CHAPTER 1: Pennies on the Floor
High above the heart of downtown Chicago, renowned eye doctor Harry Gradle shocked Mom and me: "Faith should learn to read Braille." Mom, an eternal optimist, barked back, "No, I won't have that. She's only eight, and we're not going to have her give up playing with her friends. She'll learn typing instead." I agreed with Mom. It was the one moment in my ninety-two years that changed my life forever.
I refused to learn Braille, the writing system for the blind with raised dot letters. If people thought I was blind, they might disapprove of me, belittle me, and avoid me. Society then thought "blind people were miserable creatures incapable of advancement and self-enrichment," according to Helen Keller.
Legally blind, I had my whole life ahead of me. I just wanted to be healthy, loved, and given a chance to develop my full potential myself. If I was stigmatized as blind, I might never find my actual ability as a person, able to do anything I really desired in life. Against all the odds, I desperately battled a vision monster inside of me in strange worlds. I discovered how to change my life at home, but I paid a whopping price.
At the start of the Great Depression on Chicago's South Side, I bonded with Mom in the kitchen and fought with her in the living room. Mom enjoyed baking and did a lot of it. She was a fabulous baker, and I relished being in the kitchen with her. She always made me part of what she was cooking.
When I was just three, Mom gave me some dough, and I played with it. I blackened my pie dough by dropping in on the floor and smooshing it on other dirty surfaces. Mom put her hands on mine and guided my dirty fingers, shaping the dough into a crust. Mom said, "Give me your dough, and I'll cook it in the oven with my apple pie." I gave Mom absolutely black dough. Mom always stated, "Oh, this is gonna make a pretty little apple pie."
Sixty minutes later, Mom pulled both our pies out of the oven, with golden brown crusts and aroma that filled my home. I was so proud I made a cute little pie for me. And it was as good as Mom's! Sweet Mom didn't tell me that she threw out my dough, and, while I wasn't looking, she baked a small pie for me.
But in the living room, Mom wasn't so friendly. She was strict. She shaped me into a typical kid. One day before lunch, Mom surprised me with a game she created, called Find the Pennies. I enjoyed playing parlor games, liked Simon Says. But the start of this game scared me.
She'd fling a fist-full of pennies on the living room floor of our small, sparsely furnished, fifty-five-dollars-a-month apartment in Chicago's largest and oldest black neighborhood, named Bronzeville. Some eighty copper pennies ricocheted and scattered everywhere off the variegated copper-colored oak wood floor. The pennies echoed thunderously in the spacious bare room, BRA-TA-TAT, like a magazine of heavy .45-caliber bullets from a machine gun of my South Side neighbor Al Capone. After that fearful barrage, Mom ordered, "Now, Faith, find all those pennies. This will help improve your eyes." That was my first vivid memory.
I could barely see less than a foot in front of me clearly. Everything else was blurry. I'd crawl on my hands and floor-burned knees in a white, frilly dress hunting pennies for thirty or forty-five minutes. I became exhausted and frustrated. I couldn't see the pennies. They blended into the color of the floor.
I stopped looking for the pennies. I got up, crying, "Mommy, I can't find any more pennies." I threw up my hands in an "I give up" gesture." I pleaded, "Can I please stop? "No, you have to find all of them," she replied sternly, yet supportively. "You can find them all. There's only two or three more." Mom wouldn't ever let me quit, even if I found all the pennies, except for just a couple. Sometimes she'd help me a little – "There are three more. Find them!" She often reminded me: "It's not punishment, Faith. It will help you later."
Nothing usually stopped me. I made up my mind, I would find every penny, no matter how long it took. And eventually, I did! I found more than 54,000 pennies playing Mom's game over those few years. Ironically, I learned today that Braille pupils develop finger strength and grip by finding and counting pennies hidden in Play-Doh.
At home, I was an innocent, naive child with a heart of gold—well, maybe copper pennies, anyway. But outside, I was not so pure. I became a cocky, six-year-old tomboy. We moved to Drumheller, Canada, with my normalcy needs escalating. At the start of the Depression, this one-street coal-mining town in the badlands of Alberta attracted farmers and dozens of Jews. They escaped Russian pogroms, the massacre of Jews, for vast tracts of cheap land.
Despite my blindness, I was the only girl who played with older ruffian boys, including my older brother Morley and Cousin Jerry.
Mom never accepted me as a tomboy and dressed me in girly dresses. Even as a third-grader, I was "motivationally gifted"—not allowing my handicap to hold me back. Compared to healthy kids, I could hardly see. I could make out distant shapes and colors.
Yet, I was having the time of my life. Mom taught me, "Disability does not stop you from enjoying life every minute of every day."
I was unstoppable, I thought. I did things only my way. Even though I was reckless, I didn’t play on or near the railroad tracks. A couple boys were killed on the tracks. I was terrified of those rails.
I found “low hanging forbidden fruit,” though. That was sliding down Aunt Gertie and Uncle Jack's long banister. They had a big house in Drumheller. Jerry would say, "Hey, the coast is clear. Let's go for it now." We slid down—what seemed like a forty-foot dark mahogany banister—giggling all the way. We often got caught. But that didn't stop us. We did it repeatedly for the thrill of getting away with something. Life, though, wasn't always fun and games for me.
Mom and Dad were once a happily married young couple with a toddler son and a new "adorable" baby on the way (me). Dad (Joe) was a hard-working plumbing supplies salesman who searched for a niche in business. Dear Mom (Bessie) was a traditional housewife who kept the household together. She kept busy keeping a kosher kitchen, cleaning the house, and raising Morley, three, the cutest tot you've ever seen.
They were the perfect All-American, working-class family. Mom and Dad coveted a happy, close family of two or three children. When she was pregnant with me, my whole family enjoyed communal energy. We had a large family. It included my mom and her parents and six siblings, and Dad and his mom and four siblings plus cousins. I would be born into a comfort zone of family and friends.
In Mom's womb, my oxygen supply was running out. I couldn't breathe. Suddenly, I felt liquid rushing past me, pushing me into a narrow tunnel. I was in pain. I felt lots of pressure on me, and it seemed to last forever. I was desperately running out of oxygen and fighting fatigue.
A cold, bright light and dry air hit my body like a brick wall. It was a surprise. I felt like yelping but couldn’t. I could only tell the difference between lightness and darkness. I heard loud sounds I've never heard before. I twisted my body ninety degrees in the tight channel. I positioned my little hands, pulled my naked body free, and landed in a new, odd place.
As I gasped for oxygen, I let out a penetrating wail. I was born! I felt like crying. So I did. I didn't hold anything back. It felt good. I was already unique. I developed my one-of-a-kind fingerprints in Mom's womb just by touching the surroundings. Soon, Mom's angelic voice that I recognized from the womb spoke to me. Another voice whispered in my ear. I didn't know what those sounds meant. But they were music to my ears.
Only minutes old, I was in a puzzling new place that I never experienced before. I was warm in the womb. But now the air felt cold. Someone was holding me. Their arms were warm—and that made me feel secure. I saw some light through my brand-new eyes. But I really couldn't see anything else, even shapes. I was drooling.
I flashed my first smile, a reflex smile, not in response to anything. I was testing my equipment. After waiting for months, my parents and brother finally met me. As I moved, they admired all my flawless little features and gushed, “So cute.”
I stretched and yawned. Morley uttered, "Awww." He thought I was the most loveable baby he’d ever seen.
I kicked my legs freely in the air in a wiggly motion. My legs felt no resistance that I experienced cramped up in the womb. I felt tremendous relief. I wrapped my tiny fingers around someone's pinky and breathed softly on the back of their hand. Must have been Mom's. I smelled the same smell all around me that I did in the womb.
I heard voices nearby. I didn't know what was happening or even what to expect next. But I recognized Mom's voice that I had often heard in her womb. Dad uttered a sigh of relief. Dad, with glossy eyes, exclaimed to Mom, "Bessie, we have a beautiful, picture-perfect daughter. Just what we wanted." Mom didn't say anything and looked adoringly at me. Mom's exhaustion just melted away. She got out some beautiful thoughts: "Her eyes are sparkling, her little hands are so cute. She's lighter than I expected and smells divine. She looks so flawless to me."
Everyone in Chicago was celebrating my birth, of course, in 1927 during the giddy Roaring Twenties and Prohibition. Chicago then was booming with bootleg gin, jazz, and gangsters. Just a dizzy, silly time. People sat on flagpoles, swallowed live goldfish, and everyone danced the Charleston. America's most famous gangster Al Capone made my city notorious for violence.
People were never so prosperous. It was time to par-tay! It was my raucous coming-out party.
At Michael Reese Hospital, Mom and Dad's eyes sparkled, and both glowed with joyful tears. Dad, with raised, prominent cheekbones, asked, "What will we name her?" "Oh, wait," said Dad frowning. "Why isn't she looking at me? And what's that white stuff in her eyes. Oh, my God," Dad uttered, grabbing onto Mom's elbow. "Something's terribly wrong." Dad, wrinkling his brow, went out of the room and returned with a doctor. The doctor, an intern, agreed that my eyes didn't look right.
Dad asked, "What's wrong, doc? After taking a close look, the doctor replied, "She's got cataracts in both eyes, impairing her eyesight. It's unusual for a newborn to have cataracts. But you should have her looked at by an eye specialist." My parents, destitute immigrants of Russian heritage, were seeking "the American Dream." Mom and Dad wished I’d be successful and prosperous through hard work, determination, and initiative. And now they set aside their hopes and faced my calamity!
They sensed their lives being turned upside down. Mom and Dad glared at each other, even at hospital workers. They strongly felt many natural emotions under these circumstances—anger, resentment, and bitterness. And most of all—uncertainty. They feared that I wouldn't ever see them. Dad lamented as he glanced around the hospital nursery, "Everything was going so well. Why is this happening to us?"
Dad saw healthy-looking babies all around him. I might not have good vision like them. But it seemed that the world dangled normal vision in front of me and said, “Try to get it.” My parents' big hope was that I’d be productive in school, at work, and in society. They were afraid I'd be hidden away like many disabled children in other countries then.
I was different from the second I was born. All babies are born legally blind, then sight develops quickly. My eyesight didn't improve. I had significant, cloudy cataracts and immature pupils in both eyes, blocking my view. There were only three babies like me with congenital cataracts of every 1,000 births. No one knows what caused my eye problems. But researchers say half of congenital cataracts are hereditary. My condition startled Mom and Dad. They thought only older people and aging pets got cataracts.
At the hospital, Mom counted my fingers and toes, making sure they were all there. She gently brushed her fingers through patches of curly hair on my baldish head and connected with me. Mom says she named me after Aunt Faith. I didn't have an Aunt Faith. I never found out who this mystery person was. Faith was a rare name for 1927 but was becoming more popular. Faith means trust and faith. It's a short and sweet name with a Catholic saint (Saint Faith) or spiritual connotation. My name had a foretelling meaning to me. I needed a lot of trust, faith, and spirituality in controlling my destiny.
When I was a few days old, Mom held me tightly against her breast and grinned at me. But I couldn’t see her. Mom smiled widely, looking desperately for one of those big smiling-happy-baby responses. Those real smiles, though, usually don't come for several weeks. I didn't know whether I ever could give Mom those joyous, precious love signals. I felt sorry for her. I missed out on those bonding moments and couldn't grow our loving relationship. I felt helpless like many blind people first do. Later, I’d have learning problems with crawling, walking, playing, talking, reading, writing, and making friends.
I couldn't see with my eyes. But I "saw" with my senses—touch, hearing, and smell. As mother cuddled me against her chest, she touched my little hand, and instinctively, I grasped her pinky finger. I was surprised we were already communicating. Her touch was saying, "I love you," and I guess my contact was saying, I love you too, Mom."
Eyes are the most important sensory organ. More than 80 percent of what normal children process comes through their eyes, according to researchers. For me, I took in mostly through hearing (11 percent in healthy children) and much less by smell, touch, and taste (each less than 3.5 percent).
Over the next month, when I heard Mom near me, I let out a big "Wahhhhh wah wah!" This signaled Mom that I was hungry, cold, or wet. A healthy baby may see her caregiver close by and often cries.
Many family members and friends of the family visited me. They didn’t know I had limited vision. Visitors smiled, made wide-eyed babyfaces, and talked to me in silly baby voices. They said "Hi" to me. But I'd thought to myself (without seeing them), "Who are these people with silly baby voices?" Relatives would look at me and say, "Why isn't she paying attention to me when I talk to her?" Many developmental milestones, like smiling, happen much later in babies with visual impairments.
From birth, my outlook was bleak. My eyes didn't talk to my brain, letting me know what I saw. My mind was degenerating. Yet, my parents didn’t accept that I was imperfect. They thought I'd someday soon be healthy and happy as most people were in the 1920s. Mom and Dad still looked forward to a bright life ahead. And they wouldn't let me shatter their American Dream.