I've been thinking a lot about my mother-in-law, Wilma Olson, who would have turned 94 this month.
Wilma lived a life of service to her family. Her mother died when she was 14, and that was when she left school to take care of her father and younger brothers and sisters. She recalled baking biscuits for her father every morning before he went to work and cleaning the house while her siblings were in school.
She married my father-in-law, Edward Olson, when she was 17, and from that time forward, her life was spent caring for him and for their four sons. Pleasing her family by providing a clean home and good meals made her happy.
Wilma and I had our similarities and our differences.
Wilma was an immaculate housekeeper; I’m definitely not.
Wilma loved to cook; for me, cooking is mostly a means to an end.
I cherish family photos, traditions and reunions; she felt less need for those.
But our differences ended when it came to our love for her second son, and my husband, Gary, who has gone through life without sight. I believe the love, devotion and inspiration my mother-in-law used when raising Gary helped mold him into the man who became the love of my life.
Raising a child with a disability is a challenge at any time. In the 1950s, when institutionalization was a common answer to those challenges, Wilma was determined to raise her son as a “normal” child. She ignored her friends’ advice to make him wear a helmet everywhere he went and, instead, taught him to ride a bike.
Friends advised her to avoid moving furniture to prevent confusion for Gary. Not Wilma. She didn’t consider a good cleaning job complete unless she moved the furniture. Gary found the coffee table with his shins on many occasions and once, Wilma stopped him just as he was going to sit on a large potted plant in a corner, where a chair used to be.
Wilma resisted the inclination to eliminate his risk for injury — and thereby to limit his horizons and his quality of life. She taught him to take care of himself. She taught him always to do his best.
When he developed an avid interest in the lapidary hobby — grinding and polishing agates, jaspers, obsidian and other semi-precious stones for jewelry — Gary’s parents turned away from the obvious response, that it could be a hazard to his safety. Instead, they learned about the equipment he would need and determined that he would be able to operate it safely if taught to do so. Then they purchased his first rock-grinding and polishing unit and helped him learn how to use it independently.
It was too dangerous for Gary to use an alcohol lamp to melt the wax that attached the stones to a wooden handle he used to grind and polish them. So, Gary’s mother took the time to do that for him until a safer method was available.
Wilma was Gary’s chief rock inspector, critiquing each stone, or cabochon, to make sure it had no scratches and was polished to perfection. If it wasn’t, he went back to work on it until the polish was flawless. Wilma them mounted the shining stones into jewelry, which she helped Gary sell, thereby providing him with spending money.
His mother’s support of his hobby proved to be a boon to Gary, who still turns almost daily to his lapidary work when he needs to relax or ponder about life or a problem, or just spend time doing something he enjoys. When another man might go out hiking, hunting or fishing, Gary goes to his lapidary shop.
Wilma taught Gary to be a productive member of society, rather than to be a drain on it. She taught him to be a good student and to be an achiever. She sent him to the Lions Summer School for the Blind on Casper Mountain the summer before his senior year in high school with the advice, “You know how to do most of the things you need to be independent. Now, you need to learn how to sign your name.”
That led to my opportunity to get to know Gary: I was a volunteer at the camp that summer. I was given teaching aids and assigned the task of helping Gary feel the shapes of the letters in his name, then to teach him what movements he needed to use with a pen to duplicate those letters on paper to sign his hame.
Wilma’s insistence that he be a good student and that he learn to sign his name proved to be two very important keys to overcoming hurdles and challenges and to reaching milestones that many blind people never achieve, such as taking care of himself, marrying and supporting his family.
Despite the many challenges he faced, he earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Wyoming and a master’s degree at the University of Northern Colorado, opening the doors to a career that has provided for his family’s needs.
Gary has had to sign his name almost daily to letters, forms and other documents as an employee of the Wyoming Department of Education, serving blind and partially sighted individuals in the Big Horn Basin, and in his previous employment as a case manager for developmentally disabled adults. Wilma’s foresight of that need was prophetic.
When I first met Gary, he was part of a group of youth, all of whom were blind or had limited vision. Although he was blind as well, Gary stood out among them as a person with charm, a good sense of humor, a delightful personality and a remarkable ability to be “normal.” I know that much of what I saw that first day, and what eventually attracted me to him as my future husband and the eternal love of my life, was due to the influence and guidance of his mother.
For that, I will always owe her a debt of gratitude.
Thanks, mom, for everything.