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Hands of My Father: A Hearing Boy, His Deaf Parents, and the Language of Loveby Myron Uhlberg
Synopses & Reviews
By turns heart-tugging and hilarious, Myron Uhlbergs memoir tells the story of growing up as the hearing son of deaf parents—and his life in a world that he found unaccountably beautiful, even as he longed to escape it.
“Does sound have rhythm?” my father asked. “Does it rise and fall like the ocean? Does it come and go like the wind?”
Such were the kinds of questions that Myron Uhlbergs deaf father asked him from earliest childhood, in his eternal quest to decipher, and to understand, the elusive nature of sound. Quite a challenge for a young boy, and one of many he would face.
Uhlbergs first language was American Sign Language, the first sign he learned: “I love you.” But his second language was spoken English—and no sooner did he learn it than he was called upon to act as his fathers ears and mouth in the stores and streets of the neighborhood beyond their silent apartment in Brooklyn.
Resentful as he sometimes was of the heavy burdens heaped on his small shoulders, he nonetheless adored his parents, who passed on to him their own passionate engagement with life. These two remarkable people married and had children at the absolute bottom of the Great Depression—an expression of extraordinary optimism, and typical of the joy and resilience they were able to summon at even the darkest of times.
From the beaches of Coney Island to Ebbets Field, where he watches his fathers hero Jackie Robinson play ball, from the branch library above the local Chinese restaurant where the odor of chow mein rose from the pages of the books he devoured to the hospital ward where he visits his polio-afflicted friend, this is a memoir filled with stories about growing up not just as the child of two deaf people but as a book-loving, mischief-making, tree-climbing kid during the remarkably eventful period that spanned the Depression, the War, and the early fifties.
"In this memoir about growing up the son of deaf parents in 1940s Brooklyn, Uhlberg recalls the time his uncle told him he saw his nephew as 'cleaved into two parts, half hearing, half deaf, forever joined together.' These worlds come together in this work, his first for adults, as Uhlberg, who has written several children's books (including Dad, Jackie, and Me, which won a 2006 Patterson Prize) effortlessly weaves his way through a childhood of trying to interpret the speaking world for his parents while trying to learn the lessons of life from the richly executed 'Technicolor language' of his father's hands. With the interconnection of two different worlds, there is bound to be humor, and Uhlberg is able to laugh at himself and his family's situation. He recounts unsuccessfully trying to reinterpret his teacher's constructive criticism for his parents and finding himself pressed into duty interpreting the Joe Louis prize fights for his dad. There are, of course, more poignant moments, as Uhlberg tries to explain the sound of waves for his curious father or when he finds himself in charge of caring for his epileptic baby brother because his parents can't hear the seizures. As Uhlberg grows up through the polio epidemic, WWII and Jackie Robinson's arrival in Brooklyn, he also grows out of his insecurities about his family and the way they are viewed as outsiders. Instead, looking back, he gives readers a well-crafted, heartwarming tale of family love and understanding." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
Myron Uhlberg, the author of this coming-of-age memoir, was born in Brooklyn in the depths of the Depression, the son of two profoundly deaf parents. They went on to have a second son, Irwin, who was tormented through much of his childhood by nightly grand mal seizures. It fell to Myron, as soon as he learned to speak, to become not just the translator but the interpreter, the diplomat, for virtually... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) all the transactions his family would have with the outside, hearing world. This stress was compounded by the fact that tenement Brooklyn, populated by strung-out, poverty-stricken, barely educated immigrants from various old countries, wasn't exactly a bastion of good manners or "civilized" behavior. A kind way of putting it might be to praise their candor, their bracing bluntness, as in "They said what they meant and they meant what they said," but they meant and said awful things. Myron grew up in an atmosphere of clueless insults. Much of this material has already been covered by the author in his five previous children's books: the story of Myron's father's career as a typesetter at the New York Daily News (he worked in a room where the noise was deafening, which made actual deafness an asset) and the story of Myron's first trip to see the Dodgers and the famous Jackie Robinson, and even a tale of a deeply eccentric old-country screw-up, who, if I guess correctly, may be the author's Hungarian-Gypsy maternal grandfather. But Uhlberg, writing from a 60- or 70-year distance, allows the Brooklyn of the '30s and '40s to morph from being an overcrowded hell on earth to a homey place where little boys played stickball in the street and plump yentas washed and waxed their kitchen floors without complaint. In other words, there are two potential traps here that Uhlberg tends to stumble into: the oversimplification and general sunniness of children's lit, and the overwhelming temptation to make Brooklyn seem quaint. Underneath the sunshine, the story seems almost unbearably sad. Myron's mother (who was an absolutely stunning beauty) was advertised in the deaf community by her father as a possible wife; when she first saw her husband-to-be, she burst into inconsolable tears. Both of Myron's parents had been sent to schools for the deaf where they were treated as retarded, primitive, almost feral. They were forbidden to use sign language and grew up in terrible isolation from their families. Their loneliness, even after they married, was unfathomable. They were shunned and made fun of openly, called "the deaf and dumb mutes in (Apartment) 3A." Myron grew up in a sea of shame. His little brother, with his epileptic seizures, suffered the tortures of the damned. There are two photographs here of little Irwin, one taken while he is still healthy, and another after his five-year bout with epilepsy has begun to taper off. He is teaching himself to roller skate, but his face is stamped with suffering. These pictures alone tell a story that doesn't have a grain of sugar in it. The author pays constant tribute to his father: his hardworking ways, his devotion to his family, his extraordinarily curious mind. He asks his son repeatedly to describe the sound of a wave crashing on the beach, what the word "wet" sounds like, whether color has sound, whether heat is noisy and cold is quiet. He has an insatiable thirst for knowledge that his 8-, 9-, 10-year-old son has neither the ability nor the inclination to provide. It didn't help that American Sign Language wasn't recognized by linguists as an actual language until the 1960s. The extravagant gestures and facial expressions of ASL only contributed to the general impression that Uhlberg's parents were freaks. Somewhere in his childhood Myron learned to cope with this by becoming the neighborhood scamp, in trouble all the time. He says remarkably little about this process or about how his brother's life proceeded after his seizures stopped. Soon enough, Myron won a university football scholarship and escaped the stifling world of his parents. But what happened to his father, that amazing and good man? Perhaps with excessive respect, the author has portrayed him as a string of good deeds, painting over his complexities with the pastel strokes of children's lit. How I wish I knew that father better. And I imagine Myron Uhlberg wishes that for himself, too. Reviewed by Carolyn See, who can may be reached at www.carolynsee.com, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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By turns heart-tugging and hilarious, Uhlberg's memoir tells the story of growing up as the hearing son of deaf parents--and his life in a world that he found unaccountably beautiful, even as he longed to escape it.
About the Author
Myron Uhlberg is the critically acclaimed and award-winning author of a number of childrens books. He lives with his wife in Santa Monica and Palm Springs.
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