Native Tongue

My grandmother was born in the very same Midwest home in which she died. She married young, and her wedding photos show a beautiful bride with smooth skin, 1930’s waved hair, and a clefted chin, lifted slightly in what I imagine was defiance. My grandfather stands next to her, a handful of years older than she, hair neatly slicked and wedding band shining. Even in that sepia photograph it is easy to see that his eyes were a dreamy kind of blue.

A cursory glance and I recognize traits that have been passed down: the fullness of her lips, a chiseled chin, his expressive eyes and strong hands: some are reflected in my own mirror, and others I glimpse in my children.

When my grandmother married, she brought her new husband into her childhood home that was fully furnished, complete with her German mother. It was a good thing my grandfather was sweet-spirited and compliant; he most certainly had his hands full. He was soon called off to war and was eventually awarded a purple heart for bravery. He refused to speak of his time in combat, flying that double-winger. An intrinsically gentle soul, attacking enemy planes must have seared.

It’s a funny thing, remembering. People are often petrified of telling their stories slant. I say there is no other way. We should tell our stories exactly the way we remember them, which by no means makes them foolproof. But slant is honest as we share events that have unfolded. We are biased in our story-telling simply because we are human. Only God is omniscient.

So I remember these grandparents of mine, who passed away many years ago. They chose not to travel much, and visited our home only once in my entire childhood. We drove a thousand miles to see them many a summer. Without air-conditioning, that stifling summertime heat caused my legs to stick to the scorching vinyl seats.

Once we arrived, relatives congregated and I observed. My grandfather sat in his lawn chair, smiling and watching everyone visit. His face was kind and his words were few. He watched the entire clan collectively while drinking his black coffee. His four sons and their families spread wide throughout the yard, grandchildren playing tag and adults balancing drinks and paper plates laden with burgers, German sausage, and potato salad. When anyone spoke to him he seemed to hear without listening. It was as though his entire progeny were one in the same.

My grandmother pushed herself up from the lawn chair positioned next to my grandfather, and spent most of the afternoon bent over, pulling small weeds out of her flowerbeds. Hard work was master: she labored in a factory for decades, and by her own choice. When she wasn’t there, she was planting and picking and watering her lovely perennials. I watched her face as well as my grandfather’s, secretly longing for a connection to these grandparents of mine. I performed a quick cartwheel in the lawn in front of them. When they didn’t notice, I joined in the game of tag with my brother and cousins.

One day during a visit with our grandparents, my parents walked my brother and me down the tree-lined street to meet more relatives. It was a few houses away, and I remember jumping over every crack in the sidewalk. My father knocked and rang the doorbell, and we waited. He knocked again, and a tall, older man answered. The adults greeted each other, and we were invited inside.

Kristin, this in your great-great Uncle Otto. A small woman appeared from the kitchen, smiling broadly and drying her hands on a worn apron. And this is your great-great Aunt Emmy.

I said hello, and Emmy bent down, looking directly into my eyes and smiling. She smelled of ivory soap. Would you like to see our home? I spotted large hearing aids in both of her ears. I nodded and gladly followed; her kindness met a tender spot inside.

She served us sweet bread and punch, and as we sat in their living room, I decided that I liked Uncle Otto every bit as much as his wife. He looked like Atticus in the film To Kill a Mockingbird, only older. Speaking in a measured manner, he thoughtfully asked questions that proved he was listening. I noticed that he, too, wore hearing aids.

It was a happy afternoon.

Not too many months after this day, Uncle Otto and Aunt Emmy heard another knock on their door. A salesman had a great pitch for them. Always polite, they listened patiently even though they were not interested in anything he was selling.

Their hearing had continued to decline, despite hearing aids. So while the salesman rambled on at the front door, they did not catch the sound of an accomplice picking the lock of their back door. In less than ten minutes flat they were silently robbed of all valuables, including heirloom jewelry and money that had been hidden throughout the house.

***

A year or so ago, I was driving home one afternoon with our son, when I noticed a bearded man hunched over a burgeoning shopping cart along a main roadway. He was attempting to push his worldly possessions up a small incline, while avoiding oncoming traffic. All of his things were strung together in tattered plastic bags. I asked my son to stop, as I wanted to offer him a few dollar bills that were in my wallet. My son braked, and I rolled down my window. Sir? Excuse me? Sir?

His back was facing me, and he did not turn. I raised my voice and tried again. He did not so much as turn around.

I shook my head. Forget it. Let’s go home, I said, slightly irritated.

So we did.

Yet I found myself thinking about him: He must have family, somewhere? And then, Why would a homeless person ignore help?

***

This morning, I read Proverbs 31:20: She opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hand to the needy. I thought of Aunt Emmy, seeing me and holding out her hand, inviting me into their home. I was needy, just in a different sort of way: a longing to be seen, known, welcomed. She did all of those things beautifully, and in short order. Her native tongue was kindness.

God’s timing is quite perfect. I passed that homeless man again today, and instead of whizzing by, I remembered my Bible reading, and the five-dollar bill in my wallet. How good it would be for him to have a hot drink on a drizzly day.

So I pulled over, flashing the hazards, doors locked, and waved. To my surprise he smiled underneath the filthy hat and scraggly gray beard. I rolled down my window. This is for a cup of coffee, I said.

He took the bill, then gave me a gentle fist-bump with his gloved hand. Pointing first to his ears and then to his mouth, he shook his head. Placing both hands together in a posture of prayer he smiled wide and pointed at me.

He is deaf and mute.

I returned his smile as I accelerated, windshield wipers beating. A man, delighted with a five-dollar bill. And to think I had once so poorly assumed that he had ignored my help.

Once upon a time, it had been great-great Aunt Emmy, hard of hearing, who had heard me best of all. And now a homeless man, without a voice, had sung gratitude; a perfect melody, clear and sweet.

8 thoughts on “Native Tongue

  1. As always, your story reminds me of my past and makes me smile and long to be a child again. Your giving heart makes me smile even more as I remember you in our neighborhood!

    Like

  2. Hear without listening…I have done that many times. I was left thinking what is my native tongue? Never thought of it that way. Thank you Kristin for a much needed reminder.

    Liked by 1 person

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