If I were to tell you our story in sign language—the story of my grandparents and me—I’d begin with a single finger touching my chest. My hands would form the signs for ‘grew up’ and then ‘next door’: a flattened palm rising from my torso to eye level; followed by my index finger hooked over my thumb and turned over at the wrist like a key in an ignition. I’d use the signs for ‘my grandparents’: a clenched fist over my heart, and the letter signs ‘G, M, F’ to represent ‘grand-mother-father’. Then, placing two fingers over my right ear, I’d use the sign for ‘deaf’ to refer to them, and to describe myself, I’d use ‘hearing’: a single digit moved from beside the ear to rest below the mouth. I’d stress the closeness of our relationship by interlocking my index fingers in the sign that doubles for ‘link’ or ‘connection’ depending on context. By puffing air from my lips, squinting my eyes slightly, and rocking my looped fingers back and forth, I’d place emphasis on the sign—the duration, direction and intensity of its delivery giving tone and shape to the meaning made.
Like an opening montage to a film, I would set up the space before my body, carving a visual representation of the dual-occupancy home where I lived beside nanny and grandpa for most of my life. With my hands poised as though ready to play a piano, I’d sculpt a diagram of our long, narrow house, showing its shared roof and the single wall that separated my place from theirs. By turning my hands with the thumbs facing upwards, I’d slice through the air, two-thirds of the way through the structure, to mark out the four-bedroom residence that belonged to my parents, my sister, my brother and me. By repositioning my hands to the left and pointing to the remaining third, I’d show you the semi-detached granny flat where my grandparents live to this day.
In Auslan, or Australian Sign Language, stories unfold like moving pictures, with images sewn together in an art similar to cinematography. Narratives are rendered through a sequence of different frames, shots and angles conveyed by the signing body. A signer can zoom in or zoom out of aspects of the action by employing different visual and spatial tactics. Within seconds, a fluent signer might weave between a ‘bird’s-eye view’ perspective, giving topographical information about the place depicted and then, through shifting the body, will become the character in the scene as they open a door, for example, or rifle through a filing cabinet. Much like a panning or tracking shot, movement functions in these frames by directing the viewer’s attention. Particular types of movement can also indicate shifts in character and point of view: where the body inhabits and takes on a new set of idiosyncrasies including stance, gaze and range of facial expressions.
But I cannot tell this story in Auslan. The language, with its own distinct grammar and syntax, has no written form. There is no accurate way to represent it on the page. In fact, it’s only in recent years I’ve known how to sign some of its parts at all. I am not a native signer. English is my first language and dominant tongue.
Before we moved to the long narrow house with the shared roof, my extended maternal family lived within walking distance of one another. If you look on a map you can draw a straight line that intersects each house: nanny and grandpa’s place in the middle, uncle Ray and auntie Ruth to one side, and my mum and dad on the other. We got together every weekend for barbecues or curry nights, taking it in turns to host the gatherings. Sometimes I saw my cousins several times a week, when our grandparents minded us while our parents went to work. We had our own set of toys in the playroom, with books and videos that were collected for our visits. The six of us kids regularly had sleepovers, cramming ourselves into the spare room where we screamed and squealed until the wee hours unbeknown to nanny and grandpa, who slept on soundly, unless we made the mistake of turning a light on.
I was three when I first realised my grandparents were deaf. Before then I had sensed that they were somehow different to me, that there was a line that separated us. They didn’t use the telephone; their doorbell had a flashing light and not a bell; and maybe mum and dad had told me that nanny and grandpa couldn’t hear. But it was when I was three that I decided to experiment on my grandma.
She was stooped over the sink, washing the dishes. I stood behind her and screamed with all the force my little frame could muster. She didn’t flinch. I howled, cried for help, thinking surely she’d respond to that. Nothing. In my indignation, my temper rose. I stomped on the ground, at which point nanny turned around. ‘I hate you,’ I snarled, and watched as the colour drained from her face. I knew then that she hadn’t heard me, but she had understood. Afterwards, when I found my grandmother sobbing in the bedroom, I patted her hands and stroked her back, like mum would do for me when I was sad. ‘I’m sorry,’ I mouthed, making sure this time that she’d seen my lips.
As a child I spent a lot of time in the company of deaf people. Nanny and grandpa’s deaf friends often dropped by for a chat and stayed for several hours. They spoiled and flattered me, pinched my cheeks affectionately. Whenever my grandparents held parties, I was drawn to the liveliness of signed conversations. Information was delivered with such verve and gusto I wanted so badly to be involved. But mostly I was an observer. To me, Auslan looked operatic and grand. There was something artful, perhaps even musical about its prosody.
It felt like an elaborate secret code that sometimes I could penetrate but that otherwise remained obscure and unknown. The adults signed so quickly, while my skills were limited. I’d soon reach that inevitable juncture, the point where I could no longer follow or contribute to discussions. Then I would gaze at the crowd before me, mesmerised by the uniqueness of individual signing styles.
Everyone had their own flair and panache, their signature tone and energy. There were those who signed with utilitarian brevity, some were slower and drawling, and then there were others who possessed a cascading gestural intonation, with a seamlessness to the flow of their prose. Looking on as they chatted, I would hum quietly to myself, composing accompanying soundtracks to the motion pictures before me: tunes that rose and fell with the dynamics of their movements. At other times I listened intently, enjoying the murmurs and sounds that punctuated interactions of the deaf: the soft clicks and clacks of jaws, lips and teeth.
I loved the raw, breathy notes of my grandparents’ vocalisations: the expulsions of air, the throaty gurgles of excitement and their raucous laughter that soared in pitch and volume. I liked to hear the swish of skin against skin as their hands brushed together in motion. Even the clunk of bone meeting bone, or the thump of a hand against a chest cavity felt to me like a kind of percussive refrain. When I was small, nanny would often rock me to sleep while humming her own sort of lullaby. ‘Tee tee tee,’ she’d croon over and over on a single note. I would doze off to the steady monotony of that repeated sound and wake to the hushed, sibilant rasp of my grandfather’s voice: the one he uses when he signs to my grandma. As I stirred from my slumber, groggy and dazed on their couch, I would see grandpa’s hands in rapid motion: a series of clipped ‘shhs’ and ‘pahs’ interspersed between his movements despite his efforts to be quiet.
Somewhere in the juncture between knowing and not knowing, in the space between these homes, and between deaf and hearing cultures, I grew up. My mode of communicating with my grandparents was mixed and sometimes fraught. Because nanny and grandpa attended oral schools for the deaf, where they were taught to speak and lip-read in English, my family members relied heavily on their ability to follow spoken conversations. It’s a point of pride for both of them that they use the dominant mode of the hearing world so well. It was easy at times to forget the drain on their energy that would follow extended periods of watching and deciphering lip patterns. But English was our default, and we used Auslan mainly for clarification purposes—for those instances where communication broke down.
Signing was by no means foreign. It was around me all the time. At home our grandparents signed to one another, usually in their native ‘BSL’ or British Sign Language, a close relative of Auslan. The two share an alphabet and many fundamental signs, but are different nonetheless. Signers from the two cultures can understand one another with ease. They’re part of the ‘BANZAL’ family (British, Australian and New Zealand Sign Languages), evolving over the years from the same parent language. Through their interactions with various deaf clubs and groups, my grandparents adapted to the change, picking up new signs as they went along. But even today grandpa continues to use his BSL numbers, and will query my use of Australian signs, particularly the ones I’m being taught by younger generations of deaf adults.
With the very best of intentions, my mother sent my brother James and me to a bilingual preschool called Roberta Reid in North Rocks. It had a combined deaf and hearing intake, and the two of us could fingerspell and use basic signs by the time we were three and a half. Because of a change in mum’s work schedule, my sister Lizzie never went there. She attended the local preschool instead. Nevertheless, all three of us knew to perform ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ when appropriate; mum would insist on their use. She wanted us to have full access to our grandparents, to possess the skills and knowledge she had to scramble to acquire. Being immersed in the language, we picked it up quickly and easily. But as we transitioned into the mainstream, most of our skills fell into disuse. When I went to ‘big school’, nobody signed, and as English took over my days and my mind I fell more in love with the shapes and sounds of spoken words. Signing was relegated to the periphery.
At Roberta Reid, many of my peers wore hearing aids throughout the day. These little devices were markers of our linguistic and perhaps phenomenological differences. My grandparents though, were never aided. They referred to themselves as ‘stone deaf’ and saw no need for amplification. But in the bottom drawer of nanny’s bedside table, us kids knew there was an old neglected aid our grandmother had tried and hated many years beforehand.
Sometimes we would secretly pull it out and admire it. Whenever we played dress-ups in nanny and grandpa’s bedroom, we’d wait for nanny to leave, and sneak a look at its waxy ear mould and taupe-coloured battery pack. Once, grandpa caught me fossicking, and bellowed. I thought for sure I’d landed myself in big trouble, especially after it fell from my palm onto the carpet. But grandpa seemed amused. Leading us to the living room, still swimming in their oversized clothing, we were each allowed a turn at adding it to our costumes. That afternoon I flounced around in my grandmother’s floral dress, gesticulating wildly and running through the repertoire of signs I knew (yes, no, pig, chocolate, beautiful, cake, please), all the while with a plastic aid dangling precariously over my ear.
Some years later, towards the end of primary school, I can remember an Auslan interpreter visited and taught a group of us to sign the song ‘I am Australian’. It was around the time of the Sydney Olympics in 2000, and one of the songs in the opening ceremony, ‘Under the Southern Skies’, was performed in part in Auslan. As the woman engaged the class, I was bursting with pride. ‘My grandparents are deaf!’ I exclaimed. She paid me special attention then, calling upon me to share my knowledge with my peers. But I could only tell them the sign for Australia, and maybe a few others. As she translated the song, verse by verse, I had an odd sense of recognition, as though dormant synapses were firing inside me. The language was at once familiar and strange. Later on, I cried tears of frustration alone in the bathroom. I should have known those signs, and I didn’t.
In the same year, when I was 11 years old, we moved to our current home, with nanny and grandpa next door. Located in Sydney’s north-west, our house sits on a two-hectare semi-rural block, upon which we reared a few pet sheep, chickens, ducks and geese. In the mornings, grandpa used to wander around the paddocks, leaning over the fences to feed the sheep their grain. Sometimes he had his video camera in tow to film the new lambs as they learned to walk. I often woke up to the shuffle of nanny’s slippers on the concrete outside my window, as she went to fetch the mail. Even with my eyes closed I could tell the difference between their footsteps. Nanny’s is a quick trot, a staccato rhythm that reverberates through the cladding of the front verandah. Grandpa’s is a much slower plod, often interrupted by heavy breathing.
By the time I finished school and started university, I shared breakfast with them on a daily basis. I’d trudge over in my PJs, and without fail a cup of tea and toast were waiting on my arrival.
Over the course of our cohabitation, my mum developed guidelines for us to follow. Certain habits would grate and cause flare-ups of conflict. Nanny and grandpa would often appear at our windows with their faces pressed to the glass. Sometimes they’d come around the back of the house and open one of the French doors, yelling out to get our attention. Mum would then emerge, red-faced and flustered by the intrusion. After one such occasion, mum insisted everyone use our front doors. We were to ring one another’s doorbells from then on.
The rules have been made and relaxed, enforced and forgotten several times over. But nanny and I formed a secret alliance—she encouraged me to flout the orders. Ringing the bell was far too formal. And so we devised our own way of announcing my presence. Instead of abruptly materialising in their lounge room, which often startled them both, I’d send our dog Turbo in first. I would open the sliding door at the back, letting him run inside, and wait until I heard them react. By the time I’d reach the living room, nanny would already be standing with her arms outstretched, ready to embrace me.
On the back deck, which runs across the length of the whole house, there used to be a lattice screen at the boundary of the two occupancies. Purple bougainvillea coiled itself around the slats of the wooden structure, creating a floral hedge. Nanny hated it, and complained about the ways it obscured her view of what was going on. Several years later, when my parents decided to cement render the house, the barrier was torn down and never re-erected. Nanny was delighted. Nowadays her washing line sits at the border, and as she pegs out the clothes she’ll catch one of us reading or sunning ourselves outside, and invite us in for tea.
On the bookshelves of our lounge room, my mum has collected almost every memoir and autobiography ever published on the topic of deafness. Although there’s hardly a plethora of them in existence, the ones we had were always keenly read. My mother scoured them for wisdom as if they were instruction manuals, or guides with which to make sense of her parents and the irreconcilable ways in which deafness is understood. Sometimes she dog-eared the pages when she came across sections that resonated. I always knew when she revisited them, because in quiet moments between us she would start to muse aloud. She’d probe for my opinions: why do I think nanny does this or grandpa does that?
Her appetite for knowledge is mirrored in her choice of career. For 30 years mum has worked at the Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children. She has worked in various teaching roles during that time, with deaf and with blind pupils. For four years she was the principal of Thomas Pattison School for Deaf Children and is now the principal of Alice Betteridge School, a school for children with hearing and vision loss, along with other physical and intellectual disabilities. My mother is at heart an educator, and an eternal student. With the books and in her ways, her choice of work has always been driven by an earnest resolve and a dedication to service, fuelled by that doubled-edged affection and bewilderment with which we often regard the people we love. She studies and re-reads, leaving her marks on the pages as part of that eternal quest that all children, to some extent, are bound up in: the quest better to understand and know where they came from, who they came from.
My mum often encouraged her father to write a book about his life. He has always been a prolific reader with a mind and memory attuned to specific detail. In the past, when his reading habits were most ardent, grandpa would turn his nose up at the latest depictions of deafness as tragedy or deficit, and mum would suggest a challenge. ‘Why don’t you write something better?’ she’d say. In later years she coaxed him further, fearing his knowledge would be lost, and later forgotten if not recorded. She once took over a pen and a pad of paper, and told him to write everything down he could remember. But grandpa never did, and now he would say that he’s too old and weary for such an undertaking.
So I’ve begun to write. In the last two years I’ve also been learning Auslan at the Deaf Society of New South Wales. As my hands discover their ‘voice’, I’m attempting to capture nanny and grandpa’s voices on the page, embarking on the difficult task of translation and representation. Because I am my mother’s daughter, my grandparents’ stories matter a great deal to the way I organise and experience my world. But also, because I am not my mother, I have access and distance that she might not. Perhaps I can navigate the space between us all, squeezing and shifting through the chasms of our individual positions, bridging the quiet gap between us.
Jessica Kirkness is a writer and PhD candidate at Macquarie University. She is writing a memoir titled ‘A Symphony’ about the lives of her deaf grandparents and her relationship with them.