Angela

No, this dress did not belong to Angela. I think she’d have liked it though. I bought it in the downtown Bon. Told the clerk my size and that it was for me. She said it’s a spring floral print. I would have gone into the dressing room to try it on if that had seemed necessary, but I was sure that it would fit.

People always tell me they don’t even notice my blindness, and they think of me as being like everybody else. In the past 30odd years though, I’ve found that’s the first thing they notice and often, the only thing. So, I’d always wondered if I were to show up some place in a dress would people say, “That blind guy is wearing a dress;” Or “The guy wearing the dress is blind.” Your reaction as I walked up here this evening shows that at least you noticed. That’s something. As to why? Tonight, I’m remembering Angela, my cousin and best friend.

It seemed I’d known her always, which I guess I had. Following the accident that blinded me at age five, Angela spent a lot of time with me. She knew how to play with a boy who wasn’t the same anymore. But, she wasn’t usual either.

If I’d been, well… normal, I suppose we wouldn’t have spent so much time together. She wasn’t my sister, after all. Maybe we wouldn’t have been so close as we were, though people then didn’t get quit so anxious over what’s called appropriate behavior as they do now.

Not that we did anything wrong, really. We were just different. “Something wonderful is going to happen tonight,” she told me one evening.

“What?” I demanded, eager to discover whatever it was that she would consider wonderful. No mater how I coaxed though, she would not tell.

“Just wait till later!” Maybe she was afraid somebody would find out about the plan and put a stop to it.

Bedtime found us huddled together beneath her covers with Angela’s new transistor, which we really weren’t supposed to play at night, listening breathlessly to the little, leatherette-cased radio- newsflash by newsfiash, the announcer told about the moon rocket!

This was before Neil Armstrong and Apollo 11; I guess about 8 years before people actually landed there. It was a probe, unmanned, probably one of the Ranger craft. They’d just steered it toward the moon; 238,000 miles away, where it would crash-land and send back pictures to the very end. I hadn’t a clue how this might be done and imagined a steady stream of snapshot photos raining down from the sky.

“We’re on the doorstep of the universe!” the commentator kept saying.

We’d slept together lots of times. And I know what you’re thinking, but all we ever did was talk, share secrets, sometimes telling stories – usually her telling them to me. I guess it was like I was her little sister. Me being blind made that more okay than it might otherwise have been.

About this rocket, though, this Moon Probe. Not only was it fascinating, like something out of a Saturday afternoon sci-fi thriller but, like the thriller, this was something not just a little scary too.

Thoughts of space, in those days, were almost synonymous with thoughts of dreadful beings or grave disasters.

There was this uncomfortable notion in a lot of people’s minds that if we went out there, it might wake up something better left undisturbed, as if three billion of us and our atomic born tests couldn’t accomplish that already! So, there was fearfulness about the whole thing.

I imagined the moon as some place cold and dark, and maybe full of monsters. When suddenly, the announcer said that no more signals were coming from the probe, it was as if something had gotten it! There it was, way up there, all alone and maybe frightened, but doing it’s best- then, whether it crashed or exploded or something else, it just wasn’t there anymore.

I wept for that brave little American rocket without quit understanding why. But as a 6 or 7-year-old, you can still cry over a toy horse with a broken leg or a gingerbread man whose head you’ve bitten off.

Angela understood and she hugged me underneath the covers, declaring we’d try again and next time we’d win!

That’s how Angela was. She always had an answer, and she never gave up. When I was saying to some kids once that I wanted to be… I don’t know, a sea

Captain or something, one of them blurted out, “You can’t see! You couldn’t do anything like that!” Angela told them I could be whatever I wanted to be. Years later, when I met Colonel Ed White, the astronaut, and told him I wanted to work on the space program, he said the same thing. “David, you can do whatever you set you mind to.”

What Angela wanted to do was science. People told her she couldn’t be a scientist because she was a girl, so I guess she knew how it felt when people told me I couldn’t do such and such.

We were both endlessly curious. Once, when we were zapping things with a magnifying glass, I passed my hand under the lens and found out how hot the sun could get! We made focusing mirrors out of cardboard and aluminum foil. Once we made, what today you’d call a terrarium, with a mouse in it and enough plants to keep it alive on it’s space flight through two weeks time in Angela’s room. “To go to the moon,” she said, “you’d need to travel as far as ten times around the world. To get there and back would take about two weeks. So, this mouse could go to the moon.”

One morning, Angela wasn’t feeling very well. I’d stayed overnight and Mom had forgotten to pack my pajamas, so I was wearing one of Angela’s nightgowns. Neither of us bothered to get dressed that morning because she didn’t feel up to playing outside. Still, she wouldn’t give up on finding something interesting for me to do. “Do you know what a penny looks like, Dave?” she asked suddenly. “Sorta,” I said. I thought about it and though I could tell a penny from a nickel, I don’t know what was actually on either coin.She spent the rest of the morning sitting with me at the kitchen table, making the form of the head’s side of a one-cent piece, engraved in a sheet of wax. She intended to pour plaster of paris into the engraving to make a penny I could really feel. As she worked, Angela remarked, “if a machine, like a camera, could scan something, then carve it in plastic or metal, then in a way, you could see it with your fingers.” Adding, hastily, “Until science discovers a way to restore your sight.” Pondering this, she told me she was carving President Lincoln’s face, then “Do you know what a face feels like?” she asked. “I mean, could you feel one face and tell it from another face?”

Well, I wasn’t sure. “I’ll show you,” Angela said, getting up and going to her room.

She came back laying a doll in front of me. “That’s Lucy,” she said.

I studied the overly chubby cheeks, the little button nose, the eyelids that went up and down, the baby-bottle-open mouth. “Now feel her,” she directed, handing me a second doll.

I’m Sally.

“That’s Sally,” Angela echoed.

I felt Sally’s face. She had a nose, cheeks, eyes, and a mouth, but they were definitely different from Lucy’s.

“Now I’ll show you one,” Angela said, and you tell me who it is.”

I’m Sally.

“Sally,” I said.

“You’re right!” Angela laughed delightedly. “She’s my favorite doll. You can keep her company while I work.”

You can look at me with your hands, if you want to.

Sally had long braids and wore a long, cotton dress with tiny socks and little, plastic buckle shoes.

Don’t feel under my dress, though.

I withdrew my questing fingers.

Angela was quiet for a while, which I assumed was due to her concentration on the task of engraving. It had been established I could tell the difference between one face and another.

Your nightgown is big. Is that one of Angela’s?

“Yes,” I said aloud.

“Yes, what?” Angela asked.

“Oh, Sally wants to know if this is your nightgown.”

“Yes,” Angela said. “Sally likes you.

I like you.

Angela patted Sally, then allowed her hand to linger on the sleeve of the gown I wore. “It’s nice. Isn’t it?”

“Yes.” I said diplomatically, not having all that many nightgowns against which to compare this one.

I never saw the finished penny. Mom came for me about then, and I had to hurry up and get dressed to go home. Next morning, Angela was really sick. Two days later, she died. It was strep throat, I believe. Children died of it more often than we liked to remember. For a long time, a month or more, I didn’t go back there because I might… catch something.

Only, Angela wasn’t quite gone. Somehow, I sensed this and I kept asking to go back and visit Aunt Sarah. Eventually, my parents in a singular flash of insight realized that staying away from this place of former happinesses wasn’t doing me a great deal of good, and I was allowed to return,

After being embraced by my aunt, I made my way to Angela’s room – finding it just as I’d left it, nearly a month before. Some thought it morbid, but Aunt Sarah left Angela’s things just as they were when… Well, just as they were. I closed the door behind me and went to sit on Angela’s bed.

Hello, David.

I felt about until I found the dresser and Angela’s dolls all sitting up there, side by side. “Hello, Sally, Hi, Lucy.”

Hello, David. I’m glad you could visit us today.

I spent the night in her room. This time, I’d brought pajamas but I didn’t wear them, choosing instead the same gown I’d worn before, now washed and folded beneath Angela’s pillow. Sally said Angela’d want me to have it.

After that, I visited when I could, staying in Angela’s room, having long talks with Sally, sometimes changing her clothes for her, out of the little doll suitcase Angela had from when she was little; sometimes running the tiny comb through Sally’s hair, then rebraiding it using the teeny rubber bands.

I’ve no idea when Aunt Sarah first knew. One day she just walked in to find me wearing one of Angela’s dresses, too large for me, but she neither commented on its outsizedness or the fact that I was wearing it. She just spoke as usual, asking “Will you join me in the kitchen for lunch?”

In her gentle wisdom, she must have understood this was our special way of mourning; yes, and for Sally and me to remember Angela. Later, Aunt Sarah found things from the time when her daughter was small. Later still, there was no further need of these.

Of course, many would say that this traumatic experience of loosing my closest companion – my mentor – at such a tender age, caused me to choose this – less than conventional life. Really, though, Angela just helped to validate the girl who’s always been here inside. And, when Angela no longer needed the place she’d had in our everyday world, that place stayed open, offering itself to me, a place of comfort, a place of a certain safe security.

In college and beyond, I tended to gravitate to women’s groups. My blindness made me different enough from most men that other women sometimes forgot I was male, while my being a male person sometimes caused them to forget I was blind. The two taken together add up to something that feels almost normal. I’ve not built rockets – so far – but I’ve done much else and in all I’ve done, Angela has a share.

The other day, I wrote a program, which would allow a blind person, or anyone else, to make machine parts in metal, merely by typing on a home computer. Not even a very modern one. In my two hands I held, still warm from the cutter, a pair of gears which actually mesh. In fact, here they are.

Angela is proud. You can’t be truly blind to something you can hold in your hand.

And now, we come full circle to this evening, this place and to the awarding of the first Angela Barclay Scholarship for women engineers interested in visual to tactile or visual to artifact translation. Before I announce the name of the first recipient of this award, may I, my sisters, my younger sisters, for I am nearing 43 and joined this organization more than 20 years ago, leave you with a final thought.

This summer, rockets are once more attempting the boundaries of knowledge, this time on Mars, in a bold attempt to put the question, is or was there ever life there? Clearly, the sense of cold foreboding some of us experienced in those pre-Apollo days has been replaced by an earnest desire to know whether we have neighbors, however small, anywhere. Discovery of even microscopic life, even long dead and fossilized would go a great way toward filling a void in the human spirit, a need for intrinsic newness, fundamental difference. We’d be richer for it’s ever having lived.

I don’t know what you’ll be doing when brave, little rockets once more attempt touchdown on another planet. Me? I’ll be at Angela’s house. Aunt Sarah is frail, but very much alive and I’ve made reservations to borrow Angela’s bedroom. You may laugh, and you’re welcome to that; but, I’ll sleep in that same bed, my ear to the radio while Sally and I listen for reports of the Martian probes. My walkperson is generations beyond that old six-transistor that Angela and I shared in that bedcover tent so long ago. Beyond this cash award, however, no homage Sally and I might offer could be more sincere. I owe no less to all of us. Thank you for hearing me tonight.

 

 

 

 

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