November 04, 2002
The Silence

My parents visited this weekend and, as always, I got to find out a little more about the various members of my rambling, clannish family. This time my dad felt like talking about his father, my grandfather.

Grandpa was unusual in the family in that he was deaf. As the story goes, he was deaf because the doctor used forceps on his head when he was born. His mother was able to rudimentarily teach him how to speak. But when he was a boy, he was sent (about 100 miles away) to Columbus to what is now the Ohio School for the Deaf.

The school, according to historians, was the first "established on the principle that the state must defray the entire expense of providing a complete education for the deaf." (My father still refers to it by its former and politically incorrect name, the School for the Deaf and Dumb.) Today, the site of the school is the location of the city's famous Topiary Garden, where Seurat's "A Sunday Afternoon On The Island of La Grande Jatte" is recreated in shrubbery.

I can't help but wonder what it felt like to be that little boy, sent away with his trunk, to a big city and a strange school. The school helped him, though, by teaching him to speak and read lips.

Grandpa returned to northern Ohio and had various careers and stints in the family businesses. He was a barber for a while, then he owned a hardware store. For a while he was a bank president in his little town. Later in his life, my dad says, he saw the bottom fall out of the hardware business and decided to return to barbering.

He married my Grandma on October 21, 1926. I never got many details about their courtship, although she did mention to me once that in their youth they went to parties and played spin the bottle. I have this idea that her wedding dress--a long-sleeved, lacy '20s dress--was pink, but no one has corrorborated. In the early photos he is a handsome young man, with curly dark hair and dark doelike eyes. A good catch for my grandma, who must have been thrilled.

They had three sons and were married for 53 years.

By the time I came along, he had a hearing aid and it was hard to tell that he was, indeed, deaf. He never acted any different from the rest of us, except sometimes he turned off the hearing aid and retreated into his own world. This seemed to frustrate my Grandma to no end, and she (always a loud talker) would just talk louder, as if to penetrate the silence.

I don't have anything he wrote; I don't know what he liked to read. Because of the deafness and the silence, he was mostly an enigma to me. He liked to take us for drives (maybe to escape the shouting?) and would drive my dad and me around in his big blue car. He didn't talk or play much, but he was a peaceable presence on holidays in my otherwise rather excitable family. My mom says he was always very nice to her, which must have been a good thing for a daughter-in-law unused to so much hubbub.

In early September 1975 Grandpa had a heart attack, and I missed the first week of third grade as we sat in endless hospital waiting rooms to see if he would get better. He did get better, but the next four years were a litany of illnesses. In the end his heart didn't get him, but cancer did.

He died on September 10, 1979, when I was 12. His funeral was like visiting another planet. I remember the group of elderly relatives who stood around the coffin, loudly and tonelessly praying the Rosary. And I remember after the burial, we all went over to the Moose Hall and had lunch.

Grandma has now outlived him by 23 years. I'm not sure she expected to wait that long.

Years after he died, I dreamed he appeared to me looking much as I remembered, wearing his straw hat with a little round feather. My reaction, in the dream, was to reflexively burst into tears. But he looked at me kindly and shook his head gently, as if to say "no." And in the dream, I stopped crying. What this means, or meant, I have no idea. But it was certainly vintage Grandpa: calm, gentle, and without words.

Posted at November 04, 2002 08:57 PM

Anne, this tells me something, a positive something, about your relationship with Eric.

and also: a shrubbery! (depending on the depths of your inner geek/hipsterness, this may need explaining, I suppose.)

Posted by: mike on November 4, 2002 10:13 PM
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