Reflections On Being Deaf, Gray and Italian on the “eve” of my 70th birthday

Do you ever look at someone and try to imagine who they were as a child or as a young adult?

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Each of us has a story, with many chapters.  In a few weeks I will celebrate my 70th birthday.  For many of us, there are many versions of our “self” that include a younger version and the one that will always be in our minds.   But time does pass, and the older I get the more I realize how important time is.  Use it wisely.  It is the ultimate gift each of us is given.

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    New Rochelle High School Yearbook 1965

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    I think I was 18 in this picture.

On being deaf- If someone had told me in my youth that I would someday be totally deaf, I don’t know how well I would have handled it.  Over the years, I have struggled with this slow progression towards silence and the mindsets society has placed upon those of us who have trouble communicating with the mainstream.  Like most people with hearing loss, I have navigated my journey through rude store clerks, discrimination in the workplace and even jerky people who we thought were sensitive and above treating us like secondhand citizens.

But there is an upside to this experience for sure.  Strangely, I have experienced my greatest growth because of this experience.  Losing my hearing has made me more sensitive to the plight of those on the outskirts of society, it has humbled me and made me really think about what someone else’s journey may be like.  It has also made me determined to complete whatever goals I choose despite being deaf.

In the silence, I heard my own voice and I began to write and publish work.  In my upcoming book, Living In The Color Magenta, I compare going deaf to  smothering and drowning.  That is what it always felt like to me. Going down, no one hearing you and having no voice.  I have said it before, and I will say it again.  If it weren’t for the Hearing Loss Association of America www.hearingloss.org over the last more than 25 years, I don’t know how well I would have fared.  This organization gives people like me a place to go to advocate and share with others in our journey.  Hearing loss is isolating, and like many others I have tremendous respect and gratitude for their work.  This organization and the love of my family gave me courage when I really needed it. We need to always pay it forward.

I am very lucky to be living in an era where there is something called a cochlear implant.  Helen Keller, Thomas Edision, Beethoven and so many others were not.  Almost every week someone approaches me and asks me about this miraculous operation.  I can wake up deaf, and put on my implants and be part of the hearing world.  For this, I will always be grateful.

1012 About gray (grey) hair-I remember finding my first gray hairs when I was 26 years old and pregnant with my first child.  I was mortified.  How could I already have grays?  My hair was very dark brown, and I was still wearing a “Cher” hairdo with bangs and long dark tresses.  The steely grays really stood out.  Over the next 40 years, I went from dark brown to light brown, auburn, blonde and platinum.  One day after being sick and not being able to make it to the colorist, I examined my shimmery grays showing through at the part and I just said, “I’m not doing this anymore.”  I kind of liked that my natural pearly shade matches best with my dark Italian coloring, and it was very liberating to accept my new look and older self.  

To each his own.  I see many women ditching the bottle and feeling confident enough to be  comfortable with their changing looks.  Even my colorist told me in recent years, “You actually look younger with your own natural hair color, even though I lost a customer.”  I appreciated that.

But growing older is about so much more than gray hair.  Time is passing and we are becoming older and more vulnerable.  There’s a greater chance for serious illness or a fall.  That sometimes  scares me.  We lose lots of people we care for and love. These losses are profound.

I have always tried to be there for my children.  I think every parent always feels they want to help their children if there is a crisis for as long as they live.  But somewhere along the way, the tables turn and our kids become our strength.  It’s beautiful to have wonderful children,  but kind of shocking to witness this shift.

On being Italian- I will always be grateful for my strong Italian roots.  Being the daughter of an immigrant parent allowed me to understand the plight of so many generations who have come to the U.S.  My parents gave us a strong Christian faith, my Italian-born father’s love of opera and his garden were inspiring.  My mother’s binding efforts to give us a traditional, strong family life complete with ethnic foods and rituals.  Christmas, Easter Sunday, faith hope and patriotism… all of these were true gifts.

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Mom with all seven of her children
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Mom making her famous lasagne
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With my parents, five of my six sisters and brothers
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Easter Sunday
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With 3 of my 4 sisters a few years ago celebrating St. Patrick’s Day

A few more observations-

Sometimes I can still hear my mother’s voice– At this stage of my life, I look so much like my mother, I almost expect her to answer back when I look in the mirror.  My mother made it through some pretty tough stuff.  As a child, I always felt she was so strong it was almost intimidating.  But somehow, that shy little girl I used to be inherited some of her resilience.  I am grateful for that gift.  I recently was hospitalized after a fall and in serious condition.  As I looked up and saw IV attached to one arm, a nurse taking blood from the other, while one nurse waited to take my temperature and blood pressure, I heard words like sepsis, 104 fever, put her in cardiac care, etc.  Was my life in danger?  How would my mother handle this?  Suddenly, I could hear her firm voice speaking to the grim reaper saying, “I’m not going anywhere!”  So I repeated that phrase in my mind and it gave me courage. I’ve had these moments before, andI suspect I will have them again.

On fathers and daughters- Fathers definitely have a lot to do with how a woman will see herself as worthy and lovable.  I was lucky to have a father that instilled that in me and a good husband who gave that gift to his daughters.

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On being in love- I’m glad that I have loved and been loved.  Even though it hurts like hell when you lose someone, it is an experience to not be missed.  It is one of the greatest gifts in life. No one can ever take that away from you.

Family- It’s all that matters.  Period.  So glad my daughters are not just sisters, but they have always been best friends.

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Birthday parties

 

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Vacationing in Sag Harbor 2015

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On being a grandma- There is nothing like it!  Love this little boy.  I want to watch my grandson grow taller than me, watch him fall in love for the first time, hear his stories and keep that special connection we have forever.

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On dogs- they really are nicer than people 🙂

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Time-  It all comes down to time well spent.  How have you spent your time today?  My kids told me they are holding me to living to 100 years old, and that’s 30 more years of good living for this deaf, gray and Italian lady.  I’m sure there will be many more life lessons.  I’m ready.

 

Happy Birthday to me!   Cheers!

 

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Father’s Day, — from Francavilla, Italy to New Rochelle, NY

If anyone ever asked someone what they remember most about my father, they would probably say his love for his garden. From late March he would be digging up the soil on those balmy spring days to late October when his flower garden displayed the last show of summer and there were a few plants that survived before the first frost. His garden was his first love.

There’s so much I remember about my father. I adored him growing up. A father is a girl’s first love, and his attitude and example sets a tone for what she should expect from a man in the future. My father was strict. He had five daughters and two sons, and he was protective of us.

He had great expectations from any guy that dated us. They had to pick us up at the house, speak with respect and show they were deserving of releasing his daughter to this stranger for the night, entrusting him in his care. They had to meet him. If he felt the potential date was someone he didn’t want his daughter out with, he would go in the kitchen and consult my mother about it. He was usually spot on.

In the early days, he was a shoemaker with a store on Mechanic Street in downtown New Rochelle. I remember him putting taps on our shoes when the heals wore down. In the 1960s, wearing taps made you cool. Later on when the shoemaker business became obsolete, he went to work in a factory. He worked long hours, his hands were always chapped and he arrived home with the scent of machine oil on his clothes. He wore khaki pants and flannel shirts and put his kids first.

There are random things I remember about my father. I remember him rocking me in his lap and singing an Italian lullaby to me. I remember him trying to teach me to tie my shoes and becoming frustrated because his left-handed daughter was not good at reversing it. I remember doing homework and my pencil point breaking, and him pulling out a pocket knife and shaving it down to get a point. I remember him giving me an old silver dollar on every birthday, and signing the card, “from your papa.” I remember the way he looked at me when he saw me in my prom gown and my wedding dress. I remember him handling me a frayed prayer card he carried across the Atlantic Ocean in his pocket on his way to the United States  when I was in my forties and first went deaf in my left ear. He told me to always have faith. I remember how he came and kneeled next to me at my husband’s wake and the consoling words he offered.  Although he wasn’t someone who talked on the phone, I remember he called me frequently when my husband died just to ask me, “Mary are you alright?” And I remember the look on his face when he took his last breath after a long struggle with Parkinson’s Disease.

Most of what we knew about him was about his life once he reached the United States. I never saw any pictures of him as a child or adolescent. But who was he as a little boy? A young man? I knew his mother raised him and he always spoke fondly of the people in Francavilla who helped shape his values. Did his mother sing him that Italian lullaby when he was a toddler? When he became a young man, did he fall in love? Did a girl break his heart? Did he have dreams about the future? Did it take courage for him to leave his homeland and come to America at 19 years old, never to return except for a few visits many years later?

That was “my papa.”   Happy Father’s Day to all the wonderful dads out there living and those who have passed. And God bless all the moms who assumed both roles.

Francavilla, Italy: It Takes A Village To Raise a Child

Antonio Fiumara 1939

Antonio Fiumara, 1939

On February 18, 1935, just one month short of his 20th birthday, my father left his hometown in Francavilla, Italy.  He hopped on a train to Naples.  From there he boarded a ship called the Rex.  His final destination was the United States of America.  He had one suitcase of clothes, the equivalent of forty dollars in cash and a small prayer card in his pocket.

As a child, he would watch the boats transporting travelers in the distant Mediterranean Sea.  The day of his journey, it was sunny and mild in Francavilla, located in Angitola, Calabria, in the southern part of Italy.  Crossing the Atlantic Ocean, his journey was cold and choppy, and he was seasick most of the time.

When he arrived at Pier 84 in New York, he was scared and homesick.  He did not speak English.  Someone on the streets of New York was giving out free samples of what appeared to be tiny chocolate bars.  In reality, it was a well-known chocolate flavored laxative.  Needless to say, accepting this tiny sample was not a positive experience.

His early days in New York were disappointing.  Distraught, he visited the Italian consul with the hope of returning to his native country.  A very compassionate stranger there told him, “Do not be foolish.  My son, wait.  You will get to love it here.”  And he did.

But he never forgot his hometown, which he often spoke about with tremendous affection.  His mother raised him.  But there were many people in his hometown that contributed to his upbringing and values.  He never forgot them.

He spoke about the parish priests who mentored him and helped to shape his values.  Early on, he learned the value of meditation and prayer.  Throughout his life, he claimed a sacred space to pray, reflect and offer thanks.  His faith carried him through the most difficult times in his 93 years of life.  Evidence of his deep faith was the prayer card he carried in his pocket across the Atlantic. He kept it with him until the day he died.

Then there were the aunts, uncles and friends in his hometown.  They kept their strong ties with family and friends.  If you needed them, they came.  You didn’t have to ask for help.  If a baby was born, they celebrated with you.  If someone died, they grieved with you.  If there was a wedding celebration, all living generations would share in the joyous event.

During his childhood, some accompanied him to a place he called “il giardino.”  This was a community garden where he learned to plant and nurture tiny seeds and watch how they slowly grow into fragile and beautiful living things, — very much like a child in a village.

The priests, aunts, uncles, friends and random people in the village filled a void in a child, and taught him how to pay it forward.  Years later, when my father was married and owned his own home, he sponsored some of his friends and family to come to America.  Often, the breadwinner in the family would arrive first to establish himself and then send for his family.

I remember many cold winter days in the 1950s that my father’s family came by boat, arriving in New York with our home as their first stop.  Sometimes, they would live with us until they were established.  Often, my father would recommend them for work at the factory where he worked.  They were always welcome at our dinner table.  I can only imagine how frightening it must be not speaking a word of English and not knowing anyone else on this side of the Atlantic. When he could, my father also generously remembered his church.  Maybe a small child in his hometown will benefit in some way.

As the old African proverb states, “It takes a whole village to raise a child.”  How lucky my father was to grow up in Francavilla.  Antonio Fiumara would have been 100 years old in 2015.  Perhaps this story is more about 100 years of gratitude.  I have never been to Italy, but if there is one thing I want to do before I die, it is to visit my father’s hometown where it all began.

Pay it forward.  Rest in peace, papa.

Copyright © Mary Grace Whalen 2015. All Rights Reserved.