Most high school friendships became occasional contacts which eventually became “What ever happened to…?” With one exception: Stuart White.
From our first, adolescent meeting, I knew Stu was wise, entertaining and generous. A half-century later, he’s still all those things and more. Example? When word got out that I was headed to AIDS, he reached out with quiet affection, assuring me that he would always “be there” for me. Always. It’s a promise he’s kept for, so far, 30 years.
Stu could have filled his life with corporate leadership and public recognition. Instead, he chose to be a high school teacher, molding teenagers into their best selves: intelligent, compassionate critical thinkers.
When I asked Stu what made this possible, he told me about a remarkable woman: Margaret. Here, in Stu’s own words, is that story.
Seeing Without Sight
Helen Keller’s first word was “W A T E R.” — My sightless mother taught us to swim, fish and water ski.
By Stuart White
I once believed that my mother was eternally disappointed in all of her children and most of her adult friends. I arrived at this alarming conclusion not because she was dominating or arrogant but because she expected others to match her own performance without regard to personal circumstances or handicaps. Without saying it, she said “I am able to do so much without eyesight; you should aim higher.”
Her life was a litany of achievements, all the more imposing when compared to others facing fewer barriers. In her wake, my mother left many of us feeling inadequate. When measured against her accomplishments, we came up short, disappointing her and disappointing ourselves.
Living with my mother was not difficult. It was educational, even inspirational. Walking with my mother in public, her arm gently on mine as we navigated steps, escalators, crowds, hiking trails, ski slopes, golf courses, or European castles would evoke varied reactions from a curious public. Others were beyond earshot when she’d chide me, “Stuart, you don’t need to tell me how many stairs. I will figure it out!” My daughter remembered it perfectly, “When I would walk into a room with Grandma and the people would stare, I felt empowered and proud.”
Raising an unsighted child in 1920 might have included an overwhelming burden but there’s no evidence that her family ever modified their expectations to fit her blindness. There were no excuses, no limitations, no allowances. After all, Margaret always expected to be included, never excluded.
Early tutoring revealed a bright child who quickly took to Braille. She was mainstreamed into the general Detroit public classroom population: 75 kids in a class. It was up to her to navigate changing classes in crowded hallways.
Her summers were dominated by lake activities. The lake was her gym, her studio and her laboratory. A tireless swimmer, she convinced her parents that she could handle a canoe on the lake. With her dog barking out where the banks of the lake turned, my mother paddled out and back home. Decades later, when she lived alone on the lake, she would take a portable radio to the end of the dock, turn it up, and then swim out into the lake and back. As a child, she learned to fish; as an adult she would bait our worms because we found it gross. The acute sense of touch in her hands usually made her catch a fish immediately. She learned to ice skate on the vast frozen lake. Decades later, she would challenge her grandchildren to races on the dark ice as the lake made those ancient groaning sounds forty feet down. “Don’t worry kids! We’ve never fallen through yet!” She learned to water ski. She cherished flying outside the wake. Decades later in her fifties, while water skiing, she survived a frightening collision with a sailboat. Age did not keep her from the annual swim from her dock out to the island and back.
Once, when I was three years old, I went missing during our usual Sunday family dinners at the lake house. Apparently, I had wandered away from the group and toddled into the lake. I was found in the water and, amidst the chaos of family panic on the lawn, it was my mother who calmly performed CPR and revived me.
Margaret’s strong-willed parents were susceptible to her emerging ability to influence. They supported her applications to distant colleges. In 1938, Mt. Holyoke College in South Hadley, MA admitted her. Train travel, often alone, ended when she graduated with honors completing a degree in Economics in 1942.
By then, her master plan was to graduate college and marry Gene, who she had met at Detroit seasonal parties. Enlisting only weeks after Pearl Harbor, Gene was stationed in Everett, WA. Hoping to influence Gene’s commanding officer, Margaret wrote him asking permission for Gene to return to Chicago for their wedding. When her request was rejected she took the train to Washington for a smaller-than-desired wedding. The plan for the new couple was to live off base for six weeks before orders for The Aleutian Islands arrived. The orders came two days after their marriage leaving Margaret to manage alone her three-day train trip home.
Margaret and Gene adopted four children, beginning with me in 1947. The Chicago adoption agency understandably expressed reluctance to place a baby with a blind woman. Subsequent home visits and interviews enabled Margaret to successfully ply her skills at persuasion. Four decades later, I made an unscheduled visit to the agency and actually met the social worker who had conducted the home visits and approved my adoption. She told me of the agency’s hesitancy and how in Margaret’s presence those doubts evaporated.
Margaret’s greatest life challenge began in 1974 when cancer took my father and the family manufacturing company needed a new and active Board Chair. Armed with her Braille notebooks of financial and operational reports, full of confidence from previous board work and inspired by her own father’s work ethic, she assumed the role of Chairwoman of the Board. For nineteen years, first in Detroit and then in South Carolina, she led the company with distinction. When she passed the Chair’s mantle of leadership to me in 1993, her lone instruction was “hold their feet to the fire, Stuart!” She had always demanded performance from the company’s officers that at least equaled her own.
With age, my mother’s world began to shrink. She lost her incredible ability to catalog data and recall it. She could no longer read her Braille books. With a knitted blanket on her lap, she passed her fingers over the blanket as though she was translating the raised dots of Braille into knowledge. She could no longer recognize that the blanket offered no information and that the blanket’s textured bumps offered no story.
A life fully examined is my seminal description of my mother.
I wish that I could use that phrase to describe myself these days. But I have become a COVID casualty. My own attention to detail is waning. My patience is short, if not shot. I am disturbingly impulsive. If I was a critical thinker, I am now a shallow lizard brain. I want to shoot my television and just as impulsively I want to watch it some more. If I miss a nightly newscast, I worry that I am not adequately informed. My rush to judgment is exasperating and increasingly apparent to my family and friends. I have lost my balance.
Unlike me in my frenzied COVID state, my mother’s tranquil fingers would trace the facial contours of newly arrived grandchildren and she would “see” them. Her grace and poise were apparent in her appearance, her demeanor and her mere presence. She learned how to pose with dignity for a photograph. She could describe the difference between royal blue and baby blue to an unsuspecting retail clerk at Harrods, though she could not see. Her confidence was precise when she prepared a dinner for eight guests or when she shuffled the cards at her Bridge table. Her resolve at the Board table was no less measured.
She didn’t intend to give me her epitaph as, well into her 70’s, together we canoed a Michigan river, she in the bow and me in the stern. I was in awe of her exquisite balance as we would duck under low-hanging branches and we would lean into the turns of the river.
When I mentioned my admiration, she paused for a moment before saying, softly, “Stuart, I have been working on balance all my life.”