We’re back at the poor farm with Barton and the others.
There was a young girl there named Annetta, who was dropped off at the poor farm because she was 'slow', as her mama said. She was about seven years-old and could not focus on anything long enough to even finish a meal.
Annetta was a thin little thing and would just sit in a chair and stare at the floor.
She was mute, which means she couldn’t speak, but she could hear and knew what people were saying.
Miss Penelope would occasionally bring her a little trinket; a hairpin or a bit of ribbon, a different color each time.
She began talking to Annetta about numbers and colors, using the trinkets. Both Miss Penelope and Mrs. Higgins were quite pleased to see her show an interest in this. No one wanted to adopt Annetta, with her lesser life-skills.
Annetta would sometimes walk around the farm with Miss Penelope and listen to her talk about flowers and farm animals. Like Barton, Annetta was scared of the horses, but liked the baby calves and lambs.
Everyone wondered what kind of mind Annetta really carried behind that silent mask. They learned to talk to her in questions that could be answered with a move of her head that meant ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Mrs. Higgins suspected that she was smarter than her mother let on, when she brought her to the poor farm. She was one of eight children and was the one child that the family decided they couldn’t feed.
Mrs. Higgins also suspected that Annetta spent a lot of time confined to one room, because she had to be taught that she could move from room to room on her own, without permission.
The women there looked after her. Annetta learned to help with dishes and could stick with the task for 10 or 15 minutes before getting distracted and wandering off, once she learned she could move around.
She had no problems with her temper; she just couldn’t pay much attention. When she left her chores, one of the women there would go gather her back after a few minutes and bring her back to whatever they were doing.
Annetta liked washing windows, especially when the sun would come through the window and warm her. Being so thin, she was rather cold-blooded and like a cat, would follow the sun around the main house. So Mrs. Higgins planned` window washings accordingly.
Annetta somehow took to Barton after spending time with Miss Penelope. Perhaps she decided she could trust whoever Miss Penelope trusted. Now they never spent time alone out-of-sight, but they could often be seen together on the front porch of the main house in the evening after chores and supper dishes were done.
One thing I’ve been waiting to tell you about Barton. He played the Jew’s harp, or juice harp, as it was called back then. Word scholars say that the name ‘Jew’s harp’ is probably a corruption of the Old English term ‘jaw harp’. Indeed, the old English name for the instrument is ’gawgaw’. The Jew’s harp is a primitive instrument that some believe inspired the harmonica and the accordion.
Anyway, Barton secretly bought Annetta a jaw harp (that’s what we’ll call it now) and taught her about it.
One day when Doc Watkins and Miss Penelope came to visit, Barton took Miss Penelope to the front porch.
Annetta was already there. Annetta stood up when they came around the corner of the house.
Barton said to Annetta, “Annetta, say hello to Miss Penelope.”
Miss Penelope became extremely uncomfortable and gave Barton a confused look that said,
“How could you say something like that to Annetta?”
Annetta, eight years old now, took the jaw harp out of her apron, held it to her mouth and said “Hello, how are you.”
It was Miss Penelope’s turn to be speechless.
Once she realized what was going on, she jumped up and down, clapped her hands and giggled like a schoolgirl.
“How many people know about this?” she asked Barton.
“You’re the first,” Barton grinned. “Besides Annetta and I.”
Doctors nowadays, would say that little Annetta had a condition now called 'aphonia', or vocal chords that could not make noise (this condition is sometimes caused by childhood trauma.)
Barton watched her for a long time and noticed she never made a noise, even when she coughed.
Barton received a jaw harp for his eighth Christmas. As a boy, he accidentally learned that he could talk through it without his vocal chords, using his mouth as an echo chamber for the vibration of the jaw harp.
Now understand that a jaw harp is used with lips apart, so there are certain letters you can’t say. But you can say enough of enough words, for a listener that knows what to listen for.
Annetta could hear and already knew words, so Barton taught her how to say: "Hello, how are you, I, like, dislike, clean, dirty, hands, toes, cake" and the like. Wish can be said ‘ish’ to someone who understands the context of the conversation.
Miss Penelope ran and grabbed Doc and the Higgins’ and took them to the front porch, where Annetta greeted them.
There was a celebration all over the poor farm that day. It was Friday and Mrs. Higgins ordered chocolate cake be made for Saturday's supper. Cocao powder was a luxury at the poor farm, but this was a very special occasion.
Annetta could now communicate with the other residents. And she could show what kind of mind she had.
Dr. Watkins shook Barton’s hand and congratulated him for developing such an effective therapeutic procedure.
From then on, little Annetta proudly carried her jaw harp in her apron pocket and Barton carried Doc Watkin’s compliment in his heart like a gold medal.
After a time though, a couple of the women at the poor farm complained that Annetta spent so much time talking that she wasn’t getting much work done. Mrs. Higgins advised them to ask yes or no questions, like they did before.
That would shorten the conversations.
But mostly she advised them to relax and celebrate Annetta’s new ability. They could see a new kind of light in little Annetta's eyes.
And yes, as a boy, Barton would talk to his mama on the jaw harp and say, "I like chocolate cake."
His mama would smile and say, "When the next birthday rolls around, young man."
Eric J. Rose