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Moon on the
Meadow: Collected Poems|
My father and mother met during a deaf club gathering, began dating, and married shortly thereafter. My father graduated from the Tennessee School for the Deaf in Knoxville, where he had received vocational training in the print shop. He then migrated north, finding a job at the Detroit Free Press as a linotype operator in the days before computer-assisted publishing. My poem “Hats” is based on the many different newspaper configurations he would bring home to us at the end of the day. My father loved to go to deaf club events, including bingo nights, picnics and baseball games held on the grounds of the Koepplinger Bakery, and outings on the Detroit River on the boat to Bob-Lo Island. Bob-Lo’s amusement park boasted a dance hall called the Pavilion. My parents used to “feel” the beat in the wooden floors and dance all day while we kids happily rode the roller coasters and made cavities sucking on peppermint sticks that were two inches in diameter. Some of these memories show up in my poems.
I am a CODA, a Child of Deaf Adults. I didn’t use my voice much before my first day of kindergarten, when I remember signing to my teacher, “My sweater . . . hang where? ” The look of horror that crossed over her face and her subsequently hilarious efforts at getting me to speak resulted in five years of speech therapy, where my “auxiliary” teacher rewarded me with a gold star on my forehead every time I could put out the candle by making a proper “p” or “b” sound. I much preferred the world of sign language, the immediate, beautiful, expressive, animated world of fingerspelling and signing all that I wanted to say, all that I needed to ask.
When I was made to talk, I yearned to run home, to hide in the folds of my mother’s crepe dress, or on my father’s lap, telling him in great detail the shame I felt when another student tattled on me for practicing the words of a spelling bee under my desk, on my hands; if it felt right there, it was how I put it down on my numbered paper. I still, to this day, am tempted to fold my nightgown and place it under my pillow as my parents did during their days in deaf school dormitories. CODAs share similar stories the world over.
We lived in a suburb of Detroit called Walled Lake, near St. William’s Catholic Church. My mother’s parents, William and Margaret O’Flaherty, had given the land for the church, and had donated the rectory, a log cabin structure that was once the family’s summer home. The original church, an imposing stone structure, served as the parish hall, theater, and gym in later years. When I was in the eighth grade, I acted the part of Mary in the school play and sang alto in the choir. Although my parents couldn’t hear, they attended every single performance and event. Music was always available in our home, either via variety shows on TV, through the radio and Arthur Godfrey, or on a record player my father had won in a poker game, on which he played Benny Goodman LPs. He wore enormous headphones in an attempt to pick up the rhythm, the bass line, something. He would place his hands on the maple kitchen table, on either side of the phonograph, and lean intently into the vibrations that moved out of the wood.
My mother could speak a few words, words that only we kids could understand. When our friends would visit, each sibling had his or her own way of saying, “Now, my parents are deaf but sometimes they try to talk. It sounds sort of strange. Don’t worry: I’ll interpret for you.” Most of our friends found it charming or at least interesting to be exposed to deaf people. But there were certainly those parents of my friends who didn’t want their children playing “over there.”
My mother and father encouraged our interest in creative endeavors, including singing and playing musical instruments. When I had graduated (in the fourth grade) from playing the song flute to the clarinet, it was my father who insisted on taking me to a store in Pontiac where he purchased, on time, an Olds. This instrument had such a lovely and mellow tone; it lay in its velvet case like an ancient treasure waiting to be discovered. My father also bought a silver music stand and a metronome. He would faithfully look at the time signature on the sheet music, set the metronome, and then watch me practice, tapping his foot in time to the precise brass arm. My own daughters each played this instrument as they joined high school orchestras and marching bands. It had gathered dust in the attic for many years until they, without prompting, expressed an interest in playing the clarinet their grandfather had purchased so many years before.