Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Wednesdays with Dorothy: Finding Domestic Harmony

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When I was in graduate school in California, one night I happened to see the TV movie, “Like Normal People.” It was a true story based on the book by the same title by Robert Meyers. Meyers tells about his brother, Roger, who is mildly retarded and who falls in love and marries Virginia who also has metal disabilities.  The movie portrays the struggles faced by Roger and his family as they try to deal with his disabilities and it highlights attitudes that existed in society back in the 1970s about romance in regard to people with developmental disabilities. (You can view a scene from the movie that presents this romantic struggle here. A newspaper article about the real life couple can be found here).

I was very moved by the cinematic portrayal that I saw, having no idea that five years down the road I would be working with people with developmental disabilities.  At the St. Andrew’s Foundation, we based our habilitation programs on Wolf Wolfensberger’s concept of normalization, meaning that we tried to allow each resident to live as independently as possible and to enjoy the normal routines and rhythms of life. Forming romantic relationships and domestic partnerships is part of the normal rhythm of life.  Dorothy, by the time I came to know her, had settled into what seemed to be a happy routine living by herself in her apartment. When we had discussed her life at Partlow, I had asked her if she had any boyfriends there.  Later when we were talking about her life in the community, I asked her if she had ever considered getting married once she had left the institution. The story she told had all the drama and humor one would expect when recounting a romantic relationship.

Dorothy sitting on her front porch
There was a time when I thought about getting married.  When I met up with Elmus, I thought he was a real distinguished gentleman. I come to find out a couple of years later what kind of distinguished gentleman he was. He wasn’t nothin’ but a drunk, and all he wanted was money and whiskey and whatever. He stayed with me one night. He slept in the other room [when I was still at the group home]. They found out about it and told him he couldn’t stay there, that that was under the Mental Health Authority.

He said he had been at Bryce Hospital. I met him when I was at ORC (Occupational Rehabilitation Center).

I thought about getting married and then I thought, well fitter, if I wound up marrying somebody and they care nothing more for you than anything, what good would that do?  So Elmus, he got mad and broke up with me. I wouldn’t let him have a twenty dollar bill. He ended up marrying Rebecca.  Later on, he claimed that him and Rebecca didn’t have no place to stay. They came down here and wanted to stay with me and I wouldn’t let ‘em. He and Rebecca got married and had their wedding reception at the old parish hall.  Rebecca wanted Elmus to tote her across the floor [threshold], and he couldn’t even hardly pick her up. One of her shoes fell off her foot. They had got married down at the courthouse. He was in his old work clothes and she got married in an old sweatshirt and a pair of blue jeans. I didn’t go to their wedding, but I went to the reception.

Later on Elmus told me, 'I married Rebecca and she don’t even know how to cook or clean or nothing else.'  I told him well he made his own bed, now sleep in it. And I couldn’t marry him no how, if I had they would’ve stopped my check, I reckon. Later on, I was glad and thankful that I wasn’t the one that married him. 

~   ~   ~

Dorothy had talked before about preferring to live by herself rather than sharing space with a roommate. She seemed to be one who had discovered that her own domestic happiness came with being single.  Next week we will hear Dorothy talk about some of the frustrations she encountered living on Birmingham's Southside.

Inside her apartment on her way to a party

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