Wednesday, February 25, 1998
Blind couple celebrate blessings

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Paul and Bernie Dressell, both legally blind, hold one of the Braille typewriters that Bernie repairs.
(Yoni Pozner photo)
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Paul Dressell sent his fingers tiptoeing down the arm of his wife, Bernie. When their hands met, the couple smiled and held each other tight.

Standing on the threshold of their front door, they used their free hands to wave goodbye to the visitor they never saw.

Paul and Bernie are blind.

I went to their Westwood home for a ''Lunch with Cliff.'' I left with my heart warmed by their sweet take on life.

Paul and Bernie may have lost their sight. But they have tremendous insight. Instead of dwelling on what they lack, they relish what they have.

Fiercely independent, Bernie wanted to downplay this side of their life. ''Don't write any flowery stuff about us,'' she said, between bites of a savory homemade chicken salad sandwich.

In her mind, they're ''an average couple'' married 34 years.

''We just do what we have to do, and we do it the best way we know how.''

They'd rather use canes than walk with a seeing-eye dog. ''You don't have to clean up after a cane,'' Paul said.

''When you're at home, you just stand a cane in a corner,'' Bernie said, ''and go about your business.''

Shifting in his seat at the couple's dining room table, Paul added: ''We don't think of blindness as a handicap. We regard it as more of a nuisance.''

Paul is 60. Bernie is 63. They lost their sight when they were 2; Paul to glaucoma, Bernie to spinal meningitis.

''When you're that young,'' Bernie observed, ''blindness just becomes something you live with. You don't have to acclimate yourself to it. You just get on with your life.''

For Bernie and Paul, their life has meant working hard at their jobs, raising their son and enjoying their three grandchildren.

A framed photo of three young faces, round and smiling, sat atop a nearby stereo. After pointing out the picture, Bernie giggled as she asked: ''Do I have them standing right-side-up?'' The last time she had company, she dusted the picture frame and put it down with the grandkids standing on their heads.

''We've had problems in our marriage,'' Paul continued. ''But we've always talked them out.''

Wagging a finger, Bernie said: ''We talk. We don't yell.

''You have to discuss your problems. If you don't like something, explain why.''

For spouses who clam up when they get mad, Bernie had a suggestion: See each other as being sightless. ''If you can't read lips, you can't read minds either.'' Paul and Bernie are retired, but still working hard.

Paul worked 33 years as an interviewer for Hamilton County's Department of Human Services. Bernie worked for the city, the Cincinnati Board of Education, the Civil Rights Commission and then wound film on spools at a photo lab job for 10 years until she retired in 1995.

Retirement only made them restless.

''I couldn't just sit around the house and read books,'' Bernie said of the books-on-tape she listens to at lunch with Paul. ''There are plenty of tapes and plenty of stories. But that gets boring.''

She tried knitting and crocheting. ''I've always worked on such doodads.'' As she spoke, her hands moved to the center of the dining room table. Her fingertips traced the scallop-shaped knots that she crocheted into the table's centerpiece, a bright white snowflake made of yarn.

Longing to do more, Bernie went back to school and earned a certificate in furniture upholstery.

She tried to find someone to hire her as an apprentice. Prospective employers were called. No jobs were offered. Her age was not a problem. Neither were her skills.

''Every time I tried to set up a job interview, I'd ask them to give me directions. I'd tell them, 'I don't drive because I can't see.' ''

No sooner did she say those words, Bernie said, then ''Kapow! Down went the receiver.''

Those prospective employers were breaking the law. But Bernie just shrugged her shoulders at their ignorant and illegal actions.

''If someone doesn't want to work with me,'' she said. ''I don't want to work with them.''

She finally set up a Braille typewriter repair business in their basement. Bernie makes the repairs. Paul handles the paperwork.

They spend mornings together in the basement. She works on the machines, cleaning and replacing whatever's wrong with their 557 moving parts. He types on their talking computer.

''And I do the quality control,'' he said. ''I test the keys to make sure they work after Shorty fixes them.''

Shorty is Paul's nickname for Bernie. When she hears it, she fakes a frown. Then she giggles like a schoolgirl, and her fingers slide across the table to the fingertips of the man she loves.

Around noon they break for lunch. Before taking a bite, they sit in silent prayer.

Paul said that in that dark silence he thanks God ''for watching over us.''

Bernie said she gives thanks ''for the abilities God has given us.''

After amens, they eat. They take their food, Bernie said, as they do their lives with each other.

''We enjoy.''

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.