Common Sense and a Lot of Heart

Editor's Note: This month, I am posting an article from the convention issue of Future Reflections, a quarterly magazine published by the Parents of Blind Children division of the National Federation of the Blind. I do this for several reasons. First, I know the family. If you’ve been around Wisconsin for a while, you may too. Judy, who writes the article, works in the Watertown school district. You may have seen her helping out at sporting events, in church, or around that community. She is a lovely and vibrant woman.

Jennifer, one of her daughters, is the wife of Dan Wenzel, former director of WCBVI, and now directing BLIND Inc., an adult training center for the blind in Minneapolis. The Melissa she talks about is Melissa Riccobono, the first lady of the National Federation of the blind.  Dan and Jennifer are parents of four boys. Mark Riccobono and Melissa are the parents of one boy ant two girls. They are all my friends, and some of them I’ve known for twenty years.

Finally, I give this to you because I like what Judy has to say. She is always interested in talking with parents and reminds me of my own mother in that respect.

Common Sense and a Lot of Heart

by Judy Lehman

(copied with permission from Future reflections, Vol.35, no.4

 Convention 2016

Introduction by Melissa Riccobono: When we were planning the convention this past winter, I said, "I've got a great idea for a person who could speak. She's the parent of two blind kids who have grown up to have kids of their own and own their own homes and do what they need to do. She is now a paraprofessional who teaches blind kids and their families. When she was raising her kids, she didn't know about the NFB. She just had a lot of common sense and a lot of heart." The board said, "She sounds great! Who is she?" And I said, "Well--she's my mom!"

I'm not just saying these things because she's my mother. I transitioned from being a kid, not always appreciating the things my mom expected me to do. The older I got, and of course when I became a mom myself, I realized all the things that she has done and the common sense that she has brought to parenting. It is my great pleasure to introduce my mother, Judy Lehman.

I am a mother of four and grandmother of eleven. In all my roles in life, the best has been being a parent.

You're here today to learn, to help, and to achieve. We want to achieve what's best for our children. I had the privilege of having two blind girls and two sighted boys. In our household some days it was really wild and crazy! We didn't know how to raise blind children. Nobody had ever given me a book or anything like that--I did it from my heart. I love my children, as you love yours. I thought, I have to be their very first teacher. I will teach them how to eat. I will teach them how to crawl, how to be potty trained, how to go ahead and become the persons we want our children to be.

It was sort of a challenge. In Watertown, Wisconsin, back in 1983, there wasn't an NFB. There wasn't much help at all. But I wanted my first child, Jennifer, to be out in society, to be helpful in society and not a hindrance.

We didn't find out that Jennifer was blind until she was nine months old. For the first nine months of her life I thought she had sight. She was a little cross-eyed, but that was it. I already had Jeff, my oldest, and he sort of took care of Jennifer. He talked to her all the time. We all did--we all love to talk! We didn't just say, "Let's go outside." We'd say, "Let's go outside and see how warm it is," or "Let's hear how the birds are singing," or "Let's see if it's cold out today." We did that even before we knew Jennifer was blind. We took it on ourselves--my husband and Jeff and I--to talk to Jennifer about the world.

Twenty months later I had another son, Mark, who was sighted. Every night before Jennifer went to bed she would say, "Jesus, if there's a baby up there in heaven that nobody else wants, my mommy will take her." Melissa came along five years after Mark. I was ready to go back to school to become a teacher. And there she was.

Right away everyone said, "She has sight! Oh, she has sight!" She had light perception, and she could look for the sun. But in my heart I knew that we had been sent another blind child. So after three-and-a-half months we found out that Melissa, too, was blind.

My son Jeff, who was in third grade, stayed with a neighbor while Jennifer and Mark and Melissa and my husband and I all went to a specialist in Madison and found out that Melissa was blind. All the way home I tried to think how I would present this to Jeff. He called the baby Sunny, and he had prayed very hard for her to have sight. When we pulled into the driveway Jeff came running across the street from the friend's house where he'd been staying. Before I could say a word, Mark got out of the car and announced, "Blind as a bat, just like the other one!"

At first Jeff was very upset. I said, "Jeff, Melissa hasn't changed. She's always been blind." Jennifer's comment was, "Jeff, were you this upset when you found out that I'm blind?" He said, "Well, I hardly knew you then."

So how do you raise a blind child? First of all, you need to learn how to teach. Don't take for granted that the teacher or the para or the neighbor will do it. You have to teach your child what you want your child to learn.

Love them, hold them, understand them! I guess that was something I didn't have to learn. I love children of all ages. When my grandchildren started coming I thought, “This is marvelous!”  I think you should have grandchildren before you have children!

Next is help. Be a help and not a hindrance to your child. Make sure your child gets Braille, constant Braille! I learned Braille right along with Jennifer when she was in kindergarten.

We used to play games with Braille. At Christmas Santa would Braille the names on all the gifts under the tree. Jeff didn't like learning Braille, but at least he had to learn how his name was written!

As a parent, you are the most important teacher to your child. And grandparents are important teachers, too. Listen to that child! Be an advocate for her or him in grade school and high school, but allow your child to become an advocate for himself or herself. Kids need to get out there, get out of the nest. I often told my girls that I loved them very much, but they were not allowed to live in my house after the age of twenty!

Letting go can be very, very hard. I remember the first time Jennifer came home with a mobility assignment. She was supposed to walk around our block by herself. I said, "Yes, you can do that! Go ahead and walk around our block!" But after she left the house, I hopped on my bicycle and followed her all the way around.

I got to the house before she got back, and I was sitting on the porch when she came pow, pow, pow with her cane. She was so angry! She said, "Mother, you will sit here on the porch! I'm doing this on my own! I could hear the bike the minute you started!" I knew I had to let her go.

The year after that she went all the way to Black River Falls, about four hours away on the bus, to see a friend she had met at Lions Camp. And I remember the very first time I took her to St. Margaret's to college, up by Green Bay, and left her there. It was very, very hard! But as my husband said, "This is what we worked for all these years!" Let them go.

It's fun now to be my children's friend. They call to ask for advice, but most of the time they have advice for me. My children have super spouses--that's another thing I worried about constantly! Sometimes I saw them with friends who weren't so great, but I never said anything. If I'd said I didn't approve, they would have clamped onto that person for dear life!

So says my friend Judy. I must tell you that I anticipated spending some time with her at the weeklong convention. I never saw her. She tells me that she spent the time with other parents, doing what she does best:  being supportive, answering questions, and talking about how they too could raise happy well-adjusted blind children. Judy has recently turned seventy, and I hope I have the joie de vivre she shows to everyone when I hit that age. She has managed to share her out-going spirit with her children. Next time you’re at a baseball or soccer game in Watertown, look for the lady keeping score. That’s Judy.