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American Annals of the Deaf

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Sounds Like Home: Growing Up Black and Deaf in the South

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When I visited, Mrs. Helen took me fishing at the millpond not far from their house. The covered bridge over the water is still there. All I ever caught was trash and once a small turtle. While in town, I played with Ernestine “Teen” Stevens and Rick (I think her last name was McMillan). We caught tadpoles, played games, and, along with some girls who were considered “fast,” played in an unfinished house across the street that we’d been forbidden to play in. Rick was older and sort of quiet, slim and very light complexioned with long brown hair. Teen was more my type: brown, short, plump, and ready to try new things—like going to the house that was off-limits. Rick wouldn’t go and told Mrs. Helen on us. I got a scolding and so did Teen. We tore up Rick’s Sunday hat to repay her. This earned me a spanking; I don’t know what Teen got.

During one such visit, Papa showed up one afternoon in the old truck with Sam. I was happy to see them until I learned they had come for me. I couldn’t explain it, because I was always glad to be going home from any place. This time I cried as though my heart would break. Mrs. Helen begged Papa to let me stay until the end of the week and they would bring me home.

“No suh, she’s got to go home to keep Eunice company at the house and play with Sam. It’s work time now.”

My clothes were packed, and I was promised a new dress when I came back for another visit; then I was in the truck, still crying. Mrs. Helen gave me a final hug and kiss and a pretty quart jar of peaches. More kisses from Mary Lizzie and I was on my way, waving from the back window and trying to see them standing in the dusk also crying and waving. I never saw either of them again. I had only been home a short time when word came that they’d left town and moved to New York. Mrs. Helen had been caught with a jar of bootleg whiskey. They left the state to avoid prosecution. Only Mr. Smith returned for a visit; later, he was killed in a wreck.

Our family boarded teachers. One teacher, Miss Johnson, stayed with us for a while, but I don’t remember when she came. Miss Johnson had several boyfriends to come a-courting at our house. We had a heater in only one room, so they had to sit with the rest of the family or freeze in the unheated living room (or parlor, as it was called then). One suitor was Oliver Tate. I don’t know what he used, but he had shiny black hair and a shiny face. They put their chairs side by side as far from the rest of us as possible and twittered at each other like two birds until bedtime, whereupon he bid us all goodnight and took his leave. Try as we might, no one ever understood a word they said. We wondered.

I think another boyfriend was my cousin, Oscar. He was long, lean, and lanky and seemed like his knees should go “clank, clank” when he walked. His style of courting was to recite a poem. I can remember one line he kept repeating: “If I was a cat, I wouldn’t do that.” Everybody laughed and laughed.

The third boyfriend was another cousin and one of my favorites, Willie E., known as Cap Jack. I loved to hear him sing and whistle “My Blue Heaven.” His voice was so clear and tender. I can hear him yet as he would come through the path in the woods between his family’s house and ours, whistling or singing. I’d stand still to listen until I saw him come out at the end of the field.

Maybe his singing ability helped him, for eventually he and Miss Johnson were married and she became Cousin Beulah. One summer after they married, she took me home with her. It was my first train ride. I kept rubbing my hands over the stiff plush covering the seats. It was fascinating to see houses, trees, and telephone poles rushing by the window. Her parents’ home in Snow Hill was a pleasant white house on a hill at the corner of the street. It had a porch with a swing. Besides her mother and father, she had one sister and two brothers named Robert and Lotus.

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