The sounds of silence

First thoughts upon first awakening are sometimes strange and wonderful things….

(After all, there must be something positive about getting up at 0400 in the morning to be ready to do a 0630 shift at Starbucks St. Gallen, an hour’s distance from my home.)

I remember snatches of dreams that have somehow drifted over from subconscious mind into conscious thought.

Memories thought long-forgotten can suddenly be recalled with crystalline clarity for the briefest of moments before the day’s routine kicks in.

(This seems especially true the older one gets.)

Thoughts pondered upon before retiring for the night manifest themselves in a differently arrayed hue the following morning.

(Some psychologists even recommend training your mind for creativity by writing down questions for yourself in a notebook beside your bed and the following morning, before standing up to your feet, jotting down the first thoughts that come to your mind.)

My first thought this morning was of the strange term “fist” used to describe the unique manner in which each individual telegraph operator transmits his message.

It is said that each operator’s “fist” acts as accurately as fingerprint analysis to identify a person.

One could say that his “fist” was his tone, or manner of expression.

Which led me to think of another mode of communication: sign language for the deaf or hard of hearing…

Clearly sign language operates through our vision.

We see through facial expressions and hand and arm gestures the different moods and tones the communicator is feeling and communicating.

A keen and experienced sign language communicator can also quickly differentiate between the native languages of deaf signers as each spoken language has its own individual sign language.

(Which makes me wonder is there particular signage for the Umlaut of German or the Accents Aigu and Circonflex of French, etc..?)

In spoken language we can detect accent and speech impediments (lisps and stuttering), could the same be said for the deaf?

Can a deaf person have a strong “goofy Newfie” accent?

Can we see a lisp?

Can we sign a stutter?

Thinking of the deaf then takes me down the Time Tunnel of Memory to my boyhood.

(Yes, this old man was once a boy!)

I spent my high school summers working on local farms in Argenteuil County, predominantly for farmer Irving and his deaf and mute sister Helena.

When my wife complains how far behind the times I am in regard to today’s techno-wunderkinder, I always think back to them.

Toilets were chamberpots and outhouses.

Heating and cooking was done on wood stoves.

The house smelt always smoky and musty.

The barnyards were filled with the mangiest excuses of starving cats and a paranoid dog with none of the sense or instinct God normally grants to an animal.

(Look into the dog’s eyes and you knew there was not much going on behind them.)

(Put him in a car with the window rolled down and he’d be thinking “Boy, can I run fast!”)

Life was hard for brother and sister.

Painfully shy, Irving never married.

He was as almost incapable of self-expression as his sister, by natural disability, was.

Stonefield is only 50 miles from the huge metropolis of Montreal, but it might as well have been a distant planet.

Irving had been there only once in his entire life.

Helena, never.

Helena being mute, and Irving and her never really conversant in sign language, hers was a world of expression constantly denied and over the years this clearly frustrated and angered her.

A mute without signage capacity makes for a very poor witness.

In her youth she experienced sex – it was never known whether willingly or not – and Irving became an uncle.

Despite all their limitations, the boy grew up healthy both in mind and body and like his uncle became a farmer.

I knew Irving and Helena long after the boy became a man and moved away.

I still recall with great fondness my summers there, despite the hardscrabble medocrity of the place.

Helena remains strongly imprinted, even four decades later and long after her death, in my mind.

I see the clear love she felt for her son on the rare moments he would visit, how she would hug him openly, how her arms would fly about and her grunting greatly increase both in frequency and sound level.

I recall, despite the run-down condition of the house, her junkyard-dog protectiveness and watchfulness over each and every item inside the house.

(She rarely left it.)

She would gesture wildly and grunt alarmingly should one have the audacity to sit in her chair or touch her belongings.

With the exception of her son, I was the only guest the odd couple of brother and sister ever had.

For Helena, this was one guest far far too many.

Her reluctance to tolerate a teenage farmhand in her territory was undisguised and showed in her adamant refusal to do anything to accommodate this visitor foisted upon her by her brother every summer.

Irving would make our own meals which never varied in their repetitiveness and simplicity.

Every morning presented a bowl of corn flakes and burnt bread.

Every afternoon and evening saw a meal of hot dogs and bread.

On particularly hot afternoons, especially after a hard day in the hayfields or in the barn, one solitary cold beer would somehow materialise.

Though Irving had the capacity for speech, he rarely spoke.

His sister who could not speak rarely seemed at a loss for expression in her own fashion.

They taught me a lesson I never forgot…

Those who cannot speak are far from being speechless.


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