Kay is my great aunt. When I was five or so, I would spend my days with her and my great grandmother when my mom and dad worked and my brother went to school.

I would pour them imaginary tea and they would drink it and eat my imaginary food. I would take their mail and pretend to be the mailman, delivering to them important messages. They were a lot of fun. Especially Kay.

Kay never learned to read or write. She had (and has) the mind of a child. The only difference between her and me was that she looked like an adult. She could be convinced to do anything in the way that you can convince your playmate to get into trouble with you.

She also has a speech impediment. You had to be around her an awfully long time to be able to understand her speech.  I remember one of the neighbor kids thought she was speaking German. When I was younger, I could understand her with no problem. During my most recent visit with her at the nursing home, it is more challenging. She throws out names and memories and with no context, it’s hard for me to follow along. But she’s perfectly content to keep talking if I nod in agreement and laugh when she laughs. And I understand her better when I can stop her and ask a question, and I have context for her answer.

The only reason Kay is in a nursing home now is because she’s unable to read and write, so she can’t really take care of herself if she’s totally alone. For a long time, she had friends who lived with her, or she’d stay with the neighbors (we lived out in the country where everyone knew each other and Kay was a local fixture, walking up and down the road, picking blackberries or strawberries or mushrooms and jabbering at anyone who stopped by. (And I use jabbering intentionally–it likely sounds like gibberish to anyone unfamiliar with her and she will go on and on and on.) ) For a long time, my grandmother (her sister) lived right down the hill from her, so she had someone to turn to if she had a problem. Once my grandmother died, and once Kay’s roommate moved out, she was placed in a nursing home.

I’m thinking of Kay now because I recently made a presentation to a group of colleagues and in it I mention how important higher education is to my life and career. And I think of Kay, who was sent home from elementary school when she was quite little, diagnosed with an unspecified learning disability. The teacher told my great grandmother she was unable to learn. And so that was it. She never learned reading or writing. She never went to school again.

As an adult, I don’t even understand what Kay’s disability is. I recall asking my grandmother many, many years ago what Kay would be diagnosed with today. What is the name of her disability? I don’t recall her answer, but I think that’s because she didn’t have one. I mean, Kay’s alert,  she has cognitive ability. She can cook her food and watch television and find her way around her spaces. She has an emotional life. She cries over past loves and losses. She hugs me tightly when we part ways. She has no physical handicaps. If she could speak more clearly, her inability to read/write would be completely hidden.It’s only when she talks that you can tell something is not right. My grandmother called it Lazy Tongue, but I think it’s not that simple. Also, her decision-making process is quite stunted. If a stranger pulled up and said to Kay, jump in and I’ll give you a ride to the mall, she’d likely get in without a second thought, even if she didn’t want to go to the mall or even know which mall the driver was talking about.

And still, I don’t know what her diagnosis is. She grew up at a time when labels for children like her were given easily. Feeble-minded. That may have been what they told my great grandmother. Kay was feeble-minded and couldn’t learn.

But that couldn’t possibly be true, right? If they had lived in a place with more resources, perhaps her life would have been different. Perhaps if they had had more financial resources, her life would have been different.

Instead, she lived a child-like life, trusting everyone, befriending everyone, visiting everyone. Perhaps she wouldn’t want things to be any different.


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