Can you imagine not speaking to your spouse…the one you live with…for a week? Well, OK…how about a month? Or decades…OR EVER?
Through their courtship and through four decades of marriage that produced three children, Teddy and Nora Welch never spoke a word to each other.
Oh, they communicated alright and when the did, it was often very animated and impassioned. That’s what fascinated me enough to seek them out and convince them to let me do a photo story about them.
Teddy and Nora were both 100 percent deaf, unable to speak and Teddy had been blind since childhood. They met some forty years earlier at a school for the deaf and blind and the rest is history as they say. Except their history included raising three children who were sighted and not hearing impaired in a world geared for the sighted and hearing.
They were now senior citizens coping with that same world determined to manage on their own with each other for support.
I first met Teddy and Nora when they walked into my portrait studio I owned for a few years. After a quick hand wave that was her “hello”, Nora began making writing gestures in the palm of her hand indicating she wanted something to write on. After that first meeting to our last one years later, I always made sure I had a pen and writing pad. That was how they communicated with the rest of the world they lived in.
They wanted a portrait of them to send to their children who lived some distance away. We made an appointment for another day and when the day arrived, so did they and a portrait was done. When I showed the prints to them, Nora would look at each one and then describe it to Teddy by holding up her hand and “signing” the letters that make up the words that make up the sentences that express the thoughts in her head.
Since Teddy was blind and could not see her hand, he would cup his hands over hers and feel the letters as they formed words and sentences and conveyed thoughts. Two or three times when I would push another of the proofs in front of her to examine, Nora would sit back, glance up at me, back down at the photo, and back up at me without the expression of approval I had seen. I took this to be a sort of “thumbs down” on that particular pose and slid it to the side of the table. Teddy was none the wiser.
I liked that about them. It was too much of an effort to beat around the bush so I always knew quickly what they wanted and didn’t want. I had the feeling that’s the way they were with each other. Direct. No time for the guessing game so many couples engage in. You could see it when they were walking on the street together. When they wanted to say something to the other one, they stopped on the sidewalk, faced each other and began signing. Teddy in the air so Nora could see and Nora in his cupped hand so he could feel. Then sometimes there would be an audible gasp of disagreement from Teddy followed by a firm pressing of Nora’s hand in his forming more words as if to say, “This is the way we’re doing it so get over it.”
One blazing hot July afternoon, I happened to see them walking on the street I assumed heading for home. I pulled up to the curb and motioned to Nora to get in. She didn’t hesitate and without any explanation to Teddy, guided him into the car. She seemed greatly relieved to be in air conditioning but a very confused and questioning Teddy began signing furiously as if to ask, “Where in the hell are we?” Nora formed the words in his hand that turned his face of despair to glee as he reached up to the driver’s seat and patted my head and shoulders as if to say, “Thanks.”
In time, I moved away from that little town but kept thinking what a remarkable story they are. So, on a return visit I decided to drop by their house and present the idea of allowing me to spend a day with them and do a photo story. They of course have no phone and I had taken them home once so I did know where they lived. “Drop by” was really the only option since I wouldn’t be in town long enough to exchange letters.
They were happy to see me and after several pages of conversation on a legal pad, they agree that it would be OK for me to do a story about them. Their two biggest questions were, “How much will it cost us?” and “Why would anybody want to read a story about us?”. I assured them there was no cost and would in return, give them photos and copies of the publication after it was published.
I sold the story to a metro paper in a neighboring town and presented copies of the story and photos to Teddy and Nora. She was awestruck at seeing their new found but short lived celebrity displayed over a full page in the metro Sunday edition. Teddy ran one hand over the page as Nora signed into his other describing the photos on the page.
As our visit came to an end, Nora wrote a request at the bottom of a notepad filled with our conversation scribbles back and forth. She wrote, “Please learn to sign. It is so exhausting to write.” That seems like a reasonable request from someone who asks very little in a sighted and hearing enabled world.
A few years after their story was published, Nora passed away and Teddy followed less than two years later. They drew their strength from each other.
John S. Stewart