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A Hearing Boy, His Deaf Parents, and the Language of Loveby Myron Uhlberg
That first book led to four other children's books (and became part of my plan to keep my mother alive, but that comes a bit later in the story) and culminated, at least for me, in my first book for adults, Hands of My Father, the memoir I just published at the age of 75. Now people are again asking me the same question but this time I think they may really want an answer.
So what did take me so long?
The simplest answer is that for 62 years I had no thought of being a writer. I had other things to do first. Like living the life I would someday write about.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1933, at the depth of the Great Depression, I had an ordinary childhood for a kid of that time and place except that I could hear and my parents were deaf. It was a childhood in which love for my deaf father and mother mixed with feelings of resentment and shame, for no child likes to be different from the other kids, and we were marked as different.
My escapes were reading and football and daydreaming. As a kid, my reading room was the roof of my apartment house, my playing field, the macadam street six floors below. As a teenager, I played football in high school. And dreamed of cheerleaders. Older still, I played football in college. And dreamed of cheerleaders. After college I joined the Army and jumped out of planes, and on the way down...
Then I began a 40-year career in the men's fashion clothing business, a career with as many ups as downs, but all in all one hell of a ride!
One day, at the age of 62, I woke up, retired, with absolutely nothing to do. So of course I followed my wife around the house all morning. As she waxed, I dusted. As she vacuumed, I swept. As she washed, I dried.
Then she went shopping, and the second act of this dismal day began.
Up one aisle and down the other she pushed her cart, judiciously selecting precisely what we needed. I followed, pushing my own cart, packing it with anything that caught my eye.
At the checkout counter her cart had the few sensible items she had chosen, and mine had a jumble of impulse items that made, on inspection, no sense at all to my wife: "We never eat that food. We never use those cleaning products. And we already have five boxes of aluminum foil. Put it all back!"
Arriving home my wife observed: "If tomorrow is like today, you had better start thinking about looking for another wife."
The next morning, my second day of retirement, I told my wife at breakfast: "I'm going to be a writer."
"A writer?" she asked. "All you've ever written are alimony checks."
She had me there. I had never consistently written anything but those damn alimony checks to my two ex-wives. But on reflection I responded: "Yes, but if you think about it, that was great writing: each a veritable short story unto itself, packed with emotion and meaning but as minimal as the best of Hemingway. When you think about them, they make Isaac Babel seem wordy."
Okay, I'll be a writer. But what kind of writer? Whatever it was going to be, I figured it had to be short. War and Peace wasn't an option. Then it came to me: "I'll write children's books," I announced. "They're short." (Board books contained about seven words.) "I can do that."
Having been a businessman all my working life, I realized I needed a business plan. Know your product was the first item on my plan. So I went to my local library in Santa Monica and read every board book they had. That took about seven minutes, since in total they contained about 300 words. Too easy was my conclusion.
But picture books seemed about right, approximately 1,000 words the equivalent of 100 alimony checks. I could do that in my sleep!
So I read every single picture book in my local library in Santa Monica, and repeated this strategy in the library in Palm Springs (where we had a second home). About 10 percent of the books I read, I typed out on my computer. My theory was that by doing so, I might internalize the authors' process of creation, and learn something along the way about word selection, characterization, plot, and narrative drive.
With that I launched my second career: children's book author. I was determined to prove Fitzgerald wrong; there are (or in my case, could be) second acts in American life.
In no time I had written my first story. Off it went to an editor, who, I was sure, would realize in an instant that here was a major new voice in children's literature.
By return mail, or so it seemed, the story came back with a rejection letter that scathingly informed me that if they wanted a story by Maurice Sendak, they would have asked Maurice Sendak, not me.
On my next story my next submission the rejection letter referred to Tomie dePaola.
After 10 more stories, 10 more submissions and 10 more rejection letters, citing 10 famous children's authors it finally dawned on me that my stories were perhaps a tad derivative, and that in order to succeed in my new career I would need to have something original to say. Since the only subject I could think of that was original to me was my life growing up as the firstborn hearing child of two deaf parents, that experience became the basis of the first of my children's books to be accepted for publication, and of every one thereafter.
And those books helped keep my mother alive.
At the age of 89, 20 years after my father, Louis, had died, my mother, Sarah, came to live with me because she was in failing health and could no longer live alone. I brought her to our home in Palm Springs, where the weather was warm year round and where I could take care of her.
She would live another six years, but during those six years she would say periodically to me in Sign, our beautiful shared language, "I want to die!" The sign for "die" is iconic: the outstretched hands turn over.
As any dutiful and loving son would respond, I would sign, inanely, "But you have so much to live for." And as she looked at me skeptically, I would add, "There's a great new movie at the cinema we can see today."
Well, invariably we went to that movie (my mother loved movies) and hundreds of others, but she still wanted to die.
One day, when she looked me in the eye and turned her hands over, in desperation I signed, "Wait, I'm going to publish a book!"
"You wrote a book?" She was understandably skeptical, as she had never known me to write anything of any substance other than those alimony checks.
The book I was referring to was Flying over Brooklyn, for which I had just received an offer. "What's it about?" she asked.
"A boy and his mother in Brooklyn, and a huge snowfall."
"That sounds interesting," she signed. "I'll wait for that."
That book took over two years to be published. Almost every week of those two years my mother signed to me, "I want to die!" And after a while when I signed, "Wait, I wrote a book!" she no longer believed me.
However, on the day that I received my first copy and rushed to show it to my mother, she saw that it was true: her son Myron had actually written a book. Slowly, lovingly, she traced my name on the cover with her finger. And then she read the book, straight through to the last page, where the mother and her son are looking out the boy's bedroom window at the deep snow covering his street. "Is that me?" she signed.
"Yes, that's you." And she broke into tears.
A week later she told me, "I want to die." "Wait!" I signed, "I wrote another book."
So it went for years. Until one day, after reading another of the books about my childhood with my deaf parents, she signed to me: "Now why don't you write about Lou and me? A true story about our lives." (She always referred to my father as "my husband, Lou," not "your father," because my deaf parents saw themselves as a binary unit, with their two hearing sons orbiting in close proximity and the rest of the hearing world circling in more distant orbits.)
And I thought, I can do that. I'll write a memoir that tells their story as well as my own. I immediately knew what to call it: Hands of My Father. That title, I thought, captured the essence of my parents: their beautiful gestural language, a language that was contained in their expressive hands.
But how to begin? Begin at the beginning was an old piece of writing advice, and, as Hemingway said, write "one true sentence, and go on from there."
And so I wrote: "My first language was Sign."
My mother did not live to see the completion of Hands of My Father. But she knew I had made a start and that having done so, I would not stop until I had told the story of their lives: two deaf children, born into hearing families at the turn of the 20th century, who met and fell in love, and then bore and raised two hearing children, two sons forever bound to them by the language of love they spoke so eloquently.
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Myron Uhlberg is the critically acclaimed and award-winning author of a number of children’s books. He lives with his wife in Santa Monica and Palm Springs.