“There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.” Graham Greene
After years of living under the watchful eyes of Grandpa and Aunt Jane, my mother and father bought our new house the summer of 1963. Buying that house was a big deal for them because Mommy and Daddy were Deaf and after a lifetime of struggle and exclusion this house was a declaration of faith in themselves and more importantly their independence.
385 Buffalo Avenue was a city house, a big yellow and brown two-family in the old section of town. It sat at the intersection of two busy, noisy streets which really didn’t matter to my parents because they couldn’t hear it. We were sandwiched on one side by Sonny’s Sweet Shop where you could buy candy, cigarettes and girlie magazines and by the Garcia’s house on the other which was so close to ours that on hot nights when they were playing cards at their kitchen table, I could press my nose up against the screen in my dark bedroom and see who had the best hand.
That summer, we settled into our new, free life. My parents threw parties and cookouts for housefuls of people, all of them Deaf. It something they never did at the old house and I guessed that it was because they didn’t feel like the other backyard belonged to them. Their friends were always laughing and signing as they turned the chicken legs on the grill or put mercurochrome on a skinned elbow. I loved to watch their hands dance through the air like confetti even though I knew it wasn’t polite to eye-drop, which is the Deaf version of eavesdropping.
My parents friends were always on “Deaf time” which meant they came early and left late. They came early because it was their one chance to connect with their tribe and at the end of the night their hands lingered on every last moment that they had to talk and be understood.
These were people who went to jobs in hearing factories, print shops and filing rooms working silently with their heads down until they punched the time clock. They shopped in hearing stores handing their deli lists to the counter clerks and worshipped in hearing churches where they wrote their sins down on a piece of paper slid them under the confessional door and waited for the priest to write their penance and slide it back out. Even in the homes that they grew up in most of their families couldn’t communicate beyond a gesture or a home sign or a note.
That summer we moved into the new house was special for me too because I was finally going to turn six years old and become a big girl. I hated being treated like a baby; having to wear a sweater when I wasn’t cold, being forced to eat what I was told and a hundred other things that I was sick of. It was obvious to me that turning six would change all of that.
In school I would no longer be a little kid who went a half a day to kindergarten. I would be in 1st grade, wear a uniform, write with a thin pencil and sit my own own desk. On television the Beaver and Timmy and Lassie were free to roam around to do whatever they wanted to.
Even in the eyes of God I was grown because Sister Mary Concepta told us that “the age of reason” was when you were held accountable for your own sins and could go to hell. Technically I knew “the age of reason” was seven but since I understood right from wrong and was tall for my age I figured God would let me slide.
My birthday party was held outside on a warm July night. We had hotdogs with buns and the women brought dishes of Ambrosia salad, deviled eggs with parsley on top and the men brought cigarettes and Schlitz beer, which to my enchantment was aways was advertised as blended with “just a kiss of hops”. After everybody had eaten supper and the sky was becoming burgundy-gray someone turned on the porch light so the Deaf could see each other to talk. The bulb attracted dozens bugs and I always wondered how a single light could draw so many insects come together at one time.
Mommy brought out a homemade Duncan Heinz cake and the light from the candles made her face sparkle like a holy saint in a stained glass window. All the kids at my party ooohed and ahhed because it was time. With faces shiny from buttered corn, we shimmied in between the adults and everybody sang “Happy Birthday” which was a mess. Our parents would start the song, some of them signing, some of them using their Deaf voices which sounded like they were squealing or growling, and then us kids would join in trying to follow one or the other.
When I blew out the candles I made two wishes; one for a Chatty Cathy doll that talked when you pulled a string and the second wish, my serious wish was for Mommy and Daddy to start treating me like I was a big girl.
“What you wish for?” Mommy signed as she bent over to hug me.
I shook my head “no”.
It was a perfectly ridiculous question because everyone knows that if you told, your wish doesn’t come true. Then Janey’s father who was almost as handsome as my father lifted me high into the air and passed me from person to person so they could kiss me and gave me six birthday spanks for good luck. When my feet finally touched down I was dizzy but it didn’t matter because it was finally time to open my presents.
I wasn’t much interested in the cards but Mommy made me open them first, the bills fluttering into my hands like big green snowflakes. After what seemed like an interminable amount of envelope handling and hugging I was allowed to tear the wrapping paper off of the first present. Daddy tried to horn in and help me.
“I can do it myself”, I mouthed him so he could read my lips. I got a few puzzles, some clothes, and Puffs which were candy cigarettes that I was forced to share with everybody. I also got pick up sticks which Mommy took away later that night saying that they were too dangerous but as she pulled out the last box I knew what it was right away. It was Chatty Cathy. And because my first wish came true I was positive that my second one would be also be granted and I was more than ready for my new life.
After the cake and the presents were done we ran around the yard screaming our heads off safe in the knowledge that no one could hear us and try to shut it down. And our mothers took turns putting their hands on Chatty’s chest and then pulling her string to feel the vibrations when she talked. Even then I knew that I was a child who was loved and I never doubted my place in the Deaf world.
A few days into my sixth year the strangest thing happened. Mommy and Daddy still acted towards me like I still five years old. They treated me the same way they treated Baby Diana and she was only three. I did not think this was right. It didn’t make sense because I knew the alphabet, how to write my name and address. I understood not to get into a car with strangers especially if they offered candy. I could say the act of contrition and tell time. I believed they were too careful with me and even though I didn’t know the word overprotective I understood exactly what it meant
For weeks afterwards my hands would plead,
“I want a bicycle. Everybody else has a bicycle”
“No” my fathers hands flapped.
I’m going to take a bath alone.
“Can I go play in the parking lot of Paulies Bar?
No matter what I asked for the word that tumbled off their fingers was always the same “no, No, NO!” I grew to hate the sight of their pointer and middle fingers bouncing off their thumb, the sign for no. All the other kids in the neighborhood had chores and allowances. They were allowed to cross the street and walk to the park without their Mothers. Jorge’ next door was even allowed to steer his father’s car and he was younger than me. What was worse was that he bragged about it. “My Dad says that pretty soon I’ll be driving”.
“Well I’m allowed to stay up until 9:00 every night” I lied, just to get even.
“It’s not fair”, I’d sign over and over again to my parents until I started to sound like Chatty Cathy who was now broken. I felt like I was trapped between the never and the now. I was sure that they treated me like a baby because they were Deaf and didn’t understand how hearing people who talked English did things. I knew this because Dougie Koos had the same problem and his family was from the old country and only spoke Albanian.
Later that fall, after much pestering, Mommy didn’t always make me hold her hand on our way to school. Sometimes I even dared to walk a little in front of her which she didn’t like because she couldn’t talk to me if I couldn’t see her but I didn’t care.
And then it happened one day in November the nuns dismissed us early. It was exciting, like the unexpected gift of a snow day generously bestowed. In the playground which also doubled as a parking lot, many of the mothers were already waiting for their kids. Mrs. Miller had on a black chapel veil with big sunglasses which I thought looked stupid because it wasn’t even summertime and Mrs. Washington, who was the only colored mother in the entire school, was crying and held a ratty Kleenex to her nose.
Even Sister Mary Concepta, the meanest nun in the whole school wasn’t yelling her head off but quietly prayed on the big rosary that hung from her waist as she directed traffic.
“Why was everyone unhappy” I wondered and I tried to look sad just to fit in. Some of the older girls, the popular ones, stood around blubbering and I thought they were probably just showing off. Then (breath) it occurred to me that my mother wouldn’t be coming to pick me up because the school couldn’t call her because we didn’t have a telephone.
My parents always said that since they couldn’t hear we didn’t need a phone. Besides they thought phones were only to be used for important business and if they needed to get business done they either did it in person, sent a post card or had Aunt Jane make the call for them.
Standing in the school yard that day, I realized that with no mother coming I could walk home by myself and no one would ever have to know. I tried to look casual and nonchalant as if walking home alone was something that I always did. Then when no one was looking I ran down the street, my arms pumped and my knee socks puddled around my ankles and I felt like a puppy who had just found a hole in the fence. Breathless and breathing, I made a quick stop into Sonny’s to buy some candy with a dime I had filched from Aunt Janes’ purse. I was always stealing money from this purse or that but no one ever noticed.
I loved going into the Sweet Shop because Sonny’s was the hangout for everybody who thought they were somebody. The guys were always kidding around, smoking and betting on the ponies. Sometimes they even bought me candy because I was “Deaf Charley’s kid” and I liked that, but today as I walked into the store they listened to the radio mutely and I got a funny feeling in my stomach like something wasn’t right.
At home Daddy’s white Chevrolet was parked in the driveway. I panicked because he worked till 11:30 on the second shift. Somehow he had must have found out that I had disobeyed them and now I was going to get into trouble. I stood in the hallway eating milk duds trying to figure out my lie but when I crept into the house I saw that Mommy and Daddy were just standing in the dark living room. Mommy was holding my baby sister Diana and crying and Daddy, still in his work clothes, was comforting them. I had never seen Mommy cry before but even more remarkable to me was that the television was on. It was never allowed to be on during the day, ever, that was the rule.
I waited in the doorway and Daddy saw me he made a little space in their circle without saying a word and we stood there together for a long, long time. It felt nice to be close to them and I started to cry too. But I didn’t know why.
We all sat on the sofa and started to watch the television in the afternoon but no matter how many channels we changed there were no cartoons, soap operas or commercials on so I tapped Daddy on the knee. “Why is there only news on?”.
Daddy looked to me “What did the man say”?
“I don’t know the sound not on”. So Daddy adjusted the knob, watching for me to tell him when it was loud enough.
Mommy thumped her foot on the floor to get his attention as she put baby Diana down on her lap so she could use her hands. “Leave her alone, she’s a little girl.”
My father shook his head in complict agreement.
I jumped up, “No I’m not, I can tell you.” And I planted myself right next to the television. My heart was pounding in my chest and I felt giddy and scared but most of all I felt like I had to pee. I tried to concentrate on what the man in the glasses was saying, but he talking about the President and using big words. Words I didn’t understand, like motorcade and sassination.
“Why would anybody shoot the president?” I thought to myself. “He’s so handsome!”
Daddy tapped me on the shoulder but I shrugged him off.
“Wait let me think.” The floors and walls disappeared around me leaving only the blue flickering light and my parents steady gaze.
“OK. concentrate”, I thought to myself,“Sassination” means killed but depository? I didn’t know what depository meant. Then I remembered that Daddy deposited money into the bank.
Then, in that moment of absolute clarity everything fell into place. I was proud and calm as I looked right into my parents eyes and signed: “The President was shot in his car and a bank robber killed him.”
The rest, of course is history. But they never did figure out who shot Kennedy, so I’m not necessarily wrong. Now as I look back I realize that on that day in November of 1963 everything changed for me. It was the day that I became my parents ears and voice, their connection to the hearing world. I had finally become a big girl.