she had pain, but had no idea how to treat it.  One day, long after I was grown up, she told me that she had never walked without pain.  I thought back to the times that she would play ball with me, even run foot races with me and wondered if a mother’s love had eased the pain.

Because of his blindness, my grandfather needed help, and who was more able and ready to help him than this daughter who didn’t get around as easily or as fast as his other children.  She read to him, letters, farm papers, books, whatever he needed or whatever interested him.  She helped him with managing the business side of the farm, helping with correspondence and learning how to manage money.  If her parents went away for a Sunday dinner and she stayed home, as soon as her parents came home her father would want to know what she had been reading and she would need to retell the whole story that she had read.

A large, well-used English dictionary was one of her prized possessions.  She studied it assiduously, looking up every new word she found, learning its meaning and how to use it.  My aunts and uncles often accused her of having swallowed it.  She spoke clear, unaccented, grammatically correct English.

In addition, our home contained hundreds of books, the legacy of my father’s parents plus the gift of his brother who had abandoned the prairies for British Columbia.

With a mother like this, and a house full of old, well-written books, how could I help but become a serious reader and a lover of good books?

A Clearing in the Woods

I know the Lord will make a way for me,
I know the Lord will make a way for me.
If I trust and never doubt,
He will surely lead me out,
I know the Lord will make a way for me.

Denver and I were into the final stages of preparing for Vacation Bible School, selecting choruses to be sung during the week.  We came to this one.  We read it over, then Denver said, “You know, if the children who come would remember nothing else from the coming week but this song, it would be enough.  They are all going to face situations in their life that seem impossible.  What better thing can we give them but the promise of this song so that they could remember it at such a time and pray the Lord to show them the way?”  I liked his thought and this song became the theme of the VBS week.  Between 90 and 100 children sang it every evening from Monday to Friday and again for their parents during the Sunday evening program.

Twenty-five years later, I was noticing a rapid deterioration in my vision and facing the threat of losing my eyesight.   A specialist diagnosed it as the wet form of macular degeneration.  He told me that the only thing that could help was to inject a drug directly into my eyeball.  He never called it a cure, but held out the hope that it could stop the deterioration, at least for a time.

This was devastating news.  Everything I do, bookkeeping, reading, writing, proofreading, translating, requires the use of my eyes.  How was I going to be able to cope with this?  I prayed and an assurance came to me, softly and clearly: “There will be a way.”  I didn’t take this to be a promise of healing, but a promise that whatever happened, there would always be a way to cope with it.  I remembered the stories my mother used to tell of her father, a blind man who raised a family of 14 on a poor dryland farm.  The children never could understand how he could do some of the things he did.  He refused to give up, and I determined that I wouldn’t either.

That was four and one half years ago.  I have received more than a dozen injections in each eye.  This is not really a pleasant experience, but Dr. Colleaux is very good at what he does and gives the injection quickly and smoothly and the eye heals quickly.  The drug did its job, but for several years it seemed that after a few months the degeneration would begin again.

Now it has been 18 months since the last injection in my left eye and 15 months since the last one in my right eye.  I have lost the central vision in my right eye, but the vision in my left eye is good enough that I can still drive and read and carry on with my work.  During my last visit to Dr. Colleaux, a week ago, he told me that, while he can never say that I am out of the woods with this type of condition, the prognosis from here on is hopeful.

My life has changed, but not as drastically as I had feared.  I may not be “out of the woods” but I will rejoice and thank God that I have at least come to a clearing in the woods.  And whatever may happen in the future, I will continue to trust that “the Lord will make a way for me.”

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