Filling An Empty Hollow With Braille

A letter arrived from Geraldine Lawhorn of Chicago, Illinois, with a sizeable check to renew her braille subscription to Syndicated Columnists Weekly and a request to “donate the rest to your wonderful work for children and all braille readers.”

GeraldineLawhornI never met Geraldine Lawhorn, but I have never forgotten her story, which she told in the Epilogue to Louis Braille: A Touch of Genius: “I was seven years old when my mother and teachers noticed I had an eye condition. Despite medical treatment, my eyesight deteriorated, and I was finally introduced to braille reading. Admittedly, I shunned reading braille as much as I could. I was satisfied having my mother read books to me, and I memorized facts readily.

“But, more and more, I was aware of a hearing loss. My mother had to read louder; I had to move closer and closer to the radio. For me, a teenage girl with exciting daydreams, the future looked hollow, just a hole out there in front of me.

“Then the director of the Braille Department at the Chicago public school sent a note to my mother, saying, ‘Send Geraldine back to school. We want her to graduate with her classmates. We will transcribe all her textbooks and assignments into braille.’

“Rapidly, braille filled the empty hollow with possibilities. I turned to braille for learning, for employment with the Hadley School, and for entertainment. For many deafblind people, social life is confined to braille-land. Our most welcome visitor is the mail carrier, bringing braille letters, library books, and magazines—these are our favorite things!

“Computer technology has opened new doors: I now join my hearing and sighted friends by sending and receiving email messages and chatting over the phone—all because we have electronic devices with braille displays.”

Geraldine Lawhorn closed her letter with one more unforgettable detail of her life:  “I enjoy all your selections in Syndicated Columnists Weekly. In December, I read your article on aging. It was my 97th birthday!”

Bringing Louis Braille’s Story to Light

It was April in Paris. Mike Mellor and I were on a junket—a mission, really—to secure permission to translate and publish the extant letters of Louis Braille. Mike had discovered them sitting in an archival box at the school in Paris, where Louis had been a student and later a teacher. We had both worked in the field for decades and neither of us had heard of these letters! To imagine that we could read Louis’s own words, hear his voice, send his thoughts out into the world…

Photo of Braille family home in Coupvray.

Braille family home in Coupvray

We caught a train to Coupvray, Louis’s birthplace, to visit the Braille family home, now a museum. I allowed myself no expectations that we could break through the resistance that Mike had weathered during a half-dozen earlier trips. Margaret Calvarin, the gracious, very-French curator of the museum gave us a thorough tour of the house—from the attic to the wine cellar. The Braille family owned a vineyard and had bottled their own wine for generations. Just as we were finishing the tour, I heard a clanking sound and turned around to see Madame Calvarin leaning over a dusty bin, her hands scrounging about. I was thinking, “Oh, that lovely French suit!” when she lifted out a pair of green, hand-blown glass wine bottles several centuries old, and handed one to each of us as a keepsake.

Outside, I held mine up to the sun. It seemed a blessing directly from Louis to us, to bring his story out of the dustbin and into the light.

Writing this post on his birthday, I feel the urge to refill his bottle with wine and drink a toast. But surely Louis, a devout Catholic, knew this parable from Luke: “No man putteth new wine into old bottles… new wine must be put into new bottles; and both are preserved.” I search the Internet to understand its meaning. The answer I prefer is that we must keep growing and changing… like the “new” wine of refreshable braille, I suppose… how old things can become new.

Happy Twenty-Thirteen, Louis.

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Louis Braille: A Touch of Genius by Mike Mellor has been published in seven languages.