In A Perfect World:
The Road to Eathie
On the old road edging the Moray Firth along the southern coast of the Black Isle, there is a small faded sign that reads “Eathie.” Its arrow points at a single lane that disappears into a wood further up the hill. You can’t see beyond, not without committing to Eathie, and whatever a trip like that would require. There are no shoulders on that road…no easy way to turn back. If I take this track, which I have driven by practically every day of my retreat here in the north of Scotland, what will I find? If I don’t take it, what will I miss?
I have a strong sense of belonging to Scotland. This is the place where my ancestors lived. They were (and are) Clan Ross and Clan MacPherson. My sixth great grandfather, Donald Ross, was born in the little fishing village of Cromarty in 1740. This is where we stayed. Donald’s grandson Alexander married Ann, my g-g-g-great-grandmother, in East Church, which still stands with its garden of lichened gravestones all around…more of my ancestors, there can be no doubt. Ann was born in the countryside at a communal “fermtoun” known as Meikle Farness (that means “a little place of alder trees”) where a cluster of shacks were cobbled together, thatched over, and its inhabitants scrabbled out a hard existence. This place is long since gone. The earth remembers it, the very efficient historical society has information on it, but the family who farms the wheat growing there now probably hasn’t even heard of it.
Among the many legends of the Black Isle is the one about people “disappearing” on the road to Eathie, emerging later with tales of fairies and spells. So on the day I convinced my husband and children that we should take the road to Eathie, just to see what was up there, I played up the supernatural element as much as I could, building the anticipation, justifying the diversion. We drove slowly, climbing a long hill through ferned woods. The fields were divided by rock fences edged with a full thorny bloom of yellow gorse. We passed only a few white-washed stone cottages with friendly tea towels pinned to a line, waving at us. The heather dotted purple across the hillsides. A fishing boat named “Katturah Ann” was beached beside a heap of weathered lobster traps. Taped on the sign that should have read Eathie 2 km was a fluorescent orange poster announcing FREE KITTIES, ALL COLORS, MOTHER IS A GOOD MOUSER. ONLY ONE LEFT had been scrawled in red marker. At the crest of the hill, there was sharp tang in the air. The sea, dark and sparkly, gleamed between us and Inverness Shire over the water to the south. The whole setting seemed ripe for magic. We drove on, hopeful, but soon enough the road began its descent. Before we knew it, we were back on the main road. Wait a minute…where was Eathie? How had we missed Eathie?
Taking the Right Road
When I was told in a workshop during Deaf Awareness Week that my son Dane, profoundly deaf and maybe only two or three years old at the time, would inherently belong to another culture and heritage in the Deaf Community, I bristled. There is so much more to culture and heritage than a shared lack of hearing, I thought, what a claim! Where is their music? Where is the haggis? Where are their legends? What is their language…what are their cultural values and history? That was my first reaction. Like most hearing people, I knew nothing about Deaf Culture and community at all except that, apparently, they wanted to take my son from me. I did not take that news well at all.
Still, there was no denying the fact that here was a group of people who had something in common with my child that I would never have. I was well aware of how much I had to learn, and how much of that learning would come from other individuals who, like Dane, were experiencing life without a typical sense of hearing. I was eager to learn anything they had to share.
Early on, I chased down every deaf person I could find. One poor gal must have thought I was going to mug her because I followed her right out to her car in the parking lot and scared her death (she hadn’t noticed me). “Hi, I’m Leeanne…my son is deaf…I would love to talk to you about what it’s like to be deaf…” That sort of thing. I was excited to attend my first workshop featuring a panel of teens who were deaf and hard of hearing. We brought Dane and kept pointing out that those big boys all had hearing aids on, too. Dane seemed very interested. He watched intently. The teens were all oral and very intelligible. We were still in the throes of communication choices at that time and were hoping for some insight. So I raised my hand and asked if any of them used sign language. The boys all shook their heads and each one dismissed any need to sign, they were all very successful with their amplification and voices. I was impressed.
As we walked out to the car, one of the teens came running up. He said, “Look, I just wanted you to know that we all sign to each other when we’re not around our parents. When we’re with deaf people or just hanging out, we sign, but our parents freak. So, you know, moms are right there watching us, and that’s why we said we didn’t sign.”
I was stunned by this. The implications of having to hide something like this from their own parents were staggering to me. Especially since these guys were clearly really good talkers and I had heard all the stereotypes about sign language as a fall-back plan for unsuccessful oral wannabes. This was definitely not what was going on for these teens. I pondered this for a very, very long time. My husband Tom and I wore the topic out, firmly concluding that whatever Dane wanted to do, however he wanted to communicate, our family would support him, and let him drive the decision. We never wanted him to feel like he had to pretend to be somebody he wasn’t around us or anybody else. If he felt more comfortable with deaf people than hearing people or vice versa, we wanted to be open and accepting of that. We prayed that wouldn’t mean he would “leave” us for the deaf community; mostly, we wanted him to feel comfortable in his own skin, and unconditionally loved. We wanted to send him the right kind of messages about who he was as a person—valuable and acceptable no matter how he communicated.
Be Who You Are
Since the Deaf Community might be where Dane would find his place one day, we made efforts to expose him to that world. We made friends with deaf people, and “adopted” a Deaf adult mentor, Henri, who is still a beloved member of our family. Henri became a part of our lives (see: www.handsandvoices.org/articles/perfect/V12-1relevant.htm). We made an effort to expose Dane to a diverse group of deaf people, talkers, signers and combiners, striving for the widest view. We attended all kinds of events in the signing Deaf Community, and participated in activities with oral groups, meeting many deaf peers and families. Along the way, my understanding and appreciation of the Deaf Community grew. It has its own legends, cultural values, history, and a language that constellates and distillates their common life experience into American Sign Language. I am not even bothered by the fact that it has no haggis, really, the world does not need more haggis (don’t tell anyone in Scotland I wrote that). I have made friends with deaf and Deaf people—the capital D signifying Deaf Culture—its proud, non-medical/non-disabled worldview. I have danced with deaf/Deaf people, gone to the weddings of deaf/Deaf people, had Christmas and Shabbat with deaf/Deaf people. Dane has moved freely between his hearing family and his deaf/Deaf family, and felt at home in both.
When my friend was wringing her hands over her hearing daughter’s depression, lack of friends and miserable social life, I recalled how worried I had been that these things would inevitably happen to my deaf son, cut off as he was from hearing people. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Nowadays, I’m far more likely to be wringing my hands over what appears to be too many friends and social activities for Dane, all courtesy of a very robust Deaf Community at the university he attends.
In the end, we discovered that there is no one way to be Deaf or deaf. Indeed, there are as many ways to be deaf/Deaf as there are people living their lives without typical hearing. There is consensus on some of the values of Deaf Culture, including the notion of ASL as a natural first language. But it has been my experience that those of us (hearing and deaf) who do not use ASL as a first language are still welcome at the family picnic of the Deaf Community. Seriously, could you pick out one person to represent the American Culture? At best, we are all facets of a culture. We may resonate strongly with being Deaf or Scottish-American, but neither of those things describes us entirely. Deaf Culture and Community are there for Dane and our family to participate in and learn from and explore.
So we chose to do that, for Dane’s sake. I’m happy that he has found a sense of belonging in a community that does what community is supposed to do: share the collective joy or pain, provide guidance, connections, and much of the time, explain Dane to himself. I like the idea that it celebrates itself with pride and doesn’t shrink with “impairment.” That seems pretty healthy to me. I have grown to respect the critical need for this in his life, particularly when the “hearing world” can be so insensitive and even cruel. As hearing parents who were once intimidated by the notion of Deaf Community and Culture, I’m glad we didn’t let that stop us from discovering what might be relevant for Dane. So glad we didn’t miss this.
Taking the High Road
Dane did not join us on our trip to Scotland last summer. He enrolled in summer term, so he had a good excuse. When we got home, we gave him his souvenirs, showed him the pictures, and told him all about our trip. He loved the full-size blue and white flag of Scotland that I know is hanging in his dorm room right now. I brought him up to date on my genealogy research (he is as bored as my hearing kids Dakota and Makena by this). He took it all in, but I worried that he didn’t really feel a part of it. Yet a day or so later, I noticed his Facebook status was some remark about his Scottish pride. He asked me if I could find him plaid sheets for his bunk in the dorm…reminded me that plaid was his very favorite…and did I remember the plaid quilt I made him…that he wore out. He put a sticker of the Scottish flag on his new Mac laptop. He bragged to a friend about being a Scot, using his nationality to explain some odd behavior the way the Germans are always blaming their obsessive orderliness on the Motherland. I smiled to my fingertips at each of these little gems that validated his sense of heritage in our family.
I also told him about our trip to Eathie—how our Cromarty host, Peter Harvey, old and wise, explained our misadventure. Peter listened to the tale, shook his head and without a bit of irony told me that Eathie wasn’t a single place. It was that whole place up there, making a wide arc with his hand. If you had to nail Eathie down to one spot, then maybe you could consider it where the thatched cottage across the street from Alistair’s auto garage joined a house and a few buildings together. But some might say it’s near Murto’s old sheep sheering shed with the broken fences right at the crossroads of the dirt path that pitches steeply down to the beach. Yes, maybe that was Eathie. But, then again, maybe not. It all depends on what part of that broad hilly destination you’re visiting…whose Eathie you’re seeing…what worthy thing you find on that road that will always represent Eathie to you.
There really is no single place that is Eathie…turns out Eathie is more of an experience than a place. And I’m so glad I didn’t miss it after all.