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The Vineyard’s Voice

Marthas VineyardBefore it was known for the ferry ride, blue-shell crab and tangerine sunsets, my home, Martha’s Vineyard, was occupied by the Wampanoag Indians. The tribe is still around and has its own trust lands on the southwest part of the Vineyard.

The Island is about 20 miles long east to west, not even as long as the New York City Marathon. North to south, Martha’s Vineyard is jagged, so some places are about 2 miles long and in other places it’s closer to 10 miles. Erosion is shrinking the entire coastline, though, with the south shore slowing forcing its way up, bit by bit, like a caterpillar making its way up a stem.

The Island is hillier than most people know. I only know because I’ve spent years walking and biking around it. It’s a beautiful place. Everyone knows about the pastel colored cottages and beaches, but the unpopular paths are my favorite.

I can imagine how Bartholomew Gosnold must have felt the unspoiled treasure of The Vineyard. He’s the Englishman credited with bestowing the Island with her name. Martha was the name of Gosnold’s daughter, who died when she was just a baby. Martha was also the name of Gosnold’s mother-in-law and she, along with the Earl of Southampton, were the chief financiers of Gosnold’s voyage as captain of the “Concord”. Gosnold’s wife was also named Martha.

That’s a lot of Marthas, so I’m not sure which of the Marthas the Island was meant to recognize. Maybe Gosnold wasn’t sure if he’d ever find another plot of land, so he was shrewd enough to get the most mileage from his discovery by paying homage to his daughter, wife, and his fiscally generous mother-in-law.

But as clever as he may have been, there’s no way he could have envisioned the tourists that would eventually visit his place, my place, the Wampanoegs place, each summer. Maybe he’d be proud to know The Vineyard lowers the blood pressure of corporate executives whose typical work week comprise 13-hour days 51 weeks out of the year so they can afford one week of relaxation here. Or maybe he’d be disgusted at the cost of the clapboard houses. Only Gosnold knows, and while his skeletal remains are on display in the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, they aren’t talking.

I’ll tell you who does not stop talking, though, and that’s the “Jaws” lovers. In addition to Martha’s Vineyard, The Vineyard and Noepe (what it was known as when the Wampanoags were the majority), this place is also called Amity Island. People from all over visit The Vineyard because of the 1975 Steven Spielberg flick filmed here.

The Jaws groupies are easy to spot. Most wear t-shirts that depict huge Great White Shark mouths with red ink made to look like blood. I know more trivia about sharks than I’d care to admit because of these groupies. My mom tends to listen to them, and she has a habit of worrying about everything including worrying why there is nothing to worry about if everything seems to be going too smoothly. Like she’ll never buy me yellow swim trunks. Yellow is a high contrast color that sharks easily see. That’s what a group of guys from Scandia, Minnesota told my mother one day when she was at Larsen’s fish market picking up seafood chimi with sour cream and cheese. I only remember the chimi because it was one of the few times my mom talked my dad into having a picnic dinner with us on the beach, and it was memorably mediocre (the night, not the chimi).
My mom, dad and I have always lived in the same house in Chilmark. It’s one of six towns on the Vineyard (Aquinnah, Tisbury, West Tisbury, Oak Bluffs, and Edgartown are the others). Chilmark gets a lot of famous visitors. When Barack Obama was President, he came here and rented The Blue Heron. It’s this mammoth 29-acre waterfront property with its own private beach, a guest house, boat house, apple orchard and a horse-riding ring. It’s an impressive place, and I’m sure celebrities appreciate the feel of the breeze from the water and the stillness in air.

Coming here for the quiet is fitting for Chilmark. It was once a deaf stomping ground, minus the sound of the stomps. The first year a deaf person can be traced to Chilmark is 1694, and his name was Jonathan Lambert. Even though we both share deafness as a trait, Lambert’s branches and my branches don’t cross in the genealogy tree.

Chilmark’s utopia of silence was the first real mark of notoriety for the town, and it stayed a quiet place for a long time. Over 200 years after Mr. Lambert had died, one out of every 25 residents of the Vineyard was deaf. At the time, the national average was closer to one out of every 6,000. Deafness was so common that people thought you could catch it, like the flu.

My own deafness has an important sounding name – congenital, bilateral sensorineural hearing loss. It means I know these sounds exist, but I can’t hear the boom of fireworks or the water splashing on rocky, eroding cliffs. I’m blisteringly intelligent, though. This isn’t my opinion. The myriad of clinical psychologists I’ve been sent to since I was little all agree.

Instead of teaching me to ride a bike, my father spent our time together having me tested using the Bayley Scales of Infant Development, the Hiskey-Nebraska Test of Learning Aptitude, the Weschler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence, the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test, the Preschool Language Assessment Instrument and countless other tests that refused to register the results he wanted.

Strong intellectual assessments by pediatricians, otolaryngologists and audiologists didn’t appease my dad. Actually, they infuriated him. It didn’t matter how patiently the doctors explained the hand of genetics I’d been dealt, my father seemed to view my deafness as an act of willful disobedience. He was hell-bent on getting me into a public school seat like the other kids, and he started to look into hearing aids.

Hearing aids depend on the cochlea to amplify sound. The sound is then carried through the ear to the brain, but only if enough functioning hair cells in the cochlea can transmit the sound to the auditory nerve. Me being profoundly deaf means there is no sound to amplify. So my father fixating on the idea of a cochlear implant never got off the ground. It has worked for hundreds of thousands of people. I’m just not one of them.
As much as my dad wants to solve me, my mom doubles down to celebrate my deafness. She has done this as long as I can remember. I know she means well, but her methodology is massively flawed. She regularly name drops accomplished deaf people, which is more irritating than inspiring.

“Oh, you’re watching baseball?” she’ll sign. “I remember enjoying watching that Curtis Pride fellow play major league baseball. The total athlete. Played soccer, too, and scored a couple of goals in the FIFA U-16 or 17 World Championships in the 80’s.”

This from a mother who couldn’t tell you who won the last World Series or World Cup.

“That’s a nice drawing, darling. You should consider taking a class. I always admired the work of Chuck Baird. He used to teach at Gallaudet University, I believe.”

She doesn’t believe. She knows. She’s basically a Who’s Who Directory for the Deaf. Along with names like Pride and Baird, she could probably rattle off 100 other hearing-challenged people who reached the pinnacle of something or other.

Meanwhile, Mr. Glass Half-Empty never lets my mother forget that my hearing loss is her fault, even though the choice was never really hers. I have what’s known as X-linked hearing loss. It’s when a woman carries a recessive trait for hearing loss on the sex chromosome. She can pass it on to her sons but not her daughters. The son gets the XD hearing loss gene from his mother and the Y chromosome from his father. It’s like a mathematical equation in which XDY=hearing loss. There’s a 50 percent chance that a son will have hearing loss when his mother is a carrier of the gene. God flipped a coin the day I was born, but I couldn’t even hear it drop to the floor.

Not hearing is different than not belonging, though. Not hearing is different than being broken. This Island is my home. I imagine being part of the Wampanoag ceremonies, with water drums to beat, gourds to rattle, and hollowed bird bones to whistle. I am not less than. I am critical to the tribe. I will be heard.

Tamara Leigh Young Wandel. Dr. Wandel teaches in the communication department at the University of Evansville. She has received teaching awards, service-learning grants, taught abroad, and presented research in numerous countries. She is grateful to work with young men and women from all walks of life, and this story was inspired by a student she had in class years ago. Dr. Wandel has two beautiful children who keep her busy, broke and believing in the future.

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