Portage Pathways: Stoic Atwater widow refused to surrender to blindness

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Matilda Ann Douthitt lived much of her long life in darkness, but refused to allow failing vision to render her helpless -- even as a widowed octogenarian living virtually on her own on the Atwater farm where she reared five children.

"It is wrong to give up or sit in idle discouragement before trouble," Mrs. Douthitt told the Ravenna Republican in 1912. "What right had I to give up and be a burden to my family and my friends when by educating other faculties I could still do my work?"

Fifty years earlier, when she was in her early 30s and the mother of several small children, her vision began to fail after she contracted what the Republican described as "a prevalent form of eye trouble." The condition progressively worsened until she could no longer read or distinguish objects.

She was virtually blind, and had been for about 30 years, when the newspaper shared her story on the eve of her 81st birthday.

Born April 1, 1831, in what is now West Virginia, Matilda Ann Siddall was reared in Atwater, where she married Thornton Douthitt in 1852. The couple initially lived in Brady Lake and Edinburg before returning to Atwater, where they moved to a 225-acre farm in the northern part of the township on the west side of present-day S.R. 183. They purchased the land during the Civil War and remained there for the rest of their long marriage.

The Douthitts had five children -- four sons and a daughter. The first two boys were born shortly after they married; the remaining three were born after Mrs. Douthitt was stricken with her eye ailment.

As she fought a losing battle against blindness, the young mother reared her family, kept house and assisted her husband on the farm. They never spent a night apart until he was hospitalized a few years before his death. "They lived for each other in quiet, unpretentious manner, content with the affairs of their daily estate if only the other were present in health and its attendant blessings," it was reported in Thornton Douthitt's obituary.

According to the Republican, Mrs. Douthitt fulfilled the duties of "the housewife of the farm" -- cooking, baking, sewing, mending, washing, sweeping, scrubbing and cleaning -- "besides helping in the outdoor affairs of the farm at needed times" despite the fact that her sight was failing.

She did so with a sense of stoicism and a refusal to yield that was apparent in her responses to the Republican, which observed that "the dark of Egypt could not shake her resolution to do her work and remain a helpmeet to her husband."

She adapted to blindness with a sense of pragmatism. Asked how she could find objects in her household, Mrs. Douthitt replied that she always kept items in the same place. "You can find particular volumes in your library although it is dark, if you do not change their location on the shelves. In the same way, I can find my things although I cannot see them."

She had no use for doctors. Early on in her marriage, she said, she suffered from a disabling weakness that left her unable to keep house without having to rest periodically. She abandoned the pills and medication a doctor had prescribed, recovered on her own and pronounced herself healthy ever since.

In addition to housekeeping, she made cheese, enjoyed spinning and weaving, and took pride in piecing log cabin-pattern quilts for each of her grandchildren. She was renowned for her baking ability.

Thornton Douthitt's death in November 1909 ended their 57-year marriage. A widow at 78, she remained at their homestead in the company of her elderly brother. She had outlived her two eldest sons; one of them, George, an attorney who was Portage County clerk of courts, died in a fire at Sandy Lake in 1911.

"Life and the future are mysteries to me," she said. "Why we are here and why we suffer and sorrow, I do not know but I do know it is better to do right, and that includes doing all we can under all conditions."

Work, according to the Republican, was the "tonic" that kept Mrs. Douthitt alive. "She expressed a wish to die when there is no longer anything for her hands to do."

Matilda Ann Douthitt outlived her eyesight by more than four decades. She was 91 years old when she died on May 1, 1922, at the home of her son, Clinton, in Atwater. "She was a woman of remarkable character and strength of will," the Republican observed.

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