My Father’s Eyes by Mary Bonina

Rosemary Booth

 

(Cervena Barva Press, 2013).
The eye is a complicated organ. It captures images only after light
has passed through the lens, been received by cells in the retina,
and then encoded into signals that optic nerves have sent on to
the brain. that’s an ordinary eye, of course, one undamaged by
retinitis pigmentosa (RP), an inherited disorder that damages the
retinal cells which process and transmit light. Eyesight is reduced
to “tunnel vision” and then blindness; even today, the condition
has no cure.

In this vivid and sympathetic memoir, poet and writer Mary
Bonina describes her father’s journey from diminishing sight to
blindness, how he coped with the loss, and her role in the effort.
She adeptly interweaves episodes from her father’s last days with
the wider tale of his encroaching blindness and her own coming-of-
age inside two lively extended families—a refined Irish-
American circle, and a more boisterous Italian-American clan.

My Father’s Eyes opens with the harrowing tale of John
Bonina’s last turn at the wheel of his prized 1941 Packard touring
sedan, as he and she—his oldest child—all but collide with a
car he doesn’t see at an intersection. It is 1956, and the author is
six years old. Up to that point, although his eyesight was failing
badly, Bonina has been living as though he were sighted, for reasons
of self-respect and earning power. Married and with four
children, he works as a toolmaker in a pressed metal plant near
the family’s home in Worcester, Massachusetts.

After that near crash, and at the urging of his distraught
wife, Bonina gives up the car keys for good; his wife will learn to
drive. Meanwhile, the writer becomes her father’s day-to-day
shepherd, guiding him on walks to church or the A & P supermarket,
identifying neighbors far enough in advance that he can
greet them by name when they get closer, thus salvaging her
father’s pride. He had learned “how to pass as a sighted man”
from his mother, who had spent her own life artfully concealing
her damaged vision. While loss of his eyesight is terribly sad, the
story of how the toolmaker comes to abandon his pretense of
seeing is fascinating and complex.

It involves the whole family, in particular Bonina’s wife,
Mame. trained as a nurse, she pushes aggressively to learn more
about her husband’s eye disease and to have other family members
tested. (One of the author’s three siblings is found to have
signs of RP.) In his wife’s mind, John Bonina needs to find not
only top medical treatment, but also a way to support his family.
Mary Bonina shows how this issue lodges at the core of her
mother’s outbursts and her parents’ quarrels, frightening scenes
that turn her into a kind of wily peacemaker who distracts the
adults around her with commentary and questions. Eventually,
John Bonina comes to grips with his plight and enrolls in what is
now the Carroll Center for the Blind, where he learns the skills
needed to build the independent cafeteria business he will run for
the next three decades.

How did her father’s handicap affect the author? Although
her role was undoubtedly a burden, it evidently taught her to be
a constant, intent observer: her singular descriptions confirm her
virtuosity as the family “Hawkeye,” as shown in this report of the
market where she was sent to buy fried fish: “these cooking vats
seemed to be alive, spitting hot oil…I noticed red blotches on the
arms of those women—little burns, I guessed—and their strong
faces looked sunburned from the heat of the oil.”

More fundamentally, it seems that her father’s “coming out”
as blind helped the memoirist hone a willingness to engage with
even the dark or shameful aspects of one’s life that creativity
requires. this memoir is a product of that willingness, and My
Father’s Eyes
focuses with compassion on the courage and
resilience of a revered father.

Rosemary Booth is a writer and photographer living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her book reviews and essays have appeared in the literary journals Under the Sun and The Critical Flame, and in the Imagination and Place anthology Seasonings. She is a contributing writer for The Gay and Lesbian Review.