Posts Tagged '1960’s'

Kicking the Habit

985C1E54Kicking the Habit

I grew up in Paterson, NJ.  It was a tough neighborhood where the second graders cursed, the nuns smoked and the dogs snarled.  But the most feared group in all of Paterson … the ones who terrorized children … the ones who promised that retribution would be swift and merciless …  was not the Jersey Mob but the Jersey Moms.  And we all understood that you could never go against The Family.

In our neighborhood, every mother made it her business to make sure that every kid stayed out of trouble.  Mrs Koos, down the street, was forever yelling from the stoop “Jesus Christ hanging on the cross, you’re gonna get hurt doing something like that!”  When Stevie and Alfie’s Mom, who regularly wiped dirt from our faces with a spit-on tissue, would catch us misbehaving she would get eye level, shake us or hit our butt and hiss, “Don’t let me catch you doing that again.”

Mrs. George could break up a fight just by barking, “Hey you, come over here and sit until I tell you to get up”.   However, she sometimes would give the offender a snack if they looked like they were truly sorry and promised not to do it again. So, we all learned how to play her.

Occasionally, the Jersey Moms would get into it amongst themselves over who hit whom first, but for the most part, they were loving and fair with us all of us. The other Mothers were like that.  It didn’t matter, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Irish, Italian or Puerto Rican, the Jersey Moms all operated the same way except for mine.  Because my mother was Deaf, the hearing world was one she didn’t live in. It was one she didn’t understand and a world that didn’t understand her.

In the Deaf community, Mommy was popular, quick with a joke and unselfish with her empathy.  At home, she was strict and punished us regularly for being disobedient, but she never stepped in to reprimand someone else’s kid because her inability to hear made her uncomfortable and timid.  She also never stuck-up for us when another Mom falsely accused us of a crime we didn’t commit.

It’s not that she ignored trouble.  If someone fell off of a bike or was throwing asphalt like the Bell kids across the street often did, she would quietly try to fix the situation with a small wag of her head, a silent hug or a wave of her finger. No screaming or punishment was ever involved.  And because she could only rely on her sight to catch the trouble makers, they often got away with murder when my she was around.  It was embarrassing knowing that everyone in the neighborhood thought she was a pushover.

We belonged to St Brendan’s Parish where I also went to school.  We had always been a devout family.  We went to mass on Sundays and everyday during Lent.  We went to weekly confession on Saturday afternoon which really threw a wrench into playtime.  We fasted and abstained on the first Friday of the month, said Novenas and lit candles.  Crucifixes, statues of saints, pictures of heaven and hell, Bible storybooks, pope mugs (which we were not permitted to use), and rosary beads crowed every available space in our house until it looked like a religious garage sale.  My parents wanted to make sure there was an early warning system for those times we were thinking about committing a sin. The only thing that was missing was an angel in our bathroom to protect us while we were peeing.   My parents believed they had three financial obligations: rent money, food money and money for the “suggested donation” at church.  Everything else came second.

I loved going to my Catholic school.  I loved the gray plaid uniform with its matching beanie.  I loved all of my subjects, and not only did my homework but all of the extra credit too.  I loved the maps that pulled down from the ceiling, smell of the blue disinfectant and the echo of footsteps when you were the only one in the hallway.  I couldn’t wait for the school day to start so I could say the Pledge of Allegiance, read out loud, and pray at my desk.  I especially loved the pencil sharpener that attached to the wall, and our janitor Mr. Malzone who smoked cigars in the school and had one eye that bounced around like superball. I was taught to work hard, pray hard and respect God, the teachers, and my parents, in that order.

One morning, when I was in the fourth grade, I asked Mommy to write a note for school.  She replied by kneeling and tugging up my knee socks which were always poodling around my ankles. “Mom, stop! Don’t,” I signed, before explaining my request. “They want volunteers to work bingo.  You can’t hear the numbers and I know you don’t like going to school, so I need an excuse.”  Mommy leaned back on her heels and signed back,  “I always so much nervous going your school. Your teachers hearing and smart. Maybe I no understanding them but if it’s important, you know I go.”  She smiled and went back to grooming me.  She was always doing that like the monkeys I saw on Wild Kingdom, except she didn’t eat the nits.

My school was always looking for parent volunteers and Mommy did her part by making cupcakes for the bake sales or crafts for “Brendan’s Bazaar,” but I knew from experience that anything requiring her attendance made her uneasy, so I never brought up being a lunch monitor or chaperone.

Another reason I never asked Mommy to volunteer was that she had a part-time job.  It was the 1960’s and all the mothers we knew stayed at home. Our family didn’t have the luxury of relying on only one paycheck, so Mommy took a job from 9:00AM until 3:00PM at the Maryknoll Catholic Missionary Magazine managing the subscriptions.  I knew Mommy’s job was my parents’ secret shame. I was told not to tell anyone especially the teachers because, “It’s no their business.”  However, I always suspected my parents they didn’t want people to think that we were Deaf and poor.

A few years before this, my Mother and I went to my second-grade parent-teacher conference without my father, because he was working the second shift.  Although he was also Deaf and never used his voice outside of the house, he was handsome, affable and comfortable with putting hearing people at ease.  He would smile warmly and look people in the eye.  Sometimes, he would pantomime a compliment, like. “Wow, look at this kid, he’s so big,” or, “This car is the best one made,” or, “The food was so delicious, I will have to waddle home.”  My father would shake people’s hands or pat them on the back or take out a pad of paper to write, so my mother often relied on him to break the ice with strangers.

I didn’t feel nervous that night without my dad at the conference. Being the hearing child of Deaf parents, I did the kinds of things that many first-generation kids on my block did for their immigrant parents: made their phone calls, corrected their correspondence because English wasn’t their first language, and negotiated the parts of their life connected with the outside world.  I was a shameless show-off, so I enjoyed taking care of things and explaining whatever my parents needed to know.  When people would compliment me or give me the occasional cookie or quarter for being such a, “Good girl,” it always made me feel smug with pride.

Before this parent-teacher conference, I had handled these types of transactions on a small scale … explaining at the car repair shop and the bank, ordering at Pizza City and the deli or calling Granma to let her know we were making the two hour drive to visit. So, the night of the conference, I figured if the teacher decided not to write everything down, I would be doing the talking.

When we got to the school, my classroom looked so fancy, decorated with streamers and the glittered posters we had been making for days.  Mommy bowed her head at the crucifix as a sign of respect and wandered around the room carefully inspecting each piece of artwork, waiting until all the other parents had left.  It was only then that she ventured to the front of the room with me.

“Mrs. O’Keefe, this is my mother,” I said.

Mrs. O’Keefe’s had her gray hair was all done up and she was wearing a pretty blue dress and a gold circle pin I had never seen before.  She smiled kindly, looked right into Mommy’s eyes and shouted, “WELL HELLO! NICE TO MEET YOU!.”   Mommy lowered her eyes, and using her Deaf voice, she whispered.  “I’m so nervous to meet you.  How is Arlee doing in school?” She smiled shyly, and then suddenly, awkwardly, remembered to put out her hand to shake.

I wondered what Mrs. O’Keefe would tell her?  A few times I hadn’t finished my arithmetic because I was dilly-dallying, and once she made me clean out my sloppy desk in front of the whole class.  In addition to the jumble of paper and books, elastic bands and chewed pencils, I found an old sandwich smashed in waxed paper.  I wasn’t worried though because I made sure that I hid the sandwich in the trash before she  could see it, and I always got good grades.

I looked at Mrs O’Keefe, “My mother wants to know how I’m doing in school.”  She nodded her head generously and talked in her regular low voice, “Arlene is a very good student.”

We were used to people yelling around us, and I took it as a compliment that they were trying to be nice, even though they did look like idiots.

Mommy watched me intently as I confidently signed.  “I am a very good student.”  She smiled.

Then Mrs O’Keefe said, “She’s a very smart little girl.”  My hands jabbered with joy as I signed, “She said I am very smart.”  This was a coup.  Mommy would let me stay up late and she would brag to all her friends.  Then Mrs O’Keefe  lowered her voice, looked over the tops of her glasses and said, “But she talks entirely too much”.

My thoughts whipped around like a pinwheel in a hurricane, and magically, my hands took on a lie of their own.  I suddenly found myself wordlessly signing, “But the boy behind her talks too much.  Mommy and Mrs. O’Keefe looked at each other, nodded their heads in agreement, exchanged knowing glances and timidly shook hands goodbye.  Crashing through the double doors into the night, I felt like I had just discovered my super-power: the power to hide the truth from my parents.

I didn’t feel that I was being deceitful, exactly. After all, I was Catholic and I knew I could go to hell but I didn’t want my parents to worry so I did my best to protect them in just like I was going to take care of this Bingo situation.

“No, don’t worry about it, I signed to Mommy. “We’ll just write an excuse.  It’s not a big deal.”  Mommy first took out the scratch pad so we could figure out what to say, the two of us weighing each word, crossing out and starting again.  We decided that the best tactic was to say that she simply had another appointment.  That way, we didn’t have to explain about not being able to hear the numbers and the working part-time because it was, “No their business.”  Mommy copied the note onto nice manila paper, signed it with a flourish; Sincerely Yours, Mrs. Dorothy C. Malinowski, folded it, dropped it into my book-bag, (which also was always a mess and harbored many stale, fugitive lunches) and kissed me goodbye.

That day should have been the happiest moment of my fourth grade existence because it was the day that Jan Mascellino, the most popular of the “Populars” picked me to be part of her group.  Everyone knew that being part of the 6 Girl Army of Cool had its advantages.  They had an all-access pass to the front of any line.  They dictated fashion trends like how the beanie was to be worn.  One year, they decided it was cocked to the left, the next year back onto the crown of the head. The Populars ascribed the ranking of everyone in our grade, and had first dibs on the boys they would cheer for during gym.  I always got John Perragallo a mid-level kid who was smart, nice and had a head the size of a basketball. I could do worse.

Huddled together and squirming like kittens on that sunny but brisk Thursday, Jan’s clique was having another one of its infinitely private and enviable discussions when she looked up, sighed disgustedly and said, “Arlene, come here. We need you to even up the “Mummala-Cummala line.”  Me, included with the Populars?  I was elated at the unexpected miracle from a benevolent God in the parking lot/playground/loading dock of St Brendan’s school.

Mummala-Cummala was a call-and-response song accompanied by dance steps and snapping fingers.  Two rows of girls would line up face-to-face in equal numbers, the first row, dancing and singing “Mummala-Cummala, Cummala-Veesta,” followed by the second row of girls who would repeat, ”Mummala-Cummala, Cummala-Veesta,” followed by the first line of girls singing, “Hey Nonny, Nonny La-Veesta,” and so on and so forth.  This eight-line, call-and-response would then be repeated thousands of times by dozens of uniformed girls every day before school, during recess and on the way home.

I didn’t run with this clique and was never asked to participate, but today the beautiful Maureen Miller was absent, so there were an odd number of girls. They needed someone to even up the line. This one-day-only entrée to the Populars could change my life.

Occasionally, Maryann Rodzen, who lived next door to a Popular, and I would let ourselves fantasize about becoming a permanent alternate, the “go-to-girl” in case someone was sick or hurt or dead.  However, we both understood that we could never be gifted with a guaranteed spot because the caste system had already been pre-determined by the time we were in the first grade.

Jan only had to murmur her request. That was all the invite I needed, before I  flung aside my book-bag  and ran over to the cool girls as if I’d always belonged.  We were only a few minutes into the singing, dancing and snapping when I felt a looming over my shoulder and heard the familiar clickety-clack  of rosary beads.  I looked up to see that it was Sister Mary Concepta, the meanest nun the whole school, who had stopped me. “Miss Malinowski, You left your book-bag in a pedestrian zone and I tripped over it.  I could have been seriously injured were it not for the graces of Almighty God.”  Her dry, bony hands were grabbing my ear, pulling me across the playground.  She sat me down hard on the steps, and I tried not to cry.  Watching from the sidelines, I didn’t know which hurt more, my pinched ear or the mortification. But one thing was clear, I was destined never to “Mummula-Cummala” with the Populars again.

Sister Mary Concepta was about hundred and ten years old and had been dying of cancer for decades, but everyone said that she would live forever because she was so mean that not even God wanted her.  She was one of those nuns whose beady little eyes roamed the classroom all day for another victim; someone too fat, too stupid, too poor, too weak or too different. Then she would break them, all in the name of the Good Lord, of course.  It was Catholic School Darwinism, at its best.

I had become the bacteria in her microscope, and there was no escaping.  Everything I did was scrutinized and magnified.  If I accidentally dropped my ruler, she’d accuse me of doing it on purpose, and I’d get a whack on the palm–with my own ruler.  If my work wasn’t perfect, I was sent to the board to do it over and over,  each time getting a huge X drawn through my answer in chalk until it was right.  Flying erasers often found my head, and the living daylights were shaken out of me until I felt like a milk shake in the blender.  Sister Mary Concepta, who looked like a raptor in a black and white habit, became my own personal drill sergeant.  After only a few weeks, I could hardly lift my eyes from my penny loafers, and the Populars had shunned me, tittering loudly whenever I got in trouble.  Populars are like that.

I never knew when, where or how Sister Mary Concepta was going to swoop down like a crow to peck my eyes out, but I knew that she would.  The other kids couldn’t help me, because then they might get it too.  Bullies are like that.  But the worst part was the shame and the fear that walked along side me where my guardian angel was supposed to be to be.  I had become a puny, anxious nerve-bucket.  Once in a while, there would be a kid who might give me a little smile or sneak to help me pick up my lunchbox and check my thermos for broken glass, but most of the time I was alone.

One day when the entire class was talking, Sister pointed to me and said, “Miss Malinowski, in order to exonerate the class for talking, stand in the corner like Christ on the Cross.”   It was the first time I had ever heard of this type of punishment, so I didn’t have any role models, except Jesus, of course.  The class froze. The jibber-jabber stopped, as I stood in the front of the room underneath the crucifix which was positioned in between the map of New Jersey and the loud speaker.  I glanced up at the cross to study it.  It looked simple enough.  I stretched out both of my arms, crossed one foot over the other, and then debated.  “Should I do the head or not?” The pull was irresistible.  It’s true that I wanted to be authentic, but I also wanted to be funny.  I wanted her to know that I could not be broken, so I cocked my head down and to the right and made the sad Jesus face.  The class laughed, and I realized that there was one silver-lining to the whole situation.  I was fast becoming a celebrity with the boys at school for being able to take it and not cry and I was a girl.  You couldn’t buy this kind of PR in grammar school, where the popular boys had more sway then the popular the girls.

But in the end Sister Mary Concepta was wearing me down and I tried everything to fix it between us.  Everything from writing a note of apology, to carrying her book-bag to the convent. I even tried praying Mary and for the intercession of the Saints to help me out.  But in the end, nothing worked, and I knew I couldn’t tell my mother.  After all what could she do?  She was Deaf .

The crazy dream started soon after that.  It was always the same. I would be at Nash Park swinging so hard I felt like my feet could kick the blue out of the sky.  My parents were pushing me as I closed my eyes, faced off with the sun and jumped.  WHOAAA!

I would land and tell my parents I had to go to the bathroom. They would wave me off smiling and as I walked across the playground woozy from the swing to heaven,  kids would suddenly surround me, running and laughing, screaming and playing.   When I squinted my eyes, they all looked like a bag of jellybeans being shaken.  I’d feel happy as I considered what I might eat later at the Hot Grill across the street.  Maybe I’d order a “hamburger all the way,” with the brown, hot sauce or maybe French fries but never both.  We couldn’t afford it. I’d walk into the damp, smelly bathroom where the cool felt good on my skin and my eyes would start to adjust to the darkness, when I’d feel a brick of fear smash into me, realizing what was about to happen.  I’d start to suck air.  “Get Out” my guts warned me. Every muscle strained as I felt like I was running in quicksand.

“Nooooo!  Come back!” I’d holler, as I ran out of the stone building and turned the corner.  But it was already too late.  Everyone had left.  Everyone had left Nash Park.  I heard the gate shut and the chain lock.  Just beyond the gate, everyone was leaving.   Beyond the gate, I’d see the back of Mommy and Daddy’s heads walking away from me, leaving me all alone

“Help me,” I’d shriek, knowing they couldn’t hear me, but I’d keep screaming anyway.

My heart hurt with every step they’d take.  I’d smash my body into the grate of the fence and try to will it through the metal. All alone in Nash Park, that’s when I’d sense them.  They would come for me like they always did.  I’d hear them bray, hiss and spit before I would see them: The llamas.  Hundreds of them would approach from behind the bathrooms, from under the swings, from the monkey bars and the dug out.  I could feel the ground shiver behind me as I started to climb the fence.  The sun would become blinding, and sounds would get louder and louder as the llamas came closer to take me.

Then I would wake up in my bed, sweaty, breathless and breathing .  After a while, I would get up to go sit on the floor of our dining room. There, the light of the red and green neon sign from the White Leaf Cleaners streamed in through  the window and it always calmed me.

The troubles with Sister Mary Concepta and the dreams kept going until it happened: It was a sunny day at school.   Sister Mary Concepta called to me, “Miss Malinowski, you are a disgrace to God himself.  Why didn’t you complete this bingo form as instructed and write down your phone number?”

Standing up at my desk, as was the custom to show respect, I replied, “We don’t have a phone, Sister.”

“You don’t have a phone! She wheezed like an accordion.  Miss Malinowski, you are the Devil’s lie box.”

I imagined a gigantic package festooned with red pitchforks and Satan horns that held every untruth I had ever told.  Sister peered so close, I could see a few  hairs the color of dust escaping from her veil, which  answered the question we had all been wondering for years; Oh my God, nuns did not shave their heads.  They were not bald.  It was a shocking revelation on the same level as unlocking the 3rd secret of Fatima.

Sister Mary Concepta continued to stare.

“Sister, I’m not a Lie Box.  My parents are Deaf and that’s why we don’t have a phone.  We use the one at the candy store.”  I was being honest although it felt like I wasn’t telling the truth because I had the “Lie Box” picture stuck in my head.

“Oh right, your parents are the deef and dumb mutes.” She paused and mused for a moment.

She’s taking pity on me, I thought.  I should have used this Deaf thing a long time ago.  Of course.  I suddenly saw all of my problems being carried away by happy little bluebirds like in the movie Snow White.

Then, rolling her beady eyes to heaven, she sighed, “Well, I should have known.  How can I discuss your conduct problems with your deef and dumb parents who can’t talk?”

Something inside of me exploded. “There’s no such word as DEEF, my parents are Deaf and just because they don’t hear, doesn’t mean you can’t talk to them.”  Then under my breath I added, “They’re not the ones who are dumb around here,” even though I knew better.

“Once again, you’re as bold and brazen as brass, spat Sister Mary Concepta.  “Kneel at the crucifix and think about your sins. I don’t know what kind of heathen parents would bring the sinful likes of you into the world.”

Time both expanded and collapsed as I saw myself getting expelled from my favorite school.  But, I quickly rationalized, that if I end up going to PS 25, at least I could wear culottes and sneakers.

I knelt down and stared at poor Jesus hanging there on the cross, and for the first time I broke down and cried.  I cried all through school and all through detention.  Eying me, Sister Mary Concepta exhaled, “Go ahead Missy, cry me a river”.  She seemed tired too.

After I was finally dismissed, I picked up my book-bag and cried all the way home.  When I got there, Mommy was on her hands and knees next to a pail of water laced with Mr. Clean.  I knew she couldn’t hear me and didn’t want to scare her so I stamped on the old wooden floor so she could feel the vibrations.  She saw me in the doorway and with her rubber gloves still on and said “Arlee, what’s the matter? Why you cry?”  Normally, watching her sign with big, fat yellow cleaning gloves would make me laugh like crazy, but not today.

“Nothing.  Don’t worry about it,” I signed.

“I’m a mother. I can help you.”

“You can’t do anything!  You’re Deaf! So leave me alone!”

My Mother’s hands darted fast and hard, “Arlee, if you don’t tell me what’s happening, I go to the school right now.”

Everyone knew that there was no fate worse than having your Mother show up at school getting all involved.   It would be horrible having to watch Sister Mary Concepta vaporize her.  Or worse, having my mother side with Sister.  So I gave up.  “OK Ma! I’ll tell you!  You can’t go to the school. I’ll tell you.”

And I did tell her, about the Populars, “Mumumala-Cummala”, the book-bag, the ear pulling, the shaking, the yelling, the hanging like Jesus, the lie box.  I told her everything.

“Come here,” Mommy signed as she hugged my head.  “My poor Arlee.  Mommy will take care if it. Put on your coat.”

“No Mom!  Just leave it.” I begged.

But Mommy didn’t listen, and it wasn’t because she couldn’t hear.  Mommy marched the four blocks to the convent, her blue sweater flapping furiously in the wind like the wings of an angel with me dragging behind her.  “Wait! No Ma, Please!”

When we got to the convent, I could smell dinner coming through the door, and I knew this was a bad idea.  I pulled on her and smiled through my panic, “Don’t worry about it.  I’m better.  I can take care of this myself.”

Mommy bent down to my height and mouthed, “I take care of it.  Finished.”  And for a sliver of a moment I saw her head pull back in hesitation before she rang the doorbell.  It chimed loud and low and long, and after an unhurried minute, I heard the latch unfasten.  My heart was pounding in my chest as the door slowly opened and there standing in all of her meanness, was Sister Mary Concepta.  She smiled as if she was waiting for us to drop by and have some cake and coffee. She started to speak, but Mommy cut her off, looking her straight in the eye, “Sister, I no care if you’re teacher.  I no care you if you’re big shot hearing nun.  I no care you think I’m dumb because I’ma Deaf .   This is my daughter, you no touch her.  You no talk fresh mouth or you be sorry.” And then her eyebrows shot up as she added, “Sister, I think you’re little bit not smart because God no like mean nun.  Oh-no!”

For the first time in my life, Sister Mary Concepta was absolutely speechless, and I never loved anyone as much as I loved Mommy in that moment.

“Come on Arlee. Time to go home.”

To this day, I try to imagine what was going through Mommy’s head to give her the courage to stand up to everything she feared. Because after that day, the day that Mommy roared, and the angels sang, things were different for me at school. I felt like I was in the center of a Deaf world that loved me, listened to me and protected me.  Mothers are like that.


Big Hearing Girl

Image“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.