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Hands of My Father: A Hearing Boy, His Deaf Parents, and the Language of Loveby Myron Uhlberg
The Sound of Silence My first language was sign.
I was born shortly after midnight, July 1, 1933, my parents first child. Thus I had one tiny reluctant foot in the first half of that historically fateful year, and the other firmly planted in the second half. In a way my birth date, squarely astride the calendar year, was a metaphor for my subsequent life, one foot always being dragged back to the deaf world, the silent world of my father and of my mother, from whose womb I had just emerged, and the other trying to stride forward into the greater world of the hearing, to escape into the world destined to be my own.
Many years later I realized what a great expression of optimism it was for my father and mother, two deaf people, to decide to have a child at the absolute bottom of the Great Depression.
We lived in Brooklyn, near Coney Island, where on certain summer days, when the wind was blowing just right and our kitchen window was open and the shade drawn up on its roller, I could smell the briny odor of the ocean, layered with just the barest hint of mustard and grilled hot dogs (although that could have been my imagination).
Our apartment was four rooms on the third floor of a new red-brick building encrusted with bright orange fire escapes, which my father and mother had found by walking the neighborhood, and then negotiated for with the impatient hearing landlord all by themselves despite their respective parents objections that they “could not manage alone” as they were “deaf and handicapped” and “helpless” and would surely “be cheated.” They had just returned from their honeymoon, spent blissfully in Washington, D.C., planned to coincide with the silent, colorful explosion of the blossoming cherry trees, which my mother considered a propitious omen for the successful marriage of two deaf people.
Apartment 3A was the only home my father ever knew as a married man. Its four rooms were the place he lived with and loved his deaf wife, and raised his two hearing sons, and then left by ambulance one day forty-four years after arriving there, never to return.
One day my fathers hands signed in sorrow and regret the story of how he had become deaf. This was a story he had pieced together from facts he had learned later in life from his younger sister, Rose, who in turn had heard it from their mother. (The fact that he had to learn the details of his own deafness from his younger hearing sister was a source of enduring resentment.)
My father told me he had been born in 1902, a normal hearing child, but at an early age had contracted spinal meningitis. His parents, David and Rebecca, newly arrived in America from Russia, living in an apartment in the Bronx, thought their baby would die.
My fathers fever ravaged his little body for over a week. Cold baths during the day and wet sheet-shrouded nights kept him alive. When his fever at last abated, he was deaf. My father would never again hear a sound in all the remaining years of his life. As an adult, he often questioned why it was that he had been singled out as the only member of his family to become deaf.
I, his hearing son, watched his hands sign his anguish: “Not fair!”
My father and his father could barely communicate with each other. Their entire shared vocabulary consisted of a few mimed signs: eat, be quiet, sleep. These were all command signs. They had no sign for love between them, and his father died without ever having had a single meaningful conversation with his firstborn child.
My fathers mother did have a sign for love. It was a homemade sign, and she would use it often. My father told me that his language with his mother was poor in quantity but rich in content. She communicated less through agreed-upon signs than through the luminosity that appeared in her eyes whenever she looked at him. That look was special and reserved for him alone.
Like their parents, my fathers siblings—his younger brother, Leon, and his two younger sisters, Rose and Millie—never learned a word of formal sign. They remained strangers to him his entire life. At my fathers graveside Leon screamed his name, as if, finally, his dead deaf brother had been granted the power to hear his name on his brothers lips.
In 1910, when he was eight years old, my fathers parents sent him to live at the Fanwood School for the Deaf, a military-style school for deaf children. My father thought they had abandoned him because he was damaged. In his early days there he cried himself to sleep every night. But ever so slowly he came to realize that rather than having been abandoned, he had been rescued. For the first time in his life he was surrounded by children just like him, and he finally understood that he was not alone in this world.
However, the education he received at Fanwood was certainly a mixed blessing. There, as at most deaf schools at the time, deaf children were taught mainly by hearing teachers, whose goal was to teach them oral speech. The deaf are not mute; they have vocal cords and can speak. But since they cannot monitor the sound of their voice, teaching them intelligible speech is extraordinarily difficult. Although my father and his classmates tried to cooperate with their teachers, not one of them ever learned to speak well enough to be understood by the average hearing person.
While this futile and much-resented pedagogic exercise was being inflicted on the deaf children, sign language was strictly forbidden. The hearing teachers considered it to be a primitive method of communication suitable only for the unintelligent.
Not until the 1960s would linguists decree ASL (American Sign Language) to be a legitimate language all its own. But long before then the deaf, among them the children at my fathers school, had come to that conclusion themselves. Every night, in the dormitory at Fanwood, the older deaf children taught the younger ones the visual language of sign.
With sign, the boundaries of my fathers silent mental universe disappeared, and in the resulting opening sign after new sign accumulated, expanding the closed space within his mind until it filled to bursting with joyous understanding.
“When I was a boy, I was sent to deaf school. I had no real signs,” my father signed to me, his hands moving, remembering. “I had only made-up home signs. These were like shadows on a wall. They had no real meaning. In deaf school I was hungry for sign. All were new for me. Sign was the food that fed me. Food for the eye. Food for the mind. I swallowed each new sign to make it mine.”
My fathers need to communicate was insatiable and would cease only when the dormitory lights were turned out at night. Even then, my father told me, he would sign himself to sleep. Once asleep, my father claimed, he would dream in sign.
My father was taught the printing trade in deaf school, an ideal trade, it was thought, for a deaf man, as printing was a painfully loud business. The unspoken message transmitted to the deaf children of that time by their hearing teachers was that they were neither as smart nor as capable as hearing children. Thus they would primarily be taught manual skills, like printing, shoe repair, and house painting.
Upon graduation in 1920, my father was able to land his first job, the job that would last his working lifetime.
“In the Great Depression,” he told me, “I was lucky to have an apprentice job with the New York Daily News. I knew it was because I was deaf and so wouldnt be distracted by the noise of the printing presses, and the clattering of the linotype machines, but I didnt care. I also didnt care that the deaf workers were paid less than the hearing workers because Captain Patterson, the big boss, knew that we wouldnt, couldnt, complain. He knew that we would be happy for any job, at any wage. We were deaf. He could hear. And he was right. The hearing people ran the world.
“But those were tough times for me. By the time I gave my mother money out of my small pay envelope at the end of the week, for my room and board, and then some more for the household expenses, there was not much left over. My hearing brother and sisters did not have steady work. My mother and father were the janitors of our building, so they had little ready cash. It broke my heart to see my mother on her hands and knees, shuffling up and down the hallways, washing the wooden floors with hot, soapy water she dragged along behind her in a big wooden bucket. Her hands were always red and raw. To this day I cant get the memory of her chafed hands out of my mind. When I finally got my union card and made good union wages, I could give her enough money every month so she didnt have to do that anymore. You cant imagine how proud I was that I, her deaf son, could do that for her.”
As an apprentice, he explained to me, he worked the night shift. It was known as the “lobster shift,” for no reason that he was ever able to explain to me. As a boy, I reasoned that since he worked nights while everyone else was asleep, including fish in the ocean, it must be that lobsters were awake during those hours, and so the name.
Being a printer was the only job my father ever had, and he loved it. He would work for the newspaper until he retired over forty years later. In all that time he worked side by side with hearing co-workers, but he never really knew them. Like most in the hearing world, they treated him as if he were an alien—primitive, incapable of speech, and lacking human thought: a person to be avoided if possible, and if not, ignored.
After an apprenticeship of many years, my father was issued a union card. It was the proudest moment of his life. It was tangible proof that he was as good as any hearing man. Even in the dark days of the Depression, when one out of four men were out of work, he, a deaf man, could support himself.
And, he reasoned, he could also support a wife. My father was tired of being alone in this hearing world. It was time, he thought, to create his own silent world. A world that would begin with a deaf wife.
One bleak winter day, while we were sitting at the kitchen table, the rain sleeting against the windows of our Brooklyn apartment, his hands told me the rest of his story, in which began my story:
“Sarah was a young girl. She had many friends. She liked to have fun.
“I first noticed her at the beach in Coney Island. She was always laughing. “All the deaf boys were crazy about Sarah. Even the hearing boys.
“There were many handsome boys on the beach. All the young boys had muscles and chocolate tans. They could jump and leap over each others back. They could do handstands.
“I was older. I didnt have muscles. I couldnt stand on my hands if my life depended on it. I didnt have a brown tan. I would get sunburned. My skin turned red. And then I would peel.
“It didnt matter. The handsome young boys with their chocolate skin and big muscles only wanted to have fun with Sarah. They were not serious boys. They had no jobs. So they had plenty of time to play, and make muscles, and get brown skin from the sun.
“I was a serious man. I had a job. A good job. The best job. I was no longer an apprentice printer. I had a union card, just like the hearing workers.
“I didnt want Sarah just to have fun. I wanted a wife for all time. I wanted a mother for my children. I wanted a partner forever. We would be two deaf people in the hearing world. We would make our own world. A quiet world. A silent world.
“We would be strong together, and strong for our children.”
Then, just as the rain stopped and thin rays of sunlight striped the tabletop, my father smiled to himself, his hands thinking . . . “Maybe we would have a little fun before the children came.” Lost in reverie, his hands, bathed in golden light, now lay silent on the kitchen table. Time passed. I sat and watched his still hands, waiting patiently for them to continue his story. I loved the quiet time we spent together, and I loved the stories his hands contained.
Then my fathers hands came alive again, eloquently describing a warm spring afternoon in 1932 Brooklyn.
“I knew I had to make a good impression. “I had to dress well. I wore my best suit. Actually, it was my only suit. The big Depression was still going strong, and I watched every dollar.”
He tells me his suit was a fine wool serge that cost him two weeks salary. Its jaunty design was at odds with the feeling of dread that grew in him that day as he set off for the apartment where Sarah lived with her family, having written to her father asking if he might pay a call.
The scene unfolds with cinematic vividness as my fathers hands recount each stage of his quest.
He descends with the crowd, down the stairs from the subway platform, sweat dampening his armpits, and exits the station into the frantic gay activity of Sabbath shoppers rushing about, making their last-minute purchases for the evening meal.
The salt scent of the Atlantic Ocean hangs over every shop awning, every outdoor stall, reminding my father, as if he needed such a reminder, how far he had traveled this warm day from his familiar home in the northern leafy village reaches of the Bronx, after one trolley ride and three subway transfers, to the very end of Brooklyn, on the honky-tonk shore of Coney Island. And why has he come here on this warm spring day, sweat pooling at the base of his spine, palms moistly clutching now-wilted store-bought flowers? Today, this very afternoon, my father will meet, for the first time, the family of the girl he has chosen to be his wife.
Unfortunately for him, my future mother, waiting at home, believes he is hopelessly boring and much too old for her; besides, she feels, shes too young to be married, there being so much fun to be had with all the good-looking boys who flutter around her like bees around a hive of honey every weekend on the hot sand of Bay 6, their hands gesturing wildly to gain her exclusive attention. And she could not banish from her mind the image of the hearing golden boy whose attentions she enjoyed so much and who said he loved her.
Glancing nervously at the written directions, my father marches down the broad bustling avenue, so unlike the uneventful Bronx street where he lives. His hands at his sides rehearse the arguments he will employ this afternoon to convince this dark-haired young girl and her father that he is the one to whom she should commit her future. He has been marshaling the arguments in his favor for the past two weeks. He has a steady job and a union card. He is mature and serious. He is a loyal and dependable fellow, calm in an emergency. He can read. He can write. He can sign fluently. And if she will have him, he will love her forever. He finds himself impressed with his qualifications as he cycles through them. He is an up-and-comer. Besides, he has a full head of hair parted perfectly down the middle and a dandy mustache, and is altogether a fine-looking fellow.
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