“When Papers Talk” is a profile essay I wrote for a creative nonfiction class (Creative Writing 140) back in university. It is about my youngest sister, Ayette, and her unique way of communication. *This essay is unpolished.
Before the walls of our house were coated in tea rose, it was a shade of dirty, old white. Dirty, and old. One could see the patches of paint that have chipped off over the last thirty years, revealing the gray cement underneath; or, one could spot the holes where the nails sank into the cement, marking the spaces where family photos, prized paintings, and wall clocks used to be. Then, there used to be the spiraling layers of colors that were the work of my baby sister, Ayette, who insisted that the multiple layers of circles were either “fireworks” or “flowers” blooming across our walls.
If I remember correctly, Ayette learned to pick up a crayon at the age of four. She hasn’t put it down since. Noticing her streak for drawing, my mother supplied her with blocks of clean, white bond sheets to draw on. In our family, my mother and I were the only ones who could illustrate well. That, and Ayette’s budding penchant for drawing, would set us up in the living room with sheets of white bond paper strewn all over her kiddie table. I would draw basic shapes and simple things and make Ayette copy what I doodled. Often times, though, my sister missed the precision, and I would have to hold her hand to trace apples on paper, with instructions that go, “Parang hugis heart—alam mo yung heart, diba?—pero mas bilog, mas round.”
When nobody held my sister’s hand, it would strike colors that created no picture, or figures with no recognizable features. Eventually it found its way to surfaces that aren’t papers: wooden seats of our chairs, yellowing pages of old novels, and dirty, old white walls.
In one of my children’s literature classes, I learned that children are more attracted to dirty, creamy blank pages than ones that are bright white, which flashed in their eyes. I supposed that that was the reason: Ayette probably hated the gleam from the bright white bond paper, and liked to explore other surfaces because of that.
Once, Ayette drew on the floors of her classroom. Her teachers were since reminded to stow away crayons out of her sight. The incident, of course, was reported to our mother, who saw to it that Ayette be oriented of what and where she could not doodle on. As if she has not been through with such a discussion before. As if she could understand what my mother was saying at all.
Beginning at the age of three, most children are expected to already hold conversations. Ayette was already four, but she could barely complete a sentence without speaking gibberish in between the two distinct words people around her could understand. It was the usual picture of us: Ayette would hurry to our direction to get a story out of her mouth, but the conversation would always fall to a rubble, held up only by the few words we knew, and the animation she made with her hands.
Her main issue was delayed language development, although she was also noted to exhibit some symptoms of ADHD. She couldn’t quite sit still whenever we tried to tutor her language at home. My parents finally decided to put her through therapy, which first integrated basic skills of learning and retaining her attention before injecting more vocabulary into her memory.
Sometime during her therapy, the shift from drawing on the walls to drawing on paper began. Sometime during that, the dirty white walls were repainted in tea rose.
One day, while Ayette was aimlessly drawing on paper, I picked up a red crayon, sat beside her, and drew Elmo’s furry head. Elmo was Ayette’s favorite character based on early, frequent exposure. She asked me to draw Elmo a few more times before she learned to draw him on her own.
While Ayette has been forming more complex sentences and has been holding short conversations since undergoing therapy, our conversations take a remarkably different shape on paper. On paper, her tales are livelier, taking on trajectories and getting freed from the fuzz that her words would sometimes take the form of when she talks.
Ayette churns out new drawings everyday. My mother takes pictures of these drawings and posts them on her Facebook account—here’s an aspiring artist! I get my own episodes of Sesame Street, and the other tales Ayette illustrates on paper, on nearly a daily basis. When I am left alone in the night doing my work in the dining room, I would glance over my shoulder and see a new drawing pinned on the fridge, at a height of perhaps four feet from the floor, telling me of the latest in my sister’s imagination.