Francis Watkins has packed a lot of life into only 92 years
Francis Watkins has been visually impaired all her life, but she considers herself one of the lucky ones.
“I feel very blessed,” said Watkins, who lives on the third floor of the Sullivan County nursing home. Born in 1925, she will turn 93 this year. She shares the room with another lady; a cloth curtain divides the room in half. Watkins's side is full of stacked plastic drawers full of yarn for her knitting and crocheting projects. Her chair by the window gets enough morning light she can see to work.
She's in the middle of knitting a scarf for a child she'll never meet. “I belong to a group of women that crochet and knit for five or six organizations,” she said. “I love doing for another people.”
“I can do so much even though I can't see good or hear good. I have the best kids in the world; they're always doing something for me.” Today her daughter, Cammie Baker, has brought her fresh vegetables from her garden.
Watkins grew up on a farm in North Springfield, where she learned how to do things with limited sight. “I've never known what it is to see good, so I don't miss it. I went to the Perkins Institute for the Blind, and I left after four months. It made me too emotional, I felt so sorry for the blind people.”
“My mother used to say, ''When you're doing dishes you don't have to see, you can feel.'”
They had chickens, other livestock, and an old horse that did no work. A man who lived down at the end of the lane — “We called him the pole-ender,” she laughs — always asked her mother if he could borrow the old horse.
“My mother would say, 'If you can catch him, you can use him.' She knew the horse was perfectly safe, because he wasn't going to catch him!”
When she was 10 years old, she learned to play the piano, but after three months her teacher said Francis didn't need any more lessons: “What she doesn't remember, she'll make up.”
“I listened to the radio. That's how I learned. I went to a Bing Crosby movie and when I got home I played the songs. I just did it in my head.”
Watkins and her late husband had five children, but he died of heart failure at 49, when Cammie and her brother were still young kids, but Watkins looks back on her life with gratitude and joy.
“I enjoyed being a mother. I had a lot of help from people, so I don't think it ever dragged me down.” Watkins attended the North Springfield Baptist Church. For a few years, she taught school in North Springfield. She always looks on the bright side, said Baker.
For 14 years, she lived with a man she loved without being married. Asked if she thought the change in social mores was a good thing, she said unequivocally, “Yes. That was a good thing.”
She was also part of a musical group, the Vermont Old Time Fiddlers, who met every week at a church in Perkinsville, and played at many local fairs and events. The fiddlers put out two albums, and Watkins knows hundreds of songs.
Including her own. She has a CD of her own songs, never published, but treasured: a legacy for her family.
There's a piano in the common room on her floor, so with Cammie's help she parks her wheelchair close enough to reach the keys. Although Watkins can read music, she can't read and play at the same time, so she memorizes every piece. She plays old favorites: “Red River Valley,” “The Old Rugged Cross,” “Amazing Grace,” and a waltz she wrote herself.
Another third-floor resident, Waltina, finds a nearby chair and softly joins in, singing. Cammie records the music on her phone.
A couple times a week, Watkins take the elevator to another floor, where she can play hymns and old tunes for patients with Alzheimer's. “They really like them,” she said. One man especially loves 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic,' and always sings along.
When she had to go in the nursing home, Robert had to go, too. Now, she and her boyfriend live in separate places. Watkins recently moved to the Sullivan County nursing home from Sugar River Mills senior housing.
Baker is currently working on getting a wheelchair ramp built on her home, and another room, possibly: she'd like to be able to give her mother a place where she can receive visitors.
“I have the best kids in the world,” said Watkins, enumerating all five and describing their accomplishments. “They're wonderful people.”
-- GLYNIS HART