On the surface I appear to be different from most people. Inside I’m really the same. Knowing myself from my own insides has always made it easier for me to know and get along with other people. Now that I am a grandmother’s age, the sun has risen and set on my life over 23,000 times and I have seen a thing or two.
In my childhood years I remember that I always had the longest hair of any of my sisters and was always taller than any of them too! I was also skinny so I had a hard time finding knee socks that came up to my knees and tights that came up to my waist and a lot of times my socks and tights wouldn’t stay up. In the winter my coat was often too short and had one sleeve that just dangled empty.
I was born with only part of my right arm. I have an elbow and about 4 inches of arm below that. I was a very active and social child so I gained a LOT of experience seeing what life is like in this world where most people have two full arms and expect everyone else to be the same.
For my first 13 years I lived in a neat and clean and very safe low income neighborhood in Baltimore named Claremont. It was filled with lots and lots of kids. My little red brick row of houses was situated in an L shape with another row. Clareway, a street that ran through Claremont, created the third side of the triangle and formed a grassy area right in front of my house. Smack in the middle of this green space sat a big shady tree.
This tree, two other smaller trees and a No Ball Playing sign were perfectly positioned in the green space to form a diamond. It made the exact right place for the neighborhood kids to get up games of softball, handball or even dodge. In softball, the No Ball Playing sign was always second base.
We also had a playground out behind my row of houses, over next to the woods. It had monkey bars, tunnels and what looked like a wading pool made out of cement that never had water in it. I always played there. Sometimes I would go into the woods behind it but I didn’t go in very far. I wanted to be able to run out fast if I saw something that I should never have laid eyes on. I didn’t know what I might run across in those woods if I went in too deep.
Anyway, just inside the woods, just by the edge, there was a clearing with rocks to sit on where I was partly in the sun and partly in the shade. Some days, when the sun was out and a gentle wind was blowing through the tree tops, I could sit and watch leafy shadows dance across the clearing. I liked to go there and listen to the leaves rustle in the breeze.
I loved exploring my big wide world. One thing I came across over and over again was that people, especially other kids, were surprised about my arm. Some were curious about what happened and some were downright shocked at the sight. And a lot of times they didn’t at all mind openly poking into my private business to find out . . . like it was their business and they had a right to know the very instant that they saw me.
Sometimes kids who didn’t already know me stared at my arm and even jostled around to get a better look or they would blurt right out, in front of whoever happened to be around and no matter what I happened to be doing, “HEY! WHAT HAPPENED TO YOUR ARM?” It was a question I got tired of hearing. Especially since answering the question with, “It’s just the way I was born” didn’t always stop the asking.
Sometimes a kid who just couldn’t handle the simple truth would say over and over, “BUT WHAT HAPPENED?” On a good day I might have told them to go ask their mother; on another day I might have just told them to please shut up!
Most of the neighborhood kids were used to seeing me and accepted me as a friend, just as I was. Some of them never even asked me anything and would dive into whatever fun we could think up at the moment.
One time Davey, who never once asked me a thing about my situation, was nearby when a new kid walked up and announced the same old tired question, “HEY! WHAT HAPPENED TO YOUR ARM??” In a fit of red-faced frustration, and before I could even open my mouth, Davey shot forward and roared on my behalf. “SHE WAS BORN!” And that closed the subject. At the same time, it left some kids wondering exactly what he meant. Still, nobody dared ask for or offered clarification.
Davey was a very athletic boy with hair as golden as corn silk and freckles that got darker in the sun. He lived on the corner and wanted to be a Baltimore Oriole. He was often out in the green space in front of our houses trying to get up a game of softball. One time he coaxed me into a team position even after I told him I didn’t know how to play. I recall the details of that summer day just like it was yesterday…
“Hey Sally. Wanna play some soft ball?’’ his voice was relaxed and inviting as he passed a softball back and forth from his left hand to his right hand. The sun was glinting off his golden locks while stray hairs shifted in the gentle breeze.
“You mean right now, with all these kids?” I was thrilled to be included but scared too. One of my knee socks fell down.
“Sure, we could use another player.”
Davey told me not to worry, that he would tell me and everybody else exactly what to do.
In blind faith and good will, I took my position in what Davey said was the infield and put on a catcher’s mitt that came my way. In a dizzying moment a batter was up at home plate and hit the game’s first ball. It landed with a thud near my feet and Davey was jumping up and down both cheering and yelling at me to pick up the ball and throw it. I scrambled over to the ball and, with the mitt on my hand, I picked it up. Alas, I had no other hand to take the ball out of the mitt and throw it – and besides that, throw it where? I bit the insides of my cheeks hard and in the middle of all the action steadfastly took off the mitt, put it under my arm, got the ball out and wildly threw the ball to Davey who was standing near home plate.
Davey picked up the ball and stopped the action of the game. At his signal all the players on both teams fell silent as he called a practice session for me. He tossed the ball to me and this time I caught it with the mitt. Since I still didn’t have another hand to take the ball out of the mitt and throw it back, I again put the mitt under my arm, slid my hand out of it, extracted the ball and then threw it back. And then put the mitt back on, ready for the next instruction.
Davey was kind but saw that it wasn’t going to work. Somehow he worked me out of the game. I’m sorry Davey, I wanted to come through for you! I walked away from the game that day with a mix of relief and pride. I had stepped up to a game that I wasn’t good at and walked away defeated but head held high. It was my right to get into the game and indeed my right to fail at the effort.
This was one of many experiences that helped shape my personality. I have been told that my spirit is indomitable and that by just being me I can either inspire or frustrate others.
I have learned that if someone else is uncomfortable with this, it is for THEM to work it out. I have also found that it is helpful to keep an open heart while they do this. In my early years there was a very famous singer named Frank Sinatra who used to croon a tune called “I Gotta’ Be Me”. When he came on the radio singing this, my mother said, “Sally, that’s your song!
Fifty years ago my mother dealt with kids who didn’t understand why she was different. Now, in 2019, hearing her tell her stories reminds me of my own. My mother and I were both born missing one of our hands. I don’t have a left hand and my mother doesn’t have a right hand. We have never had the hands we’re missing and we never will!
I always felt privileged to grow up with a mother who had the same disability as me. She showed me many tricks, like how to roll up the sleeves on my shirt before I put it on, or how to fold laundry. I had to make up my own way to tie my shoes though, because mom couldn’t tie hers. But I did that too and now I’m really good at it!
Having family with the same disability made me feel normal and safe in my house growing up, especially when dealing with the outside world.
Having a disability isn’t really a big deal to me, but I’ve learned that it is a very big deal to other people. I live in Chicago and work as a professional actor. Since I also own and run a small business, my days are very full. Usually my mind is busy thinking about many things at once.
One day while I was riding the bus to meet with a client of mine I was deep in thought. Suddenly, in front of all of the people on the bus, a man yelled at me from across the aisle, “HEY! Left Hand! You all right?”
I didn’t realize he was talking to me – mostly because my name is Jacob. But the second time he yelled, he got my attention.
“HEY LEFT HAND! Hey man! You all right?”
Everyone on the entire bus was looking at me, so out of embarrassment I said, “Yeah, I’m fine.”
It always surprises me how people will ask me these things without even saying hello to me. Sir, I don’t even know your name! Who are you? And why are you asking me intimate questions? Nobody asks another stranger why their hair is long, or why their eyes are blue and if they are okay about it. Especially out loud and in front of so many people.
In my career I have met several actor friends with disabilities much more noticeable than mine. My friend Jessie is a talented singer who is also in a wheelchair. I could tell you why she is in a wheelchair but that’s not really important, so I won’t. There are many interesting things about her, but even so, many complete strangers walk up to her and the first thing they say is, “What happened to you?”
Am I insane or is that rude?
People love to ask “why” my mother and I have one hand. “What happened to your hand?” is something we hear all the time. I suppose, in some way, it could make sense to ask. But to us, it’s like saying your name over and over until it loses all meaning and sounds weird to say. I wonder why people need to know? Would you ask a cat why it is a cat? I dare you to go home, look your cat in the eye and ask, “Why are you a cat?”
That sounds silly, and so should asking someone to explain why they look the way they do.
Even with these abrupt and insensitive questions, I do think that over time new generations of people are in fact becoming nicer about these issues. My mother was born in the 1950’s and she has told me stories about how other people have reacted to this little thing about her that isn’t even her fault. I grew up in the 1990’s among the iPhone-toting internet generation. Today people who are diverse in race, religion, gender and ability are finding all kinds of ways to be seen and heard in our society. For every person who decided they had to interrupt my day to talk about “my hand,” I have a good and supportive friend who couldn’t care less. I have a circle of friends who like me for more interesting reasons: because I am funny, or because we like the same movies.
Another day on a city bus, I was sitting at the back when two teenagers got on. They saw me and the first thing they did was run to the back to sit with me and ask me that same, old, tired question, “Hey, why do you _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _?” My first temptation was to get angry at them, which wouldn’t have solved anything. My second temptation was to just tell them, but that wouldn’t teach them anything. Instead I thought about it and simply said, “That’s a rude thing to ask someone you don’t know.” It was harder to say that than I thought. At first it felt like I was lashing out, but I wasn’t. I calmly set a boundary and stood up for myself without being mean to these children.
“Why are you the way you are?” This is a really silly question when you think about it. You might as well ask a cat why it isn’t a dog. To me it sounds like saying “Why are you Chinese?” or “Why are you a boy?” These things are out of our control and don’t have nearly as much effect on who we are as you would think. When you ask someone why they are the way they are, what you are really asking is, “why aren’t you like me?”
Your only job is to be yourself, and you don’t need to explain it to anybody.
That’s my son. Strong and brave and at home in his own heart! I wonder what the imprint of his life’s journey will bring to the next generation.