My father came down from the Bronx to Staten Island about two years before I was born. He worked for the city, in what used to be called the Department of Housing and Building (I'm not sure what it is now; the Building Department?) and he sat at a desk in Borough Hall until I was perhaps eight or nine. Then he began to notice that his eyesight was failing. It turned out to be cataracts but in those days, apparently, there was little that could be done.
So his sight grew worse and worse, and finally it disappeared completely. He spent the last thirty years of his life totally blind.
But during those years he learned Braille and he became one of the most literate people I've known. He read ALL the time, because he didn't think there was much else that he could do and from the time that I was about ten, he was forever quoting Oliver Goldsmith and Washington Irving and Oliver Wendell Holmes to me. When he wasn't reading Braille he was listening to those huge recordings that came down from Manhattan, free (I think) from the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind. They were known as Talking Books, and a moderately sized book might take up four or five cartons of disks that were much larger than 12-inch records.
I hate to admit this, but it was only after he died that I realized that the guy was a hero. He was the last survivor of twelve brothers, he had lost a daughter, two wives, his eyesight, and in later years the use of one side of his body, but until I had moved away I can't remember ever hearing him utter a single word of complaint about his lot. He was actually happy that the Frenchman Louis Braille had lived and given him the chance to learn so much and to enjoy so much of the work of the world's great writers.
After I had left home I found that his letters were interesting in a strange way: Often when he mentioned someone in the news, he would misspell a person's name, while sometimes he would correctly spell some pretty difficult names, like Stottlemyre. I realized after a while that he had learned some of those names from the radio, or heard them on his Talking Books, while others he had read in Braille. The latter, he could spell.
A cousin of mine said this to me in the Bronx in 1964: "Your father . . . the thing about him was that you could talk to him. If you were twenty years of age he was twenty years of age. If you were forty years of age he was forty years of age. And my poor brother who was up in the state hospital? Your father liked nothing better than to sit and play checkers with him all day."
I've spent the past twenty or thirty years trying to be more like him, but the older I get the tougher that job appears to be. I get irritated, and I can sometimes cut people short, but I don't remember that my father ever behaved like that. I think he was probably my all-time hero, but when I was a kid I didn't feel that way. He was just a guy who sat around reading books all day.
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