She Learned to Read Before She Went Blind
Louisa Berger was born on September 5, 1907 in Macedonia. Her parents, Martin Everhart and Liese Buhr were German farmers living in what was once called the Austro-Hungarian Empire in an area that later became Yugoslavia. There were originally nine children in the family, but three of them died of diphtheria. The rest of them worked very hard on the farm and suffered much under the hand of Martin, who was “a mean, cruel drunk,” whom they all hated. They lived in horrible poverty as things in Europe got progressively worse. At some point, Martin decided to abandon his miserable farm and immigrate to the United States, taking the family with him.
Louisa was just a small girl at the time, though she says she remembers the ship. Upon arrival in New York, the Berger family made their way to Chicago, where Martin had a cousin. He was able to find some work in a factory, but after about a year, he took the family to Minnesota, where they worked on a beet farm for many years. Martin eventually abandoned this, too, and again moved them all back to Chicago.
By this time, Louisa was roughly fourteen years old and had received almost no schooling. She got a job in a candy factory in Chicago and worked many hours to bring in money for her family. Louisa describes herself as being very shy back then, but that she managed to make a few friends at work. It was their routine to walk in Humboldt Park every Sunday, and they loved to hear the bands play in the band shell. On one of these Sundays, she met a young man by the name of Charlie Berger, who was also walking in the park with friends. Charlie, Louisa says, was very outgoing and easy to talk to. “Before I knew it,” she says, “I was on a date with him, and I didn’t even realize it!”
Charlie worked as a shoemaker, and the two of them married when Louisa was seventeen. They lived on the north side, and Charlie went to night school to become a realtor. Louisa continued working at the candy factory until she got pregnant. Together they had five children: Charles Jr., Clarence, Carl, Lillian and Irene. Once the children were older, Louisa sometimes worked as a cleaner in the evenings. “Charlie was the love of my life,” Louisa says. They were never separated except for when he served in the army during the war.
Louisa says she led a very simple life and didn’t go out much. “I never wanted to,” she says. She was happy listening to music and was mesmerized when they got a television. Most of her time, though, was spent gardening and baking. Charlie dug up almost the whole back yard for her to plant as a garden, and she often won prizes for her vegetables and flowers. “She was always baking,” says her daughter, Irene. Even after they all left, she would still bake several pies and cakes each week and bring them to church meetings or to the rectory for the priests to eat. She looked forward to Sundays when her two sisters would come over and they would play cards all afternoon.
Having never gone to school, Louisa was basically illiterate for most of her life, something she was very ashamed of. Charlie tried to teach her to read in the early years of their marriage, but it proved difficult for him to find the time between working and going to night school. Louisa, too, was busy with the five children and likewise couldn’t make learning to read her priority. Instead, Charlie took care of everything—all of the bills and finances and correspondences.
It was a particularly crushing blow, then, when Charlie fell off a ladder and died at age fifty-two. Louisa’s children stepped in to help her as much as possible, though most of them were already gone. Carl was still at home, though, and it was he that was successful in finally teaching Louisa to read. Louisa delighted in being able to read the newspaper, but it was short-lived, however, when she began to go blind several years later. She can still see a little bit, but has been declared legally blind and must now use a cane.
Remarkably, however, Louisa has been able to live independently until about two years ago when she turned eighty-nine and began needing more help. Irene, Carl and Lillian, the only children still in the area, tried taking turns going to assist her, but they are themselves somewhat advanced in years now, with various health problems and their own families to worry about. When it got to be too much to constantly go and check on her, they hired a caretaker to come in periodically and even tried adult daycare. Both of these things helped, but they did not prevent her from repeatedly falling when she was alone.
After this last fall, Louisa ended up in the hospital and became very disoriented, which prompted the hospital staff to recommend that she be discharged to a nursing home. Her children were reluctant to do so, but, ultimately, they felt it would probably be for the best considering her history of falls.
Louisa is adjusting to her new surroundings, but she is frequently confused about where she is and often asks for Carl or sometimes even her husband, Charlie. At other times, however, she is very clear and likes answering questions about her past. It is difficult for her to participate in activities because of her poor eyesight. She refers to sit amongst the other residents, however, rather than be alone in her room.
(Originally written: September 1996)