Louise Bennett gave birth to her first child, a son she and her husband named Charles, some two and a half months early. The hospital where he was born fashioned an incubator out of X-ray film, which the family thinks might have resulted in his poor eyesight.
But it kept him alive. Born at 3 pounds, 2 ounces, the infant went home at 5 pounds. The young couple kept their Binghamton, N.Y., apartment at 85 degrees, and wore masks around their newborn anytime he was out of the crib.
His eyesight would be the least of their worries - he had been born with cerebral palsy. Charles would wind up in a wheelchair, and his mother dutifully home-schooled him throughout the 1940s and 1950s - well before such services were covered by public funds, and before the Americans with Disabilities Act would have made it illegal to keep him from regular school.
The handicapped boy went on to travel the world, go to college - even attending law school - and live well into his 60s, and it had everything to do with the care his mother and father gave him, said his younger sister, Ann Rogers of Durham.
Bennett died last month at 97. She had a lifetime of caring for others, but in her final years was able to rest at the Springmoor Life Care Retirement Community in Raleigh.
Her son died seven years before she did. She remarked often to her daughter how much she missed Charles but, as the mother of someone with a severe handicap, she found some relief in that she cared for him until the end.
"I think she was glad that he died before she did. I think she was really worried that he would outlive her," Rogers said. Back when she was still Louise Abbott, she met her husband, Landis Bennett, while the two were students at West Virginia University. She had grown up there, and was flabbergasted, her daughter said, when the handsome Landis, a post-doctorate student there on a fellowship, sought her out.
"She was a lot prettier than she thought she was," Rogers said.
The two wed and moved to Arkansas, where she finished her undergraduate degree in home economics. Her husband decided to change careers from plant genetics to photography, and the couple moved to New York so he could attend photography school.
Charles was born seven months into a challenging pregnancy, Rogers said. "They thought he would not live."
Soon after his birth the couple moved to North Carolina, where Landis Bennett was from. He spent years taking photos of families and weddings, eventually securing a position at N.C. State University through the N.C. Agricultural Extension as a visual aid specialist.
It was his unique skill set that brought the family abroad, first to Rome for a year in 1953, then to Kenya from 1970 to 1971.
It was the trip to Rome that prompted Charles' first wheelchair - until then he had braces fit for him as he grew, and his mother massaged his legs and joints daily.
'Never a still person'
Twice a year throughout his childhood, the family drove to Baltimore to see a doctor specializing in cerebral palsy, and Bennett carried out the physical and occupational therapy as instructed, her daughter said.
The Bennetts made these trips with another family, the Harrises, who also had a son with cerebral palsy.
"She really looked after him. She anticipated everything he needed and was always right there to help him," said John Harris, the father of that family.
When the Bennetts went to Rome, she took on the responsibility to home-school both children. Her daughter recalls finishing up their studies, and then strolling around Rome every afternoon.
"She would push this wheelchair over cobblestones," Rogers said.
When the Bennetts lived in Africa in the 1970s, Rogers did not join them, but she remembers her mother being utterly unfazed by the prospect.
"She was a very strong-willed person - she knew what she wanted," Rogers said.
Once she no longer had to home-school her son, Bennett obtained a teaching certificate and began a long career in Raleigh public schools, teaching third and sixth grades.
"My mother was never a still person," Rogers said. "She just boogied all the time."
Over the years Bennett also opened her home to international students and refugees, her daughter said, and found time to teach Sunday school at Edenton Street Methodist Church, as well as volunteer as a docent at the N.C. Museum of Art.
Betty Anne (Haskins) Schlegel had Bennett as her third-grade teacher at Sherwood Bates Elementary, and then was able to foster an adult relationship with Bennett while visiting her own mother in Springmoor. She recalled the time Bennett brought her daughter's pet tarantula to class.
"She let the spider crawl across our arms and hands just to see how gentle he was," Schlegel said. "That was an experience you don't forget."
Bennett often let the children pick a song on the record player to start the day, and was always coming up with creative class projects - such as writing a journal as if she were a specific tree. "She stimulated our imaginations so much," Schlegel said.
Bennett used that creativity to advocate for children with disabilities.
She and her husband were part of the organizational stages of early advocacy groups such as the Society for Crippled Children, and the N.C. Cerebral Palsy Center. They retrofitted their duplex to meet his needs, and they designed their retirement home around them as well.
Charles spent one glorious year in mainstream elementary school and "ate it up," his sister said. But when the next year's teacher found him overwhelming, he was back at home. In high school, he was able to participate in mainstream class remotely, using a radio system, and his mother went to school every day to turn in and pick up assignments.
When Charles went to UNC-Chapel Hill, his parents advertised for a roommate who would be able to do the things his parents had done, such as help him bathe and carry the wheelchair into the inaccessible dorms and classrooms. Some did not last long, while others became lifelong friends. They paid for his care out of their own pockets, Rogers said.
But once Charles finished school, the Bennetts struggled helping their son find a place in the world as a professional. His disabilities began to truly limit him, and he spent much of his adult life feeling poorly about all the things he wished he could do.
"I think she pushed a lot of boundaries throughout his education years, but she probably felt frustrated when it came to the point of helping him create a life for himself after that," Rogers said.
Charles would live the rest of his life with his parents, even moving into the Springmoor Life Care Retirement Community until his death in 2005. Bennett read to him every day.
"She never seemed to resent having to do anything she had to do at all," Rogers said. "She was a very loving mother."
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