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Monday, March 6, 2017

Communicating without words

My fifteen-month-old granddaughter doesn’t say much, but she communicates quite effectively. She has just discovered that everything has a name, so she spends much of her waking hours walking around, pointing at various items and emitting that little sing-song noise that sounds like, “huh?” That’s our cue to supply the name for the item. Pointing, “huh?” Answer: “horse.” Switching to another item. “Huh?” Answer: “TV.” And so on. This can go on for hours if you let it.
She must be spending a fair amount of time with Daddy in the stable because she is currently obsessed with horses. She points them out in books, paintings and photographs and carries a toy horse in her tiny fist, prancing it across tabletops and sofas. When a horse gallops into the scene of a Western that Grandpa is watching on TV, baby drops what she is doing and shuffles as quickly as she can into the living room to see where that noise is coming from. Then she stands there with a dazed look on her face, staring at the TV. Everything is sorting itself out in her tiny brain.
Despite not having the use of words in her toolbox, baby is very good at making her feelings known. Mama has taught her a few bits of sign language. As soon as you put her in her high chair she starts tapping her little fingers together, in the “more” sign. This continues throughout the meal, to show she is enjoying her food and still hungry. She’s also pretty good at expressing when she doesn’t like something. When I wear my glasses she looks at me and then turns her head away quickly, as in a snub of disapproval. She prefers faces without accoutrements.
This tiny person has discovered that almost every wish can be conveyed by pointing and humming or grunting. We are looking forward to hearing her actual thoughts – the occasional discernible word comes out once in a while but so far she is just practicing sounds. It’s actually pretty entertaining. Her mother made it to age two and a half before she started using words so we may be waiting a while yet.
The farm animals are also pretty good at communicating without words. When their feeders are empty, they just come and stand at the fence closest to the house. After a while, Betty will start mooing and others will join in. Eventually we will hear the cow concert and the Farmer will go out to start the tractor. They are going through a five-foot bale of hay a day now, as ten of them are pregnant and hungry.
The housecats communicate that their bowl is empty by attempting to trip me as I move around the kitchen. It has backfired on them once or twice, as I have trod on tails. But usually when they sit at my feet and meow loudly, I catch their drift and head down to the basement to refill the feeder. If no amount of meowing and maneuvering can get my attention, Sheila is not above giving me a quick bite on my calf. I have marks to prove it.
I visited my grandmother today. She turns 102 next week. Although she doesn’t hear much of what I say, we have long, in-depth conversations together. If Grandma can’t decipher what I am saying by reading my lips, she rarely admits it. Instead she giggles and changes the subject to one of her own choosing. Our favourite thing to do on visits is to review recent photographs and video of family that I have on my phone. She will comment on baby’s walking skills, and tell a story about one of her sons at that age. Apparently he left a banana peel on the floor and, just like in the cartoons, she slipped on it. And went into labour with her next son. This is how we communicate. We aren’t really responding to each other, but we are talking.
It’s difficult to catch up with Grandma on the phone, because she doesn’t like to turn the volume up on the speaker and she doesn’t always have her hearing aids in. The only way to communicate with her is to show up at her door, hold her hand, and give her a smile. All she really wants is someone to talk to. A response isn’t really required. Today I was her niece, then her daughter-in-law, and finally her granddaughter. I don’t think she has forgotten who I am. She just occasionally misplaces her words.


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