Life’s little pleasures

Artist doesn’t allow deafness to interfere


The calming sounds of birds chirping in the springtime, the crunching of leaves in the fall and the crackling of a bonfire in the summer are some of life’s little pleasures that Decatur resident and artist Penny Mason yearns to enjoy.

Penny first started losing her hearing at 19 because of a hereditary condition passed down from her father. The nerve function in her ears decreased abruptly, resulting in premature loss of hearing and deafness.

As a child, Penny sang in her church choir, at school and a couple of times on the radio in her rural home-town in Virginia. Music became an integral part of her childhood and although she wasn’t a “great musician,” she enjoyed being a part of music.

Penny first noticed her hearing loss in college at Auburn University.

“During their entrance tests, you had to go through a whole physical thing, and the doctor said I was showing signs of hearing loss,” Penny said. “It was the first time my ears had ever been tested.”

The doctor told Penny she would be completely deaf by 40, but it happened sooner than that.

While attending Auburn University, Penny met her husband and married quickly after graduation. Soon she was starting a family and began to notice her muted hearing.

“When I was pregnant with my first child, my hearing went way down,” Penny said. “After my second pregnancy it got even worse.”

Penny believes the hormones from her pregnancy advanced her hereditary hearing disability, and as she approached 40, her ability to hear reached rock bottom.

Unlike most deaf people, Mason communicates by reading lips, not sign language.

“I didn’t learn sign language because I was already in my 20s when my hearing first started to go,” Penny said. “It was a little too late, and I also didn’t have time because I was building a family and a home.”

Fortunately, life without hearing didn’t pose many problems for Penny.

“The biggest thing I have problems with is going out in public and keeping up with what people are saying,” Penny said. “When you live with people, you pretty much know what they are saying without hearing them, but in groups it’s too much to keep up with.”

Penny’s daughter Spring Mason helps her mom keep up in social situations.

“I mostly assist her in understanding what others are trying to communicate with her in person or making calls for her,” Spring said. “Otherwise, she is a very independent and self-reliant person.”

To improve her ability to communicate, Penny took therapy lessons to polish her lip reading. Her therapist then encouraged strengthening her memory. As Penny learned and memorized facial expressions, her lip reading improved      dramatically.

“You can read the lips,” Penny said, “but you aren’t going to remember anything unless you improve your memory.”

As Spring grew up, she didn’t notice anything different about her mother’s hearing because of Penny’s “excellent” lip reading. In order to communicate with her mom, Spring developed facial expressiveness and articulation, which assist her in her current job directing at the Atlanta Children’s Theatre.

“Many people attribute these qualities to being in the theatre,” Spring said, “but really it was mostly born out of the desire to communicate clearly with my mom.”

During the 1960s, Dr. William F. House invented the first cochlear implant, offering thousands of people a chance to hear again. Penny’s mother became especially hopeful.

“She wrote him and mailed him my hearing test results, but he said at that time it wouldn’t help me anymore than the hearing aid that I was already wearing,” Penny said.

The hearing aid of the time was the size of a small radio, with a wire and microphone on the wearers chest. Two years ago, Penny received a cochlear implant, and though it has taken her time to discern certain words, she is able to hear much more than before.

When Penny moved to Decatur in 1979, she returned to school and began taking art classes at Georgia State       University.

“I’ve been painting and drawing my whole life, but those classes were really wonderful,” Penny said. “Artwork is a compulsion for me. It’s an obsession.”

Eventually, she transferred to the University of Alabama to receive a master’s in fine arts. Although Penny couldn’t hear, she didn’t let it stand in her way.

“She worked hard, read her textbooks, brought a tape recorder to her classes and had someone transcribe the tapes so she wouldn’t miss anything,” Spring said. “She never let something being difficult stop her from pursuing what was important to her.”

After graduating from the University of Alabama, Penny worked at Woodward Academy as an administrative assistant to the head of the fine arts department. Though Penny was mostly tasked with clerical work, she enjoyed working in an office because she had an opportunity to paint.

“I painted sets, built costumes and made props for the theatre,” Penny said. “The best part was being able to interact with all of the students.”

Penny was never treated differently from any other teacher at Woodward.

“The environment you have to work in is a huge bonus when everyone is tolerant and understanding,” Penny said. “If a problem should arise, there was a solution to be found, instead of dismissing the person who may have the handicap.”

As a parent, though, raising two children was a challenge. Penny believes her children probably got away with many things they shouldn’t have because it was hard to keep up.

“If you don’t know about it, it’s kind of off the radar,” Penny said, “but I think we all turned out pretty good.”

By living her life with passion and independence, Penny gave her daughter the gift of commitment.

“As a little girl, I grew up watching my mom do all of these amazing things, so when I became an adult I was comfortable with just diving into something and seeing where it led me,” Spring said.

Spring teaches her students the importance of creative risks, being comfortable starting something without knowing the end and trusting that wherever it leads has value. She attributes all of this to her mother.

“I’m  proud of my mom for so many reasons,” Spring said. “She has influenced my life in such a strong and positive way, and to honor her, I hope I’m able to pass along at least some of what she’s taught me with those I’m allowed to influence.”