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My grandmother's love couldn't overcome hearing loss

One of my early childhood memories: I'm 8 years old, and my grandmother Jenny sits in her flower-print rocking chair like a country version of Edith Bunker, watching the chaos of two dozen grandchildren unfold during a family Christmas party.

She seems unflappable; the truth is more complicated. She can't hear well, but doesn't do anything about it.

A woman holds her grandson
The author's grandmother, Jenny, holds her

This detachment doesn't faze me much while I'm young. During holiday visits, all the grandkids overwhelm my grandparents' small farmhouse in northern Michigan. We spend hours outside, roaming among cornstalks, playing hide-and-seek.

When we come back in, there's roasted turkey. Or venison. Or any number of Polish favorites, including the strange concoction known as Czarnina, a duck-blood soup that was typically served during Easter. We grandkids would dare one another to try it, bewildered by why such a dish exists.

Later, I realize this is how she feels connected to us, how she expresses her love. Food and endless treats: Cookies, cakes, homemade pies. We ate it all, happily.

Yet as I get older, I start to crave something different. I seek an emotional connection with her, but her hearing loss makes it hard to bridge the gap.

The memory of my grandmother sitting in her rocking chair, silent, is the one that sticks with me even today.

Hearing aids were not an option she'd consider

No one is sure how she lost her hearing. Maybe she had a virus as a child that robbed her of her hearing. Perhaps it was accidental. The mystery colors my memories. She didn't talk about herself much, even to her children, let alone her grandchildren–even the nosy ones.

Part of why my grandmother felt isolated was self-made. Her vanity and stubborn Polish nature kept her from wearing a hearing aid. Back then, the devices were large and noticeable, and she wore her hair short so her ears were exposed to the public. I can only guess when I say she likely didn't want people to know about her struggles to hear even basic conversations.

But as a child of the Great Depression, she probably fretted about the cost and upkeep. As a farm wife, conditioned to scarcity and want, she avoided what she called unnecessary expenses–even when they could benefit her.

As one of her grandchildren, I only knew what she wanted us to know. I was just one more child bugging her for stories about her collection of salt-and-pepper shakers; or as a young adult, another one of her many older grandkids on a visit home from college, mind full of wanderlust and adventure. We seemed worlds apart then.

Growing older, growing closer

But after I married and especially when I had my first child, I was welcomed more deeply into the fold of the women in my family, including my grandmother. The more she and I talked, the more I admired her. We found commonalities in our quirks—we both have ridges on our nails, for example—and in our outlook on life. 

Sometimes it's the ordinary that creates bonds; in our case, the soap opera "Days of Our Lives." We'd start talking about the crazy events and plot twists so feverishly that family members would leave the room. Bo and Hope's star-crossed love gave us endless fodder.  

Her hearing loss and decision to avoid hearing aids was problematic but manageable. If you sat by her side, she could carry on a conversation well. It created that knee-to-knee intimacy that I craved, making our conversations more precious.

A smile that goes right to my heart

As the years wore on, and her physical health began to fail, she moved to an assisted-living facility. She inititally masked her hearing loss in the typical ways, turning up the television too loudly, pretending to participate in conversations. One of her favorite ways of coping was asking you to write things down, reading it and then giving her response.

One day, visiting her at her retirement home, I stop and knock on the door. My mom goes right in, knowing that my grandmother won't respond. I walk in, and give my grandmother a kiss. Her eyes, light blue and watery, light up. Her smile still goes right to my heart. I smile in return.

The nearest chair is across the room, so I sit down and start talking. I tell her about my two kids. How my son is funny and getting so tall. About how my daughter is excelling at reading, starting her first chapter books and devouring them in hours. I update her about my writing—I'm starting work on a small local history book and it is challenging in ways I never expected.

She nods, her smile fading. I realize she cannot hear me; my words aren't landing anywhere. Not in her mind or her heart.

I stop talking.

My mom, who has been busy putting food in the fridge and straightening up, notices the silence.

I realize she cannot hear me; my words aren't landing anywhere. Not in her mind or her heart. I stop talking.

There are no more words to say. My grandmother looks at my mom, and I know that our moments together are limited in more ways than one.

A fading away

She seemed to fade away during those last years. She stopped going to church, something she once did, well, religiously. She couldn't hear the service. She didn't respond as much when we visited–in fact, my family started keeping a spiral notebook on her kitchen table so we could sign in.

That was the only way she knew we had been there at all.

What could have been possible?

Recently, I was listening to a podcast that talked about the inventor Thomas Edison, who grew up in Port Huron, where my grandparents lived during the early years of their marriage. I perked up when the discussion turned to Edison's early hearing problems, likely from a childhood bout of scarlet fever and untreated ear infections.

Edison was tough to work for as an employee and hard to get to know as a friend. He was a genius, granted. But what else could he have accomplished if he had gotten help?

Yes, some of what he could have done was affected by the resources and knowledge of his era. But I'm the kind of person who thinks if you have any chance to improve the quality of life, you should take it. As I grow older, I understand that not everyone thinks or acts that way, no matter how much I think they should. (Yes, I know how bossy that makes me sound. I guess I'm a stubborn Polish woman as well.)

When she passed away three years ago, I felt like I had lost her twice.

Edison's life made me think of my grandmother, remembering her sweet smile and thoughtful advice. When she passed away three years ago, I felt like I had lost her twice. I was reminded then and now of a Bible verse that talked about a virtuous woman–that her worth was above rubies and how she spoke of both wisdom and kindness. I would give anything to have a few more moments with my grandmother, hearing loss or not.

But, much like Edison, I can't help but wonder how much more we could have learned about each other had we had more words to share between us.


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