An acquaintance of mine recently asked where she could buy one of my books. “You know,” she said. “The one about handicaps.” It took me a minute to realize she was talking about Keeping Up with Roo. I’ve never thought of Keeping Up with Roo as a book about handicaps. To me, it is simply a story about friendship, about growing up, and, above all, about gratitude. You see, Keeping Up with Roo is my own personal tribute to my beloved aunt Martha—the person who taught me how to read.
Martha and her twin sister, Mildred, were my mother’s sisters, and they lived with us most of my growing up years. Martha and Mildred were born in 1938. When they were less than a year old, they were diagnosed with “severe mental retardation.” The doctor told my grandmother that they would probably never walk, let alone talk. My grandmother refused to accept that and treated Mildred and Martha just as she had her five other children. By age three, they were not only walking and talking, but they were running my grandmother ragged and singing wild made-up songs in loud but perfect harmony.
By the time I came along, Mildred and Martha were robust twenty-two-year-olds. And they were my best friends in the whole world. I didn’t know they were handicapped. All I knew is that they were big and strong and wonderful and that they always had time to play with me. Mildred loved to put me on her shoulders and lope through the windbreak behind my grandparents’ farmhouse. Mildred was the domestic one: she enjoyed playing with dolls, rearranging furniture, and creating beautiful works of art out of twigs and leaves and seeds. Martha was more cerebral: she taught herself how to drive a tractor, play the piano...and read. When I was a little girl, Martha could read and write on about a third grade level, and she loved nothing more than playing school with me. She was always the teacher and I, the eager student. Martha taught me my A-B-C’s, how to count and add numbers, and, eventually, how to read easy books. My mother didn’t even know I could read until one day when I was riding into town with her. I was about four years old. We were just driving along when suddenly I began reading aloud all the signs along the road. My mother almost wrecked the car. “Sharlee!” she said. “Where on earth did you learn to read?” “Martha taught me,” I said.
When my aunt Martha passed away several years ago, I was filled with both a tender sadness and a profound sense of gratitude. One single thought kept running through my mind: She taught me how to read. What a tremendous gift.
But in reality, my aunt Martha taught me much more than that, as did my aunt Mildred. What they really taught me was how to live—fully, enthusiastically, without bounds or limits. And, for that, I will be forever grateful.
So it is with deep gratitude and in loving memory of my aunts, Martha and Mildred, that I accept this award from the Division of Developmental Disabilites of the Council for Exceptional Children and Special Needs Project. Thank you.