The invisible elephant

A year ago last January my mother-in-law celebrated her 90th birthday. The next day she began her tenth decade of life with good health, a shockingly detailed memory, 3 successful adult children,12 grandchildren, and 3 great-grandchildren. She will (IY”H) dance at the weddings of 2 more of her grandchildren over the next 4 months.She has traveled through 4 continents, attended multiple operas, concerts and theaters, and thoroughly enjoys museums.

She has been totally blind for almost 7 decades, and has never visually seen her children, nor her grandchildren, but she knows exactly what they look like.

I wrote this essay as part of a birthday gift tribute book last year, and in honor of her 91st birthday, I decide to post it here. (Trigger-warning: Although posted in Times of Israel, this blog post has nothing to do with Israel, other than the fact that my mother-in-law is an ardent Zionist, and grandmother to 7 Israelis, and great-grandmother to another 3.)

There’s an old English idiom referred to as the Elephant in the Room. As everyone knows, the reference is to an obvious truth that goes unaddressed.

The elephant in the room of Annette Tannenbaum is blindness.

The reason it goes unaddressed isn’t necessarily because anyone is embarrassed to discuss it. It’s because it’s irrelevant.

When I first met my (unbeknownst to me at the time) future mother-in-law, I had dropped into the Far Rockaway Tannenbaum house with several friends on a Shabbat afternoon. Mom (Mrs. Tannenbaum in the jargon of those pre-marital days) was coming in from a walk down the block with friends on a bright Shabbos day. We were all sitting in the living room. After several moments, my friend, Jay, leaned in to me and said in a hushed voice, “I think she’s blind”.

I said, “I don’t think so”.

“Then why is she wearing dark glasses?” he said.

“Because it’s sunny outside”, I responded.

Needless to say, I was wrong and Jay was right. However, as I found out later, the only reason Jay knew what I did not, was because he had heard it (as yet unconfirmed) previously, not because he noticed anything out of the ordinary.

And there you have it.

At best, blindness, in the case of Mom, is a descriptor not a definition.

It no more defines her than someone else’s physical characteristic of height, weight or hair color would define them.

And that says a lot about her strength of character. To hear Mom describe a place she’s been (even including a visual location, such as a museum) or a person she’s met, one would think she could see. To hear Mom describe experiences with her children or grandchildren, it would never occur to someone who didn’t know otherwise, that she was deprived of site. The blindness does not hinder her ability to experience life or enjoy loved ones.

To repeat, it is irrelevant.

Adversity is in the eye of the beholder, so if you don’t see any adversity (figuratively in Mom’s case rather than literally), there’s no adversity to overcome.

People describe Mom as “you know, the blind woman”.

However, most significantly and tellingly, that description is only used once per person.

Because, once they’ve met her, she is merely Annette, Grandma, Mom or Mrs. Tannenbaum. Once anyone engages her, they quickly find that, what could, if not should, have been a handicap which dominated how her life was lived, quickly becomes a physical characteristic of relevance only in that it makes it easy to point her out in a crowd.

Assuming it’s not a sunny day.

Because the elephant in the room fades to oblivion in sunshine.

About the Author
Mark Roisman lives in New Rochelle with his wife and 3 grown children. He grew up in Montreal and was educated at McGill and University of Pennsylvania. His favorite sport is annoying friends and family with irrelevant trivia and political discussion. He is far more liberal than most would suspect, depending on your definition of the word "liberal." He loves dogs and motorcycles.
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