Saturday, 9/9/06....I should be getting ready to go out to celebrate the birthday of a friend (let's call her Tina), and I shall...in a minute. Tina's a foreign-born deaf woman who graduated from Gallaudet with a good degree a number of years ago. Like many deaf college grads, she is underemployed/unemployed at the moment. She's bright, literate, friendly, cultured, oral (meaning she can speak and read lips), warm...you'd think any employer would love to have her. She did get a good job working for the federal government right after she graduated, but her mentor, the man who hired her and encouraged her, was transferred, and she was laid off after maybe 10 years on the job. That was several years ago. She's been looking for work or working at menial jobs since.
Thanksgiving before last, I stayed in DC to volunteer at Rosemary's Thyme restaurant on Thanksgiving Day. The restaurant owner every year opens her kitchen so that Burgundy Crescent (a DC volunteer group) can serve Thanksgiving dinner to the homeless. I won't tell you how many Gallaudet grads were there to receive rather than distribute dinner, but Tina declined to go out of embarrassment. Her family is upper middle class where they live, and while she has wonderful resilience in living the life of a "handicapped" person, at times it gets to even her. So I invited her to meet me for dinner after the event at Sette Osteria, my favorite watering hole on Connecticut Ave and R Street NW.
Sette puts on a marvelous spread every Thanksgiving...that year, it was $25 a head for a prix fixe (how do you say that in Italian?) dinner of turkey medallions, stuffing, gravy, sweet potatoes, green salad, a fancy dessert of maybe pumpkin mousse (Italian, please!!) with whipped cream, a nice big glass of wine, and coffee. We enjoyed ourselves immensely. Then Tina went back to a shelter for homeless women, and I went back to my place to sneeze my head off. At the same time as we distributed the dinners, we also passed out slightly worn clothing that folks had donated. That was the most fun of all--helping people pick outfits. Sure, there were the usual employed folks who showed up to grab the best free stuff first, but wot the hey....we dint judge...we just coordinated shirts with sweaters and jackets and pants and saved the good stuff for the smiliest homeless, who never failed to give us heartfelt thanks. The clothing arrived in black plastic trash bags, mostly, and about one in ten bags clearly had been used by the donor's cats for sleeping bags--for quite some time, too! The cat hair swirled in the air over the tables and clung to my jacket and pants...probably my socks, too. I am wildly allergic to cat dander, and the distribution ended mercifully just before I launched into full-bore wheezing.
9/11/06.....Tina has just come back from a two and a half week visit with her parents, who are in their late 80s. You'd never know it to look at them or talk with them. They are sharp as tacks, healthy, happy. Tina's spirits got a great boost from seeing them for the first time in maybe four or five years.
Earlier in the day, Tina ran into one of her first roommates at Gallaudet and invited her to join the birthday celebration. We can call the roommate Trudy [again, not her real name]. Trudy is a diminutive woman with an incandescent smile and smooth skin that belies her age. She is one of the Lancaster County Amish--that is, Pennsylvania Dutch. Former Amish, actually, since Trudy left the Amish community back in the late 1980s after she finished high school. She has been deaf since birth, like two or three of her siblings. She did not leave because she felt lonely or isolated in her deafness. There are plenty of deaf Amish who remain in the community and are quite happy and secure. She left because she did not feel comfortable with their beliefs. She has since reconciled with her parents (she calls it "being forgiven"), but there was much bitterness when she left the family and community. Especially since one of her brothers followed suit several years later. (Even now, when she returns "home," she does not sit at the family table. There is a special table for those who have left.) We asked her how long it was before she saw her parents again after she left, and she laughed, "Two weeks." They found out where she was and came after her to bring her back, but she refused. She applied for and got a job as a live-in domestic, then applied to the state of Pennsylvania's Vocational Rehabilitation Agency, which helped her eventually to get a college degree. She now has a master's degree in education of the multiply handicapped and works for the government.
Tina, Trudy, and I are all "oral" deaf, meaning we communicate largely through speaking, even though we all sign (they much better than I). We laughed on Saturday night when we noted there were no culturally deaf persons there to pick on our signing. Trudy wears one hearing aid and has a cochlear implant in the other ear. Tina wears no hearing aids (I don't think!), and I wear two. Our other dinner companion, my friend Mary from Iowa, is a hearing woman who signs and works as a social worker for the deaf-blind. It was through Mary that I connected with Burgundy Crescent. Mary is perhaps the all-time champion of volunteers. She works every weekend for some good cause.
This is my life in DC. I am blessed to know extraordinary people who have come through fire to live what most people would consider an independent, self-supporting, ordinary life. I did most of my volunteering when I was younger, but I realize I could get off my duff and do more now, even when my cells are crying out to siddown and watch the teevee.