Washita, Oklahoma, is the inspiration for my 2009 novel, Lip Reader, a story of one family dealing with genetic deafness. I hadn’t visited that town in 13 years, not until I drove down the dusty two-lane road in search of answers to my own hearing loss.
The reason I wrote Lip Reader—a book that is as much fictional as it is living, breathing real-life—was, partly, to better understand my grandparents. In the book, Grandma Bebop is warm-hearted and deaf, and she immediately develops a tight bond with granddaughter Sapphie. My real-life Grandma Bartlett was also warm-hearted and good to me, but her ears heard better than anyone in the family.
Grandma Bartlett lived in Washita until her death. I remember her standing in front of a hot white stove with her back to us in the kitchen that used to be a full-fledged diner in the 20s and 30s. Picture "Ma" from John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, with her hard-working arms that were stout but soft, and that was Grandma Bartlett working at the stove. The smell of pork grease and baking lard filled the tiny home.
In Lip Reader, I write about a fictional hill that is so steep and curvy that the characters nickname it Rollercoaster Hill. While I wrote, I thought about my mom punching the gas pedal and sending us in our car flying down Thrill Hill. The rush I got from that hill and the butterflies that formed in my stomach challenged any rollercoaster experience I had had up to that point. Much of Oklahoma land I had traveled on as a girl was flat and monotonous. Southwestern Oklahoma was about as level and arid as the land chosen for The Grapes of Wrath film version. Imagine the thrill, then, of this solitary hill near Washita.
My ride to Grandma and Grandpa Bartlett's home throughout the years had been uneventful and even boring. Until I got to that hill. Then the excitement of being a ten-year-old with her lead-footed mom at the wheel was infectious. It reminded me of why I went to Washita in the first place.
Grandma Bartlett smacked her gums and let out an approving "Mmmm!" of the cooked biscuit she had just sampled. "You'ns c'mon and eat now. 'Fore ever'thing gits cold."
I heard a hoarse grunt coming from the head chair at the table. When I walked into the kitchen with my cousin, Grandpa Bartlett sat hovered over his plate, a mug of hot coffee at his lips. He was from the school of marriage in which the women waited on their men from the first serving until the dishes had been dried and put away. Grandpa sat motionless with that mug in his hands, and Grandma pulled the mug away just long enough to top it with fresh coffee.
Grandma Bartlett didn't say anything when Grandpa let out an enthusiastic belch. That was the only sound he made, other than the smacking of lips at the fork and the occasional coughing up of chewing tobacco into the Folgers can on the floor.
I forced the fluffy biscuit into my mouth. That was the last meal I ate at Grandma and Grandpa Bartlett's house.
Why Write a Book About Hearing Loss?
Lip Reader's Grandpa Bebop resembles a real person more than any character in the book. Grandpas Bebop and Bartlett could have been brothers. In my mind, my actual grandfather is the embodiment of what Grandpa Bebop family stands for in the book. My grandfather was proud yet humble, a man of faith and temper, a harsh man with a soft core. His hearing loss developed later in life, yet deafness ran several generations in his family.
My Uncle David and Aunt Mickey—Grandma and Grandpa Bartlett's youngest—inherited this deafness. Mickey's hearing loss developed at age 11 and continued to get progressively worse. Teenage and adult years benefitted from behind-the-ear hearing aids and self-taught lip-reading skills. David and Mickey both have children who are deaf.
In early 2001, I went to a doctor with a persistent ringing sound in my ears. I had just returned to work from a 10-week maternity leave after the birth of my oldest child. The diagnosis was progressive sensorineural hearing loss, and tinnitus explained the ringing sound. Explanation for the hearing loss was unknown, and I was told I needed hearing aids. I returned to work in shock and with fear. Was I going to become deaf?
Eight months later, Grandma Bartlett died suddenly of a stroke. The morning of Thanksgiving, 2001, my mother called me with the news. I had trouble hearing her voice on the phone. Four days later, Grandma was buried just outside of her homestead in Washita, Oklahoma. I had spent the entire year living in denial about my hearing loss. I don't know if I couldn't believe Grandma was really gone or if I was being selfish.
Lip Reader is about the ties of family. It is about hearing loss and grief and denial and redemption. It is about strong men and women and their children. It is about acceptance and belonging. It is about pride, black sheep and controversy. It is about a young girl's journey with her Oklahoma family. Lip Reader is ultimately an impressionable girl's story because that's when my memories of the Bartlett family are most clear—from my earliest memory as a child through Christmas of 1994, the last time I visited Grandma and Grandpa Bartlett.
My journey with hearing loss begins with the Bartlett family. Lip Reader is a way of saying thank you to my grandparents and finally telling them goodbye.
Read more about Lip Reader here.