A Voice of Felt and Thread
by Jessica McDermott
“I have nothing to say, I’m saying it, and that is poetry.”
With animals, Beth’s soft voice is not misunderstood. When birds, mostly sparrows or robins, fly into her home’s front window, Beth nurses them back to health. I can see her. Her long delicate hands lift the forgotten birds like pennies from a well, she hums and whispers as she wraps them tight in towels and slips water into their tiny mouths with an eyedropper. Once their health returns, she sets them free, opens the garage door and watches in silence as they return to air.
Beth’s voice carries like wings. I can’t measure the rises and falls as easily as with loud talkers, but something within its sound is sweet and forgiving. And although her voice is soft and often difficult to decipher, I know whatever Beth has to say is meant, because it comes from a mouth usually filled with silence.
When Beth told me her difficulty speaking or speaking in an audible voice was an actual disorder, it was the first time I heard the term “Selective Mutism.” The term was first used by the German physician, Clifton Kussmaul. In 1877, Kussmaul created the term after noting how physically normal children would become mute in certain situations. In 1934, the term “elective mutism” was coined by Moritz Tramer, an English physician. Tramer used the term to classify children much like Beth, who are only able to speak with specific people (family members or close friends) but not with others.
Elective suggests preference or a decision. It implies choice. When Beth talks it is in soft whispers, but that’s only because this is what comes out. I call Beth’s condition Mute Anxiety. It shows that there is no choice, but rather an anxiety associated with speaking. Opening one’s mouth with a desire to speak and finding no voice must feel like biting down on tinfoil; an electric shiver shooting straight down the spine, a reach for a wishing coin tucked in your pocket but coming up empty handed.
Beth’s and my grandfather is mostly deaf from serving in the air force. After the Korean War, he spent three years filing papers above the pulsing noise of fighter engines. When Beth speaks, people repeat what she says to our grandpa so he can understand her. They communicate in a different way: Grandpa would rock her to sleep on his recliner when she was young, push her in the old oak swing in his backyard, and hold hands on walks to Smith Park or to the fish pond in the Teton Valley by our family’s cabin. On trips to the fish pond, I would tell Grandpa not to keep Beth’s and my catches. We could simply look the other in the eye and know why.
When I visited Beth over Christmas Break this last year, she had set up a small tree in the living room of her home and decorated it with bell and star ornaments she sewed by hand with tight-square stiches along the seams. “Through art I can communicate feelings and by sewing something for someone I can show them things like I remember their birthday, or their favorite color or something like that,” Beth told me over e-mail.
Most of Beth’s art projects, she creates out of felt and thread. Besides one class in ninth grade and learning how to sew on a button from our grandmother, Beth taught herself how to develop art through thread. Once she finished the Christmas decorations, for fun, Beth created “a little dish running away with the spoon out of felt.” She was also asked to design the centerpiece for the Easter party at her mother’s work using flowers.
When Beth and her mom went to Mexico with some of our other relatives one summer, Beth spotted a lone sea lion wilting under the late afternoon sun. Even though the beach was bustling with tourists and many stopped and stared, Beth sat down by the sick animal and pet its slick head. Someone told her that it was most likely trying to die, but Beth stayed by the sea lion until the sun sunk below the water at sunset. “I was hoping she had started feeling better and went back to where her family was,” Beth told me. The next morning she went back to their spot, but the animal was gone.
At 14, I was at the hospital with Beth, waiting with other family members for news on our dying grandmother. Beth walked around barefoot. Our grandmother was unable to speak, but Beth and I held her hands and whispered we loved her. Beth would squeeze our grandma’s pale hands, and in those moments, she squeezed back.
After being in the hospital for days, Beth and I hopped in the elevator to escape. In the elevator, on our way to the ground floor, an older couple joined us. The woman stared at Beth.
“You’re not wearing shoes? Do you have shoes here?” she asked. Beth just looked at her feet. “Do you?” she asked again.
The elevator ride became long. I thought of jumping in, saving Beth from the woman’s questions and the awkwardness of Beth’s silent answers, but it wasn’t until the woman started speaking in a louder voice telling Beth how she has worked as a nurse and how disgusting hospital floors are, that I finally said, “Yes, she has shoes upstairs she can put on.” The doors opened, and Beth and I slipped outside into the sunshine, avoiding a longer conversation with the woman. Beth kept her shoes off the rest of the day.
People often describe Beth as shy. They get upset when they can’t hear her, but the concept of shyness has changed over time, and in recent history, it is no longer a personality trait but often viewed as a disease with a prognosis. Starting in the 1980s the American Psychiatric Association added the terms “social phobia,” “avoidant personality disorder,” and several other like conditions to the DSM IV. In this newly revised 500-page volume, the shy person, the introvert, the whisperer, became a psychotic person characterized by a dull personality with a tendency for loneliness.
Now, on her walks, Beth typically follows the train tracks up the street then to the playground. If she is alone, she will swing for a while. I imagine her walking slow in her sneakers with the back bent down to create slip-ons, her hair back in a ponytail, I bet she glances around one last time before sitting on the swing and methodically swaying back and forth, never going too high, dragging her feet on the dirt, creating patters and lines only visible to herself.
While shuffling along the tracks, Beth occasionally meets dogs and cats. Beth told me these animals often follow her for a while, keeping time with her movements. I like to imagine the cats zig-zag between her legs before leaving her alone again, and the dogs lick her open palms.
In one of my favorite childhood pictures, Beth and I kneel on the pavement with my blue-heeler dog, Max. I am wearing a tight neon-green tank blanketed in sequins and a lacy skirt from a dance recital; Beth wears an Esmeralda T-shirt and jeans. We had just eaten ice cream at Artic Circle, where Beth sat next to me.
We are smiling with our teeth, and Max’s mouth is open. Instead of at the camera, where my eyes are, Beth is turned towards Max, her arms wrapped around his body in a tight hug.
About Jessica McDermott
Jessica McDermott is an MFA student in creative writing at the University of Idaho. She is a fourth generation Idahoan who is heavily influenced by place and nature. She and her twin brother recently began the small press, The Yellow Mountain Collective, and her most recent publication is upcoming in the Apeiron Review.