'Baby, I Can't Hear You': Partially Deaf & Alone in Appalachia, Cooking for My Son Filled the Silence

A mother's story.

September 12, 2021
Photo by Hyesu Lee

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My loneliest times were in the kitchen.

We lived then, my son and I, in a duplex 10 miles from town. The kitchen was around the back of the house, behind the drab, carpeted stairs. It had pressed-board cupboards with laminate countertops, Formica floors that always looked dirty, a sink that faced the blank, shared wall through which I could hear the neighbors fight.

The explosions of their video games made the plaster shake. Mice darted under the door that led to the garage. The heating unit made a sound like old bones, and that winter, the first winter of my son’s life, the heater groaned and the snowy wind howled outside, loud enough for even me to hear.

The house was all I could afford to rent, even in rural Appalachian Ohio. My son’s father, my husband, had left, and except for my baby’s cries, snowstorms, and the heater breaking, my world was mostly silence.

Half my world has been silence since I was born. I am partially deaf, due to a congenital condition. I hear some, and I read lips a little. But raised in a hearing family and without any deaf community or deaf friends, I was taught to pretend like I was hearing, too, to pass—or try to. I didn’t start to learn sign language until I was in my thirties.

Pregnant and in school then, I thought it was time to learn ASL. I might meet some other deaf people, I thought, not knowing yet of the isolation of early parenthood, let alone the single motherhood I would unexpectedly be thrown into.

Alone, we learned sign language together in the kitchen, my hearing child and I. I would sign to him, in his wooden high chair, which we had bought from the Amish up the road. It converted into a rocking horse. Strapped in, my baby stared at me silently and wide-eyed as I moved my hands.

Banana. Peeling my index finger. Light. I raised my hands overhead and spread my fingers in a pulsing motion. Water. Three fingers to my lips.

I dreaded dinner more than anything.

The kitchen had only one window, under which I had placed my small, wooden table. The window looked out on to the gravel driveway, and the beige siding of the house next door with neighbors I didn’t know. I cooked alone. I cleaned up alone, washing dishes in the sink and staring at that blank wall.

It's hard to remember what I ate in those days. I had taken a leave of absence from the university where I was a graduate student, and lived off the meager fellowship grant I had received. I was typing my dissertation one-handed while my baby nursed and I held him, or he was strapped to my chest sleeping in a sling. Food was fuel only, serving the simple purpose of being fast and easy and keeping me alive. I slept four hours a night, if I was lucky. My son only took naps if he was physically on my body.

Over our long months alone together, I introduced solid foods to my son. Avocado, which I had never tried myself until college. Pecorino cheese, which I mixed with olive oil to make a paste.

My baby’s first spoken word was good, maybe because I always told him: You’re a good boy, you’re a good baby, in that singsong way that parents communicate—half-asleep, half unconsciously. Over and over again until he knew it, believed it. Good.

Soon, our world was filled with his high, happy chatter. I had avoided cooking with loud kitchen appliances like blenders and grinders, not able to hear him above their growl, but my son wasn’t shy about coming into my view when he knew I couldn’t hear him. He tugged on my shirt. He waved his hands before my eyes.

His enthusiasm for food was the same enthusiasm he would soon bring to everything: books, animals, the few hours of preschool I could afford, meeting other kids and adults.

He tried pea soup. He loved cilantro. He gnawed on breadsticks, which he called bacon for some reason. Once he learned to open the fridge door, he would pull out sriracha and suck on the bottle, trying to open it with his teeth. He started waving away the children’s menu at age five, trying rabbit, octopus, tofu. But his favorite foods are simple Appalachian foods: foraged ones. Morels and hen-of-the-woods, picked wild; ramps, fried in bacon grease.

He talked constantly—his happy babble alerting me that he was crawling backward down the stairs, coming into the kitchen, announcing himself loud enough for me to hear.

Unlike almost everyone else I have met in my life, I didn’t have to explain my deafness to him, didn’t have to tell him what to do, how to communicate with me. He knew. He knew from the beginning: It’s just part of me.

I was grateful that my son talked early; he was the only company or conversation I’d had for so long. His first spoken sentence was: I got it.

And he signed, parallel to his oral speech. He signed giraffe, his favorite animal. He signed more, especially more milk. His first sign, at six months old, was lights.

Signing hasn’t left him. As I continue the slow process of learning my own language, we have whole conversations together using only sign. We are also both learning Spanish, thanks to my Chicano partner, who moved in last year and does most of the cooking: empanadas, enchiladas, posole, shrimp cocktail. He taught my Ohio parents to make Micheladas, and my son has developed a love of Tajín and tamarind.

My son is learning to cook now, too, alongside my partner—the co-parent of my dreams. The kitchen in our house together has a window over the sink, where I wash dishes and catch the glances of the neighbor. I don’t know her name, and in this stage of the pandemic, we may never meet—but every time I see her, she waves.

Alison Stine’s novel Trashlands comes out in October 2021.
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Alison Stine

Written by: Alison Stine