Deaf And Blind, Her Father Still Knows How To Speak His Love

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John Washington with his wife, Fannie Ruth Washington, in the mid-1970s.

When Melva Washington Toomer joined her father on a visit with StoryCorps recently, their conversation was quite unlike anything that has been featured in the series' 10-year history. That's because she spoke with her dad, John Carter Washington, relying not on her voice but on a TeleBraille machine.

Washington is blind and deaf. So was his late wife, in fact — and together, they raised three children, including Melva, the oldest.

"You were my first child," he tells her. "I cannot express the way I feel when I held your sweet little body. I kissed you, I loved you. Oh, Melva, I was so proud when I started taking you out with me."

That's not to say Toomer always made life easy on her father. She sometimes took advantage of the fact that neither of her parents could see, slipping out of the house at night. So, Washington sought to put a stop to it by simply sleeping in front of the door.

And bath time could occasionally make for some curious situations. Once, when he was preparing to bathe Toomer's brother, Washington had to stop what he was doing. "As I picked him up to put him in the tub, he said, 'Daddy, I've got my shoes on,' " Washington laughs.

Washington did not graduate from high school. Instead, he turned to books written in Braille, reading them to "learn the ways of life," he recalls. "Then I taught people to read Braille. So if I could help some person, then my living will not be in vain."

He went on to help found the first Braille magazine geared specifically toward African-American readers in 1952. First called Negro Braille Magazine, the publication eventually changed its name to Merrick Washington Magazine in 1981.

These days, Washington is 95 years old — and he wouldn't be surprised to find he hits 100. So, he asks his daughter, "What are you going to do with me?"

For Toomer, the answer is simple: "I am going to take care of you the best I can."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jud Esty-Kendall.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

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