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A colorful life — lived in the dark

Maple Grove woman has been blind since 1960

Carol Alperin, of Maple Grove, has been blind since she was 12. That hasn’t stopped her from living a full life. Above, she poses with some of her current knitting projects. Photo by Caryl Hunter

Genuine, caring and courageous, with a great sense of humor mixed in. That would be a good way to describe Carol Alperin, 69, of Maple Grove. Alperin’s life has been full of challenges that make her both interesting and inspirational. Navigating through life is difficult for most people. Alperin has been navigating through most of her 69 years without sight.

Alperin doesn’t let herself be limited by her disability. Her spirit and her laugh are contagious – she is genuinely happy and content, loves her family, and enjoys her friends and neighbors. She has some tools she uses, like a Braille machine and an Amazon Echo, but she mostly relies on her other senses and strong sense of herself.

Alperin’s brother, Roger, was born blind, but Carol could see until she was 12 years old. Surgery wasn’t an option in 1959 – the medical procedures were costly and not as advanced as they are now. But, both Alperin and her brother had gifts to share, and they didn’t let the lack of sight stop them.

“Roger had the gift of music,” said Alperin. “He could sing! You want me to sing Long Ago and Far Away. I’m not a singer.”

Alperin has many accomplishments of her own. She went to school, taught sixth-grade for a while, played the piano, and was involved in swimming and gymnastics.

“I was an active enough child to maintain a distance judgment. I biked on country roads so my balance was always good, and I loved swimming and gymnastics – especially the trampoline.”

Alperin even passed the junior lifesaving test in swimming after she lost her sight, but the teacher wouldn’t give her the certificate. “She had a question about my blindness,” said Alperin. “But, I know I passed.”

Even though she lost her sight at 12, Alperin didn’t have “cane use” until she was 16. It was then, at 16 or 17, that she had one of her fondest volunteer memories: Working with babies. “That was such a delight,” said Alperin.

One of the things Alperin learned from her mother prior to losing her sight, which she still really enjoys and excels at, is knitting. She knits beautiful sweaters, ponchos, capes, hats and purses. She even makes the buttons herself. The details in her knitting projects are beautiful – roses, fringe, hand-knit and clay buttons, and bags that are fully lined with fun embellishments.

“My mom started teaching me knitting before I went totally blind, the summer before I lost my vision. I like to find a pattern and modify it a bit. I started making baby sweaters as gifts and a lot of women had their baby’s first pictures done in them.”

Currently she is working on dishclothes and washcloths for babies and for an organization she loves working with, Vision Loss Resources. Alperin loves to share her talent in helping and teaching others. It’s there that she makes the “sculpey clay buttons…you just roll and mold it, poke holes in it, and then bake it,” she says.

“We do lots of projects at Vision Loss Resources,” she said. “It’s a wonderful place. They even have adaptive quilting and make soaps with scents mixed in.”

Alperin enjoys interacting with others and has shown many people how to knit, crochet, and work with different crafts. She’s inspired by motivating others in being creative, especially other people who are blind. She wants them to know there are not as many limitations as they think there are. She also loves animals, reading, sewing, writing, plants, and enjoys music. But, she has a genuine helping spirit. She really feels truly rewarded in challenging others to be creative and make their lives better.

Alperin was just about to enter seventh-grade when her sight issues started. She described it as a “slow shutter.”

“It was the beginning of the school year,” says Alperin. “I could still see light and vibrant colors, and the sun shining off of bright colors. The loss of vision would come on suddenly and could happen at any time. For a time, my eyes would open back up. It would take a couple days and still be blurry or seem cloudy.”

Just being in school, or anywhere, was hard. You have to go up and down stairs, or walk on ice in the winter, or deal with uneven pavement. The types of things most people just take for granted they’ll see ahead of time. When your sight is suddenly changed, it makes everything more difficult. Since it came without warning, it was also scary, and hard for the other kids to understand.

“In school, I was the one who was different. The kids were not unkind, just thoughtless. Once they found out, they were right there for me.”

Eventually, her sight left her completely, but she never let that stop her. She always kept a light in her spirit, and she never let it make her feel like she wasn’t good enough. When asked how she knew her sight wasn’t going to return that last time, she said she could just tell.

“It was like frosted glass. The depth was whiter. There was a difference in the depth of the fog,” said Alperin. “I was sewing, of all things, when it happened. I just knew the vision wasn’t going to come back that time. I sensed it.”

Alperin wasn’t able to graduate from Brooten High School because of her disability, but she still attends high school reunions with the class of 1965. Even though she had to move, and still ended up getting a teaching degree, Brooten High School will always be a part of her. She has lifelong friends from high school that have never forgotten her.

“I’m grateful for not being isolated in a school for the blind,” said Alperin. “But they did learn better coping skills. I wasn’t around any other blind kids, except for my brother. And blind women have more insecurities, especially in big schools.”

Alperin may have her own issues, but she happily helps her husband of 46 years, Stan, as his caregiver. She likes to joke that they met on a “blind date” all those years ago, and they support each other and have a friendship that only comes with many years of being together.

They also raised three children together, two daughters and a son, and have five grandchildren. She became a stay-at-home mom after she had children. She’s very devoted to her family. She also has her cat, Cinnamon, who she adores.

It’s true that your other senses are stronger when you lose your sight, but it’s still very difficult in a world that operates for people who can see.

“I do use sound a lot,” said Alperin. “The television, music, an open window, can help me navigate better.”

Moving from their house in Brooklyn Park to an assisted living building in Maple Grove in the last few months has had Alperin learning new surroundings.

“We had to make a choice for Stan. He has intense OCD, and other physical problems. Maple Grove is nice, and has more of a town feeling, but transportation is harder because we’re farther out. But, we get some housekeeping, and help with laundry and medications. I like that it’s very woodsy and lodge-like, but navigating in a new apartment with an angled kitchen has been hard. But, the love and community feeling here…the people are amazing. We help each other.”

Carol Alperin and her husband, Stan, at their home in Maple Grove. Photo by Caryl Hunter

She’s glad to help Stan, but when she gets overtired, it’s harder. To try and rejuvenate when she needs it, she does take time off occasionally.

“I do go to a support group, and I try to take a long weekend every three months or so at a Christian retreat. It’s all blind people there or partially sighted people.”

Alperin has never let her loss of sight define her. She’s happy and is both confident and humble.

“I don’t have to impress people,” Alperin said. “I don’t need to make a big deal out in public. It isn’t that we go out to set an example. We choose other adaptations to be the person we are. To stay the person we are. The way I start every day is to think of three positive things. It gets my day going.”

Everyone has their obstacles and challenges in life, but Alperin has faced each challenge and kept a positive attitude throughout.

“You have to go through the fire sometimes to get to the glory,” said Alperin. “You’re a person first. When people lose their vision, they lose touch with themselves. They get so upset with their vision loss. They don’t realize what they can do.”

While most of us can see things unfolding before our eyes, Alperin has had to do it in the dark. The funny thing though is that in some ways, she actually sees things more clearly than those of us who can physically see.

“The one thing I want people to see is that life doesn’t stop when you have a disability,” said Alperin. “Everyone has strengths. There are so many people who are so awesome.”

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