Betty Miller Conway
A Different Language
When I was a girl, one of the things that I admired most about my mother was her feet. She had dainty little feet with perfectly formed arches that fit gracefully into a size six shoe. By contrast, I had long, bony feet that supported—awkwardly I thought back then— chubby legs and a clumsy body. And while my mother was a pretty little woman with dark hair and a radiant smile, I had crooked teeth and curly blonde hair that defied a comb and brush. I thought that my mother was the prettiest woman in the entire congregation of Oak Grove Baptist Church. I remember how fashionable she always looked as she rushed out to the green station wagon on Sunday mornings wearing her little high heels and an always-pressed Sunday dress.
Her name was Elizabeth, and even though I didn’t look like her, I was named after her: Betty which stood for Little Elizabeth. It was not a nickname—it was my given name, a name given to me in part because even though my parents wanted to name me after my mother, that wasn’t practical. My mother struggled with speech and could not even pronounce her own name clearly. Betty was easier. She could say it clearly, without hesitation, without faltering. She could say it proudly—and she did—although I didn’t always realize it growing up.
Even now, I don’t understand the speech issues that my mother struggled with. We never spoke of it. But she had a language of her own, one that I too shared up until the time I went to first grade. It’s hard for me to articulate what that language exactly sounded like. Back then, hearing her talk was as natural as hearing the breeze blow through the trees, or the rumbling of the tractor in the fields next to our house. It was simply what I knew, what I understood.
In reality, her speech was soft and hesitant. She had a lisp. I remember that she didn’t pronounce her “w’s.” She reversed some sounds and omitted others. She invented some words altogether. Her sentences were a jumble of consonants and vowels tied together in ways that confounded even our traditional mountain dialogue. Family members accustomed to her speech mostly understood her, but strangers found her speech to be incomprehensible at times. Sometimes even neighbors and friends struggled to understand the entirety of it. It was like hearing a foreign language that you were familiar with but didn’t really know: you understood certain words of it, and you surmised the rest.
I’m sure that speech pathologists would have a name for her impediment and an explanation for how such thing could happen—and linger—for a lifetime. But my mother—who was born into a family of farmers who worked the steep mountain slopes with horses and mules—was not afforded the opportunity for speech therapy or specialized education; instead she walked to the local elementary school with her siblings and then later, lived and worked at the boarding house in town so that she could attend high school. Eventually my dad returned from the Korean War and, mesmerized by my mother’s smile, convinced her to marry him.
By then, it was the early 1960s in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and despite Lyndon B. Johnson’s “war on poverty” which brought the increased attention to the Appalachian Mountains, my parents’ world remained largely insular. Our family had lived for generations in the same community bordered by creeks and mountains on all sides. It was a community of people who worked hard, minded their own business, and didn’t complain too much. They accepted people the way they were. Especially in the early days, it was a community that didn’t expect change, or at times even like it. To them my mother just was the way she was—nobody ever thought to make a fuss over it.
My father, though, was fiercely protective of my mother. Although he had not finished seventh grade and his grammar was awkward at times, his words rolled from him like a clear, loud creek. He always had something to say and was forthright in saying it. And consciously or unconsciously, he became the self-appointed spokesman for my mother. He spoke for her and answered questions for her. She didn’t learn to drive for a long time, and he took her everywhere she went. He sat in the parking lot of the grocery store in his old Ford Falcon while she shopped and then hovered near the door when she checked out in the event of a miscommunication. He shepherded her to church, to school plays, and to gospel singings. When she was called to jury duty, he traded his blue factory work Dickies for his clean Sunday trousers and tie and explained to the judge that Elizabeth’s speech would make it difficult for her to serve. It would be hard for her to communicate with the other jurors. Perhaps she would be embarrassed—worse, justice might not be served. The judge looked at my father and saw his earnest face and clear convictions, and he understood. There were no more questions. My mother was excused.
Not surprisingly, then, my mother was often silent in public. But she was known among her close friends and family for being an empathetic listener and a steadfast keeper of secrets. She was a quietly religious woman who believed in signs and visions. She was unapologetically intuitive, and sometimes she had dreams that eerily predicted the future. She sensed thunderstorms and took clothes off the line before a hint of rain. Once she had a dream that an older neighbor down the road—a woman past childbearing—gave birth to a boy with dark hair and blue eyes. Nine months later, the woman gave birth to a blue-eyed, black-haired boy. Neighbors found themselves confiding even their deepest secrets to her without really even meaning to. I often wonder if her limitations in speech enabled her to her connect to the deeper inner workings of the universe—some private, mystical realm that did not require vowels and consonants.
In our very public earthly community, though, my mother smiled her tentative but dazzling smile, and people immediately wanted to protect her. The fact that she was also dainty and pretty only made them love her more. She listened attentively, nodded knowingly, and said “yes sir “or “no ma’am” when she was asked questions. She loved babies and toddlers and tended the nursery at church, holding the little ones close and singing to them softly. She sang “Amazing Grace,” “The Old Rugged Cross,” and” Rock-A-Bye Baby” all in the same long, jumbled-up song. She knew every single verse of “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus.” The words were low and often intelligible, but the babies didn’t know the difference. Her love for them was palpable. She didn’t like school age children nearly so much. She thought they became too smart for their own britches when they started school and learned to read. Once they moved on to the Beginner Sunday School Class and started to read the Quarterly out loud and discuss it, she felt as though she lost them.
I stayed home with my mother until I was almost seven. Children didn’t go to preschool or kindergarten back then. My father worked his factory job during the day and then came home to farm in the evenings. My mother took care of the garden and the house—and me. She would tell me stories as she strung beans on the front porch and sing to me when it was time for my naps. She made paper dolls for me and my cousins to play with. In the winter, she made fudge when it snowed. The most formative years of my language were spent primarily with her. And although my dad was the big talker in my family, it was my mother’s language that I imitated. At the time, I didn’t realize that it was different from the way the other children at Sunday school spoke. It sounded as natural to me as my mother’s love and affection for me.
As I look back at the black and white photographs of all of us together, I am struck at how elegant my mother always looked, even in her sleeveless white cotton tops and the cropped pants she wore to the garden. My father looked fresh-faced and sheepishly boyish as he squinted in the sun standing beside her, and they both smiled down at the Little Elizabeth—Betty—who held their hands so trustingly.
Eventually, though, it became time for me to leave that safe community and start school. My dad had to work that day, and my mother didn’t know how to drive. They worried that perhaps I would be too scared to tell the teacher my name clearly so my dad wrote my full name—Betty Dawn Miller—with his big flourishing handwriting on a little piece of paper. He put that paper, along with the money for my school fees, in my clear change purse and pinned it on my shirt so that I couldn’t lose it. Then they put me on the school bus under the care of one of my older cousins and sent me off to Green Valley Elementary School.
My mother later said that she cried all day, but I don’t recall that. I don’t have any old photos of that day, but I do remember how that first grade classroom smelled of old wooden desks and chalk dust—and how the teacher’s hair was arranged in grey coils around her head. My cousin left me at the door of the room and then rushed off to find his own class on the second floor. I walked in alone and stood by the teacher’s desk, waiting for her to notice me. I wonder what she thought of the curly-haired girl who just waited amid the confusion of crying children and mothers saying good-bye.
After a time, Mrs. Bingham did notice me and after more time, the letter came to my parents that I needed to attend speech therapy on a regular basis. I don’t remember what my parents actually said about the letter although later my dad told me that he was not surprised—in fact that he had expected and welcomed such a letter—but had not wanted to say anything about it in front of my mother.
Speech class was quiet and peaceful, a welcome relief from the sometimes frenetic regular class atmosphere where other students often failed to understand me and weren’t always kind about it. The speech teacher’s name was Lovely Danner, and she was as pretty and sweet as her name implied. She was dark-haired like my mother. She wore Avon just as my mother did, and its faint flowery fragrance permeated the room as I practiced sounding out my vowels and my consonants and learned to combine sounds into words. With time, I learned to speak the language of education—of verbs, nouns, adjectives, and adverbs. I learned how to pronounce all of the letters in a word and in the right order, and how to string words together into coherent sentences. The private language that my mother and I used at home was replaced by more Standard English. Although I would always understand my mother’s speech, I would never again talk like her or share her particular language in the same way.
If she minded or felt lonely for me, I never knew it. My little sister, Ann, was born just before I started first grade, and my mother loved her with the fierceness with which she loved all babies. I was soon relegated to the ranks of school-age children—the know-it-alls who learned to talk back to their mothers. The ones who were lost to my mother. I didn’t mind too much.
I was busy learning new things. First grade stretched into second. I continued my speech therapy and to the surprise and delight of my teachers, also became a prolific and talented reader. Although I didn’t always feel comfortable speaking out loud, I felt at home in the world of books. I soon read everything the Green Valley Elementary school library had to offer. By the time I finished up speech therapy in fifth grade, I was reading on a college level. I wanted to become a teacher or a writer, and I had already started dreaming of a life beyond the horizons of our farming community in the mountains.
I began to assume the role of translator for my mother. At parent teacher conferences, I spoke for her, answered for her—rephrased open-ended questions from the teachers into simple questions that my mother could answer “yes “or “no” to. My mother did her part by listening attentively, dressing for every occasion in her little high heels and pretty suit, and smiling at the right time and for the right reasons. When my little sister started kindergarten. I translated for her too. Although Ann did not struggle with language in the exact same way I did, she too needed speech therapy. I became as fiercely protective of her as my father was of my mother. I remember threatening to beat up some girl named Loretta in the stairwell because she made fun of my little sister’s speech. My mother, so quiet and respectful, would have been appalled at my behavior. But I never told her, and thankfully she never found out.
My mother began to seem more of a stranger to me. Her language and her preoccupation with church and the goings-on the community began to seem paradoxically foreign to me. I worried that her smile was superficial, her beauty trite and sometimes vain. At times, I translated her silence toward me as an absence of love.
I continued to read, and the world of the imagination opened up for me. It was a world that seemed limitless to me, but one that pulled me further and further away from my mother. Our relationship became more and more silent, and at times strained. My mother began to seem more of a stranger to me. Her language and her preoccupation with church and the goings-on the community began to seem paradoxically foreign to me. I worried that her smile was superficial, her beauty trite and sometimes vain. At times, I translated her silence toward me as an absence of love.
I spent less and less time with my mother as I entered high school, got a part-time job, and eventually earned my own car. Although I am ashamed to admit it now—and would never have admitted it, even to myself, back then—I was embarrassed about my country upbringing and the fact that boys from town who called my house had trouble understanding my mother when she answered the phone. I didn’t want to be from the country. I wanted to become like the adventurous heroines of all the books that I had read. In my mind, my mother didn’t seem to fit into that way of thinking. I had no place for dainty ankles and pretty shoes in my future; I planned to put on my cowboy boots and ride out of that tiny mountain community right into the sunset.
Nevertheless, my mother remained a quiet influence in my life. I worked lots of late nights, but my mother always kept my supper warm on the stove. When I foolishly totaled my car in a wreck, it was my father who came with the wrecker to retrieve me, but it was my mother who got up and stood at the door of my bedroom when I finally came home to bed and quietly asked me, “Are you all right?” And it was my mother who put on her smile and accompanied me to a mother/daughter dinner in honor of a scholarship that I received my senior year in high school. Despite my earlier uncharitable thoughts about my mother, I remember suddenly being very proud of how pretty and fashionable she looked in her blue suit and matching pumps as she sat there eating her salad with a real salad fork with the fancy ladies of the Boone Women’s Club. She never let on that she was proud of me for earning a scholarship, but I think I saw her wipe away a tear as I concluded the little speech I had to give at the end of the dinner.
By then my mother—along with my Aunt Josephine who lived just up the road—had learned to drive, and they would share rides to the dime store on Main Street, to the grocery store, and in later years the mall. My Aunt Josephine took on the role of translator. She was the one who asked the sales lady what size shoes they had in the back. She—not my mother—ordered their hotdogs and sodas at the local drugstore, and she was the one who explained to the deputy sheriff who pulled them over that they hadn’t noticed the stop sign hidden in the briars on the side of the road.
I went on to college and became a teacher, first in public school, and then later at the university. Although I didn’t do it in cowboy boots, I traveled far away from the mountains of North Carolina. I abandoned the private language of my mother and journeyed to places where people spoke other foreign languages that I struggled to speak and understand. I wondered if that was how my mother felt as she traversed her everyday life in the mountains back home. But I never asked her, and we never spoke of it.
Eventually, I got married and had daughters of my own. When I announced that I wanted to name my oldest daughter, Olivia, my dad was frantic. I was living in Florida at the time. I remember looking down at my pregnant belly as he worried aloud over the phone that my mother would never, ever be able to pronounce that name, and that she would be humiliated when she tried. When I called and asked my mother what she thought about the name, she told me that she thought Olivia was a beautiful name. And then slowly but without faltering, she proceeded to pronounce it clearly. Apparently she had been practicing.
Having daughters of my own proved to be a turning point in our relationship. My mother attended the birth of my daughters, got up with them at night, guided me though sleepless nights, and gave advice about breastfeeding. She held my babies in her arms and crooned to them the same songs that she sang to me and to countless other babies in the Oak Grove Baptist Church Nursery. I became close to her again, and the language of motherhood was one that we could share.
Over time, I learned that there was far more to admire about my mother than her pretty shoes, radiant smile, and the smell of Avon. I began to affirm her deep ties to our community and the resilience and grace that were an inherent part of who she was. I realized that even though she did not speak of it, she had overcome adversity in far more meaningful ways than the heroines in my childhood novels ever did. And I understood that even though verbal expressions of love and affection did not come easily to her, she showed her love every day as she cared for her family and other members of the community.
Despite our renewed bond, we never directly talked about the issue of her speech. I never asked her about her speech, never knew exactly why she spoke the way she did. Had she been traumatized early in life in ways I never knew? Was the way she spoke genetic? Or was it simply learned? From whom? I still don’t know how my mother really felt about her ways of expressing herself. As a family and community, did we protect her to the point that she never really understood the limitations of her own speech? Or was her silence simply a graceful and powerful affirmation of who she was?
My mother died almost twenty years ago. Only now am I able to speak about it. My father, sister, Aunt Josephine, and I all were all with her, holding her hand. There was no need for any of us to translate as she slipped away quietly in a coma. There were no last, eloquent goodbyes, no long, emphatic declarations of love. There was only silence. I’ve come to realize that the language of love is felt but not always understood. Love in a family is sometimes so present it doesn’t have to be spoken. It, too, can be silent.
Betty Miller Conway received her BS from Appalachian State University in 1985 and her MA from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1992. Conway then returned home to the mountains where she taught literature and writing classes at ASU for twenty-three years. In addition to teaching, Conway served as Business Manager for ASU’s Visiting Writers Series and as Managing Editor of Cold Mountain Review—a literary journal housed in the English department of ASU. She and her family live on a farm in Todd, North Carolina.
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