By Jodi Hiser
I have always reveled in the beauty of my family’s farm. I am innately drawn to the intricacies of nature: the rolling meadows, the ancient trees, the distinct personalities that live inside each animal. In fact, for many a year, the farm itself was my only solace.
The afternoons were my favorite time of day to hike across the hilly pastures. One mild summer day, I journeyed up to my favorite grassy spot with an art basket slung over my arm. From the top of my roost, I could see all one-hundred acres that composed our family’s dairy farm. The pastures unrolled around me like a wavy carpet, dotted with cows bent low in solemn grazing.
Slowly, I breathed in a deep breath, detecting the faint aroma of honeysuckle. I closed my eyes for one serene moment; the afternoon sun shrouded my shoulders like a warm shawl. As I leaned back on my elbows, two robins scurried across the pasture in hops and skips. I watched their orange chests heave in and out with air, propelling their yellow beaks to speak in the language of birds. If only they spoke with hands, I thought, then I could hear them.
Speaking with hands hasn’t always been my way. There was a time when the darkness of isolation almost engulfed me.
My name is Hannah Bishop. Sixteen years ago, I entered this world with the fullest potential to wail a perfect cry, and zero potential to hear it. Of course, my parents didn’t know it at the time. My mother’s baby records reported that I was a stout baby girl, my parents’ long-awaited answer to their prayer for children.
But their joy quickly turned into discouragement.
I pieced together my parents’ disappointment when I was about three years old. My mother would attempt to talk with me, or command me to do things, and then frown at me and even cry. I didn’t quite understand my mother’s sad faces. I remember the day we traveled to see a special doctor in town. After much poking and prodding, their answer came soon enough: I had been born deaf.
Both parents seemed to handle the news in different ways. My father held a perpetual face of anger. He spent his days avoiding the house or ignoring me, acting as if I didn’t exist. My mother just drowned in sorrow. She cried a lot. Looking back, I am almost certain she viewed my diagnosis as if it were a punishment from God, a rebuke for some unknown and unforgivable sin. In my mother’s eyes, I was broken and incomplete.
My parents’ dismay over my deafness was magnified when my sister was born the following year. Baby Lyddie was perfect in every way….and had no trouble hearing her own mother’s voice.
As the years passed, I became more of a problem. My parents didn’t know what to do with me, how to teach me, or how to communicate with me.
One evening when I was six years old, and Lyddie was barely two, my parents busied themselves packing a large suitcase. They placed all my clothes and toys and hair ribbons inside.
The next morning, they left Lyddie with our neighbors and took me on a 26-mile journey to Hartford, Connecticut. I remember feeling excitement and joy to be traveling in the family buggy, sitting next to both parents! But my excitement soon turned into horror as the buggy stopped in front of a red-brick building. Without even looking at me, my parents walked me inside and dropped me off with a stranger. They left me there, my mother sobbing into a handkerchief. My father didn’t even look back.
With tears streaming down my face, I had no idea why I had been abandoned.
And that began my ten-year journey living at the American School for the Deaf.
Despite the wounds from my first six years of life, I learned and progressed quickly. In the first two years at school, I learned sign language, and for the first time in my life, I could communicate with people.
I loved talking with my hands! For me, sign language was more than hand movements; it was an experience—a dramatization of sorts. And once I had unlocked the keys to expression, every pent-up feeling that I had harbored for six years began to emerge.
But sign language wasn’t the only thing I learned. I practiced the rules of speech, the rudiments of mathematics, the precisions of penmanship, and the intricacies of reading. I wish that I could say that the skills of reading came easily. But they’ve always been a struggle. Painting became my escape. It has become more than a hobby…it has infused its way into who I am.
Through the years, I made deep friendships—the kind that felt closer than family. Mealtimes were my favorite part of the school day, where all of the Deaf classmates gathered, arms and hands going one-hundred miles an hour, sharing the latest news and happenings of the day.
The people at school became my family.
But unfortunately, every school year must come to an end.
In the summers, the students were required to go home for a three month break. These were awkward times for me, feeling as though I never belonged with the family that God originally gave to me.
As soon as my feet stepped off the train, my parents put me to work tending their garden, cows, pigs, and chickens. I never minded the work; I loved being outdoors, and I loved animals. I got the sense that the animals liked me too. Maybe it’s because I knew how to listen to them…I mean, really listen.
I must confess that my parents saw me as nothing more than a hired hand. I was valued only as far as what I could do for them on the farm. Of course, I was grateful for the schooling that my parents provided, but I would have traded it all if I could just feel worthy in the eyes of Mom and Dad.
The closest I ever came to communicating with my family was two years prior when dear Lyddie used weird gestures to ask me about learning sign language. I was able to teach her the alphabet, but nothing more. The letters seemed to be all that Lyddie could manage to learn.
And so, in order to soothe the lingering ache that never seemed to go away, I painted. The simplicity of the brush strokes and the beauty of the paint colors soothed my soul. And so, whenever I could, I escaped to the topmost hill of the farm and chose something else to capture with my brush.
And that is what I was doing on that particular sunny afternoon. From my basket, I pulled out a pad of thick paper, a bag of pencils and brushes, a tin of paints, and a mason jar with water. My artistic target for that day was the antiquated oak tree that seemed to own the entire pasture. Before I knew it, the afternoon flew by as I got lost in my own world of sketching, shading, and filling my paper with color. By the time I dabbed the finishing touches onto the blue watercolored sky, I could feel the warmth of the sun slipping away, and I sadly realized it was time to head home for dinner.
When I stepped into the farmhouse kitchen, the family was abuzz with activity. Father sat at the head of the table reading the newspaper. I could see that he was commenting on something he had just read. Mother fluttered around the table, busily plating ham and potatoes at each place. Lyddie poured water into glasses from a large pitcher. Caleb and Nathaniel, baby brothers who were born during my years at school, sat with napkins stuffed into their shirts and forks poised for action.
Slinking into my seat, I looked at Father expectantly. The family sat at attention with hands folded. Father bowed his head and recited the dinner prayer. When the family’s heads tipped up in collective unison, I realized he had said his ‘amen’ and it was time to eat.
Conversation flew from every direction. I did my best to keep up, my eyes darting back and forth, watching their lips. I noticed Lyddie’s face light up with animation, obviously telling a story. Father smiled and clapped her on the back. Mother spoke next, laughing heartily at the end of her sentence. And the boys giggled with mouths full of food.
I wish I could laugh too, I lamented. But to them, I was an invisible being, simply forgotten.
My stomach lurched into a familiar ache, and the potatoes and ham tasted like rocks in my mouth. I don’t think my family realized that they were ignoring me and crushing me with every meal around the table. To their credit, the family kept a small slate hanging on the wall so they could write words or sentences in a pinch. But they rarely used it. And so on that night, I felt tossed to the outskirts again.
I have so much to say. If only they would listen to me….I mean, really listen.
The next morning, I awoke early to do my chores. My hope for each day was to finish my work with enough time to paint in the afternoons. This meant that I had to be efficient with my work day.
Making my way into the family’s enormous barn, I was greeted by each of our seven cows. I gave them a loving pat and a kiss on the muzzle. While I milked, I rested my head against each cow’s velvety middle and thought about home, and my family back at school. Afterwards, I poured the milk into clean collection containers and placed them into the ice house for Father to gather and deliver later that morning.
After feeding the cows and setting them out to pasture, I headed to the garden while it was still in the cool of the day. I pulled weeds and picked beans and cucumbers for Mother’s canning projects. Next, I traveled back to the barn for mucking stalls, moving bales of hay from the hayloft to the feeding troughs, and feeding the pigs.
Saving my favorite chore for last, I made my way into the chicken house that connected to the barn. The chicken house was a cave-like stall with copious soft hay and treasures of eggs inside. I loved checking the nesting boxes and petting the docile birds.
Our family raised a flock of Rhode-Island Reds, yet on this particular morning I noticed something odd: an unusual white Leghorn chicken had joined the group. I couldn’t think of where this chicken had come from. Did it fly over from the neighbor’s pasture? Even with my careful touch, the white chicken didn’t let me come near. This smaller bird appeared to be a loner in the midst of the flock. Its pale, white feathers stood out painfully amongst the brownish-red color of the Rhode-Island Reds. The other chickens didn’t seem to like this new hen, either. They squawked unkindly and pecked at her when she walked nearby.
I completely understood how she felt.
After feeding the chickens and gathering all their eggs, I watched these funny little creatures in their chicken yard. They were my favorite animals on the farm. Even though they never flew far, I couldn’t help but imagine–what would it be like to sprout wings and fly away?
After placing all of the eggs onto Mother’s kitchen counter, I grabbed my painting basket and escaped to my favorite spot on the topmost hill to see what I could see and paint what I could paint.
* * *
As afternoon melted into evening, my heart felt heavier than usual. I lost the endurance to sit through another dinner of exclusion. So I walked into the family kitchen and wrote a note on the slate: “Too tired. Going to bed.” I could feel the family’s stares boring into the back of my head as I trudged up to my room and closed the door.
I took off my shoes and clothes and put on my nightgown. Why can’t I be more brave? I thought. All I wanted to do was go back to school. With one year left to go, I would graduate and continue on as a teacher for the new Deaf students. I took a deep breath and reminded myself of the truth. It’s only for the summer. I can be brave for a summer.
But I wasn’t so sure. Was that even possible?
The next morning, I awoke to a rainy day. Not wanting to face my family, I dressed slowly and lumbered down the steps. When I arrived at the kitchen, it was eerily empty. The slate rested on the table with Mother’s neat handwriting:
“Father is away on delivery today.
Mother is at the market in town.
Take care of the kids.”
Take care of the kids? How was I supposed to do that job and my chores at the same time?
My stomach growled from neglecting my appetite the night before. After finding a dry biscuit from the kitchen counter, I ate in haste. Today was destined to be a long day. I would have to be a baby-sitter and farm-hand.
Stepping out into the rain, I noticed the children were playing happily on the porch with the barn cats. I waved at them, and they waved back. In between chores, I checked on the kids, who were playing in different spots each time.
At lunchtime, I initiated something very brave: I packed a picnic basket with cold chicken sandwiches and pickled cucumbers, along with a wedge of Mother’s homemade cheese and four sugar cookies. I motioned for the children to follow, and to my complete surprise, they did! I led them through the back door of the barn, past the chicken house and the pig pen; past the lazy cows munching in their stalls.
Like a row of ducklings, the children continued to follow me. We walked towards the ladder of the hayloft with its large upstairs area covering the entire space of the barn. With hay bales stacked along each wall from floor to ceiling, the hayloft was a fantastic place to play. Two windows on opposite ends faced north and south, giving a long-distance view to anyone who dared stand at the edge to look out.
After climbing our way to the top, I spread an old quilt over the hay-strewn floor. As I sat down, the children joined me. I was amazed at their delight to be sitting with me-–me! As we ate, I noticed a low cloud of rain showers. It floated near the barn and burst open with warm summer rain. The children seemed delighted as they watched the rain from the safety of the hayloft.
While we waited for the rain to stop, I plunged into another act of bravery: I used my teaching skills to share my language with them.
I turned to Lyddie and fingerspelled the letters, “r-a-i-n”. And then I pointed outside.
To my great surprise, Lyddie nodded and signed, “y-e-s”.
I couldn’t believe that Lyddie had remembered the alphabet! I quickly took that opportunity to show her that “y-e-s” could also be portrayed with a wrist that moves back and forth.
And to my double surprise, Lyddie caught on quickly. In fact, that experiment turned into an hour-long lesson of Lyddie gathering objects around the barn for me to show the signs. Caleb and Nathaniel followed, enthralled at the new idea of “talking” with me. Over the course of one afternoon, I was able to teach them signs like ‘food’, ‘straw’, ‘blanket’, ‘cow’, ‘pig’, ‘chicken’, and ‘nest’.
As I taught my siblings, the heaviness of my past heartache was replaced with a heart that soared. I wanted to stop and dance to the joy that buzzed from the tips of my toes to the top of my head! They noticed me! They watched and emulated me! I wondered to myself, Could this be the beginning of something new?
But in a sudden moment, the weather made a drastic change. Through the hayloft window, I witnessed an electric streak that filled the sky. I then felt a strange vibration in my bones. Lighting! Thunder! I felt more shaky rumbles beneath my feet and realized that thunder was shuddering a second time. I quickly packed up the picnic lunch. The kids noticed what I was doing, and reached to help.
With another quaking vibration, the thunder quivered again. This time the crack of lightning struck right above us with a violent shake and a rattle.
And then something hit the barn.
Halting all movement, I slowly lifted my head. My eyes scanned the entire length of the hayloft. I could smell danger in the air. It was the smell of…fire!
I stood up to investigate. Where was it coming from? As if my instincts already knew, I looked straight up. A small patch of fiery blaze flickered on the roof, fluttering up into the sky. At that moment, the pit of my stomach sank like a heavy rock. I realized that the worst was about to happen: the barn would most certainly burn.
I turned to Lyddie and pointed to the roof. Then I fingerspelled to her, “F-i-r-e”!
Lyddie quickly understood. The children leaped up and climbed down the hayloft ladder in haste.
Pushing the children out of the barn, I tapped Lyddie on the shoulder and signed to her, “G-e-t…h-e-l-p!” I pointed towards the neighbor’s farm.
As the children ran towards the neighbor’s pasture, I prayed that they would be able to get help in time.
Without strategizing a real plan, I sprung into action. The animals needed to be carried out, or they would burn alive.
With rapid haste, I grabbed as many ropes as I could find and attached them to the halters of each cow. With all my strength, I pulled and pushed the cows out of their stalls and set them loose into the pasture beyond. By this time, the flames had grown stronger; one wall was completely ablaze. Smoke filled the air, squeezing my lungs and sending coughs up my throat. Knowing that the time was slipping away, I ran back inside.
The pig pen was situated on the eastern wall of the barn with a small door that opened onto the pasture outside. When I arrived at the pig pen, I found them sleeping happily on the straw, completely oblivious to the inferno that raged around them. I tried with all my strength to move and make noises, but the sow just looked at me with a stubborn and defiant expression.
I couldn’t understand why the sow wouldn’t leave her straw bed, even though a second wall of the barn was completely engulfed in flames. And the piglets were even more disobedient! They wouldn’t even consider the thought of leaving their mother. Thinking fast, I remembered that getting the attention of a gluttonous pig wasn’t so hard if food was involved. I grabbed some leftovers from the picnic basket and waved them in front of the sow’s face. The sow’s head turned towards the scrumptious treats. And with obstinate curiosity, she lumbered towards me as I trotted a few steps ahead of her, leading her and all piglets out to the side yard for safety.
By this moment, the barn was much hotter than the fiercest of summer days. Flames wrapped around two walls and continued to spread. For a split second, I contemplated the idea of quitting the rescue mission. But I couldn’t let the chickens burn to death!
Out in the side yard, I dunked my apron in the water trough, and tied it over my mouth and nose. Before I could change my mind, I raced back into the barn, running straight for the chicken house. After unlatching the windows and doors, I shooed the chickens out, pushing them towards the openings. Sudden chaos reigned with wings spread and feathers flying, but the birds got the message. They abandoned their nesting boxes and flew towards safety.
All of the birds escaped—except for one.
The white Leghorn chicken stayed glued to her nest, not moving an inch.
With frantic waving, I made drastic movements with my arms to encourage her to move.
But the little white chicken remained steadfastly resolute. She simply would not move.
And so, I scooped the chicken into my arms, getting ready to bolt out the door, when I noticed something tiny underneath her. The chicken had just hatched a clutch of eggs. Six vulnerable chicks lay in the nest, still wet from their shells, flapping their newly unfurled wings for all of their worth.
Without another thought, I untied the apron that covered my mouth and nose, and placed each chick inside the damp cloth, along with their mother hen. The smoke was billowing inside the chicken house, even worse than before. In a fit of tense coughing and sputtering, I managed to run away from the flames with my apron bundle of chicks held tightly to my chest. I carried the bundle out the door, and out to the safety of the side yard where I collapsed onto the ground. With one last heave, I fell backwards, remembering no more.
A shaft of bright sunlight intruded upon my tender eyes, and I awoke from sleep. Lying in my bed, I was dressed in my nightgown. The dress that I had been wearing during the day of the storm now lay hanging over the chair, newly washed with a patched hole on an area that had been burned. From my window, I could see the sun shining from its highest position. Could it be noon already? I thought. Did I sleep through dinner? And even breakfast too?
After getting dressed quickly, I made my way down the stairs to an empty kitchen.
Venturing out into the farmyard, I noticed Lyddie and the boys running in my direction. In the distance, I could see the charred ruins of our barn. Splintered beams of wood stuck out from the ground, broken and dangling in space. Father worked alongside other men from the community, tearing down the remaining pieces of burnt wood, making a way for the process of rebuilding.
The kids led me to the side yard of the house where a makeshift fence had been put up for the pigs and chickens. Right away, I noticed the white Leghorn chicken was sitting nearby with her chicks cuddled beside her.
Feeling the need to count each chick, I knelt down and tapped each one: one, two, three, four, five…
They were very energetic, bobbing their heads with my touch. But I noticed something wrong with the sixth chick. That one was listless, struggling with shallow breaths.
Lyddie patted my shoulder and fingerspelled, “S-i-c-k”.
My joy melted into worry. Not the Leghorn’s chick! Oh, the poor dear!
Picking up the baby chicken, I tenderly cupped the little white downy ball in my hands. I knew it was just a chicken, but it was a life. And it deserved to be protected. It deserved to be loved.
And then a thought came to me. I waved at Lyddie and the boys to get their attention and then I signed with eager hands, “straw,” blanket”, “food”, and “nest”!
They understood me! The children sprang to life, gathering items to help the sick chicken. They gathered a box for a nest, a bundle of hay from the side yard, and an old blanket. They lined the box with their cozy things and placed the chick inside. Safe and warm in the kitchen, we made porridge and fed it to the chick through a medicine dropper.
The sick chicken became our new mission. For the first time in sixteen years, I had banded together with my siblings for a purpose that was greater than all of us. We were committed to keeping this fragile life alive.
As the days passed, we took turns feeding the chick, making sure it was warm and cozy. With every day of progress on the building of the new barn, we noticed that the sick chicken gained its strength little by little.
When it was my turn to sit with the chick, I brought my art journal and worked on sketching.
On one of those days, I was lost in artistic thought when Lyddie stopped in front of my journal and pointed to my work.
Lyddie moved her hands to fingerspell, “p-r-e-t-t-y”.
Blinking back my surprise, I seized the profound moment and showed Lyddie the signs for ‘paper’, ‘pencil’, ‘chick’, and ‘white’.
Lyddie seemed genuinely interested!
This propelled me to show Lyddie the signs for more of the things in my painting basket, like ‘brush’, and ‘paints’. I even taught her the individual colors.
Lyddie showed attentive fascination in all of this! She pointed to my sketching journal and then expectantly pointed to herself, as if to ask if I would teach her how to draw and paint.
With a heart overflowing with joy, I began a series of art lessons, teaching Lyddie the basics of watercolor, and how to create a soft image over a rough sketch.
Every day, I helped her discover something new about capturing the natural world on the canvas.
One week into our art lessons, Caleb and Nathaniel entered into the fun, and before I even knew it, I had my very own art class!
A new, emerging rhythm characterized our summer days. Every day after chores, I pulled out my supplies and taught the children something new. I noticed Mother watching us as she snapped her beans and canned her vegetables. I wondered several times if she disapproved, but by the end of the second week, I saw the faintest turn of a smile on her face when we would sit together and work on our painting. That was the smile I had longed to see for sixteen years.
Not only did she approve, but Mother helped us in our endeavors. She cleared her sunroom table so we could work there every day. She even bought small sketchbooks for the children in which to keep their artwork.
As the children learned more signs, they tried their best to incorporate them into conversations at the dinner table. The kids were so excited about learning sign language that they practically forced Mother and Father to learn! The kids were adventurous, putting different signs together to make sentences. Although it looked very broken and sometimes completely wrong, I couldn’t help but delight in their attempts to try and know me and be known by me.
One evening at dinner, I noticed that Lyddie was speaking directly to Mother and Father. I watched curiously as she taught our parents how to sign different words she had learned: ‘chick’, ‘paint’, ‘barn’, ‘beautiful’. The lesson went on for the remainder of dinner time. I sat dumbfounded as I watched my mother tentatively speak in the language that I knew.
This became a regular occurrence. Each night, Lyddie picked new signs, looking at me for reassurance and praise. My mother became an eager learner. My father, however, sat in his chair and looked uncomfortable.
One month later, my father walked into our newly built barn as I sat on an old familiar stool, milking the last cow for the day. I noticed he was in a hurry. He had a few ropes slung over his shoulder and a hammer hanging off his belt. He raced into the supply area and retrieved a box of nails that he fit into his shirt pocket. On his way out, he noticed me, and he stopped so fast in his tracks that dust swirled around the ankles of his feet.
I paused in the milking job and looked in his direction, not knowing how to react. His face carried a pained look, as though he were sick to his stomach, or like he’d eaten a rotten vegetable.
He pointed to the cows. Then he pointed to the newly built walls of the barn around him.
And then he pointed to me.
And to my great astonishment, he picked up his hands and fingerspelled, “G-o-o-d…J-o-b”.
My chest squeezed and my breath caught up in my throat. A rush of warmth swirled around my insides making me unsteady. With shaky hands I spelled back, “T-h-a-n-k-s…D-a-d”.
As I watched him leave out the back barn door with his hammer and ropes in hand, unstoppable tears pooled in my eyes and cascaded down my cheeks. I buried my face in the velvety soft fur of the cow and sobbed a river of tears.
* * *
The day had come when our sick chicken had finally regained its health, and much to my dismay, my summer vacation had also waned away. My trip to go back to school was quickly approaching. Before my departure, I wanted to provide my siblings with one last memory of me: a time of painting at my favorite grassy spot.
After much preparation, I handed a basket to each child and motioned for them to follow me. Caleb carried the basket of food; Nathaniel and Lyddie carried baskets of art supplies. I carried the special guest of honor: our white Leghorn chick.Together, we hiked up to the topmost hill overlooking all one hundred acres of the family’s dairy farm.
Once we spread the blanket on the sunniest place, I pointed to the different directions in the air. In the west, our new barn stood with its bright red walls and its quilted design painted onto the side. In the east, our pastures rolled out before us, with pockets of trees sprinkled in and around the grazing cows.
Placing the basket with our chick in the middle of our blanket, I pulled out the children’s sketchbooks and pencils. The children had learned so much sign language over the summer that I could almost converse in full sentences with them. And so I pointed to their sketchbooks and signed, “This is the best place to paint.”
Caleb and Nathaniel looked with excitement at their books and at the trees ahead of them.
“Is this where you painted before?” signed Lyddie.
“Yes,” I signed back. “This is my favorite place.”
Caleb pointed proudly to his drawing and patted me on the shoulder to look. “Look at my tree,” he signed.
Pride filled my insides and made me want to burst. I patted him on the shoulder and signed to him, “Good work!”
Nathaniel wanted to get in on the praise and accolades too. He pointed to his drawing and signed, “My bird”.
I couldn’t help but smile and praise him, too.
The children stopped signing as they observed and sketched more, then tweaked and then painted more. The western afternoon sunshine glowed around our backs, giving us warmth in the last moments of reverie.
At last, I packed up my basket. The time had come. Three months ago, all I had wanted to do was run away from this place. Now I was dreading what I had to do. I gathered everyone’s attention, and then I pointed to myself and signed, “Tomorrow, I must go.”
Lyddie frowned. “I’m sad,” she signed. “We will miss you.”
Caleb and Nathaniel both took turns signing, “Me…too.”
Lyddie scrunched up her nose in concentration, as if thinking what to say. “Will you come back?” she signed. “And teach us more art?”
“And visit the sick chicken?” Caleb signed.
Nathaniel nodded in agreement, looking at me expectantly.
“Of course I will visit,” I signed to them.
“By the way,” signed Lyddie, “we still haven’t named this chicken! All the other chickens have names, but not this one!”
Clutching the basket with our chick, I pulled it directly onto my lap. Stroking the downy head, I closed my eyes and offered a prayer of thanksgiving. This little chick had brought us together in more ways than I could have ever hoped for. This little chick had given us reason to work together, and rally together; it spurred us on to learn together and play together. It was the catalyst that propelled my family towards a fellowship that we hadn’t ever had before.
“A name?” I signed as a question. “I think we shall call her… G-r-a-c-e.”
As the children walked back towards home for dinner, I realized that my family would never be the same–I would never be the same. Grace had come into our lives, and we had somehow been made anew.