Columns and stories of life from the Fredericksburg area.
Storing up sweet summer memories
Columnist remembers: His shopkeeper aunt didn’t let blindness define her
BY DONNIE JOHNSTON
When I was a boy, I started my almost daily summer pilgrimages to my Aunt Dora’s country store about this time of year.
School took away my weekday freedom for nine months each year and limited my visits to the store to Saturdays and after church on Sundays. During the summer, however, that old store was my second home.
As soon as I had completed any morning chores, I was either walking, hitching a ride or riding my bike the three miles to the place where a Pepsi–Cola, a cup of fudge ripple ice cream and an oatmeal cake awaited.
Aunt Dora, my grandmother’s sister, was a remarkable woman. Blind from birth, she operated the family store for 46 years.
She became well known in the area, and many people stopped by simply out of curiosity. Some couldn’t believe that a blind woman could do the things she did.
I said Aunt Dora was blind from birth, and technically she was. But according to my grandmother, Dora Judd could detect the brightness of a roaring fireplace when she was a small child.
My grandmother always said she got the worst whipping of her life because of that. Once, while the two were alone, Grandma threw as much wood as she could on the fire and urged her older sister to get as close to the blaze as she could so she could experience the light.
When their father came in, Grandma got a switching and never tried a dangerous stunt like that again.
Aunt Dora attended the Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind in Staunton and received what would now be considered an elementary school education.
She learned to write in “point,” which was similar to Braille. It would be invaluable to her in later life. After she took over the operation of her father’s store in 1924, she used the point technique to keep her own records, including the credit accounts of neighbors.
At some point she discovered that the cardboard used to make cigarette cartons was the perfect thickness for the raised dots that she punched with her point stylus. To her customers the flattened cardboard just looked like Marlboro, Camel or Pall Mall cigarette cartons. To Aunt Dora, however, they were important documents.
She used her point apparatus for another purpose, too—to determine the denomination of currency. Coins, because of their size and edging, were no problem for Aunt Dora. Paper currency was another matter. Early on in her business career someone bought several items and gave her what they said was a $20 bill. Instead, it was only a $1 bill and, after giving change, she ended up losing a great deal of money.
But the determined woman came up with a solution.
From that day on, she would use her point system to mark each paper bill with the name of the person who gave her the money and how much they said it was. Later, if there was a problem, she had the proof in raised dots.
Aunt Dora knew the feel of most canned goods, and if the tins were the same size, she could differentiate them by where they were placed on the store shelves. Occasionally, someone did have to help her stock the cans in the first place.
She also knew by touch which soft-drink bottles were Coke, Pepsi or Royal Crown. If some bottles had the same shape she put strings around their necks to differentiate them in the water-cooled drink box.
In cold weather. she made her own coal fires in the old potbellied stove and was able to dispense kerosene to customers from a tank inside the building.
Using a 2-foot-high wire along a path, Aunt Dora—using her cane—was able to negotiate the 40 yards between the store and the house where she lived with her sister and brother-in-law. There was another wire along a back path that led to the outhouse.
She was robbed once. One afternoon, after she left the store to go to the privy, a man slipped through an open window and stole money from the cash drawer. Apparently, the guy bragged about stealing from the blind woman and was soon caught. From then on, she closed and locked the windows when she left the store.
There are many stories I could tell about Aunt Dora. As I said, she was a remarkable and industrious woman who refused to let her disability get her down.
In her final years. she barely made ends meet in the little store, but it gave her something to do, a purpose in life. Finally she was forced to close the store in 1972.
Predictably, with her reason for living gone, she died in early 1973 at the age of 85.
About this time each year, I think about Aunt Dora and her little store.
I spent many a pleasant summer day in the company of that remarkable lady. She was one of a kind.