Curiosity drives some of us to become amateur genealogists because we enjoy learning what we can about our ancestors and distant kinfolk. Other buffs, knowing the importance of family history, simply want to preserve the information for generations to come.
I was blessed to be the first of my maternal grandmother’s 21 grandchildren. Although circumstances, like birth order, sometimes conspire against us, being the first-born grandchild has its advantages. We tend to remember things that our younger siblings and cousins may not remember or may never have known.
The process of writing my second book is awakening memories of distant relatives and my interactions with them.
Rhea Williams was the first cousin to my Grandma Hattie Staton. I recall meeting Cousin Rhea only twice. Both meetings occurred when I was a very young girl, and she was in the winter of her life. I initially met my cousin when mother took me to visit her home on the outskirt of Oak City, North Carolina. She lived in a tiny cabin down the road from grandma’s place. I suspect that mother was preparing me for the visit when she told me before we arrived that Cousin Rhea was a sweet, old lady and she was partially blind.
A frail-looking, slow-moving, woman greeted us at the door and invited us into her dimly lit one-room cabin. Age curved her body, and thinning, white hair framed her pleasant face. I studied that face, curious to see what blind eyes look like. But all that I could determine was that one of her eyes was fully closed as if it were sleeping, and the other eye partially open.
Cousin Rhea appeared to be a kind woman, but when she stretched a scrawny arm toward me to take my hand and said in a whispery voice, “How you doing child?” I nervously backed away from her and attached myself to my mother’s side where I stayed during the duration of our short visit, my face partially concealed behind her skirt.
The last time I remember seeing my cousin was when her grandson, Perch, dropped her off so she could visit with our family at our home in Washington, DC. And I’ll never forget what happened the first night that she was there.
It must have been after midnight. Everyone in the household had gone to bed and were likely asleep when I awakened because I had to pee.
In a sleepy haze, I climb out of bed and walk toward the bathroom where I switch on the light and step the few inches toward the toilet. I am about to turn around and sit when something on top of the tank catches my eye. I can’t believe what I’m seeing. There is a mason jar partially-filled with water. Resting near the bottom of that jar is an eyeball.
For a second as I am standing there, I think I’m dreaming. I stare in wide-eyed disbelief at the lidless eye. The eye stares at me. I stare back at it. Never in my young years had I seen an eyeball that wasn’t attached to someone’s face. I am transfixed by the sight before me until my imagination fools me into thinking that the eye is moving; it is floating to the surface of the water.
Then, suddenly, I am wide awake. Faster than the Road Runner being chased by Wile E. Coyote, I switch off the bathroom light, haul ass back to my bed and throw the covers over my head. Until I fall asleep, I lay there shivering and praying that I won’t wet the bed, because there is no way I was going back in there. Not tonight.
The next morning when mother and I are alone, and Cousin Rhea is still sleeping, I ask her about the eye in the glass in the bathroom. She tells me that Cousin has a glass eye. She further explains that the artificial eye replaces Cousin’s natural eye, and she removes it each night before going to sleep. Although I heard mother’s patient explanation, my young mind refused to comprehend, and I left many questions unasked. Where does someone find a glass eye? Do you buy them at the grocery store? How do you put it in and take it out? Can the glass eye see me?
As an adult, looking back on what then was a chilling experience but is now an amusing memory, I decided to do some research on glass eyes. I was surprised to learn that the first in-socket artificial eyes were made as early as the 15th century. And contrary to what the naive little girl believed, a prosthetic eye (as they are now commonly called) cannot restore vision. It is merely for cosmetic purposes.
Today, the cost of a custom prosthetic eye will run you somewhere between $2000-$8000. If you are lucky, health insurances will cover the cost. Recently, my out-of-curiosity search on eBay found glass eyes selling for as little as $30.
I don’t know the cost of Cousin Rhea’s glass eye. I suppose they were less expensive back then. Nevertheless, according to family oral history, it didn’t cost her a thing because the county welfare department paid for it.
You are probably as curious as I was to know how Cousin Rhea lost her eye. Narratives tend to get convoluted, but I will retell the story as it was told to me.
One day Cousin Rhea was visited by a circuit preacher as they were sometimes called. During the act of blessing her, the preacher poured oil on Cousin’s head. Perhaps, he was attempting to follow the Scripture that reads, “Thou anointest my head with oil.” Some of the oil rolled down Cousin’s forehead into one eye. (I imagine that must have burned like hell.) Not to make light of the issue, but the blessing apparently did not cover the eye that got the oil because it cost Cousin her sight.
I don’t know who, if any, of my cousins or siblings, remembers Cousin Rhea but I certainly do. Like I said, being the first-born grandchild sometimes has advantages.
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