Others will speak of her love for her sons, her steadfastness as a friend, and her unwavering loyalty to the Deaf community.
I can best describe Evelyn Thompson as a mentor.
College degrees were being offered in American Sign Languages Studies and Interpretation.
Evelyn had been signing since she came out of the womb; she certainly didn’t need anyone to verify her fluency.
Humility ran deep in Evelyn, as deep and serious as her compassion for the Deaf community. She never hid her rage against the injustices piled upon those whose eyes mean more than their ears, whose gestures and bodily expressions convey so much more than the tongue and voice usually do. Being a professional interpreter meant seeking out every bit of linguistic and cultural resource imaginable – even the theory of formal school and practical training from individuals who may or may not have known as much as she.
I was new: a sign language learner, idealistic, naive. I wanted the best, and Evelyn was it. Still relatively young herself, Evelyn had been interpreting for decades when we met. She was already “an institution” in her own right. We met in an introductory level interpreting class and soon enough I’d written her a letter asking if she would accept me as a mentee. We were into being formal. She wrote back.
Maybe not, her response implied! After all, interpreting puts one in very intimate situations. There were differences between us that might be too much to handle: my being a lesbian and her being a christian just might not be amenable to the intense collaborations required in a mentoring relationship.
We had a long lunch one day, and – somehow, I passed the interview. Just as Evelyn would not pretend differences don’t matter, neither would she let them get in the way. We talked about everything, and she pushed me to excel.
My first real jobs were undertaken with Evelyn present, nodding encouragement, maintaining eye contact at certain moments when I was most tangled up, refusing to let me off the hook. Her perception of the degree of challenge I was prepared to meet always confounded my own. No no, I’d plead, I’m not ready! “Yes you are,” she’d calmly state. “You can do it.” Well, sometimes I really couldn’t – quite. Other times I was possibly close. But she would gauge the audience, the topic, and the latitude she could give me to screw things up in order to build my confidence and develop my skill. Her judgment was uncanny. There were dozens of jobs that I was positive were beyond my abilities. She’d get me to take a turn for five or ten minutes, which would somehow stretch to fifteen or twenty.
There are so many fond memories it is impossible to recount them all. In addition to the passion with which Evelyn undertook the mission of communicating for mutual understanding and equitable relationships, she had a funny bone that could catch you by surprise and keep you laughing for days. One of my assignments in a class on the linguistics of ASL involved a series of interviews to demonstrate the immense flexibility of American Sign Language. I had to pick an expression and investigate how many different ways there are to express the same thing. I interviewed several people.
Of course, I couldn’t tell them I wanted to know how they would sign ‘getting out of a car.’ Instead, I asked them to describe their commute to work (hoping that at the end they would actually indicate getting of the car). Evelyn gave the longest response, schooling me in the art of driving in rush hour traffic on a major interstate highway. I can tell you, I wouldn’t want her commute to save my life! She had a tiny car back then, she described the hazards of construction, constantly dodging all those orange barrels, bumping along the rough ride of grated road while being passed by zooming 18-wheel tractor trailers and avoiding head-on collisions, sometimes slamming on the breaks when some jerk cut too closely in front of her.
I don’t remember if Evelyn got out of the car at the end or not, I was too busy laughing at her perfect rendition of this crazy, dangerous, and yet wonderful world.
Evelyn taught as much by example as by direct instruction. Probably she thought the assignment had to do with a particular linguistic feature of ASL, such as classifiers, or non-manual markers, or the use of space. She loaded her answer with as much as she possibly could
the miracle of communication
and the best part of human relationships &emdash; helping each other laugh.
The most intensive period of our connection spanned a brief three years, but the memories and influence linger on.
Note: The family asked me to read this at Evelyn’s Memorial Service. They shared the photo (above) with me, and gave me a Star of Bethlehem (Omithogalum umbellatum) from the floral arrangement as a remembrance. Thank you.
Before I begin, I want to say how good it is to be here. I wrote this tribute before I knew I could attend; over the past few days I’ve felt unsettled, disorganized in my mind. It is as if an anchor has been yanked up and I’m floating &emdash; unsure where the waves will take me next. Evelyn and I haven’t much contact since I moved away 15 years ago, so I am shocked at the depth of loss I feel. I can only imagine how much more difficult it is for those of you here.
Evelyn did this &emdash; connected us with each other.