Working out that my 89-year-old aunt Mary was dyslexic answered a lot of questions; the identification in adulthood, late adulthood in Mary’s case, always does. But it raised questions, too.
In a family of five children, four girls and one boy, dad was third born and Mary next, 18 months younger. Mary idolised my dad, and he always ‘looked out for her’, particularly when they were teenagers and young adults. Dad was a good scholar. Mary was not. From the day she started school she was in trouble – ‘You’ll never be like your brother John,’ teachers would say. When I was a child I can remember Mary teasing my dad with this line. But now, aware that we were both dyslexic, the perspective sharpened. ‘You were bullied by teachers, weren’t you, Mary?’ I said. Mary was, I think, one of the least sentimental women I’ve ever known, but tears brimmed in her eyes. ‘They were cruel, Vincent,’ she said. Knowing her sense of humour, fierce wit and ability to mimic, I guessed she must have taken on the role of ‘class joker’, as we dyslexics so often do, and in so doing became even more vulnerable to teachers’ bullying.
But something didn’t fit. Mary had worked at the village Post Office, working there, part-time well into her seventies. Like me, I knew that Mary could never learn multiplication tables and had trouble with arithmetic as well as print. This was before the days of the calculator – so how on earth did she get into this work, and how come she stayed in it for so long?
Mary’s eyes lit up. ‘Ah, it was all because of the Postmaster, Mr Parsons.’
After leaving school, Mary had helped her boyfriend Jim with the donkeys on the nearby beach, but when the war came, ‘I felt I had to get a proper job,’ she said. ‘There was a job for a postwoman. The young men were joining up, so I applied. Mr Parsons said, “I’m not having a young girl like you going out early in the morning delivering the letters in all weathers. You’ll work here in the Post Office with me.” I said, “But I can’t do that sort of work, Mr Parsons.” “Oh yes you can,” he said. And do you know what he did? He broke everything up into little bits! We started with the stamps. I’d be doing things like tidying, or drawing margins, but when a customer came in for stamps I’d be standing beside him, and tear off the stamps that the customer wanted. Next I’d serve the customer myself, and he’d deal with the money. Then he showed me how to take the money and give the change. He said it was much easier if you counted the change out loud as you passed it to the customer until it matched the money they’d given you.
He broke all the work up into tiny little pieces, and when I’d learnt each piece, he just let me get on with it. It wasn’t long before I was doing everything, the parcels, the postal orders, the telegrams, everything. He was a wonderful man, Mr Parsons.’
‘You’ll never be like your brother John.’ Perhaps not. But you’ll be just as significant.