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Open Features: Sight, Sound, Smell, Taste And Touch

Mary Pilfold-Allan has particular reasons to value the five senses, especially the gift of being able to hear.

As a very young child at school I was taught the five senses parrot-fashion, with my teacher helpfully providing aide-memoire to keep me on track. ‘Sight, sound, smell, touch, taste’ – back then these were just words to learn, for I was one of the lucky ones born with all of my five senses in working order.

And fingers crossed, they are still in remarkably good order, so much so that, where my hearing is concerned, I have been used as a ‘guinea pig’ for a research programme into the audio range of the elderly. (I am not sure I like the term ‘elderly,’ particularly as we are told sixty is the new forty and that puts me firmly in the middle-age bracket.) This ability to pick up sounds other people cannot, I put down to the practice of eavesdropping across a crowded room, a very useful trick if you are a writer!

With no knowledge of any audio impairment in the family, imagine my dismay then when my eldest daughter lost 80 per cent of her hearing at the age of twenty-one. She was followed by my youngest daughter (and one half of my twins) at around about the same age. As they were from two different marriages, the rogue gene had to be from my stable.

Next generation on, when one of my grandchildren was born with hearing loss I began to feel decidedly uneasy and very guilty. I have since found out that her problem is not the same as my two daughters and although that in itself is one sort of relief, it still means that at the grand age of five Imahna has already had three operations and probably faces still more.

The arrival of my latest grandchild eight months ago was very special as I was allowed to be there, but even as she was entering the world I had that niggling worry at the back of my mind, would she be born deaf? Last week was D-day to find out.

Sitting at the back of the consulting room watching Auriela take her test was nerve racking. The consultant was very thorough and the test seemed to go on for ages. When the results were finally revealed and my granddaughter emerged with flying colours, it was such a huge relief that I disgraced myself by shedding enough tears to top up Lake Victoria.

Inevitably, having now watched two of my daughters and one granddaughter go through trying operations to attempt to restore their hearing, I have looked back down the family line to ascertain whether there is a history of deafness? As far as I can recall my father was a bit ‘Mutt n’ Jeff’ late in life but nothing that a visit to the doctor’s and a good ear syringing would not have cured.

The only real figure of doubt is Grandma Kate, a bird-like lady of such fine features and quiet ways that although she smiled a lot, she said little. Was she deaf and didn’t hear what was said? If so, keeping quiet would have been a safe option to saying the wrong thing? Was the ear trumpet that I found in her chest of drawers years after she had departed, an embarrassment she preferred to hide away? She was born before the turn of the 20th century, and it is very possible that Edwardian young ladies preferred not to advertise the fact that they were hard of hearing. I believe Queen Alexander was of the same opinion and dealt with her own increasing deafness with great reserve.

Since watching three member of my family struggle with their deafness, I have come to value my acute hearing as a very special gift. Likewise I regard my ability to read normal print without glasses, unless I am very tired, as a huge bonus, while in the verbal stakes I am reliably informed, my voice can cut can through glass even if I will never make an opera singer. As for smelling the roses and tasting culinary delights, again I am so very lucky.


Most kids innocently play the game of asking each other “which would you rather be, deaf, dumb or blind”? They have no idea of the significance of what they are saying. It is only as we grow older and we face the possibility of impairment or loss of our five senses that we fully realise it is commonsense to value and look after them in any way we can.

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