My parents were deaf and dumb
WHAT STRIKES ME as mOSt unusual on looking back is how normal our home life seemed. 1 was fourteen and had left home to go to high school in Braeebridge, Ontario, ten miles away, betöre it ever occurred to me that others might think it strange that we could talk to our parents only on our hands, by signs and finger-spelling; that there would be special difficulties in raising five voluble, lively children if you were totally deaf and could never hear them speak — or scream; or even that Dad's deafness would make earning a living for his family just that much more difficult for him.
It was in Braeebridge that I first heard my father, George Dickson, referred to as Dummy Dickson — a term that infuriated Mother, who took it as a slur on his intelligence. Dad, more philosophically, accepted it as intended, as a reference to his inability to speak. For my part,
I was immediately cured of infatuation for a handsome schoolmate when I caught him burlesquing my gestures as I talked to Dad on Main Street one day. But such incidents were rare and had as little lasting effect as a transient breeze on a sultry August day, so warm and secure was the climate Mother and Dad managed to create even without speech.
As neither remembered ever having heard, they had never learned to talk. Mother’s hearing was destroyed by scarlet fever when she was little more than a year old. and an unidentified ear infection caused Dad’s deafness when he was still an infant in Ireland. Although both had gone to the Ontario School for the Deaf at Belleville, Ont., this was before lipreading was stressed there, and long before deaf children were trained in vocal speech as they are now'. So we talked with our hands, using a combination of finger-spelling, which was accurate but slow, and large graphic signs, which were much faster but more open to misinterpretation. As we couldn’t dramatize conversations by voice inflection, we accompanied them w'ith exaggerated smiles and grimaces. 1 find it impossible to talk on my hands without these facial contortions and at the end of a long conversation my face feels like taffy that’s been pulled vigorously in all directions at once, and my eyes are tired from darting constantly from my companion’s hands to his face to check the expression.
Dad was a big man. nearly six feet tall, thickchested and broad-shouldered, with a face as Irish as the thatched cottage in County Armagh where he was born. Round and benign, his face
w'as dominated, in spite of bushy red eyebrows, a shaggy red.mustache and a hooked Irish beak of a nose (broken in a boxing match when he was young), by tw'inkling grey-green eyes that took in everything and revealed as clearly as words his interest, amusement, sympathy and, occasionally, anger. The traditional Irish extravagance of language was transformed in him into an extravagance of facial expression. When he was pleased his face was almost luminous w'ith delight. As a visitor once remarked, no one could be as glad to see you as Dad, clapping his hands and glowing, appeared to be. But he enjoyed company and loved a good joke. When he was told an especially amusing story, his w'hole body would shake with almost silent laughter and the tears would stream down his face.
To think of Mother is to think of movement. She w'ent through her housework like a small, determined whirlwind, washing and cleaning and dusting and baking feather-light bread and the best lemon pies ever tasted, clearing up the dull indoor chores in record time so as to have more time for gardening and berry-picking and haying and other outdoor activities she enjoyed. She was small and neat, just an inch over five feet tall, and usually weighing less than 120 pounds. She was a pretty woman when young, with browm wavy hair and big hazel eyes, and early photographs show' her with w'hat must surely have been a deceptively grave manner. Because mischief was much more characteristic of Mother than gravity.
For years she carried on a mock feud with Will Crockford, one of our neighbors, that ended only when he died tragically in a bush accident. One of her most successful coups in this running battle was the day she darted out the front door calling (she had a sharp, wordless call) and w-aving a piece of paper just after he’d driven by our gate. Since we lived ten miles from the nearest town, neighbors always undertook errands for each other. Will Crockford pulled his fast team to a halt, tied his reins to the wagon, and ran back several hundred yards to get Mother's grocery list. He was an agile man. and when he read “April Fool" on the paper, he leaped right over the fence and chased Mother all the way back to the house. She could run like a deer and always won the married women's races at local picnics. For some reason the only joke on herself that she never did think w'as funny was the day a neighbor held her back in a race so that another woman won, and
Will Crockford as judge (and probably as instigator) laughed at her furious protests and gave the prize to the winner.
Fraserburg, where Mother and Dad lived for more than forty years, is a placid settlement casually spawned at the point wffiere the narrow, dusty road that runs east of Braeebridge crosses the South Branch of the Muskoka River before continuing its seemingly aimless course through the bush for another five miles to a now-abandoned sawmill on Pine Lake, where it stops dead. Lumbering was the reason for its early existence and through it. and a kind of rough farming, about twenty-five families made an adequate if not lavish living at one time. Now that the timber has been cut over, the village has shrunk to less than half its former size.
Dad and Mother moved to the five-roomed unpainted frame house on three hundred acres of farm and bushland a few years after they were married. There w'ere already tw'o children, Herbert, the only boy and the eldest, and Gertrude, known by everyone as Dinty since her high-school days. Three more daughters, Laura, Amy and I, were born at Fraserburg with no doctor in attendance but with the local postmistress to act as midwife. The three eldest children left home early for school and work so most of my memories are of a time when Amy and I were the only children at home.
We learned sign language as naturally as other children learn to speak, by imitating our parents. None of us remembers learning it as none of us remembers learning vocal speech. Grandma Dickson lived with the family when Herb and Dinty were small and perhaps she taught them to speak and they taught the rest of us. But if so, the Irish accent fell by the wayside. More likely we learned from our neighbors. At family gatherings when Mother and Dad were alive, there would be a great confusion of finger-spelling, signs, and talking all at once as one or another of us tried to keep our parents up to date with the faster vocal conversations going on around them. Often a story started vocally would be switched in midsentence to the sign language we could all follow.
Although we talked quickly and easily on our hands, this method of communication did have some drawbacks. We had to stop all other activity to talk. There could be no girlish confidences over the dishpan, at least not without the water growing cold. We couldn’t call to our parents from a distance, or eavesdrop unobtrusively on adult conversations; if we were close enough to read the signs we were close enough to be seen. Mother easily foiled any attempt at coaxing or whining on the part of her children. If she said “no” and we continued to plead, she’d turn her back on us. Or shut her eyes. It was very frustrating. As. from an adolescent’s point of view, was the fact that there was no way of dropping seemingly inadvertent remarks or sulky phrases. How can you pretend a word slipped out accidentally if you have to tap your mother on the shoulder first to make sure she’s looking? Like most women of her generation. Mother would have preferred to avoid all talks about the birds and the bees and I remember these discussions as being mercifully rare. For some things the sign language is embarrassingly blunt.
I think what made life with deaf parents seem so normal was that the community accepted them so wholeheartedly. Several of our neighbors took the trouble to learn the finger alphabet to talk to them,
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We’d pass on the sermon to them, making quick decisions on what was important and what wasn’t
and all communicated in some way, by smiles, or signs, or written notes. Most deaf signs are fairly easy to understand. Mother could say: “Whew! Isn’t this a scorcher of a day!" by wiping imaginary perspiration from her brow while blow-
ing through pursed lips and screwing her face into a suitably pained expression. If she wanted precise information, she’d use a pencil and paper, or call on one of us to interpret.
We helped with shopping, sometimes
softening Mother’s remarks about the shoddiness of materials she was shown, and with selling the firewood and potatoes that were the farm’s chief crops. Perhaps we had more responsibility at an earlier age than most children — certainly Dad
relied on Herb in his business dealings with hearing people when Herb was still a boy, and Laura recalls her uneasiness when helping him sell wood for fear she'd make a mistake in interpretation and prejudice a sale she knew was important. In the small church that overlooked our farm from a nearby hilltop, where they never missed a service if they could help it, we told our parents what the Bible passage was and what hymns were being sung, and passed on the minister’s sermon, cutting out all unnecessary rhetoric and making split-second decisions on what was important and what was not. At the end of a half hour of words (lowing directly from ear to finger, I felt as drained as a garden hose after an evening’s sprinkling, with little or no residue of the message left in my mind.
But the hardest job of interpreting I ever had wasn’t for my parents at all. I was asked to interpret for a deaf couple accused of breaking into summer cottages and stealing food, dishes, blankets and (pathetically, I thought) a gramophone and records. The hearing was in a schoolhouse about thirty miles from home. I was fourteen at the time and fortunately Mother went with me as I found I needed her to interpret for me.
The accused couple’s neighbors left their haying in the field to crowd avideyed into their children’s seats as though this were a bit of theatre arranged for their benefit. The deaf couple, seated on the platform at the front of the classroom, peered dazedly about them awaiting interrogation by the crown attorney through my fingers. They were friends of my parents and I felt like Judas confronting the grey, beaten, man in the shabby grey cardigan and his pallid wife whose flesh drooped loosely from flaccid muscles. Their children, with whom I’d occasionally played, watched from the front seats, thin and pale and cold-looking in spite of the bright sunlight outside, anti this shook my composure even more. And then I discovered I couldn’t make the woman understand my questions. As mentioned earlier, there are two ways of talking on the hands, finger-spelling — spelling out each word by making the individual letters of the alphabet with the fingers—and the larger signs that arc less accurate but quicker. Most deaf people use a combination of both. Mother wanted us to learn to spell properly and so encouraged us to spell more than to sign. So I spelled out the crown attorney’s questions. But although the man apparently understood me, his wife, who was nearly blind as well as deaf, obviously did not and I was horrified to find I couldn’t understand her replies either. The crown attorney, a small, waspish man with a shock of white hair, snapped at me: “Come on, come on, don’t carry on a long conversation with her. All we want is her answer.” But I couldn’t get an answer that I understood.
Finally, in desperation, I appealed to Mother and she joined me on the platform. From then on 1 spelled the questions to her, and she translated them into the larger signs the poor woman could see and understand, and explained her answers to me. The only bright spot in the day's work for me was that the couple was let off with a warning.
Neither Mother nor Dad wasted any time feeling sorry for themselves because they were deaf, although they admitted it
grieved them not to be able to hear their children’s voices. Next to that, music, especially band music, was what they would have most liked to hear. They delighted in parades, with their color, and the strong vibrations of drums and brass instruments, which they could feel. But sound remained a mystery to them. Mother was a wonderful cook and had to hide her baking from us if she wanted it to last. As we ferreted out each hiding place her ingenuity was taxed to find new ones. She thought she had the ideal solution when she hid the doughnuts in the barrel churn and could never understand why the sound of the heavy lid being clamped into place was so distinctive that we knew exactly where to look.
Dad, as a young man, moved by the exuberance of an early June morning on the farm, once asked his brother what spring sounded like. Unable to explain in words, his brother took him to the swamp where they caught a frog and Dad, putting his finger on its throat as it croaked, felt at least some of the spring music that tilted the air.
We children preferred our parents as they were and would have been alarmed if they had suddenly regained their hearing. Amy remembers vividly a visit two faith-healers made to our home. They stood, with hands over Mother’s and
Dad's ears, while one of them prayed aloud for their hearing to be restored. Amy, in the doorway, prayed even more fervently if silently for things to remain as they were. She caught an expression of complete skepticism on Mother’s face and it may have been this instead of Amy’s prayer that was responsible for the faith-healers’ failure.
Another time a young friend who had read an account of sudden shock curing deafness was eager to try her luck with Mother. Unfortunately for the scientific value of the experiment, she told Amy of her plans first, and Amy immediately told Mother. When Milly leaped at Mother from behind a door (wielding a butcher knife. I believe, to add to the shock), Mother’s reaction was violent enough to suit any director of old-time melodrama. She fell back, clutching her chest, her eyes bugging and her mouth dropping open. Milly’s voice trembled:
“Can you hear me?” she asked.
Mother nodded, keeping the same stupefied look on her face.
“Tell me what I say," Milly told her, trying her out on a few words.
Luckily she didn’t expect Mother to be able to talk as well as hear and was thrilled to have her spell back the words on her hands. I was standing by, just as excited as Milly about the cure. 1 should have known Mother better. When I discovered Amy, standing safely behind Milly, spelling the words to Mother, I blurted out disgustedly:
“Oh, you’re telling her!”
Instead of being embarrassed at being found out in her duplicity. Mother scolded me for spoiling the fun.
Somehow, for years, we subscribed to
the myth that our home was quieter than our neighbors’ homes. We had no telephone or radio, and only briefly an old Victrola with a stack of records. But to counteract that we also had no one to tone us down when we shouted. This was brought home to me when a young woman with whom we used to play as children said: “1 always loved playing at your place. We could make all the noise we wanted and no one ever told us to be quiet.” Mother, far from limiting the noisy games of hide-and-seek that we
played all through the house, used to help us think up tricky hiding places.
Her relationship with her children was a combination of affectionate camaraderie and fairly strict discipline. We all recall fishing expeditions with her (sometimes early in the morning before we went to school), baseball games, the many times she was a welcome addition to the young people's summer evening games of Home Sheep Home, but we also remember that she wasn’t afraid to use Dad’s razor strap if she felt we needed it. Dad left most of
the discipline to Mother, although when his patience was tried too far his voice would boom out in a series of explosive “Bs”—a sort of “b . . . b . . . b . . . b” that left us in no doubt of his feelings. He used variations of this sound in guiding his horses and they always understood him, too. (Indeed, he could establish an understanding even with strange horses very quickly.) Although she couldn't hear him. he’d sometimes boom at Mother, too, during their rare arguments. We could tell from the next room when a quarrel was in progress although we couldn’t tell what it was about. Dad could sound and look fiercer than Mother—his face got red and seemed to swell to twice its normal size when he was angry—but Mother usually won the arguments. They often ended with Dad. half laughing but still exasperated, telling her she was a fox. He made this sign by flicking the end of his nose with two fingers and screwing his face into a sly, fox-like expression. He said she always got him off the main argument by leading him down a side path and pouncing on him there about something he hadn’t been fighting about in the first place. Mother didn’t mind being called a fox. She took it as a tribute to her skill.
Another of Dad’s signs with which we all became painfully familiar was made by putting the right hand to the right temple, palm forward and bending it forward and back, as a mule might move its ears. This sign meant “stubborn.” Mother sometimes reminded Dad in the course of an argument where his children got their mulishness.
Mother’s impishness dated almost from the day she was born on a farm near Fenelon Falls. Ontario. She remembered that her mother was impatient of her pranks, but Grandpa Elliott indulged his
small deaf daughter and she. in return, loved him very much. At the residential School for the Deaf at Belleville, where she went when she was seven, she skated and climbed trees and. incidentally, learned her school lessons and the dressmaking she disliked but found useful later in clothing her family. She was proud that when she returned home she was able to teach her father to write and she treasured a letter he wrote laboriously after her marriage.
Dad was ten years older than Mother. Born in 187 I. he was nine years old when his parents emigrated to Canada from Ireland, homesteading at Purbrook. a few miles down the river from Fraserburg where Dad later bought his farm. Although Dad always described the journey across the ocean so vividly that we were almost seasick watching him. he remembered little of Ireland but that it was green. He had no schooling until, when he was twelve, a neighbor urged his father to give the sturdy red-haired lad a chance by sending him to the government-supported School for the Deaf at Belleville. Whenever Dad talked of this his face glowed with the memory of his joy at being able to go to school. He’d make signs to indicate how his eyes were opened and his intelligence awakened when he learned to read. He never lost his pleasure in reading; his favorite book was Robinson Crusoe. Perhaps he felt a fellow-feeling for Crusoe because of the hardships and loneliness they both suffered.
He was still at school, at 18. when word that his father was seriously ill brought him home to help support his mother and the six younger children. He worked mainly in bush camps where his strength was an asset and deafness no drawback to doing a good day's work. Working with
other men felling trees when you were unable to hear their warning shouts could be dangerous, but Dad was very alert. Although he had minor accidents in the bush, and one serious one when he slashed his leg with an axe, he never had an accident that was caused by his deafness. Years later, during the Depression, when he was over sixty, he worked again in a bush camp not far from home. He was a proud man, determined to ask no favors because of age or deafness, but he confessed later to Herb that he was often afraid that winter. He was teamed to work with a thoughtless young man, careless in his work, and with no inkling of what it was like to be deaf. I hey worked long hours, and at quitting time it was already dark in the bush. The minute the young man heard the other workers shout that it was time to catch a ride back to camp with the sleigh, he’d shoulder his axe and dash otf. Dad, with no warning and no sound of voices or harness jingling to guide him, with his sense of direction (never very good) further confused by darkness and the day's constant moving from tree to tree, spent apprehensive minutes each night searching for the sleigh-track that would lead him safely back to camp.
He vvas 35 when he married. He teased Mother by saying he’d gone to Fenelon Falls from Bracebridge to buy a horse but when told about the young deaf woman who lived nearby he d gone courting her instead. He always chuckled about his doctor’s needling him that he had to carry a lantern when he took a girl out. and his answer that that way, at least, he could sec what he was getting.
They never lost their curiosity
He chose well. Their marriage lasted more than 45 years and was a happy one. They shared much hard work and many hard times, too. but they enjoyed the same things, fishing, long walks in the bush, motor trips to visit other deaf friends, and a keen curiosity in anything new that came their way. I hey never lost this curiosity so that w'hen Dad was dying from bronchial pneumonia at 80, he watched with curiosity rather than fear as the doctor prepared the oxygen tank to help him breathe. Mother, at 76, flew for the first time, from Toronto to Edmonton. On the return journey, supposedly a non-stop flight, the stewardess handed her a note: "We have engine trouble and will be putting down at Winnipeg. There is no cause for alarm.” So far from being alarmed, Mother was pleased to have even this brief glimpse of Winnipeg, a new city to her.
After their marriage they lived for a few years in Bracebridge, where Dad worked in a tannery. The two eldest children were born there. Although there was no reason why he should be deaf. Mother and Dad watched anxiously for some sign that Herb, the firstborn, could hear. Mother told us once of her joy when a neighbor seized her by the shoulders and turned her around to show her how the baby turned his head when she spoke to him.
When her babies were small. Mother kept them with her in the double bed at night so that she could feel them squirming if they woke. In the daytime shed have to make many trips to the crib to make sure they were dry and comfortable. As we grew older both parents worried for fear we’d get lost in the bush that came within a few hundred rods of the house. Dinty was lost in this bush once, for several hours and in the dark, and although she insists she wasn’t frightened, Dad was nearly frantic until she was found. We learned at an early age
to come immediately when called, since we couldn't call back and reassure our parents. Mother, by much practice, learned to pronounce our names so that we knew which of us she was calling.
Although far from angelic, we were reasonably obedient. We felt it would be unfair to take advantage of our parents’ deafness. And to tell the truth we couldn't get away with much anyway. Mother seemed to have eyes in the back of her head and both parents (aside from hearing) had sharper senses than most people. It was practically impossible to come in
late at night without waking one of them with the slight jar the door made as it closed. Mother could smell potatoes boiling dry long before anyone else could, and Dad, with one finger on the fender of his Model T Ford, knew in an instant if the motor wasn't running smoothly. He may have seen more out of the corner of his eye than other drivers, too: he was never stopped by a traffic cop.
Mother, in particular, was intensely interested in all community happenings. When we returned from an evening's outing, she’d sit up in bed and ask: “What
did you talk about?” We were expected to tell her all the news. When I was younger, I tried to protect her innocence by censoring the gossip but this was useless as she always learned the full story from one of the neighbors and was annoyed at my poor reporting.
1 think Dad, more than Mother, felt isolated on the farm and missed the easy companionship of other deaf people. Among them he was noted as a great raconteur. His favorite stories were about the days before his marriage when he worked as a river-driver, helping to cut
the giant pines that covered northern Ontario and drive them down the rivers to the lumber mills. He had a marvelous gift for pantomime so that when he described the dynamiting of a log jam, or the time he and another brawny young giant guarded a dam all night so that a rival camp couldn’t steal the water they needed to float their logs down the river, you felt you were right at the scene. It was only later, when you were trying to put the story into words, that you realized it had all been told in gestures.
Dad and Mother hated to miss any of the prayer meetings of the Ontario deaf people. These were social gatherings as well as church services and were a time
for catching up on the lives of their deaf friends. It was at one of these meetings, when I was looking around, trying to decide which of the half dozen conversations would be the most interesting to follow, that Dad turned to me and asked :
“Do you feel sorry for us because we can’t hear?”
I hadn’t been feeling sorry at the moment, but thinking it would be callous to say so. I nodded my head.
“Don’t be sorry,” Dad spelled. “We are happy.” Perhaps he couldn’t speak for all the deaf people there, but I’m sure he spoke quite truthfully for himself and Mother,