It has been almost fifty years since the death of my sister, Moira Stone, whose experiences at the School for the Blind in Brantford, Ontario, led my father, Jim Stone, to found the charity which is now known as the Military Police Fund for Blind Children. Many of those who knew Moira are now gone, including my mother, Esther Stone. Fewer and fewer relatives, friends or neighbours are left. My sister, Victoria, was too young to remember her and my brother, Michael, was not born until years after she died. As the oldest in the family I was the one who heard our mother tell the stories of Moira and I am the only one with any memory of her. I hope that by writing this account of her life I can help the men and women of the Military Police, who have so devotedly raised money to make the lives of blind children in Canada a little easier, understand what a very special little person she was.
My sister was born on April 6, 1949, at the Salmon Arm General Hospital, in Salmon Arm, BC. She was named Prudence Moira – Prudence for our maternal grandmother and Moira as a nod to my father’s half-Irish ancestry. Outside of our circle of family and friends she was known as Moira but to us she was Plumsy. As I was just over a year older than her, I have no memories of my early childhood that do not include her. According to our mother, no two children were ever better natured, brighter or more beautiful than we were.
We lived in Salmon Arm, BC, until our father rejoined the Army to lead the II PPCLI into action in Korea. My mother, who was expecting another baby, decided to take us to Edmonton to live with our Grandma Lowther. Plumsy was a toddler by this time. As she began to walk around, our mother became concerned because she bumped into things as if she didn’t know they were there. A visit to the doctor led to a diagnosis of retinoblastoma, a genetically linked cancer of the retina. The treatment at the time was removal of the eye followed by radiation. Dad returned from Korea and the operation was performed. Our sister, Victoria, was born in Edmonton. We moved to Calgary after that and then on to Camp Borden in Ontario when Moira was four. We finally ended up living in Ottawa on Ruskin Street when Dad was made Provost Marshal in 1954.
It was in Ottawa that it became obvious that Plumsy’s vision was deteriorating. The cancer had spread to her other eye and the recommendation from the doctors was to remove it as well. I heard from my father how desperate he and my mother were to save her eye. As a last resort, Dad took her to a specialist in Toronto to see if anything else could be done. Telling of the experience forty years later, my father described his anguish when, after having taken his little daughter, who had never been away from her mother, to spend the night in a motel and spending a day waiting in the hospital, he was berated by the surgeon for wasting his time and told to take her home and have the eye out.
With incredible courage my mother and father faced this latest challenge, determined to make life for Plumsy as normal as possible. With the help of the CNIB they taught her to care for herself, to pour her own milk and eat from a plate. I still have the Mr. and Mrs. Pig salt and pepper shakers that we used. Plumsy could tell them apart by feeling Mrs. Pig’s hat. My mother made us clothes with textured fabrics so Plumsy could enjoy the feel of them. We listened to records, like Uncle Don on the Farm, and had stories read to us daily. Plumsy was a regular member of the group of children who played on Ruskin Street. As we lived at the dead end where there was no traffic it was safe for us to leave our yard and join in games of hide and seek. Once Mum said to me that I had to remember that Plumsy’s world was dark and that I had to help her get around but Plumsy said, “No, there’s light but I just can’t see through it.” She “saw” with her gentle, questing fingers, running them lightly over faces or toys, until she learned their shape.
I started grade 1 in September,1954, at Elmdale School but there were no kindergartens for visually impaired children, like my sister. A wonderful teacher at Elmdale, Miss Clow, agreed to allow her to attend the regular class. We were so happy to be able to walk together to school. I remember that the kindergarten students had to bring a towel to school with their name inked on it for “nap time” when they lay down on the floor. Moira’s had her name, but also a button, so that she could identify it herself.
Unfortunately, when Plumsy was ready for grade 1, she had to leave home to attend school in Brantford, Ontario. As a parent myself, I cannot imagine packing a trunk for my six year old child who could not see and sending her away to another city until Christmas. Again, my mother and father faced this heartbreaking decision with their usual fortitude. My mother sewed party dresses for us. Both were of flocked nylon with yards of ruffles. Plumsy loved to feel the raised white hearts on her red dress. She also loved the smooth, cool feel of the patent leather party shoes we both had. They were packed away in her trunk for special occasions. Although we weren’t able to write or phone, we made tapes on a reel to reel tape recorder to send to her so she would hear from home.
At Thanksgiving, Dad was able to go to Brantford to see Plumsy at the School for the Blind. She had settled in quite well but Dad could see that something was bothering her. She finally told him that they had a “tuck shop” at the school where the children could buy themselves treats with their spending money. Did he know, she asked him, that there were children who could not buy candy because they had no money? Could he give them some? She felt so very lucky because she had money and a party dress and party shoes while some of the others had nothing. She was even able to go home for Christmas instead of staying at the school. Her innocent conversation shook Dad.
Dad’s first reaction was to be outraged. As he tells it, he stormed down to the office of the head of the school, furious that these children, who already had to deal with their blindness and isolation from their families, were not even able to have their weekly treat. It was pointed out to him that the staff did what it could but most teachers were not in a financial position to be able to help. For many of the families of the children, sending them to Brantford was so costly that they weren’t able provide anything else, either. He left some money so that no one would be without a treat but he also realized that he could do more.
As part of his duties as Provost Marshal, Dad travelled across Canada, visiting army bases. From then on, whenever he spoke, he ended up telling of his conversation with Plumsy and “passing the hat” for anyone who wished to contribute to providing a few luxuries for the children at the school. He was so successful that “tuck money” was available for everyone and two little girls from Saskatchewan were able to go home for Christmas.
Plumsy was back at the school after our Christmas in Ottawa and in January we were thrilled to hear her read from her Braille reader over the radio when the CBC did a program on the Schools for the Blind. She had learned to read Braille more quickly than most children learn to read print.
At Easter, however, my parents brought her home to stay. The cancer which had taken both her eyes had spread all over her body. The doctors gave them the choice of hospitalizing her, which might give her a few more months of life, or of caring for her at home. She came home to Ruskin Street to lie in the big front bedroom where we had slept when we had measles and mumps together. With the help of the VON my mother learned to give morphine injections and provide the care that Plumsy would need. I don’t remember this as being a sad time. Plumsy had a Braille typewriter that she used while she was strong enough and that I found fascinating. Dad would come up to the room every evening and Victoria and I would join her on the bed while he read us the Bobbsey twin books and the whole Thornton W. Burgess collection of animal stories. Our parents kept their grief from us and stoically went about the business of daily life. One lovely sunny day in June I came home to find that Plumsy was gone. I said good-bye to her at her funeral where she lay dressed in her red party dress. Young as I was, I knew that the figure in the coffin wasn’t Plumsy.
The rest of the story is better known. Dad continued his efforts for the school in Brantford. When he was seconded to the Department of Justice, the Provost Corps kept the Blind Fund going with him as its patron. So much money was available for the school in Brantford that, after building a playground and buying extras for the school, permission was asked to share it with other schools for the blind across the country. When Dad was made a Member of the Order of Canada for his establishment of the Military Police Fund for Blind Children, he said that he was more proud of this than any other accomplishment in his long and distinguished career.
Every time I read an account in the paper of how a child has received a computer through the Fund or hospital equipment has been provided, I think of my sister, Moira, whose loving little heart was the source for all the good that has been done. I hope that this personal account of her life will be of interest to those who have been responsible for keeping up the work of love that was begun over half a century ago.