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My Turn: Seeing good in Grandma's vision loss

Reading about Kathleen Dwyer-Blair and her ability to cope with retinitis pigmentosa evoked fond memories of my grandmother, who also lived a full life with the same disease. (“Vision loss propels therapist-businesswoman’s career,” May 27.)

When I was growing up in Floral Park, my grandmother Elizabeth Marthens ran a rooming house in Flushing, Queens. I watched as she laundered the sheets and stored them in a huge cupboard in her bedroom. I observed as she navigated an old three-story house, which had at least six bedrooms.

The people living in those rooms fascinated me as I often visited.

Mamie had worked for Eagle Pencil and always gave me a new pencil when I visited. There was Duke, who always had a kind word for me. His room was directly across from the only bathroom in the house. The toilet had a pull chain to flush it!

A husband and wife boarded in the only suite, which was on the main floor and had a tiny kitchenette that very much impressed me.

The married couple were adjacent to my grandmother’s quarters, which consisted of a large kitchen, one bedroom and a sleeping porch out back.

Not only did Grandma run this operation, but she took care of my grandfather, who was senile and eventually hospitalized.

In 1954, when I was 16, my mother received an early morning telephone call from Grandma’s neighbor informing us that there had been a fire the night before that caused extensive damage to the house.

When we arrived at the scene, there was Grandma, resting in the neighbor’s living room and anxious to hear exactly what damage had occurred.

We walked through the burned-out frame of an entrance. The place reeked of an acrid smell, and it looked like a war zone to me.

The bulk of the damage was in the bedroom where my grandmother had slept — and had escaped from.

Not being able to see the damage had softened the blow of the fire and had kept my grandmother calm. Grandma told us that all her rent money and cash were hidden between the sheets stored in her bedroom.

Later it was determined that some teens had been smoking on that sleeping porch in the rear of the house, behind where the money-filled sheets were stored. That had apparently caused the fire.

Although the bedroom was ruined, the bed was not touched. That was the first miracle of the event.

The second one was revealed after Grandma told us to go into the bedroom, into that cupboard and feel between the clean sheets to retrieve her $1,600.

Of course, Grandma didn’t know what had transpired in the bedroom. She was unaware that the firemen had axed down her cupboard and thrown the pieces into the backyard.

My sister and I immediately went out to the backyard, found the debris that had been the cupboard and tackled a huge pile of wet, scorched sheets. We began unfolding them one by one. To our surprise, we recovered all the money — though it felt like it took us the whole day.

Grandma never did return to the house, which was torn down. Instead, we made an apartment upstairs in our house in Floral Park where she lived with us and continued to be a very independent woman even in her new environment.

Gail Berkes Starkie,



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