We strolled from one side of the cemetery to the other, reading headstone after headstone, my thoughts lingering with the families who had gathered there to say goodbye; what they might have said, how deeply they must have grieved.
We had plopped on a stone bench to rest a bit when a sudden dazzling ray of V-shaped sunlight slashed across the cemetery, illuminating a huge headstone near the back.
Bill squinted. “That’s really bright!”
“It's shining on that one headstone," I said, "Let’s walk back there and look at it.”
When we got to the headstone, I was stunned. Carved in the red granite was the name “Jesse T. George.”
I had known my great-uncle was buried in Paducah, but I didn't know where. I was living hundreds of miles from home when Mother called with the news, but I was unable to come back for the funeral.
Uncle Jesse was a tall, slim man with a head of thick brown hair. He was very neat; his trousers always sharply creased, shirts starched, shoes polished to a high gloss. He had a "semi-hawkish" nose, bright blue eyes framed by thick brows, and high prominent cheekbones, no doubt dating back to his Indian ancestry.
Although he was a very dignified man, Uncle Jesse easily related to children. One summer, when Pitty and I were spending a week with our grandparents, he was there for several days. We had a wonderful time, playing card games, listening to Paw Paw play his harmonica as he clapped along, and watching them play jokes on each other.
Uncle Jesse was Paw Paw George's younger brother, and he was deaf.
His wife, Aunt Linnie, a gentle, plump woman with deep auburn hair, was also deaf. She had been that way all of her life, but Uncle Jesse had not. Due to an ear infection when he was less than two years old, he lost his hearing. He could talk a little, but you had to know him to understand what he was saying.
Uncle Jesse, who was educated at Kentucky School for the Deaf, in Danville, Kentucky, played a big part in Mother's childhood. He taught her sign language, and she accompanied him in his buggy on Saturday afternoons to the picture show (which worked well for him; the movies were silent back then). Mother was thirteen when they got married, and she and Aunt Linnie became fast friends. The couple often took her along to neighborhood hoe-downs where they danced to country and bluegrass singers, fiddles and banjos whining in the background.
“You should’ve seen Uncle Jesse back then,” Mother said, “He could really dance! Before he married Aunt Linnie, all the girls wanted to dance with him. One very pretty girl had a big crush on him. And she wasn't even deaf."
As I was growing up, Uncle Jesse and Aunt Linnie sometimes came to our house for Sunday dinner. Neither had learned to drive, so Herman Phillips, a deaf friend, drove them. When someone yelled, “Here they come!” my siblings and I trooped into the yard to watch Herman Phillips’s old Model-T whiz up the lane.
I was fascinated, watching them conversing in sign language. Mother’s fingers moved like lightning as she murmured softly, eyebrows raised, facial features exaggerated. Uncle Jesse and Aunt Linnie also made gestures and murmured softly as they signed. If Mother signed sad news, Uncle Jesse said, “Ohhhh...” very softly; if Mother signed about something pleasant, like us kids, he smiled and said, “Ahhh...,” a big smile on his face.
Each time they visited, Uncle Jesse held his hand above our heads, “Beg,” he said, “Beg.”
“He said y’all have grown big,” Mother explained.
Maw Maw didn’t sign; she just clearly pronounced her words in a very soft voice. And she gestured a lot. But it didn’t seem to matter whether anyone signed or not; Uncle Jesse understood everything everyone said.
Herman Phillips was another story. I couldn't quite figure him out. Whenever anyone said anything to him, or even looked at him, he laughed.
I loved those Sundays. One in particular stands out in my memory:
I stroll around the living room where the men are talking and joking, their deep voices punctured with laughter every now and then. The women’s soft voices croon like pigeons over the clatter of pots and pans as the mouthwatering scent of roast beef drifts through in the air. I gaze at the smoke from Daddy's cigarette hanging in the sunlight like thin strips of fog, listening to the giggles of my little brothers and sisters elsewhere in the house.
I move to the kitchen where I observe Maw Maw lightly tap her foot to get Aunt Linnie’s attention. Suddenly, I have a brilliant idea. Pitty is all for it.
We creep up behind Herman Phillips, stand for a moment, and stomp our feet as hard as we can. Herman Phillips jumps, his face turning as white as a sheet. He quickly regains his composure and bursts out cackling and pointing his finger at us.
Mother frowns and takes us aside. “Don’t y’all do that again,” she says, “Ever!”
I often stared at my great-uncle's face when he wasn't looking, trying to imagine what it would be like to live in a world without sound; never to hear Maw Maw and Paw Paw’s voices, Aunt Linnie’s. Or anybody’s.
“Can Uncle Jesse hear anything?” I said.
“No,” Mother said.
“Not even a freight train?”
“He can’t hear it. But he can feel it.”
“He can feel the ground vibrating.”
“What if Herman Phillips was driving that Model-T and a train was coming and he couldn’t feel the ground vibrate because he would be in the Model-T and it would be shaking so much that he wouldn’t know the train was shaking the ground and they all got killed?”
Mother sighed. “Brenda," she said, "Go on outside and play."
The sun was setting as I ambled around the yard, listening to the croaking frogs, the song of the night birds, the distant whine of a John Deere tractor. I could hear the bounce-bounce-bounce of Terry's basketball on the other side of the yard; the voices of my little brothers and sisters as they played nearby.
I stopped and stuck my fingers in my ears. I could still hear sounds, but it was like I was underwater, everything above the surface, far away. I felt isolated, out of touch. What would it be like to never hear the birds singing; the frogs croaking; the voices of my parents, my brothers’ and sisters? Not even my own?
As time went by, I saw less and less of my great uncle and aunt. I was busy with my friends. Aunt Linnie’s deep auburn hair faded to the color of pale carrots; Herman Phillips’s hair turned gray, and he walked with a limp. But other than a touch of gray at his temples, Uncle Jesse looked the same.
Paw Paw and Uncle Jesse had farmed all their lives, but when they could no longer make a living there, they were forced to get jobs elsewhere. By the time I started to college in
"He won't even remember me," I said.
"Of course he will!" Mother said, "He'd be tickled to death to see you."
To appease Mother, I looked for him when my girlfriends and I stopped by the store. Time and time again. But he was nowhere to be found. I was beginning to think they were wrong; maybe he didn't work there after all.
Then one day as I was rushing in to pick up some school supplies, I spotted him. He was back in the kitchen. He was wearing a chef's hat and a long white apron. And he was washing dishes.
I stopped in my tracks, a thought spinning in my head: Uncle Jesse shouldn't be washing dishes at Walgreen's. He's too smart! He reads books! He can do all kinds of things!
After composing myself, I walked up to the counter, perched on a stool, and waited for a chance to get his attention.
Finally, he emerged, carrying a big box of napkins. He set the box on the floor and began stacking the napkins under the counter in front of me.
I tapped his shoulder.
Startled, he looked up. And then a big smile zipped over his face. “Bina!” he said, his voice soft and familiar, “Bina!”
“Hi, Uncle Jesse,” I mouthed.
“School?” he said, “Gonna school?”
He leaned across the counter and patted my hand. His hands looked the same; very strong, very clean. Shriveled, now, from the dishwater.
“Mama and Dada?”
“Yes,” I said, “Mother and Daddy are fine.”
Back in the kitchen, a young man with shaggy hair, obviously Uncle Jesse's boss, was staring at him and frowning. He began slapping his hand on the counter, trying to get his attention. I wanted to yell at him, tell him Uncle Jesse was smart, smarter than he, in fact, and should be his boss!
But I didn't want to get him in trouble.
I got up. “I better go, Uncle Jesse,” I mouthed.
He pointed in the direction of the college. “School?”
“Yes, I'm going back to school.”
He patted my hand again. “Bye, bye Bina.”
As I left, he was still standing straight and tall in his long white apron and chef’s hat. His boss was still glaring at him, but he stood smiling and waving until I was out of sight.
“Sounds like he was a good man,” Bill said.
“Yes, one of the best men I have ever known.”
As brilliant yellow, orange and red leaves flitted across Uncle Jesse's grave and the sun sank out of sight, I knelt and gently touched his name, thanking him for his kindness, his love, the joy he gave us all, remembering the dignity with which he lived his life in a world without sound.
|Uncle Jesse and Aunt Linnie|
May 21, 1933