by Jean Mann
Several years ago, after both of my parents had passed away, my brothers and I began the sad task of cleaning out the house where they had lived for over 40 years. Among the things we found were an old braille slate and stylus, and a print book of braille rules for transcribers from 1958. My mother had learned braille before I started school and was a volunteer transcriber for a group in Buffalo, N.Y., where we lived at the time.
Before she married my father, my mother taught French and Latin. Since she was the only one in the group who knew French, most of the transcribing she did was high school and college French textbooks. Until an area Lions Club bought me a braille writer when I was in third grade, she did all her work on that old slate and stylus.
I was her proofreader. I, of course, knew no French, so we went through each page, letter by letter, symbol by symbol. It was slow and painstaking, and I remember the frustration when she made a mistake we couldn’t fix and she had to braille a whole page over again. Once in a while she got something in English, and it was a real treat to be able to read words and sentences and know what I was talking about
When I was young, there were benefits to having my mother know braille. Instead of buying expensive decks of braille cards, she bought regular ones and brailled them herself. I spent hours with family and friends playing War, Go Fish, Hearts, Old Maid, and Uno. I took piano lessons; she’d braille my recital programs so I could follow along and know who was playing what. When I went to summer camp, I got braille letters from home, and she would tape a list of everything I brought with me in the top of my suitcase.
When I entered the ninth grade, I left home to attend the New York State School for the Blind. I took my braille writer with me and wasn’t home very much. The group she volunteered for provided her with another braille writer so she could continue transcribing those French books. I never proofread for her after that.
About this time I wished she had never learned braille. We weren’t getting along very well in those years, so when a braille letter arrived, it meant she was angry with me about something. And then I discovered she occasionally read letters I received from my friends, sometimes before I saw them. I guess it was her way of trying to find out what was going on in my life. When I questioned her about it, she said she didn’t see anything wrong with it, and she knew mothers who read their daughters’ diaries. You can bet I never kept one of those!
Eventually my parents moved to another city because of a change in my father’s job. The braille writer went to someone else, and after 14 years, my mother’s days of braille transcription were over. The slate and stylus were put in a drawer, and made rare appearances, coming out once or twice so grandchildren could take them to school for show and tell when they were learning about braille. And one year I asked her to braille me a deck of Uno cards for Christmas. She told me later she got that rule book out and it took her three evenings to braille all those cards. I only found one mistake in the whole deck.
I made sure to bring that slate and stylus home with me, although I did get rid of the rule book. They’re in a drawer in my desk now. I may never use them, but they remind me of the many hours in those days when I was little, sitting at the kitchen table, proofreading for my mother.