When I Consider
Milton was my mother’s first cousin by marriage to Helen, who was given the name so that she might be beautiful, but my mother with a more ordinary name was the beauty in that family and Helen was plain. As a child, I adored Milton who taught me about Helen and the Iliad and the Odyssey. We saw the two of them three or four times a year, always visiting at their apartment. They lived very near my mother’s parents in Brooklyn. My grandma and Helen’s mother were sisters, but when I was about ten, we stopped visiting, and I only saw them a few times after that: at my grandma’s funeral when I was twenty-one and a year later when I was engaged and then married.
To Helen it may have seemed that my mother had broken a pact, probably unspoken, between them. They were, for almost a dozen years, close first cousins neither of whom had a sister and neither of whom would have children. My mother may have picked up Helen’s discomfort that my parents broke the pact when Hitler began to eradicate the Jews.
Milton played the piano by ear, tunes that he sang in a rich voice; some of his songs he performed alone, some we sang along with him. He had a brown-grained upright that did not climb up the wall like our black piano in the hallway, and they called it a spinnet although it did not move around. I sometimes sat next to Milton on the piano bench; he put my hands on the keys and put his so lightly on top of mine, I could barely feel him, and he taught me about the shorter raised keys, the sharps and flats, two and then three raised, two and then three, up and down the keyboard of eighty-eight flat and raised notes.
This started when I was four and I learned the names of the notes and to feel them, the narrow, raised keys and the wider, lower keys, but never the black and white ones. He taught me “Chopsticks” and “Happy Birthday” and he didn’t mind that, although I could hear how it should sound, I couldn’t carry a tune very well. Milton wanted me to understand things. He could play checkers with other people but not chess and the reason why is that in checkers the pieces only march in one way, across the board and back.
When Milton played checkers, which, by the time I was six I could enjoy doing with him, he used pawns from a chess set which, when he got crowned, he put on top of a checker. He knew all the pieces of a chess set, he had several, and he taught me what they were called and how they moved, but he could only play chess games with himself, moving very very slowly, both sides. He loved the knights’ moves best because they felt a little wobbly. But Milton had to feel all the pieces on the board and study where they had arrived and where the spaces were. He really could not play with red and black sets because he was blind and could not see color at all, though he could slightly make out black and white pieces. He taught me about tactics and strategy and wiping out your opponent’s pieces. I always felt faintly sad doing this. He said he did not. I thought this was because he was a man. He was very large and wide. He was far from the ground he said and once he told me Rosie knew how to keep out of the way but he was afraid of tripping over a crawling baby.
I think I was never on the street with him, but he told me that he walked with a stick when he was younger, but now with his Guide Dog, who did not like to be petted because she was at work. Milton walked with Rosie outside three times a day. It was always very dim and at night black, and in the day shadows loomed and receded. He did not like calling dogs “Seeing Eyes” because obviously seeing is what eyes do, and the name reminded him that he was blind from birth and his parents had named him for the blind poet from England called John Milton. He told me it was possibly true that Milton, the poet, became an epic poet because Homer, the first epic poet in the west, who wrote about Helen, was also blind, at least by hearsay.
I asked him which west he meant, and I remember this distinctly, because the west I knew about was in the song we sang—“Home on the Range”—and it had cowboys on horses with hats that had ties instead of bands like my father’s Homburgs and that west did not sound like the place where poets before there was paper chanted very very long poems they memorized.
Helen was a secretary, and in the war years when I first knew him, I believe Milton was a codebreaker who worked in a different department of the same building. (There is no one still alive to check the facts of which I am not fully certain.) He would translate some coded communication no one could solve but that been transcribed into Braille and then his fingers could pick up patterns. “Here” and “There” and “Her” stuck up as a kind of matching mountains, and “Where” and “Were” joined them and sometimes he could crack codes sighted decoders had failed with. He was a happy man and he didn’t mind my questions so he was in my thoughts from the earliest days I knew him.
Milton said he was confused, because many people who study how brains work believe no creature can think without words. He asked me to consider this. Did I always think with words? what about dreams? Did I always have spoken conversation in every dream? Did dreams ever teach me something even if there were no words? And was this a kind of idea? I believe the nature of the talk I engaged in with Milton was both science-minded and philosophical though he made no fuss about it. It was as if he opened a door to the room of his thoughts. My father had told me his own discovery: being blind in one eye had left him with an unknown capacity to use the stethoscope in diagnosis of heart ailments no other cardiologists seemed to be able to hear; but this surprise benefit of developing his ear because his sight was deficient, was not an exploration or probing of what I thought to join him in his thought room.
Milton said he felt that almost as much as Helen’s devotion, the dog’s ability to give him the safety that eyes give people was the most amazing aspect of his life. What is it for a woman to give up children? Why was he lucky enough to find a woman who would be willing to make such a sacrifice? He felt that he was surrounded by miracles he could not altogether understand. He said that if he were given a choice about giving up sight, there is no way he would have made that choice, but that since he had no choice, the life he had was something he was grateful for every day. He said he thought that people who had had to give something up were in some way nicer to be around because most of them felt these things gratefully. He felt that being thankful was a wonderful strategy for enjoying life. He said, “I think, given your father is orthodox, you are probably more religious than I am, but I think a state of gratitude is what a lot of the great religions take as their teaching. I don’t particularly focus on God, but I am mostly in a state of gratitude.”
I remember saying to him—and I am not sure I spoke this, but I think I believed it so deeply that I also believed he knew I thought it—“and that is why Helen chose you.” They were really happy together and loving them the way I did, and looking forward all year to these visits, I began thinking very early about being a woman and having a choice of not having children. I had dreams as a child that were like Milton’s dreams, black and white looming shapes moving around me. The idea that had no words was that I knew I would find it painful to live without color. Even more, given that, I knew I had to have children of my own if I married. After all, had there been no Third Reich and no extermination of actual Jews, I had been told when my mother was pregnant with my sister, I would not have been born. I had. without knowing it, determined that if I had been given the chance to be by my parents, if I married, I had to do the same for a child who came from me, after me. Milton had no siblings because having had a blind child, his parents did not risk having another.
When we sang the Friday night prayer of thanks that we were “here all together until this time,” I knew that there were two ways we could not be here: One of us might have died the way it kept happening to my Welsh nanny, Agnes, or we might never have been born, like any of us, but especially like me, because my mother and her first cousin Helen, might both never have had children, since both Milton and my father had problems with their sight. That thought has sustained my life to this day because I adore my sons, and had all the good and bad, difficult and amazing things that happened between me and their father not taken place, I would not have those children. To have missed having the children I actually have seems almost as much a pity to me as it seemed to me a pity as a child that I might never have been born.
The first day of high school, there was a blind boy in my French class, and I felt I had to get to know him. He felt so familiar. I wanted to talk to him. He was from the grade above me, and I could be quite relaxed and fun-loving because I already knew French. I had to go to The Lycée Français de New York beginning in the October I was seven, and I got in, and it was an expensive private school which my father did not altogether approve of. At seven, I made some awfully silly mistakes because I did not know French well until about April. The effect that this apparent stupidity had on me is that I learned French very carefully, much more precisely than I did with almost anything ever in my life. So it was that when I entered high school and was in a class of Freshman and Sophomores studying beginning French, I immediately broke one of my new and newly adolescent cardinal rules. I was unabashedly outgoing, and I did not care who might like me too much.
I could not help but worry about the boy called Charlie. Because I had grown up with Milton, it felt ordinary that Charlie walked with a white stick, red at the bottom end, and saw dimness and looming shapes and did not bring his seeing eye dog to school. He told me about coming to school with his father and his dog the day before classes began the first time, seventh grade. They allowed him and his dog to explore, and to find the bathrooms and memorize the floor plan. I told him about Cousin Milton’s dog and asked him if he thought his dog knew he was blind, and did he consider that an idea and that animals could have ideas, and we had such interesting talks even though he was a year ahead of me, that he asked for my phone number. No one else ever spoke to him. Could he call me? Could I help him with French?
Already as a Sophomore he knew he was gifted with Braille math and he was so used to visualizing wholeness in his mind that he could in a way see how a company worked, and he could understand the dynamic of expenditure and income, staff and salaries, benefits and pensions, longevity and leadership, and something called a Business Plan. He was interested in good outcomes and careful planning, “cutting the pork” he called it although, like me, he was Jewish. He wanted to go to the Wharton School and was talking to counsellors to see how he could accomplish that in three more years of high school and persuade them to admit a blind student. So far, he had not been able to establish whether they had ever done that.
Charlie and I talked on the phone nights for almost an hour more or less every other day for the next three years. He avoided calling weekends because I dated other people and he knew that. Once, toward the end of his senior and my junior year, when I knew the following year, he might phone during his winter and spring breaks to talk to me about Wharton (where he did go and succeeded very well), I decided to talk to him about how I guessed it was probably a little disappointing to him that I never agreed to go out with him, although he had asked.
I told him I had started when we met with a promise to myself from the summer before. I had resolved never to lead someone on. Yet at some level by being so friendly and amused about French and mistakes, I feared I had led him on. He said he had a cousin who had taught him about eye contact and what it meant that he did not have that as clue and key to how the heart was tending in relationships. His cousin taught him things to listen for, and to “watch” for. Did the girl ever touch him to emphasize a point? If not, it probably meant she did not want to go there. Charlie said I had not led him on. Even though I was friendly and approving I had been carefully distant and he could tell that. In his life he had learned to allow himself to wish for things he could not, likely, achieve, but there were some things that he could wish for and get. I silently wished for him a Helen, Milton’s wife.
I don’t think any of us used the word ‘chemistry’ until we got to college, but I was learning with Charlie that it was real. If I thought about kissing him, I imagined his groping to feel the shape of my face, of his reaching with his face toward mine and missing, his lips landing on my nose, or my ear. I felt a faint fear of laughing at him in a way that would hurt his feelings. I also felt a faint recoil, because it would be so hard to take care of a baby with a blind person, and I still felt that I could not have a love and a marriage without a child. Even though kissing other boys did not mean I was thinking of babies, so few people paid attention to Charlie, I worried it could mean too much to him. I remember considering these things and that I led him on to tell me how it seemed to him rather than saying them.
I realized at some point there was a deep kind of spite that made me want to do for a child of mine what my mother had not sustained with me. She envied me so much. She looked at my childhood and saw what she had not had. I wanted to make up for what I had not had in the way of steadiness and affection by way of identifying and empathizing with children on whom I easily rained it down. I wanted to do childhood again with a child of my own.
There are many blind people today who do parent children, but I knew only one blind person growing up and he told me he feared tripping over a baby on the floor. Helen and Milton had chosen correctly for themselves, but they had also been willing to compromise with fate and I, in this regard, was not. Charlie said my clarity and affection made him wish for them where he could succeed. He made me feel better although I could not do that for him. I could make him feel happy but not content. Until knowing him, I could not really have explained the difference.
About the Author
E. A. Philadore, born the day France fell and named impromptu for two English queens in the hopes that England would be able to resist Hitler, is the mother of two grown sons, the grandmother of three teenage children, and the keeper of two beta fish. She lives alone in New Jersey, which has made sheltering in place easier than it might have been. Philadore worked as a poet in the schools for the New Jersey State Council of the Arts (which awarded her two poetry grants in the 1980s) and with the Inside/Out Poetry Organization run by Terry Blackhawk in Detroit in the 1990s. She has taught at Yale, Quinnipiac, and Albertus Magnus Colleges in New Haven in the 1960s and 70s, at the University of Michigan at Dearborn, Oakland College, Lawrence Technological Institute and Wayne State University in the Detroit Area in the 1990s, at Saint Andrews School in Delaware (where Dead Poets Society was filmed in 1988/9 and where she was hired to be “the opposite of Robin Williams'” character). She also taught at a variety of other high schools in New Jersey and Michigan when not being an itinerate adjunct. She studied at Harvard University as a graduate student, earning a doctorate in 1967. One student who enjoyed being a cut up in her senior class at a Michigan high school wrote to her some twenty years later, that he had become a teacher because of her; aside from raising her two sons, that is probably the most important accomplishment of all.