An awkward situation for all concerned is when a parent and young child encounter a blind person walking with a white cane. How many times have I, that person with the cane, heard the child say something like, “Mommy, what’s that?” or “Daddy, why is he waving that stick around?” The poor parent is almost always reduced to “Shush.”
It took me a while to figure out an adequate response. My querulous side would complain to my better side, “Why can’t parents teach their children to behave?” My high and mighty side would reply, “It’s just a child. Grow up yourself.”
The response I finally cultivated was to smile in the direction of both child and parent and raise my free hand in a gesture between greeting and salute.
The other day, a friend who has low vision was talking about this very experience in his own life as he led up to an anecdote. He was walking through New York Presbyterian Hospital, near Washington Heights in Manhattan, when a young boy asked his mother about my friend’s cane. In a loud voice, the mother said, “It means he’s blind. Now get the fuck out of his way!”
When my friend finished his story, we cackled with delight. Though on the surface the woman’s words were belligerent, her tone wasn’t mean. Her forthright action turned the potential for a slightly gloomy encounter into a moment of clarity and comedy.
I’ll acknowledge the misgivings that probably come to mind: Is this any way to talk to a child? Shouldn’t adults avoid profanity around their children? Was she speaking too aggressively to her son? Was she practicing the controversial “tough love”? I acknowledge these questions and more, then set them aside. My guess is that the child has a good chance of growing up knowing how to assert himself and how to be considerate with strangers. For what such a guess is worth, based on such little information.
At the risk of sounding patronizing, as in covertly racist, I asked my friend, who had enough vision to tell, if the woman was black. She was. I asked because such directness is a quality I associate with black people in New York City, as I also do with white people in far northeastern England, the region where I’m originally from. Returning there for a vacation in 2018, I was on a crowded double-decker bus when a woman noticed a child among those forced to stand in the aisle. She said, “You look like you have a small bum [backside]. Come and sit by me.”
Most of us avoid such directness. Few of us have the comedic character to carry it off. It can be annoying, but it can also be refreshing. When it works, we are touched by grace.
“Grace” is both a secular aesthetic and a Christian spiritual concept. Whichever holiday we celebrate this midwinter, I wish for each of us at least one such moment of grace.