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Lessons learned from a favorite aunt, who decades ago woke up on fire

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

It's Friday - time for StoryCorps. Today, lessons learned from a favorite aunt. When the StoryCorps mobile booth passed through Dallas, Jarie Bradley sat down with her aunt, Menaja Obinali, and got to hear about a moment in her life that they rarely discussed.

MENAJA OBINALI: When I was 17, I woke up on fire. I don't know what started it, but it was in my bedroom. And they had not expected me to live because of my head being burned so badly.

JARIE BRADLEY: When you lost your vision - tell me about that.

OBINALI: One morning when I woke up, I was totally blind. I told the doctor, I can't see, and I don't think they really believed me. They thought that I had what they call hysterical blindness, that I had had a bad response to seeing myself because I have a lot of skin grafting on my face. But, you know, I have never been sorry that I'm blind. I used to like to paint. So, you know, I would love to see so I could paint...

BRADLEY: (Laughter).

OBINALI: ...And so I could read more books. But I think I get to know people on a different level.

BRADLEY: I remember my mom told me, your Aunt Menaja is going to come and live with us.

OBINALI: You were about 5 years old. And I remember teaching you to read. I was babysitting with you. And if I had something I wanted to read, I gave you a book so you could learn how to read it.

BRADLEY: My mom - she would come home from work, and we would be at the table having tea and having very adult conversation.

OBINALI: (Laughter).

BRADLEY: When you moved out, I would come to see you weekly. My friends - they would be like, what are y'all doing over there (laughter)?

OBINALI: Yeah, who wants to go see an old, stodgy aunt?

(LAUGHTER)

BRADLEY: And I remember you telling me very early on in life about the dangers of being a liar and to be very intentional about what comes out of my mouth. And it still helps me today.

OBINALI: You're honest with people, and you ask a lot of questions. Now, I like that about you, actually, because people don't ask things. They say things loud enough for you to hear. What happened to her? What's wrong with her face? But you can't allow what people do to dictate how you're going to feel or else you'll be feeling bad all the time.

BRADLEY: You know, you are seriously fearless. I feel like I've never seen you question who you are or why God made you a certain way. And that's rare. That's rare.

ELLIOTT: That's Jarie Bradley with her aunt, Menaja Obinali, for StoryCorps. They remain close and still make time to get together for tea. Their interview is archived in the Library of Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Halle Hewitt