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As I rub the sleep from my eyes and make my way to the side of the bed, I hear my four-year-old exclaim,” Mommy, I want us to bake a cake today!”
My husband’s birthday was ten days ago. While I intended for us to bake him a cake on the weekend following his birthday, we didn’t get to it. So here we are, the next Saturday morning and she’s ready to bake. This girl has got a mind like a steel trap when it comes to remembering the fun stuff we talk about. Tell her what not to do or try to have a serious conversation with her though and it’s in one ear and out the other. Of course, that’s probably pretty typical for a four-year-old.
I’m thinking since it’s Halloween today, a pumpkin cake would be appropriate. Many years ago my friend Sherri gave me a recipe for pear cake. After having mixed results with the pears, I once substituted pumpkin pie filling for the pears. The result was amazing and I’ve never used pears since.
1 cup Vegetable Oil
2 cups Sugar
1 teaspoon Vanilla
1 teaspoon Baking Soda
1 teaspoon Water
2 cups Flour
2 teaspoons Cinnamon
¾ teaspoon Salt
1 pinch Nutmeg
3 Pears (diced) or 1 can Pumpkin Pie Mix
Note: If I use the Pumpkin Pie Mix, I do not add the Cinnamon and Nutmeg.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a 13 x 9 baking pan.
In a large mixing bowl beat eggs and oil until foamy. Add sugar, vanilla, baking soda, and water. Beat until light and fluffy. Add flour, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Continue mixing until smooth. Fold in pears or mix in pumpkin pie mix. Bake for 50-60 minutes. Cake will be moist.
Now, let’s see about finding a can of pumpkin pie mix. I think I have one but I’m not positive. I roll over to the kitchen closet, secure Maya as she climbs onto my lap and start searching the shelves. Almost immediately she exclaims, “I see pumpkin.” She places my hand against the can and says, “Look.” She understands that mommy and daddy’s eyes don’t work and so we look with our hands not our eyes.
Amazingly the can she is showing me is one of the few that I have taken the time to label with a Braille tag. I read with my fingers “pln pmp.” “Yes baby your right. That’s pumpkin but it’s plain pumpkin. We’re looking for pumpkin pie mix. Let’s keep looking.”
Systematically I begin searching the three shelves I can reach from my wheelchair. I begin at the upper shelf, feeling my way through the boxes, cans and bottles that fill the shelves. I’m feeling for a can that’s about as round as a can of corn, but almost twice as tall. If I was as organized as people think I am I would have each item labeled with a few Braille letters on a small piece of paper and taped to the item. I use to have a really good memory and knew how much I had of what and where it was without having to label. Since becoming a mother my memory lapses are becoming more and more frequent. I really need to be better about labeling the items that aren’t so obviously identifiable by their shape and the sound the contents make when I shake them.
My hands have traversed all three shelves and there’s no sign of the pie mix. “Hmm, what about brownies?” My daughter gleefully agrees to chocolate brownies so I begin searching again.
Eureka! I find a boxed item that looks to me like it could be brownies. It does feel a little light though for brownies, perhaps it’s a cake mix. Holding the box out before my daughter I ask, “Baby, what’s the picture on this box? Does it look brown like chocolate?” “it’s pink,” she replies. Immediately I remember that I did buy a strawberry supreme cake mix a few months before for her birthday. I didn’t use it then because she decided she wanted a chocolate cake so I made one from scratch.
Well let’s see. I peel open the box, tear the cellophane bag, and sniff. Sure enough, it smells like strawberry. Of course these packages don’t come with Braille or audio instructions so I put my husband to work on the computer. He types in www.directionsforme.org into the browser and begins a search for “Duncan Hines strawberry cake”. He clicks on the Strawberry Supreme Cake and reiterates the directions to me.
“It says here you need one and one-third cup of water, one-third cup of oil, and two eggs. You’re supposed to preheat the oven to 350 degrees and bake in a greased 9 x 13 pan for 33 to 36 minutes.”
Before I begin gathering my baking paraphernalia I roll alongside my wall oven, reach up to the flat digital control panel, and lightly glide my fingers across until I find the sticker labeled in braille as “bk”. I press the bake control and scoot my fingers over to the right where they locate the brailled number pad and enter 350. I hear the oven click on and feel the stream of air that circulates from below the door.
As my husband gets one of the glass pans down from the upper cupboard, I begin gathering everything I’ll need. Into the center cupboard under the island I go, feeling for the mixing bowl I want and pulling out the hand mixer too. I reach for the electrical outlet between the oven and stovetop. When I contact the edge with my middle finger, I use my thumb and first finger to firmly push in the mixer’s plug. Inserting the beaters into the mixer is a breeze because they only go in one way and they lock into position. Next I shuffle my hands into the drawer where I keep my measuring cups and spoons. Quickly I locate the one-cup and one-third-cup measures by the Braille on their handles. Once I’ve collected two eggs from the fridge and the large plastic bottle of olive oil from the pantry shelf, I begin to consider which parts of this process I can safely have my daughter do.
“Baby, go wash your hands please. And make sure you use soap.” I hear the bathroom faucet run for five seconds before she bounds back into the kitchen. “Did you use soap?” I ask. Let me smell.” “Oh!” she exclaims and rushes back to the bathroom. “here mommy, smell,” she announces as she raises her chubby hands to my nose.
We start by greasing the pan so it will be ready when we need it. I pour a little olive oil into the bottom and we use our fingertips to make sure it gets spread all over the bottom and around the sides. Maya grabs us a paper towel and we wipe our hands before beginning on the cake.
She is just tall enough to reach the front half of our Corian counter tops. Passing her the cellophane bag of cake mix, I instruct her to dump it into the bowl. I hold the edge of the bowl because I’m afraid her arms will bump the side and send the bowl tumbling. Next I hand her the one-cup measure and we shift over to the sink. Although she can reach the spout, I need to turn on the water control. Then, as she fills first the one-cup and then the one-third-cup, I hold the bowl nearby so she doesn’t dribble the water. While still at the sink I crack two eggs into the bowl, handing Maya each empty shell for the trash.
Of course she complains, “Mom I wanted to do that.” I can tell she’s got a pout on her face from the sound of her voice. “I’m sorry baby. Maybe next time we’ll get a separate bowl and you can do the eggs.”
For our final ingredient I hold the one-third cup measure over the bowl while she carefully pours it full of oil. Now it’s time for her favorite part, the mixer. I stabilize the bowl with my left hand and place my right over her hand on the mixer. We begin on the slowest speed with me showing her the small circular motions made around the bowl to make sure everything is mixed well. I bravely turn the speed up one notch and instruct her to keep the mixer down against the bottom of the bowl.
As soon as the mixer stops, she dunks her fingers into the batter. “mm, it’s yummy mom. Wanta try it?” “Sure why not!” Knowing that we won’t be offering this cake to company, I stick my finger in too. It really is yummy. I hand her a beater to lick while I run my finger over the other one collecting the clinging yumminess.
After rinsing the beaters and washing my hands, I carefully pour the cake batter into the greased pan. Maya is still at my elbow steeling fingerfuls of batter.
This reminds me of a time a few weeks earlier when Maya and I were preparing dinner. Her job was to hand me the pierogies while I placed them into the microwavable dish. Feeling the pierogies I noticed that the first two or three had a corner missing. At about the time of this realization, I hear Maya chewing on something. Here she was taking a nibble of each pierogies as she pulled it out of the bag. Once since the pierogies incident I caught her taking a bite of raw bacon as she aligned the strips in the frying pan for me.
When I’ve gotten all the batter I can out of the bowl, I jiggle the pan to make sure the batter gets into all four corners and any finger prints are erased from the batter’s surface. Into the oven it goes for 33 minutes. I set the timer on my iPhone and head off to another chore while Maya plants herself on the couch in front of the TV.
When the timer bleeps from my iPhone on the island counter, my husband helpfully removes the cake from the oven and places it on the cooktop. Carefully I run my fingertips over the cake’s surface and it feels firm. No moist areas and the corners feel firm but not burnt. I grab a toothpick from a kitchen drawer and insert it into the cake’s center. The pick feels clean so my husband turns off the oven.
“Maya, do you want to come look at your cake.” When she arrives at the cooktop I ask her if she wants us to icing it or just eat it as it is. I’m hoping she says it’s fine the way it is. That means we can cut it and enjoy it while it’s still a little warm. Surprisingly she opts to leave it as is. I thought for sure she would want to ice it and then cover it in sprinkles.
Grabbing three pieces of paper towel, I cut us each a piece. It’s so light and fluffy and smells amazing.
The warm strawberry flavor is so refreshing for this time of year. It’s a definite success despite the Maya germs.
“This would be even better with real strawberries baked inside,” I suggest to my husband as I munch on my extra large piece. He counters, “It would be really good with fresh strawberries and whipped cream on top,” just before he asks for a second piece. We may just have to try that next summer.
I received a great report from my daughter’s kindergarten teacher this morning. Not that it was a surprise, but good to hear nonetheless. The teacher came over to me as Grace was busy putting away her coat and backpack in her cubby. She said, “Grace is such a great kid. Her reading skills have just skyrocketed in the last month. She is really getting it. And all the kids love her, I’ll be sad when she moves on to first grade.”
Beaming with pride I thanked her, made some small talk and hugged Grace before walking my son to his third grade class. There I was greeted by a rousing “Hello Mr. Kuell!” from his teacher.
“Did Nick tell you he was the multiplication King?”
I informed her that indeed he had, and then I gave him a hug and was on my way. Heading down the long hallway towards the door, I heard a small voice to my side say “What’s that?”
Hearing no other response, I assumed the kid was talking to me. “This thing?” I responded. “This is my cane.”
“What’s it for?” asked the inquisitive voice.
Knowing I only had a minute before reaching the exit, I gave the simple answer “My eyes don’t work. I use the cane to feel where I am going.”
“You can’t see anything?” asked the astonished youngster.
“Nope, nothing,” I answered.
“Oh” said the child. A few steps later the kid gave me a cheery “Bye.” I bid him good-bye, and then headed out of the school into the fresh air.
When I lost my sight four years ago, I never could have envisioned such a pleasant drop off. Amid the anxiety of losing my sight, my job and career, I felt helpless regarding raising the children.
When my daughter was born, I was blind in one eye but the other could see what a beauty she was. By Christmas that same year everything was a blur for me, I couldn’t really make out what gifts were what. For the first time I couldn’t see the joy on my kids faces as they opened their loot. My vision was really going downhill. I needed surgery on my “good” eye a few months later, and while I was hopeful there was still lingering doubt. On the day before the operation I tried to hold my daughter still and I got about 4 inches from her face to try to see her as best I could. Being a kid, she thought I was playing so she squirmed and rolled and I never did get a good look at her. My son had just turned five at the time, and he was a little more cooperative. That was the last time I ever saw my children visually.
So how does one move from this heart wrenching melodrama to the nice morning I had today? How can a blind parent help to educate their children and give a positive impression to others? It’s not that hard. The answer is through persistence, creativity and a positive attitude.
You have to believe you can do it. This is fairly logical – thousands of other people do it every day. You have to work at the essential blind skills, they are necessary to do what you want to in life, plus mastering them will build your confidence for tackling new stuff. And you have to be creative. Unless you have a blind friend at your side 24/7, you are going to have to figure stuff out on your own. Remember, necessity is the mother of invention.
My wife and I both worked with our son to teach him the alphabet and basic phonics, and at age four he was beginning to read simple things. Now he excels at all his schoolwork, which we attribute to his early reading. So when Grace turned three I tried to figure out a way that we could give her the same head start. I took some old business cards and wrote a letter in bold marker on the back of the card. I used my slate and stylus to make the letter in Braille, so in effect I made blind friendly flash cards. We used to play games where she would memorize the letters. After she got the upper case letters down we did lower case and started working on sounds. This took a while longer, but soon she caught on. A year or so ago I started making word cards, emphasizing families of sounds. For example, at, cat, bat, rat and sat are the “at” family. We would also work on the basic, much encountered words like the, and, but, you etcetera. In time she developed a good sight vocabulary. My wife and son would read with her often, and together we listened to books on tape. As her teacher said, in the last month everything is really starting to click and she is reading.
Basic addition and subtraction were taught to both my son and daughter at the kitchen table and in the bathtub. I started by having them learn to count–fingers and toes, crackers, whatever. Then in the kitchen I’d give them a few grapes, have them count them, then give them some more and count again. This quickly evolved into an addition game. After that came subtraction. If I gave them 12 cheese doodles, and they had eaten eight, how many were left? This stuff was reinforced during bath time, where I quiz them with problems and they try to answer both correctly and quickly. My son is very good at doing math in his head, while Grace is still relying on her fingers a lot. But that is OK; she understands the concept and can do problems more and more with out manipulatives.
By a combination of a lot of innate intelligence and bathtub grilling Nicholas has memorized the multiplication table and now reigns King of the third grade.
Finding games to play with kids takes a bit of imagination and a lot of patience. Playing with cars and trucks, setting up blocks and bowling them over with a tennis ball just came naturally for me. Doing arts and crafts is a little trickier, but I have a sighted memory of most things, so with a pad of colored construction paper, some scissors and white glue we can create just about anything. Both of my kids and I love playing cards, which is possible using Braille playing cards. I don’t know too many card games, and I soon became weary of Go Fish. So at a very young age my kids learned how to play poker and Rummy 500, which provided a natural opportunity to once again work on their math skills.
The possibilities for learning and having fun with kids as a blind or visually impaired adult are limited only by your desire and imagination. My kids are well-adjusted, smart and overall just great people. They bring me a great deal of pride, and have helped me in so many ways to become a better person. I honestly believe I would not have come as far as I have if not for the challenge of being a good Dad to Nick and Grace. To them I’m not a blind guy or the man with the long white stick; I’m just their Dad– and a very lucky one at that.
One of the better aspects of losing my job along with my sight is that I get to spend more time with my kids. Every morning, I walk them the half-mile to school, and I return in the afternoon to accompany them home. During our walks, they tell me about their days, who got in trouble, who likes whom, and how a kid named Brian always cheats at kick-ball.
We live in an old neighborhood, and along my route there are a dozen homes with bushes planted near the sidewalk. While there are several varieties, they all inevitably grow outwards, eager for the opportunity to snag an unobservant pedestrian. At the beginning of every school year, I bring a pair of clippers with me as I drop the kids off, and on my way home I help those who are too busy to trim their bushes.
One house has a huge rhododendron bush, which must be decades old. Tall and thick, branches hang over the sidewalk like a canopy. When it’s blooming, the fragrance is unmistakable, and I’m sure it’s quite beautiful.
I’m about five foot eleven, and I could feel the presence of one close branch as I passed underneath. Following a heavy rain, the branch got heavier, hung lower and whacked me in the head.
After the third or forth such incident with the wayward branch, I asked around and found out the name of the homeowner. I called and left a message stating that I was the neighborhood blind guy, that their shrubbery had assaulted me, and would they please do something about it? Several weeks went by with no action taken, so I followed up with another, stronger, phone message. When winter came, the aggressive branch adopted a regular five-foot nine stance. Most days I was able to duck and miss it. But, every now and then, I’d wind up with another hunk of flesh donated to the Rhododendron God and five more points on my blood pressure reading.
I sent a letter asking the homeowner to please take care of the bush. I even volunteered to help tie the branch up higher, if they needed assistance. Nobody did anything.
One morning, we all got up late because the power had gone out and the alarm clock hadn’t worked. Everybody scrambled to get ready on time. During the frenzy, I knocked a box of cat food on the floor, accidentally poured orange juice on my cereal, and misplaced my left shoe. So I wasn’t feeling particularly loving or charitable. The kids had warned me to duck on the way to school, but the battering bush got me on my return trip. As Popeye used to say, “That’s all I can stands, I can’t stands no more!”
At home, I stuck a wad of toilet paper to the gash in my forehead and grabbed my tree saw. I tapped back down the street with one arm raised protectively in front of me and located the assailant. At first, I started trimming small branches to take weight off the thick bough overhanging the sidewalk, but this was time consuming, and had little effect. So, I went to the major branch, one evil nub still sticky with my blood, and started to saw.
About this time, I heard a car pull into the driveway and stop, not five feet from me. This was a little awkward. While I’m no lawyer, I figured that cutting down a neighbor’s bush was probably illegal. But, the car just sat there idling. I imagine the driver, presumably the homeowner, was frightened by the sight of the angry blind guy, a wad of bloody toilet paper stuck to his forehead, waving a saw around like the villain in a bad horror movie.
I did a quick mental calculation, and figured if the driver had called the cops on a cell phone, I was already in trouble, so I might as well finish the job. I found where I’d been cutting, completed the amputation, and dragged the limb to the edge of the property. There was still no activity from the vehicle, so I picked up my cane, gave them my best Jack Nicholson smile, wished them a good day, and returned home. I don’t expect to get invited over any time soon for a barbeque, but at least my forehead and hairline will stay intact. Now, if I could only do something about the guy who refuses to shovel his sidewalk…