She was Nell. When I brought home friends from school they would call her Mrs. Burn, which was due to the fact that when I was five years old she had married my stepfather, Herbert M. Burn Jr. My cousins called her aunt Nell. But as the years went by more and more people, even the cousins, called her Nell. And to me that’s who she was. For a while I tried “mother”, but soon gave it up, because it sounded too formal when I said it, something phony about it. Not that I called her Nell, but that’s what resonates in my head when I think of her.
What to call her was not a problem for very long, because the time came while I was still a teenager when it was normal for me not to call her at all, because she couldn’t hear me. If I wanted to say something to her she had to be looking at me, since more than fifty percent of her comprehension was a matter of reading lips; it was futile, therefore, to try and get her attention by calling her name without visual contact. I had to touch her on the arm or wave my hand until she saw me.
She had a hearing aid, and it is only now as I share with her the genetic malady of deafness that I am able to afford her the proper degree of respect she deserved for having to deal with that primitive contraption. In the nineteen forties a hearing aid consisted of three sections that were attached to the body at different locations. In the first unit there were two batteries wired together. One was similar to what goes into a flashlight, and the other one was rectangular block the size of a large bar of soap, either one of which had the capability of dying separately. This component was strapped to the outside of the upper thigh of her right leg. And from this bundle of electronic cells there was a wire running to a second unit which was a basic transmitter the size of a cell phone. This gizmo she attached to the inside of her bra so that it rested between her breasts. And from this transmitting device one last wire ran over her right breast, under her arm and up the side of her neck to terminate in a prominent and not well disguised ear piece.
It was not that we lacked the technological capability, but those were WW II years in which the priority of an advanced hearing aid paled in comparison to the need for our scientists to dedicate their hi tech talents to the creation of more sophisticated weapons with which we could kill more people more effectively. A well disguised, high tech, dainty little ear piece? Well, that do-jigger had to queue up and wait for our number one priority to become less demanding.
Back then I was unable to empathize with her over the frustration which I now know she felt as she coped with her deafness, especially when she tried to wrangle that apparatus of a hearing aid. At the time I felt I was the victim, a youth constantly thwarted in his attempt to communicate with his mother. In retrospect, however, it is clear she was the one dealing with formidable daemons, not least among the chief malefactors being that electronic contrivance.
The device had an unpredictable personality of its own, and was especially prone to assert itself at inconvenient times. Imagine the solemnity of a church, where silence is not only appropriate, but mandatory. It was a service for her grandson’s baptism, and the small group of friends and family were standing as a group gathered about the baptismal font; and just as the pastor was doing his second dab of water on the infant’s head, “. . .and of the Son” , there was an ear-piercing squeak that segued into a high pitched whistling sound. The minister convulsively jerked his hand back from the baby’s head for fear of God only knows what.
Fortunately I knew from experience the source of the sound. I discreetly tapped Nell on the arm to get her attention, and covertly as possible pointed to my breasts and, with my lips pursed, mimed a whistling sound. Of course she understood immediately; it would have been impossible for her to interpret my charade for anything but the message it conveyed. With a convincing casual gesture, and as though scratching with her thumb, turned the volume down. Or I can remember more than once being so frustrated by her not being able to hear me that I put my face between her ample breasts, and with my lips within two inches of the transmitting speaker I would ask, “Can you hear me now?” Her response was to assume a stern countenance of indignation and push me back. “Of course I can hear you; you think I’m deaf?”
Deafness was an anathema to her, a bane never fully accepted; although the batteries, the lives of which were so ephemeral, were a constant challenge and made it difficult for her to evade the reality of her affliction. With a certain regularity she would put her hand up like a traffic cop, and halt me in the middle of a sentence with the pronouncement, “Just wait a minute, Billy, I’ve got to change the damn battery.”
Eventually she became stone deaf and the hearing aid ceased to be a handicap or a help. However, as deaf as my mother became, it is important to understand that my grandmother, Mama, was deafer, that’s right, even more deaf than Nell. On the other hand, however, Mama was more skilled at reading lips, probably due to the fact that she accepted the severity of her handicap, and did what she could to deal with it, while it is doubtful that Nell ever acknowledged her deafness as a fact.
Mama taught her children and her grandchildren — with the exception of my mother — a two handed alphabet, the origin of which has remained a mystery to me for more than seventy years. I have sought in vain to find someone among the deaf and dumb, and even sign language teachers, who knows Mama’s version of the alphabet. What a sweet thought though, to think she made it up. And how ironic that Nell, the one child who finally joined Mama in her consummate state of deafness, refused to learn?
But while I was still a teenager my mother had a few years before the impairment became absolute. And as long as there remained a vestige of aural capacity, she was adamant in denying the reality of her condition. When I was sixteen years old, she took me to the restaurant in the Francis Marion Hotel to have lobster for the first time in my life. She had informed me that the Francis Marion was a swanky hotel. She had a way of saying “swanky” that connoted an upper tier of society, but I have never really understood the complete concept of it, but then, I had not migrated from Bamburg, South Carolina to Charleston. I did sense that scrumptious lobster dinner, which I ordered with her guidance, represented a new level of social sophistication. It made me nervous to think that I was taking a preparatory step in attaining some higher echelon of society, which I strongly suspected, and am now convinced, was Nell’s dream for me.
So in the ambience of this deluxe restaurant, and it was “swanky” with its linen tablecloths and properly aligned silverware, we both were acting out our roles in a worldly wise fashion. At one point, I said, in what I hoped was a cultured manner, “This is different than anything I’ve ever tasted.” She looked at me with disbelief, “It tastes like string?” “No. . .no, no” I hastened to clarify what I was saying to her by exaggerating my enunciation, “I’ve never tasted anything like this.” I watched her countenance take on an expression of suspicion as though I were putting her on, “Something basted? What do you mean?” Low batteries could, and often did, result in a grotesquely creative distortion, a severe discrepancy between what was said and what she thought she heard. I was frantic, desperate to prevent the dissipation of our aura of sophistication; therefore, in a determined effort to make her understand me, I began to use Mama’s alphabet to spell what I was trying to say so there could be no confusion, but before I had finished signing the second letter of the first word, Nell whispered viciously, “Stop that, Billy, you want people to think I’m deaf?”
And there were times the situation could be serious, even dangerous. My mother, Nell, took Mama and my girlfriend, Laura, and me on a vacation to see my Uncle Bubba who owned a construction company and was building a water and sewage disposal plant in Clearwater, Fla. Laura was fifteen and I was sixteen and we were deeply in love. Laura had become part of the family. We would be married the next year, but keep it a secret for two years, even from Nell.
One day, while we were on our vacation in Clearwater, Nell was driving us somewhere in our nineteen forty seven Desoto. She was very proud of the car and loved to boast about its fluid drive, an innovative idea for an early version of the automatic transmission. The only problem with it was that the car would stall at inopportune times. And one day when Nell’s fashionable Desoto decided to stall we happened to be on a railroad track. Unbelievable but frightfully true, we were stalled squarely on a railroad crossing; moreover, a train was coming at apocalyptic speed, one of those times more dramatic than fiction. I was in the back seat with Mama, and Laura was in front with Nell, trying frantically to tell her a train was coming. And though ominously close, Nell was impervious to the vehement blasting of the whistle that was screaming like a banshee for us to get the hell out of the way, the sound blossoming into a special effect of a huge specter bearing down on us in a fast forward speed.
But Nell, who didn’t see the train, and couldn’t hear it, was in no particular hurry to start the car, because she was trying to hear what Laura was saying. “What did you say?” and seeing the frantic expression on her face, “What’s wrong, Laura?” Mama, in the security of her oblivion, was only curious, “Well, Nell, why are we parking here?” Nell finally got the car started, but did not drive forward. Instead, she was responding to Laura’s frenetic attempt to make her understand that a train was coming. “Now what is it, Laura? What is wrong?”
In less than two minutes we were going to make the front page of the Clearwater News as four victims of an utterly demolished Desoto. I tapped Nell firmly on the shoulder. She looked back at me, and I gestured in a deliberately calm and very serious manner for her to go forward. She did, though, still not seeing the train, and still in no particular hurry. In a matter of seconds, with the Desoto not more than ten feet from the track, the train roared by, shaking the car so violently that we were wrapped in a communal blanket in which we shared its ferocious vibrations. Turning and seeing the train, Nell realized what had happened, “Good Lord, we could have been killed; we almost were!” Meanwhile, Mama, who had not yet seen the train, responded to the vibration, “Oh my Jimmy cats, I think a rabbit just ran over my grave!” “Oh my Jimmy cats.” was a standard exclamation for her. When she would inadvertently pass gas, she would say, “Oh my jimmy cats. Someone just mashed a frog.”
Nell parked on the side of the road while we all shared a few minutes of post traumatic shock. It had been a fearfully close call, barely escaping the final embrace of mortality. It was as close as I had ever come to my own death. And we were saved by what? Luck? Fate? The omnipotent hand of benevolence? Mama broke the silence, “Well, Nell, if you can’t find the store why don’t you just ask someone; I would really like some ice cream.” And then Nell exploded with her signature laugh and accused Laura, “My goodness, Laura, why didn’t you tell me the train was coming?”
And that was the beauty of my mother. She was able to see the humor in all of the foibles. She could laugh at herself, make jokes about batteries and having to speak to her chest where the transmitter was located. There are no memories more precious to me than when she was able to see the humor in serious situations and laugh in the face of adversity. I would be grateful to think that I might have inherited enough of her special quality to keep me from whining and seeking pity, which, to my knowledge, Nell never did.