Where I Come From.

It never fails that when you ride in a car with my grandparents, you’re privy to bickering that has endured for as long as I can possibly remember. Utterances of, “Backseat driver!” from my grandfather, and “Frank, slow down, the kids are in the car!” as my nana grabs the handlebar above her head can and should be expected. It is not nasty fighting. It is hilarious. It is anchored in affection. It is a part of the script that they have written together over more than fifty years of marriage.

My grandparents met at a dance social in the fifties. He is first generation Italian. She is Irish. My grandmother claims he spilled Coke on her, but he contests that particular memory. Personally, I’m in Nana’s camp because, really, how endearing is that? However they came together, they met and fell in love, although both of their parents weren’t enthusiastic about the Irish/Italian part of the whole thing. They married in 1957.

In 1958 my grandmother had my mother, the first of five children. Those five children married and had eight children of their own. On their fiftieth wedding anniversary, my grandfather stood at the party we threw for them, raised his glass and said, “Fifty years ago this morning, my mother came to me as I got ready and told me, ‘Frank, you don’t have to do this.’ Looking around at all of you, I’m very glad I didn’t listen to her.”  I once asked my nana what it takes to make a marriage last successfully for so long and she said to me, “When you want to leave, don’t!” At the time, I thought it was funny, but in hindsight, like so much of her advice to me, it resonates.

I spent much of my childhood in my grandmother’s kitchen, stirring lovely smelling things and absorbing knowledge almost as fast as I inhaled her cookies. I could make marinara from scratch by age eight. Nana told me more than once that she wanted me to learn these things NOT so that I could cook for a husband, but for myself. She wanted me to learn to be independent and strong on my own—to be my own advocate. She’s opinionated and won’t hesitate to tell you her views on everything from Sex and the City(“Mr. Big really isn’t good looking outside of that character, you know. I saw him on Law and Order and he isn’t very attractive. I think it’s the mystery.”), to great literature and World War II.

My grandmother and I share a love of Scrabble. It’s our thing together–my grandfather isn’t big on it. My grandmother once joked, “If only he’d play Scrabble with me, this would be a perfect marriage.” Now that she is in Florida for the winter, we play “Words with Friends,” which often leads to hilarious and occasionally confusing troubleshooting text messages and phone calls.

She was right. I was also in a different game.  HA!

The alerts that she’s played a word keep me feeling connected to her- she and my grandfather are my touchstones. They’ve been married fifty-five years on my 29th birthday  and they are the glue that holds our family together.

I visited them when they came home over the holidays, and I sat at their kitchen table, as I have done so many thousands of times in my 29 years. I remembered the time that I sat watching them cook together and my grandfather told me, “When I met nana, she was 100 pounds soaking wet!” My grandmother playfully swatted him and declared indignantly, “I was not! I was 102!” He patted her affectionately on the butt and gave her a quick kiss. I remembered the times I snuck up behind the kitchen sink when one of them was doing dishes and squeezed the sprayer while the faucet was running. There have been countless games of gin with my grandfather, mancala with nana, art projects, dinners, celebrations… it’s all there. There are so many things that seemed so inconsequential at the time, but now seem poignant and important pieces of our family history and my own.  And nana and I?  We played Scrabble face-to-face.

I don’t believe in resolutions.  I believe in constantly seeking self-awareness, enjoying the world around you, and waking up each day and deciding what sort of person you want to be, just as you make your to-do list of tasks to complete, and I believe in being grateful every single day.  It’s entirely too easy to take things in our lives for granted.  This year, I’m aiming to wake up each day and give thanks for the important things–even Words with Friends games.

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Holy crap. Did you just say I’m normal?!?

I first met my friend Ali about six years ago.  Ali is the volunteer manager for a Leadership Conference I participate in.  I marched right up to her at the end of the volunteer session and said, “I’m Jenny.  I’m deaf, just so you know.  I probably shouldn’t be on registration.”  The next year I told her, “Oh yeah. I’m the deaf one, remember?”  This was not the first or second time I made this bold declaration.  Eight years ago, before even applying to my job, I went to my now boss and said, “I’m deaf.  I don’t want to waste your time with an interview if you feel that this will be a problem.”  She later told me that it was my forthrightness and boldness that tipped the scales in my favor.

I do this all the time.  Mumbling store clerk?  Mumbling Waitress? Trouble on the phone when the other person has it on speaker?  “Oh, I’m deaf.  Can you please speak up?” I even do it at parties when I’m introduced to someone new.  “Just a heads up- I’m deaf so please look at me when you talk.”  Somehow, it’s become no big deal to me to divulge this information.

I spent so much time as a kid feeling like my hearing loss was something to be ashamed of.  It set me apart.  It made me different.  It meant I was “disabled”- I freaking HATE that word.  It made me work harder to be better, be smarter, be the best at everything.  This has made me strive to overachieve- and I do.  In the fourth grade, the kids in class called me “the walking dictionary.”  I’ve always had something to prove.  I hid my hearing loss as best I could.  After all, I was plenty attuned to the looks my mother got or the problems that she faced just walking out the door on a daily basis.  But me?  I was a chameleon. I could blend.

As is wont to happen, the older I got (and ironically as I lost more hearing), the less I really gave a crap what other people thought about me and I accepted that my hearing loss was a part of me and that it really didn’t matter.  It seemed that I was being blasé about it and just mentioning it as an, “oh, heads up!” sort of way made it no big deal.

This morning, Ali (I’m now her second in command) and I were attending a breakfast leadership seminar led by none other than the enigmatic Vernice Armour, the first African American female fighter pilot.  Vernice asked us to take a minute and jot down our goals/aspirations, etc.  So, I wrote the usual “Open my own fabric design company,” and “Start a small business branding consultation firm (er…I also wrote, “STOP PROCRASTINATING.”).'”  The last thing I wrote? “I want to be an example for others like me, be an advocate and work to bridge the gap between the deaf and hearing world.”

Ali (such a snoop!  Kidding, Ali. 😉 ) saw what I wrote and at the break she asked me about it- about this gap and why I felt that I had to bridge it.   She went on to say that she always found it interesting that I label myself so quickly, especially when it’s something so invisible.  She pointed out that technically, i’m moderately hard of hearing and that I could probably just tell people that I was sometimes have a little trouble and might need to ask them to repeat themselves.  She was genuinely curious- she wasn’t being judgmental or negative.

I told her that it felt like something people should know so that they’d know why if I didn’t respond.  I went on to say that on some level, perhaps it’s also about me saying, “See?  The stigma isn’t always right!”  So many people I know have never come across someone my age with a hearing loss.  I’m an anomaly.  I’m their first live impression.  All they know is what they’ve heard or seen on TV, etc.  That stuff? Not always good.  Hell- the school curriculum probably still teaches kids that Helen Keller was called, “deaf and dumb.”  When I’ve told people I’ve had countless, “Are you kidding?!” reactions.  I’ve been accused of lying.  I’ve gotten, “Wow!  You’re not what I expected!”

Then Ali said a few things that blew my mind.  She pointed out that by labeling myself (it didn’t even really hit me that I was labeling myself!)when people would otherwise not know meant that I was setting myself apart right off the bat.  She told me that she doesn’t see me as different and that to her, I sometimes just need things repeated.  That was when she dropped the bomb- “To me, you’re normal!”  I’m pretty sure my eyes were huge at that point.  I don’t think i’ve ever considered myself normal- not as a child of profoundly deaf parents and certainly not as a hard of hearing person.  But, what if I am?  What if I’ve been limiting myself by defining myself in such a way? What if I’ve been using that as a default setting so I can “check out?”  What if I stopped answering the question “What is it like to be deaf/hard of hearing” and starting answering the question, “What does it mean to be me?”  My hearing loss is a very small part of who I am.  It is not the sum of my parts.  Maybe I am normal?  Relatively speaking, of course.

I will always be an advocate for deaf and hard of hearing people.  How can I not be?  I will continue to  make jokes about my hearing mishaps- it makes ME laugh as much as it makes other people laugh.  I will continue to share my experiences here.  I am not now and will never again be ashamed of my hearing loss.  But darnit, this is food for thought.