November 23, 2012

Vintage Family Friday - My Grandmother: Part One

I've decided to start a weekly series that focuses on vintage photographs I have collected over the years. I don't have most of the original photographs, they all belong to my mother. She inherited them from her parents. Her dad, my grandpa, in particular was passionate about tracing his family tree so I know quite a lot about my ancestors on my mom's side. I'm now wanting to learn much more about my dad's side - this is very much a work in progress.

Every Friday, I will be sharing a favourite photograph (or two). Often I will not be able to give much of a backstory as for most of my ancestors  all I know are their names, where they lived, and maybe a little more but not much. Others, I may be able to give much more of a backstory.

This post is about my grandmother, Sheila - my mother's mom. My family are all hearing but my grandma was deaf. She identified as hard of hearing most of the time though. Despite the fact that we didn't have the best relationship (especially once I was a teenager), I always was grateful that I had someone who was deaf in my family. It was good for me to have someone to relate to in that way. In 2007, I did an interview with her about her experiences revolving her deafness as she grew up. I'm thankful I did the interview and wish I did more later on. I also really wish I interviewed my grandpa but I never did. If you have grandparents, go interview them! They have a lifetime worth of stories to share, and I'm betting they'd love to be interviewed.

Since the interview is quite long, I'm breaking it into two parts. Part two will come next Friday.

[My grandma on the left, with her older sister Ann.]

Where and when were you born? 
Nova Scotia, 1932

Were there any deaf members in your immediate family [excluding me of course]? 
No, but rumor was my granny (my father's mother) seemed slightly hard of hearing and often answered with an EH! and usually comments to her were repeated often. She was deaf in her old age and died at 91. Although my cousin Eddie in Nova Scotia, (my mom's nephew) has a grand-daughter who lost her hearing very young around 2 yrs of age from meningitis, and is around 12 or so yrs of age now.

How old were you when your parents realized you were deaf & how did they realize that? 
Parents noticed a change in me after I had my tonsils & adenoids removed at 3 1/2 but did not associate it with the operation. I'd always told people I couldn't hear good since the operation & thought people were playing games with me by whispering. Then at 7 yrs of age, I went to regular school (convent) for grades 1 & 2, but the sister (nun) kept moving me from the back to the middle, finally the 1st desk in front, so she guessed I couldn't hear well.

One day when I was 9 years old, I was making mud pies under my neighbour's tree. Her visitor who was a teacher of the deaf came up behind me talking until she was next to me & I was startled & jumped. She nodded & may have been in touch with my parents, later. Probably the whole village guessed I didn't hear well.

[My grandma, 6 years old.]

What did your parents decide to do once you were deaf? 
To find out for sure, my Father took me to an ear doctor for tests. The Dr. stood behind me and talking in a normal voice asked what's 4 x 2 = ? and i didn't hear or couldn't make out what he said. He kept raising his voice until I was able to give answers to the sums. He said Yes, she is hearing impaired and thought it was on-going and I'd probably been very slowly losing my hearing all along gradually that nobody noticed and probably the operation helped move it along a bit more and it was now noticeable.

In September, I went by train with the teacher to the school for the Deaf in Halifax, Nova Scotia as a boarder in 1941 and arrived at night while the kiddies, ages 6-10 were sleeping in their dorm. The school matron showed me my bed, and noticing I was hesitant to undress, turned her back to me to give me privacy and I undressed so fast my clothes were practically flying everywhere and got into my pyjamas before you could blink an eye.

[My grandma with her deaf classmates. She is the second one from the left, sitting down, wearing a bow in her hair.]

What did you think of the deaf students at the school when you first got there? 
Next morning a deaf teen (mother) woke me up with a gesture & a smile---"up". I saw all the other kids had a "mother", too. They helped dress the very small ones and we were led to the bathroom. Then downstairs to our large sitting room full of tables, chairs shelves of toys, books, and games till it was time (not a long wait) to go down another floor (basement level) to the large dining room. We filed down the stairs beginning with the smallest child and ended with the tallest ones.

Once there, I found more girls, pre-teens and older teens who had dorms a floor above our dorm. So far no one talked to me yet then I noticed the children waving their hands, while smiling and making gestures but not talking. I thought to my self, they can't talk. Hmm! I pondered over that and saw they would tap each other for attention and realized they could not hear either and thought ohhh, I'm in the wrong school, still not realizing I myself was deaf too.

I thought the teacher who brought me there made a mistake and Mom & Dad don't know. Wait until I tell them, and they will arrange to move me to the right school, not realizing I won't see them until the end of June. But I was not upset, just curious and watched and before I knew it not even a month I understood them and was communicating in sign language myself. I was happy & having fun on the large swings, slides, sled coasting on the very steep hills in winter plus the skating rink. It's true that children learn & adjust or adapt to new situations & languages fast. Meanwhile I met 3 girls my age just like me with some hearing and we talked and signed together with the other children, but they lived in the city and went home on the weekends.

How was it when you would visit your family during summers? 
In June, going home with my uncle and aunt by car for 2 months visit that 1st year, I was not sure if I could just walk in so I knocked on the front door, while they waited in the car. No answer, I looked back at them not wanting them to leave yet, just in case. I knocked again, and my Mom opened the door, smiled happily saying come in and called out to 2 of my sisters near my age, come say Hello to her. She's been away a long time & the older had to be coaxed.

Life at home was not the same as before I went away. So I was shy with them. The younger sister, by 1 & 1/2 yrs and I played together with no problem and the older one talked more to her & was resentful because I went to boarding school, as she was into reading children's novels - there was one titled "Nancy goes to Boarding School", and the story was exciting so she thinks parents favor me, forgetting it's for deaf children.

[My grandma (right) with her sisters Ann and Norma.]

What are your few most favorite memories about the school you attended? 
The Easter, xmas & valentine parties where boys & girls mingled & the 1st time I ever tasted delicious Christmas plum pudding, as once in a while during the war years, lots of us didn't go home for Xmas. That 1st year we gathered in the gym room to see piles of boxes from Santa on the stage. Each of us was called and when my name came up I went up and received a large parcel from Santa (Mom & Dad). On opening it, I found toys, books, games and some clothes.

Also fondly remember one evening weekly cooking & baking classes & we got to eat everything when done that evening. Entered at age 14, the Hobby show with all schools in the city and I won a trophy, 1st prize, senior girl's champion 1946 for my baking, sewing and weaving. With the most points. Still have it but minus one handle.

Us young teens in a group of 8 or 10, huddled around a hot radiator in the sitting room and made up scary, spooky stories. The best one was from Dolly, who made us so scared about ghosts, booing, sweeping, brushing past our faces while lunging at us with threatening looks... we would jump & snuggle together.

Being invited to a free movie at a local theatre or to the arena to watch Barbara Ann Scott skating. One xmas we were invited by a couple to their large house and we saw tracks & tracks of trains with blinking lights and all the works and the wife treated us to hot cocoa and cookies.

Me being crowned queen of the costume & skating competion in the school back yard. I dressed as a Hawaiian and made a grass skirt from an old potato sack, & one of the supervisors let me use some of her dark pancake makeup. I had my picture taken, which I still have. We also had to show our skating skills while in our costumes round and round the school rink. I was about 16 yrs old.

[Sheila in her skating costume.]

Were the teachers at the school deaf as well?
The teachers were all hearing except Donald - a former pupil who taught printing & shoe repairing to the boys after school hours. We girls had a deaf sewing teacher who taught us to make clothes, darn socks (every Monday, when brought up from the laundry room) all belonging to the boys. We made a fuss about them smelling if we came across a certain boy we were not fond of, (names were sewn in). also knitting. Plus a selected few including myself were chosen to learn to weave under another hearing teacher at a certain age, around 14.

Donald started teaching the slightly slower pupils in sign language only, as the hearing teachers couldn't quite reach them, and did a super job. The rest of us had oral instructions and lip read in classes & at other times blackboard writing.

[My grandma ice skating with Neil, a big love of hers from her youth. See people signing with each other in the background?]

Oh wow I never knew you went to an oral school, I always assumed you were taught in sign language instead of orally.
The aim or goal was to teach speech I think. So they had to hear the child using the speech sounds, then words in order to coach and correct them, during the first couple of years. Some children did learn to talk eventually, (but I'm pretty sure they could hear a tiny bit enough to pick up sounds, but not able to learn to talk by themselves).

Also the teachers used special effects and drawings of the head showing how the tongue is placed when making L, the F, and so on & how to blow on a feather, and placing of hands on throats, etc. It was done over and over until they got the right sound. Of course some children at deaf school never did learn speech but others did.

Donald's pupils were mostly bright but very poor lip readers or simply harder to teach. Maybe the hearing teachers were not expected to learn sign language before they were hired or knew how but were too slow or awkward.. Anyway the kids lipread pretty well and the teachers did not speak too fast and often wrote on the blackboard.

[My grandma on the far right, with deaf friends, age 18.]

(To be continued next Friday - more about school, what she did after she graduated and her experiences with new technology that brought more accessibility in her life, such as hearing aids and closed captioning.)


  1. I loved reading her experience. Thank you :)

  2. I loved reading your Grandma's interview.
    I'm fascinated with anything pertaining to history so this was amazing to read. I just wish I had vintage pictures of my family. I guess they didn't take many pictures.