On her own|She’s 89, can’t see, hear or speak — but lives alone

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Pecolia Sims has a routine. She makes the bed, does her chores — ironing on Tuesdays, mopping on Wednesdays — and is in bed by dark. She makes all her meals, cleans the dishes and washes the day’s clothes each night.

That’s not unusual. This is: The 89-year-old does all this without being able to see, speak or hear.

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“Anytime you’re almost 90 years old and living by yourself — doing everything by yourself — and deaf, dumb and blind, it’s amazing,” said Ospy Dorsey, who has been attending church with Sims for about 60 years. “(And) her house is cleaner than mine.”

The Clarksdale native was born deaf and mute, the youngest in a hearing family of people who knew no sign language. She lost her vision when she was 65. When Pecolia was a child, her mother took her to the Mississippi School for the Deaf, where she met her future husband, Louis Sims.

The pair were at the school through eighth grade — about the equivalent of a modern third-grade education, her daughter estimated — and were soon married with five kids.

“She has never been a gregarious person, because she’s always been surrounded by her children,” said Ruby Wiggins, her 59-year-old daughter.

When her children were babies in the 1940s and ’50s, Sims couldn’t leave the infants in another room and rely on their crying to wake her in the night. Instead, they spent nights with their mother in her bed, her hand on their chests to feel when they cried.

Before the children could speak full words, they were using sign language to communicate with their parents.

“If you think about it, signing is a natural thing,” Wiggins said. “You’re using gestures.”

But American Sign Language wasn’t natural to everyone else, so Wiggins and her siblings bridged the language barrier between their parents and people in the community.

“Because they were deaf, we were automatically interpreters for them,” Wiggins said.

Despite the uncommon responsibility, the children didn’t give it a second thought. It wasn’t until high school — when the kids’ friends started comparing families — that they considered their home life anything but normal, said Wiggins and her sister, Viola Simms, 60.

“We honestly didn’t think we were any different than anybody else,” Wiggins said. “We had a dad who worked and a mom who kept house.”

The biggest disability the family faced was a financial one: The seven lived in a three-room house on Louis’ $30-a-week pay.

Simms remembers one cold winter when she was a child, the family ran out of butane and couldn’t afford to buy more.

“So what my mom did, she waited till it got dark, so the neighbors couldn’t see, and she went outside and built a fire and cooked us some food,” Simms said. “That’s the kind of person she is.”

With two deaf parents, the children could misbehave without mom and dad knowing a thing. And Wiggins said that’s what some people expected.

“People used to say — and it’s cold-blooded — that because (my parents) had disabilities, the girls would have a full house of kids, meaning they would have to take care of all the kids, and the boys would go bad,” Wiggins said. “We had the opportunity to be awful, awful kids.”

Instead, Wiggins said, the children wanted to prove the naysayers wrong. Wiggins and Simms said they understood how important it was to respect their parents, something that has persisted into their adult lives.

“I’m married, I have three kids and I still respect — I don’t curse around my mother. Even though she couldn’t hear me, I don’t do it, that’s not the way we were raised,” Simms said. “It’s all about respect.”

Although Pecolia and Louis Sims had limited schooling, they emphasized education for their children. The oldest, Louis Jr., 65, joined the Air Force after high school and helped the next, Lillie, who has died, get through Mississippi Valley State University. And so it continued. Each child graduated and helped the next in line.

“(My parents) weren’t that educated, but they recognized how important education was for us,” Wiggins said. “They both did an awesome job, and they ought to be commended. … They had the disability that they did, whereas there are other people who had all their faculties and weren’t as successful.”

The youngest, Robert Sims, 57, got a scholarship to Harvard.

All five children went on to get master’s degrees, and Wiggins received a doctorate. They all became teachers.

“When you sit at the table and you just have beans and corn bread, it gives you a lot of inspiration,” Simms said. “(My siblings and I) were just determined that we were going to do better than that.”

Since retinitis pigmentosa — a progressive disorder that often limits eyesight to tunnel vision — led to Sims’ blindness 24 years ago, she has had to make more adjustments. Her family now communicates with her by using sign language to finger spell into her hands.

“She just told us she couldn’t see, she couldn’t hear, she couldn’t talk,” said Viola Simms. “She just went on.”

The only things she really misses, her daughters said, is seeing her grandchildren,  knitting, crocheting and watching Western movies.

Sims has been living independently since her husband died in 1985. Viola Simms stops by for daily visits, and Ruby Wiggins takes her mother back to Jackson with her for a week each month, but Sims insists on living alone.

“She’s very independent and she didn’t want to live with any of us,” Simms said. “We were willing to take her in, you know, but that’s not what she wanted to do, so in order for her to survive, she had to just focus on what she needed to do to survive on her own.”

Sims now has 14 grandchildren, 16 great grandchildren and two great-great grandchildren.

She cupped her daughter’s hand as Wiggins asked her what it was like raising five children. A minute later, Wiggins relayed the response.

“She said it was easy,” Wiggins said, laughing. “She’s a lady of few words.”

As stay-at-home mom for more than 60 years, Simms said her mother has expressed no regrets. Even after losing her sight, her husband and a daughter, “She never stopped praying,” Simms said. “My mama prays every night.”

“And the first people she prays for are her children,” Wiggins added. “Then she’ll pray for everyone else, but first her children.”


Contact Andrea Vasquez at avasquez@vicksburgpost.com