Monday, April 6, 2015

The Blind Carpenter

My eyesight has always been extremely bad. Until modern advances in high-index materials allowed me to get fairly thin, small lenses, my glasses looked something like a pair of sawed-off coke-bottle bases with frames attached. I recently broke my only current pair, and, while I'm waiting for a new set, I'm wearing an extremely old pair that are so heavy they make it hard to breathe. My wife says I look like Eldon Tyrell in Blade Runner. For various reasons contact lenses are out of the question.

On top of this, I've just been diagnosed with glaucoma. It's not a great surprise, as it runs in my family. But then again, I'm only in my mid-thirties, and there has already been damage. The drops I'm taking seem to be helping (though this may be only my imagination) so we'll see what the doctor says when I return. An uncle was diagnosed with glaucoma in his thirties and has been able to live with it. So things could be worse.

But anyway, all this has me thinking about blindness and adversity.

My mother's grandfather, known to me as Grandpa Ubl, went completely blind in middle age. I only met him once, in the eighties, close to the time of his death. His was the first death I knew, and my mother has always spoken of him so affectionately that he's one of my main role models.

He was born in something like 1896 in the small town in Minnesota where all that side of the family lived. His own father had to be placed in an asylum after attacking them with a knife (he was, perhaps, schizophrenic, a another disorder that seems to run in my family), and Grandpa Ubl had to step up to fill this vacant role. He was passed over for service in World War I as the main breadwinner for his mother and siblings. His youth was touched a second time with tragedy (before or after his father's removal I don't know) when a fire destroyed their house and took the life of his sister, who burned to death before his eyes.

It was an agricultural community, but he was a carpenter, a builder of houses. During the Depression he is said to have bartered and done what he could to work with people who weren't able to pay. He was self-employed, and when he went blind it could have been a catastrophe. He could have despaired as his eyesight darkened. But he put his faith in God – that's how he described it to a newspaper reporter years later – and somehow was able to adapt and continue to work as a carpenter

He transitioned to furniture; I'm not sure what the timing was, or whether this was an effect of his loss of eyesight, aging, or both. I have a number of his pieces in my house. They are simple but highly finished, some with delicate light-on-dark inlay. Just about everyone in the family has some of his chairs, many of which have caning woven in a traditional octagonal pattern by his own fingers. In a newspaper interview he said that he would keep his tools in a careful array so as to always find what he needed. My aunt's husband, who was old enough to have seen him work, told me it was an uncomfortable experience to sit by and watch him reaching "blindly" around power tools, but he was deft and never made a mistake.

I met him when I was a very little boy. He and my Grandma Ubl spent most of their time in their basement, reserving the parlor upstairs for special company. They lived in the house he'd built for them, shown to the right. He always wore suspenders, which terrified me for some reason when I sat in his lap. I recall going downtown with Grandma Ubl to pick his pocket watch up from the repair shop. He insisted on wearing one, though he couldn't read Braille because his fingers were too calloused from working with wood.

His daughter, my grandmother, had glaucoma, and was practically blind by the time she died. She raised nine children with my grandfather and was head nurse at a hospital. She was strong-willed and strong-minded; the story is that she was kicked out of Catholic school during her last year for asking too many questions about free will and omniscience, and had to finish her education elsewhere. (She then went away to nursing school and abruptly married a Greek, as recounted here.)

Though left-handed, she was raised to be ambidextrous, and was supremely skilled in sewing, knitting, crocheting, and other such arts. She was such a perfectionist that, whenever she received someone else's handiwork as a gift, she could later be seen to surreptitiously examine it for minute flaws. As her eyesight started to fail she turned to miniatures, going so far as to crochet tiny sweaters with tiny crochet hooks, and build and cane tiny replicas of her father's rocking chairs for her houses. She worked almost right up until her death.

One of my aunts is now legally blind, but still makes beautiful quilts, and also canes furniture as a side business. Of all the family she probably takes most closely after my grandmother in perfectionism. She's kind, but critical, and unwilling to accept less than perfection. Another aunt, whom I've always looked up to, teaches high school shop class and plays trombone for a jazz band, but has also worked as a math teacher, a carpenter, the conductor of an orchestra, and a trombonist for the Navy band. My own mother is a painter, and when I was a kid I knew never to show anything to her unless I was willing to have its flaws pointed out for correction. And, well, I could go on, but you probably get the idea. I seem to have inherited the hypercritical eye, artisanal aspirations, unusual impairments, and general inability to fit in shared by the rest of the family.

So, although I of course hope I'm able to stop the deterioration of my eyesight, I'll trust in providence to take care of me and my family whatever happens. But never think that the idea of divine providence is some kind of pat, everything-will-work-out complacence. No! Providence is a dark and fearful thing. It rained manna in the desert, killed the dinosaurs by fire and darkness, and gave the bee both honey and sting. In any event, I'll be able to come of up with some way of doing the various things I do, if that is what is meant to be.

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