As I read Mary Bonina’s debut memoir, My Father’s Eyes, I found myself forgetting, over and over, that Bonina was a child during most of its recounted scenes. I would read a passage of Bonina guiding her father, whose vision was slowly escaping him, down familiar neighborhood streets, and suddenly stop. Wait, I’d think, she’s only eight years old in this passage. What a remarkable child she must have been, to have learned to see the world for her father, to negotiate the intricacies of his imminent blindness for herself and for his failing eyes.
Remarkable, indeed, is Bonina’s unique portrayal of her father’s disease—retinitis pigmentosa, a gradual degeneration of the retina that leads to blindness—and the miraculous way that her father “kept all the plates spinning on poles above his head.” She brings to her prose the same grace with which she dealt with her father’s condition, and an honesty that reveals her commitment to making sense of her father’s disease. Bonina’s voice is poised yet curious, as is her youthful quest to adapt to her new life while dealing with the inevitable growing pains that come with shedding childhood. Her attempt to reconcile what she is taught at Catholic school with the reality of her family’s predicament is nothing if not admirable. In her small town of Worcester, Massachusetts, she comes to terms with the early disintegration of her innocence that follows her new responsibilities to her nearly blind father, and she chronicles the effect these losses have on her family. She begins the book not with where her father’s story begins, but where the story of her commitment to protecting her father begins.
1956. Bonina is five years old. Her father, who is already aware of his disease, gets behind the wheel of his beloved car—a 1941 Packard 180 touring sedan that she describes as a “sleek animal,”—and takes his daughter on a joy ride. Bonina writes of her growing fear as they ride, her curiosity at her father’s tautness, his hesitation at each intersection, his stiffening spine.
“As we went along I began to realize that I was worried that whatever the danger was, it seemed to be everywhere,” she writes. “The way my father was acting made me feel that it was riding along with us, a passenger in our car.”
And that’s precisely what her father’s disease becomes: a passenger, an ever-present shadow that floats between them, a new being that must be accounted for. Bonina devises a new language for this passenger, and she cunningly learns to adapt, for both herself and her father, to its pervasiveness. In a way Bonina, a child who soon understands that this visitor is not a visitor at all but a permanent fixture in their lives, becomes the vehicle for that very passenger, creating and embodying the tool by which her father’s disease is survived.
It is one of the achievements of Bonina’s earnest, inquisitive memoir to re-create the way she came to understand her father’s blindness as a child. As I read the following passage, I began to perform the very actions that Bonina describes herself performing, the prose so clear I was able to visualize and imitate this action, this memory:
I spent a lot of time with my fingers formed in the ‘okay’ position. In the afternoons I went alone sometimes to my bedroom. I would look out the window, focusing first on the Sadowsky house next door—their front entrance—or the one string of forgotten Christmas lights around the attic window at Roche’s house. I moved my view up the street to the McConville yard, or to a tree growing out of the sidewalk, or Mr. Farrell’s new car parked in front of his house. With my fingers formed this way, I thought I was able to see what my father’s future vision would be like. I gave myself headaches doing this. I would try it, too, whenever I saw something amazing—a circus act, a fireworks display, or the deep cut on my knee. I resorted to looking through ‘the tunnel’ especially when something affected me as being very beautiful—the maple trees in the park when their leaves changed color, the Christmas tree just after we finished decorating it, a million beautiful things that I had before just thought ordinary.
In these precise, meaningful descriptions lies also the valiance with which Bonina addresses her father’s condition. She takes care to describe what she created in response to his disease: a new way for her and her father to live and communicate in their new world. And she wisely includes several chapters (each one titled “Memorial Days”) that reveal her as an adult—occasional sections in which she recounts her father’s death and all that follows.
It is not only, then, the story of her father’s eyes that Bonina so deftly depicts; it is also the story of what it was like to live as her father’s eyes. An introspective journey into the loss of a family’s old way of life and the creation of a new one, My Father’s Eyes achieves exactly what Bonina aimed to achieve for her father: it makes darkness light.