22 December 2011

Mary Belle and Nellie Lou

L to R, that's Mary Belle and Nellie Lou, not the other way 'round.
(Gee, I didn't realize how much Cherokee showed in us.)

In a line-up of twelve kids, my mother was born just after her sister Nellie Lou. The older kids had come in a flood; the younger ones came in a later wave; and Mary Belle and Nellie Lou were between these two groups, together on their own little island. They were just a year apart.

During the school year, they were together only on weekends. Nellie was born profoundly deaf and my grandmother sent her to a school for the deaf in Columbus. It must have been free because they were dirt poor.... Yes, that makes sense—it would have been a State School for the Deaf. And since my grandma had worked at State Schools, that's how she would have known to do that for Nellie.

Former Ohio School for the Deaf

The old State Schools are controversial in Deaf history; regardless, it's where Nellie learned to sign, and most Deaf people would agree that's a good thing.

Discovering sign would have been Nellie's entrance into the Deaf community, too. She was coming out of the isolation and frustration of being in a hearing world, and suddenly swept into a new world, a working language, a body of shared experience that for once was really hers. 

She must have been so jazzed!


It seems Nellie picked on my mother a lot when they were little. "Mean as a snake, she was," said my mom.

One year at the end of a summer, just before Nellie would go back to Deaf School for the year, my grandma, Nellie, and Mary Belle were in the car and headed to town.

Nellie Lou got new shoes each year for school, and Mary Belle would get Nellie's old shoes to wear for the new school year. My mom said she could hardly wait to have Nellie's shoes. They were "saddle shoes," black and white and very much in style.

Well, part way to town, Nellie got mad at Mary Belle for something—my mom couldn't remember what. But anyway, Nellie rolled down the car window and threw out one of her shoes....

My mom said her stomach sank as she looked out the back window at the shoe, lying in the road. She knew the car wasn't going to be turning around. She said it made it worse that Nellie threw out just one shoe.

Now, if you ask me, you couldn't meet a nicer person than my Aunt Nellie. She's funny and she's very, very gentle. Frankly, I didn't always believe Mary Belle's stories either but she swore by this one.

And come to think of it, Aunt Nellie always did turn her head when my mom started to tell it....

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