Authors: Frances Itani
Copyright © 2012 Itani Writes Inc.
First published in 2012 by Grass Roots Press
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in reviews.
Grass Roots Press gratefully acknowledges the financial support for its publishing programs provided by the following agencies:
the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund and the Government of Alberta through the Alberta Foundation for the Arts.
Grass Roots Press would also like to thank ABC Life Literacy Canada for their support. Good Reads® is used under licence from ABC Life Literacy Canada.
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Itani, Frances, 1942-
Listen! / Frances Itani.
ISBN 978-1-926583-81-5 (Print)
ISBN 978-1-927499-40-5 (ePub)
ISBN 978-1-927499-41-2 (Kindle)
I. Readers for new literates. I. Title.
II. Series: Good reads series (Edmonton, Alta.)
PS8567.T35L58 2012 428.6’2 C2012-902308-6
Printed and bound in Canada.
For Lisa, Terry, Dakota, and Sam,
all part of this story-telling family
Listen and Worry
“Listen!” said Roma. “Listen! Keep your ears and eyes open. You have to know what’s going on.”
But she was talking to herself.
She looked out the train window at the night rushing by. When she spoke, her own face looked back at her from the dark window. She travelled by train because she liked to have time alone. She had booked her own tiny bedroom, a roomette, in a sleeping car. During the day, her bed folded up against the wall. In the evening, the bed pulled down. Her roomette also had a toilet and sink. An
hour earlier, she had eaten dinner in the restaurant car of the train. Now, at nine-thirty, Roma was tired.
Four hours earlier, she’d waved goodbye to her husband and their daughter, Katie. Her husband had held Katie up to the train window. Katie had pressed her hand against the glass from outside. Inside the train, Roma had fitted her palm to Katie’s. The train had pulled away, and Katie’s face had disappeared.
Roma knew that her daughter would be fine. Sometimes, she brought her along on trips. But now, in October, Katie had to stay home to go to school.
The trip would take sixteen hours total. In the morning, Roma would arrive in Montreal. Her sister, Liz, would meet her at the Montreal station. Roma planned to stay with Liz for the next five days.
Roma had taken time off work for this trip. She worked at an outpatient clinic in a small hospital. She also interpreted for deaf patients who came into the hospital. Roma knew American Sign Language—ASL—a language she had learned as a child.
Liz had a special reason for inviting Roma to Montreal. She wanted to introduce her to two friends. The four women would meet for dinner at Liz’s home the next evening. They planned to share some of their stories.
Because she had little space, Roma undressed while sitting on the bed. She checked the lock on the sliding door of her roomette. She didn’t want anyone walking in during the night. The train gave a jerk, and she lost her balance for a moment. She changed into a nightgown and placed her shoes on an overhead rack. Her purse hung on a hook beside the shoe rack. Every bit of space was used in this tiny roomette.
She stretched her legs and wiggled her feet under the covers, hoping to soften the crisp sheets. With two pillows behind her back, she sat up in bed and tried to relax. But she knew she couldn’t sleep. She kept thinking back to her childhood. Had she ever had a childhood? Maybe not.
Roma tried to remember her life when she’d been Katie’s age. Seven years old. At seven, Roma had duties that her daughter would never have. At seven, at four, even at two years of age, Roma had to be responsible. Her ears had listened for two people because her mother’s ears did not hear.
Roma and Liz were hearing daughters of a deaf mother. Mam, as they called her, had suffered an illness as a baby, and that is when she’d become deaf. Roma was her first-born child. When Roma was nineteen months old, Liz was born. Not long after that, Roma began to report. Every time Liz cried, Roma had to let Mam know.
“Mam. Baby crying.” The first sentence Roma ever spoke. She pulled at Mam’s skirt to get her attention. She already knew that she had to face her so that Mam could read her lips.
“Mam. Baby crying.”
Her mother walked to the crib and picked up the baby.
From her earliest childhood, Roma had to listen. She listened, and told Mam what was going on. That was her job. Mam needed her.
Roma’s father was not deaf. A hearing man, he worked out of town Monday to Friday, and came home on weekends. He worked for the railroad, but he died in an accident when Roma was only seven. After his death, Mam relied on Roma even more.
Roma and Liz grew up in Ontario, on the edge of a town called Manor. Their house was old and small, and close to the Manor River. A dirt path
along the side of the house led to the shore. As children, the two girls spent hours beside the river. Playing, laughing, arguing, sharing secrets. All the things sisters do.
But somehow, at some time, Roma began to worry. She grew up being worried. How did that happen? When Mam was alone, Roma worried. She worried when she left home, and even before she left. Would Mam remember to lock the front and back doors? What if someone tried to break into the house? Would Mam remember to add coal to the stove? Had someone ordered the coal for her?
Who worried about Mam after Roma finished school and left town? Who became the listener after Roma and Liz both moved away?
Roma loved to travel by train. She liked having her own private roomette. Dark shadows flew by in the night. She pulled the stiff blind down so no one could see in from outside. When the train rocked from side to side, Roma rocked with the motion. She listened to the
of the wheels.
As she thought of the sound, she thought of Mam again. During Roma’s childhood, her family
did not own a car. Mam sometimes travelled by train to visit deaf friends in Belleville. She always took Roma and Liz with her on those trips.
One summer, the train took them as far as Toronto. Roma remembered how the train had chugged forward. And how her body had rocked back and forth when she walked in the aisle. She remembered the seats, with their high backs. She had sipped cool water from small paper cups. Travel by train was a huge adventure for a child.
Roma tried to imagine how Mam might have described the train. Mam couldn’t hear sounds, but she had
the train. Her entire body would have sensed the turning wheels. She’d have felt every shudder and shake. Through her hands, her arms, her feet, her legs, her skin. Sometimes, the train made a loud bump. Mam did not look outside to see the reason for the bump. Instead, she looked to Roma’s lips for an explanation. She expected her daughter to have the information.
Mam had always stayed silent during train trips. She feared that she would speak too loudly. Many years before, at a special school for deaf children, Mam had learned to use sign language and to use
her voice. Her teachers had told her, “You can’t hear yourself speak. You must learn to keep your voice low.” When Mam travelled, she was afraid she would forget to control her voice.
So Roma listened for her. She told Mam the station stops the train conductor called out. When the conductor asked where they were going, Roma stepped forward to reply.
The motion of the train was finally making Roma sleepy. She smoothed the wrinkled bedding and looked up. Her purse swung back and forth. Inside the purse was a small white envelope. In the envelope she had placed an old black and white photo.
Liz had asked Roma to choose one photo to bring with her to Montreal. The next evening, Liz’s two friends would also bring photos to the dinner party. They would all tell stories about growing up and about deafness in their families.
Roma’s photo used to belong to Mam. It had faded, and one edge was torn. When Mam died, just six months earlier, Roma and Liz had taken care of the funeral. They’d cleaned the old house to get it ready for sale. In a drawer in Mam’s bedroom,
they’d found the photo. Roma’s childhood face peered out of one tiny corner.
Roma couldn’t remember her parents taking pictures. They had owned a Kodak camera, but they had no extra money to buy or develop film. Even so, one family album had been filled. Someone must have taken photos. Roma wished she’d asked questions about the album when her mother was alive. Now, both her parents had died, and there was no one left to ask.
“Listen!” Roma told herself again. This time, she could hear Mam’s voice in her memory. Exactly the way Mam used to speak. Hundreds, thousands of times, Roma had heard the same word: