Katie Letcher Lyle

Books & Articles:

All Time is Now

Adventures with Jennie

All Time is Now

©Infinity Press, 2005

Once upon a time, there was a perfect family: one father, one mother, and one perfect son. Then they had an "imperfect" child. Katie Letcher Lyle writes about how their "perfect" family adapted to living with and caring for their "imperfect child"--but more than that, this funny, wise book is about how Jennie graced their lives, and showed them they didn't know beans about being "perfect." Jennie taught them about what it means to be human, and about the magic that is all around us every second, and about the power or choice that each one of us has, and about the beauty that arises out of darkness.

Excerpt:

That we had a few friends and associates who from the beginning could not bear to speak of Jennie, or look at her, or ask about her,--and so fell away as friends, was in the real world inevitable. It grieved me for a long time. Yet, who needed friends like them? There were so many others anxious to be our friends.

For friendship is a problem: Jennie is clearly loved by teachers and at least tolerated by her classmates, but is rarely invited to other people's houses, and never to parties. I think it is because other people don't think they'll know how to act with her, or handle her. I know the feeling. I'm wary of inviting other handicapped children to our house for those very reasons. Is he toilet-trained? Can she be trusted with say, knives, or other things that might be lying innocently around our house? Will I be able to interpret what he's saying?

In Jennie's case, her speech, though clear to us, is not always clear to others.

Eventually we on the ARC board hear about a program called "Kids on the Block" and buy four "handicapped" puppets, and members of our committee take them into schools for short presentations and discussions with elementary school children. Outcome: though the children discuss the handicaps, even go through exercises like trying to button a shirt with mittens on (imitation the clumsy efforts of someone with cerebral palsy) or trying to see through glasses smeared with Vaseline (imitating the special inability of a person with vision problems), and the kids are always polite and always curious, nothing that I can see in the real world changes at all. Jennie's not invited unless I'm invited along too.

When I invite a friend of hers from school over, he spies a bottle of wine on our kitchen table and points and says, "That's a sin! You're sinning! You're goin to Hell!" No effort at explanation calms him; I know he will go home and tell his mother (there's no visible father) that we are terrible people. Later, when both of them are eleven, the same child will attempt to do something Jennie won't talk about, won't speak of, but which is bad enough that she will absolutely refuse to ever go back to his house to play. Even my saying he's invited her makes her cry. We were not promised a rose garden.

At home we try to overcome others' social reluctance by having families to supper who have children we hope Jennie will be compatible with, and that works to some extent, though probably ninety percent of the time it's we who plan these social events. The Parkers, a family we know with three children, are especially wonderful to Jennie, and we learn that the Parkers have a niece who is autistic. They even invite Jennie out with them to kids' night at Country Cookin', and when their niece visits, we are invited to a lovely outdoor picnic on a sunny afternoon, to meet shy reluctant Rebecca.

We have Halloween parties, Easter egg hunts with money hidden in plastic eggs, costume parties, a caroling and cocoa party at Christmas. I tape paper from a four-foot roll onto the dining room wall and encourage mural-painting, offering prizes for everything imaginable. My MO is to set up a hotdog and lemonade table in the kitchen for the children, which serving martinis and gourmet chicken in the dining room for the adults. I suppose you could accuse me of shameless pandering here, but what the hey?

Jennie can even tame killer dogs: on a fall day in 1986 when I need to go to a remote location to see some beams in a barn that I'm interested in buying for the kitchen renovation we're doing, I take Jennie along. We park in the field outside the barn. I must not be paying attention, because as I get out of the car to go around and help Jennie out, she has already opened her door and is stumbling out, as simultaneously across the field charges an enormous black dog that has materialized out of nowhere barking its head off, clearly on the attack. My heart stops, because I cannot in any way get to her before the dog does. I shout a warning, but Jennie has already stumbled towards the huge black monster, her arms out to hug him, and by the time I reach her, the fiercest dog I've ever seen is standing in front of her licking her face all over while Jennie, eyes closed, blissfully drapes her hands around the dog's neck, patting and loving him. I can hardly stand up I am so terrified.

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