As you sit down to Thanksgiving dinner today, close your eyes for a few moments and imagine …

You can smell the turkey and the gravy and the stuffing, but you can’t see any of it.

You can hear the people around you saying grace, passing the potatoes and gabbing away about this, that and the other thing, but you can’t begin to describe what the person sitting next to you looks like.

You can reach out and find the glass by your plate, but unless you take a sip you have no clue what’s in it.

Welcome to Jim Conley’s world. A world where a vague sense of light tells you it’s day, black tells you it’s night, and it’s up to your imagination to fill in the rest.

“I thank the Lord every day,” said Jim shortly after chowing down Monday on an early Thanksgiving meal. “I’ve got lots of things to be thankful for.”

Not what you might expect to hear from a man who’s been blind since the moment he entered this world, at 6 a.m. on June 10, 1920. A man who’s lived in Portland his whole life but has never seen a sunrise over Casco Bay or the Christmas tree in Monument Square or a sea gull waltzing with the wind currents over Munjoy Hill.

A man who could be bitter about all that he’s missed these past 90 years — but instead chooses to focus on, well, the bright side.

“Count my blessings — that’s what I do,” Jim said. “Every morning when I get up, I ask the Lord’s blessing and then I count them one by one.”

Starting with the Beacon Club.

I thought, when the request landed in my e-mail inbox a month or two ago, that this would be like any other speaking engagement: I spend 45 minutes combining equal parts of my recent trips to Haiti and Afghanistan, stir in a tale or two of my travels around Maine and, after time for a few questions, call it a luncheon.

I thought wrong.

The Beacon Club has been around almost as long as Jim Conley has. An offshoot of the Maine chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women, it has one mission: to bring together people with blindness or impaired vision and, for a few hours each month, open a window to the world around them.

For some, that world has only recently begun to go blurry. For others, like Jim, there’s light and darkness — but no color, no shape, no visual references whatsoever. Still others, like Mary Ives, see nothing but blackness all the time.

“I’m 99 years old,” said a very proud Mary, who uses a handheld microphone attached to an earpiece so she can hear. “But I still have all my marbles!”

Including the one that fills a room with laughter.

“There’s just something about this club that drew me,” said Roberta Gordon of Portland, who’s overseen the Beacon Club for just under 29 years. Her father was an optometrist, she noted with a chuckle, “so I think I’ve got it in the blood.”

Each month, the club’s eight volunteer drivers — Ruth Cohen, Roberta Fishman, Carole Friedman, Carol Gilbert, Helene Obler, Peggy Shapiro, Jane Snerson and Joan Willis — fan out through Greater Portland and collect the dozen or so club members for their monthly rendezvous.

It usually involves lunch at a restaurant or at a driver’s home — but that’s just the beginning.

One month, they gathered around The Maine Lobsterman at the top of Portland’s Old Port — not just to hear about the often-photographed statue, but to take turns running their hands over the smooth bronze until they could picture the larger-than-life lobsterman kneeling over his catch.

They’ve chartered a bus to New Hampshire and climbed aboard the Conway Scenic Railroad, smelled the salt air from a Casco Bay ferry and toured the Cumberland County Jail with none other than former Portland Police Chief Mike Chitwood.

They’ve picnicked at Fort Williams in Cape Elizabeth, immersed themselves in all things colonial at the Washburn Norlands Living History Center in Livermore and lunched with then-first lady Mary Herman around the dining room table at the Blaine House in Augusta.

They’ve talked weather (twice) with WCSH’s Joe Cupo, theater with The Portland Players and hiking with Bill Irwin, the first blind person to complete the 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail, from Georgia to Maine.

In short, they’ve seen more than many of their fellow Mainers — if not through their own eyes, then through the kindness of Gordon and her ever-upbeat band of volunteers.

Monday’s annual Thanksgiving gathering was at the home of volunteer Carol Gilbert of Falmouth. It was a gray, rainy day and, as I pulled in the driveway, I confess my mind was going in a million directions — from writing deadlines and holiday travel plans to my yard that still needs cleaning and a gas gauge that, right before my inattentive eyes, had just dropped below empty.

“Great,” I muttered to myself. “Just what I need.”

Then, just like that, my troubles vanished.

Here’s what I’ll see when I close my eyes this Thanksgiving.

I’ll see Evelyn Stilkey, 82, Gladys Sternberg, 94, Sonny Olsen, 88, Gloria Lyons, 74, Debbie Schettino, 59, Tom Frary, 96, Mildred Cushman, 86, and 99-year-old Mary Ives (with all her marbles), all sitting in a circle reliving their past adventures and planning new ones.

I’ll see Jim Conley, resplendent in his red suspenders, picking up his shiny accordion, attaching his harmonica to its neck brace and launching into a knee-slapping rendition of “Oh Susanna!” followed by “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “Amazing Grace” and, of course, “Over the River and Through the Woods.”

I’ll see eye contact replaced effortlessly with the touch of a fingertip, the soft voice close to an ear, the guiding hand cupped against a frail elbow.

I’ll see people who have every reason to feel sorry for themselves as they navigate the shadows of their twilight years, yet insist to a man and woman that life’s many blessings far outweigh its curses.

I’ll see the blind, for once, leading the rest of us with their laughter, their song and, above all, their spirit.

Finally, I’ll open my eyes and take in the golden turkey, the green beans, the yellow squash and the steaming bowl of Grandma Nemitz’s one-of-a-kind stuffing. And I’ll gaze long and hard at the faces of my wife, my kids and the rest of my large and loving extended family.

And then, closing my eyes once more, I’ll give thanks.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

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