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Published: Tue Jul 1 2014
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, El Fracoso de los Texeles / The Failure of the Church Women (detail), 2004, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.

Early morning light filled the room. My bedroom window was not unlike the one in Vermeer’s celebrated painting, Girl with a Water Jug. I slipped the metal arm off its hinge and the window swung wide open. Nylon curtains blew aside. Outside, children in school uniform were carrying brown school bags, which we called ports. They were smiling and laughing as they walked. I was wearing a flower-dotted top with puffy bloomers, known as baby doll pajamas. Without a thought I climbed up onto the window sill and down onto the wooden gas box outside. I was three, or thereabouts, and somewhat verbal.

“I’m going to shool,” I told my mother as she caught up with me in the lane beside the house. My first language is English with lip-reading. Nobody in my family is deaf, so, as a toddler, I imitated many words, but my grandmother, a country nurse until she married my grandfather, became concerned. Sitting on her bed one quiet afternoon, (well, they were all quiet, back then) she held an alarm clock, the kind we rarely use today, with a silver wind up key on the back and a large knob on the top that went up and down. I was very curious. She held it very close to my ear. Perhaps I heard something, perhaps not. Did she sound the alarm behind my back? I don’t know but, very soon after, I was taken for hearing tests, which varied from people talking at me, to being told to turn around so I couldn’t see them. Much later I wore huge earphones and sat in a small cubicle the size of a toilet and pressed a button whenever I heard some throbs and drums. After that, I was asked to match pictures, put pegs in holes, and play games. After that, I lay on a narrow bed holding my mother’s hand while someone poured cold liquid in my ear. Two weeks later I received my first hearing aid, for my right ear, only.

Recently, I saw that painting I mentioned. Vermeer’s Girl with a Water Jug re-casts a scene that exists on the fringe of my memory. What attracts me to this painting, and why does it twin itself with the experience I have as a deaf child nearly sixty years ago in another country, Australia? Clearly, it is not the idea of washing with a water pitcher, nor the layers of clothing worn by this seventeenth-century woman, nor the rich tapestry on which her bowl and accoutrements are placed, although I would love to reach out and touch it. I am more than certain that my attention is drawn to the window, to the idea of light and sound being welcomed on a private moment. There are sounds in the street entering the room with the morning: footsteps intermingling with voices outside, perhaps a horse clip-clopping by; as I now know, morning birds chirp; they insert themselves into one’s day.

I move to another woman early in the morning. She was a laundress by trade and sailed from Ireland to Sydney in 1860, two hundred years after Vermeer painted his gentle woman. During the three to five week sea journey, she was paid to do the laundry of a businessman. He sponsored her and, I imagine, paid her passage of three English pounds. In the ship’s records, Catherine, my great-grandmother, is listed as literate and a Roman Catholic from County Fermanagh, an area that abuts the border between the north and south of Ireland. Shipboard laundry work, shared with other maids, was confined to tiny dark spaces below deck. Shirts were soaped and scrubbed, whitened and starched, dried, and dampened again, to be smoothed with a metal iron, hot from coals. Once in Sydney, Catherine would have had the use of a large copper under which a fire was set to boil water, a scrubbing board, possibly a hand wringer, an outdoor clothesline, and, most welcome of all, the warmth of southern light.

Lip-reading is an act that can only be undertaken in light. When sounds enter the world, they do so from the shape of lips containing them. There is the mere hint of a difference between p and b which one comprehends from watching the lips over and over. I cannot hear it, but I see it. Light provides the context whereby bat is not the same word as pat. There are thousands, if not millions, of shaded positions that form words on lips, which are mediated by sounds amplified by my hearings aids—sounds and sentences to be wrung out like damp articles, some as light as handkerchiefs, some as thick as socks, pressed to crispness by the subtle strokes of lips.

Two years later, Patrick, at the age of twenty-one, arrived in Sydney on another ship. It is certain that he already knew Catherine, as she is listed in the handwritten ship’s records as his sponsor. He, too, is recorded as literate (as many were not) and a baptized Catholic. A stone cutter, Patrick had the good fortune to be hired to build a church in a country town four hundred miles west of Sydney. The couple fled a poor economy that shed no light on a better future, believing they could prosper in this new place where people were flocking to gold fields, where all manner of infrastructures—roads, water sources and electricity—were being developed; where a country church was needed; where rich people required their clothes to be washed and ironed. A stone cutter and a laundress could make a good living.

All English languages are not the same. I grew up reading lips in a household of third-generation Australians of both Scottish and Irish ancestry. Although their vowels had flattened and their sentences had slowed, there were phrases that flew across a hundred years. High notes at the end of sentences, which were not questions, could put you in a Scottish kitchen or an Irish laundry in a blink of an eyelid.

“Aye, lassie, that’s the way,” said one grandmother.

Or, “she’ll be here directly,” said the other.

On the wall behind Vermeer’s Dutch woman is a map of the Netherlands. Vermeer included maps in several of his paintings as did many other Dutch artists, perhaps, as a technical challenge, but also to illustrate the dichotomy between a small private scene and the larger world outside. The larger world was most often the Netherlands. How small the world was then.

Lips and breath are connected in an ancient step-lock, modernized over time. Meaning evolves from the minute juxtaposition of stillness and movement. Vowels and consonants slide and collide in a myriad of syncopated rhythms. The lip-reader knows many secrets, that words such as five and nine, or blue and shoe can be distinguished from each other by the positioning of the lips at the beginning of the word. Shop and chop, however, require context. Anticipatory indicators such as body language and subject matter are as revealing as swatches of light.

As soon as I acquired my hearing aid around the age of four, I found books to be the place that I might live. It was as if three little streams, lip-reading, book reading, and sound converged to row me into the flowing world. In my determination to hear, I chose to be part of that world. While I am sure there were many misinterpretations along the way, there was never a time, when either my parents or I had second thoughts about how I would hear and communicate. In retrospect, it wasn’t easy but it became the only way. As evening descended, artificial light was needed, cozy conversations in dark corners or whispers at the movies, like other children experienced, were impossible. As light faded, I became anxious; I might not be able to hear . . . everything would fall silent.

Catherine and Patrick married in 1864 and lived in a small house across the street from a hotel in a country town called Carcoar. For five years Patrick toiled on the church at the top of the hill and then began to take on stonecutting jobs in neighboring towns. Within ten years they had five children, but at the age of thirty-eight, Patrick drowned in the Lachlan River. This fact was passed down to me by my grandmother, but I could find no record of it. Instead the words of an old family ballad sang in my ear.

He drowned in the river over Cowra way
He built the church on the hill
With its pinks and golds and stone clad nooks
In a sunlit land that was not his own.
His body not found, he never came home
To be buried in the grave on the hill
Where his family lie, forever.
T’was a sad, sad day, when he drowned
in the Lachlan river over Cowra way.
Where his body lies now and forever.

William, the youngest of Catherine’s and Patrick’s brood, grew up to start a successful business at a time when farmers in the district were converting to machinery for sowing and cutting. He sold harvesters and wagons, fire trucks and pianos. A huge proponent of electric light, he installed lights in his home, which were serviced by gas tanks in the basement and pumped through pipe lines inside the walls to the ceiling. As an alderman, he urged the advent of electricity for the town, in particular the hospital. In 1913, he married my grandmother, the nurse who first suspected I may be deaf.

In Vermeer we are seeing a painter who understands the importance of light in a scene. Although he never painted nighttime scenes, we know every painting must have a light source, or it could not be appreciated by us. Light affects everything, even in the dark. Carl Sandburg beautifully illustrates this in his small poem:

Night from a railroad car window
Is a great, dark, soft thing
Broken across with slashes of light.

Another window opened as hearing aids became smaller. First, my large microphone and double battery pack were replaced by a single silver unit, the size of a pack of cigarettes, which I wore clipped to my bra. A cord connected this to the ear piece in my right ear. I was equally deaf in my left ear but had learned to listen from the center of my chest. At the age of sixteen, my parents bought me the smallest hearing aid available then, and for the first time, I heard directly from my right ear. I went off to university and trained as a physiotherapist, married and had three children before an audiologist suggested I could benefit from wearing two hearing aids. At thirty-four, I finally had bi-directional sound, although it was to be another twenty years before technology advanced to the point where the two devices were digitally synchronized.

As I place the audio tour headphones over my aids and enter the gallery where Vermeer’s Woman with the Water Jug is displayed, I click the setting, known as the T-switch. Sound travels directly into my hearing aid via an electromagnetic coil. Only the voice of the curator explaining the painting in front of me can be heard. Movement in the gallery has no sound; there are no footsteps, no external voices, no clatter, in fact, no form. A little disconcerting, really, but I trade form for information right now. The polished sound of the curator’s voice is clear. I cannot lip-read the audio recording but can understand almost every word. After years and years of hearing in the mechanical fashion, I’ve learned to distinguish certain sounds and phrases to make sense of sentences in context. Language, like a puzzle, must be always solved.

Vermeer was born in 1632 and lived and worked in Delft all his life. Of the 35 or 36 paintings generally attributed to him, most portray figures in interiors. All his works are admired for the sensitivity with which he rendered effects of light and color and for the poetic quality of his images.

In the recorded sentence above, general information becomes clear by deduction. Most words rhyme with other words, but when it comes down to a decision as to which is the correct word for the sentence, that other word will not work in the required context. Yes, there is additional work to hear this way but I do not notice it.

It is a new morning on my balcony in Sydney, the city my great grandparents, Catherine and Patrick, migrated to one hundred and fifty years ago. It is a city of sounds: of native birds, of voices, of diverse languages, and also bright sunshine. There is form to this organic diaspora. I open my window. Five palm trees stand steady; there is no wind; the beach below has been raked by tractors during the early hours. In the distance, people walk along the water’s edge as if they have been walking that path for a million years. The kookaburra laughs his raucous missive. Cockatoos swoop and land on a nearby roof. I watch with attention, waiting for what comes next, the sound of a voice. I turn to read his lips in morning light.

Judy Rowley hears with hearing aids assisted by lip-reading. “Light” is the fifth essay of a memoir series. She lives in Connecticut, USA, but often visits Sydney, where she was born. (updated 5/2014)

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