Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Hands of My Father by Myron Uhlberg

Posted by Simcha 5:45 PM, under | 5 comments

I was once standing by the bus station waiting for a ride when a group of people descended from a nearby tour bus, touting backpacks, suitcases and duffel bags. They all looked to be in their mid-thirties, casually dressed in jeans and t-shirts, some of them obviously couples. Together they piled their luggage at the street curb as they proceeded to make individual arrangements for transportation, meanwhile busily chatting and laughing with each other. But what made this scene unusual, amidst all the hustle and bustle of the busy bus station, was that all of this was done in complete silence. The conversations that took place were done by hand and facial gestures and even the laughter was muted. One man was even conversing on a cell phone, in the typically dramatic manner of the Israeli male, but he was speaking face-to-face with the person on the other line. And throughout all of this I felt like I was the one surrounded by a bubble of science, the only one unable to understand the conversations taking place.

For some reason this incident really stayed with me for a long time afterward and I was reminded of it again while reading Uhlberg's Hands of My Father. I've never actually known anyone who is deaf and I can't begin to imagine what it would be like to navigate through life with such a challenge, and to live a normal life as well- like the people I saw at the bus station.

One of the reasons that I love reading memoirs is because they allow me to enter the lives of people whose experiences are so different from my own; to get to know and understand people who I would otherwise never encounter. Myron Uhlberg's story, of his life as a hearing boy raised by two deaf parents, fascinated me and I've had his memoir high on my wish-list for over a year now. And so I was delighted when I recently found it available at my library and as soon as I got it home I dived in.

Septuagenarian Uhlberg recounts his unusual childhood in this lovely memoir. Taking readers back to Depression-era Brooklyn and the beach at Coney Island, Uhlberg describes how his father, a handsome printer, fell in love with his mother, a fun-loving beauty. But these beachgoers were far from normal -- they were both deaf. Ultimately they married, and despite their families' fear that their children would likely suffer their own affliction, they decided to start a family. In this way, their hearing son, Myron, enters the world.

With candor and humor, Uhlberg recounts a childhood spent largely as a bridge between his parents and the hearing world. Translating from sign language to spoken language and back again, he enables his father to communicate with local shopkeepers, awakens his parents when his baby brother cries, and even interprets at a less-than-glowing parent-teacher conference. At times, he's embarrassed by his parents, and hurt that his father is called "dummy." But in the end, his overwhelming love and compassion leaves a lasting effect.

Uhlberg notes that his father asked him to describe sounds -- that of thunder or of waves crashing onto the shore. Perhaps it was in searching for words to such impossible questions that Uhlberg became the gifted writer he is today.

I've always been interested in stories about life in America in the early 1900's though Uhlberg's story is from a perspective that's new to me, from the perspective of people shunned by an ignorant society for their lack of hearing. Both of Uhlberg's parents were deaf and their hearing parents and siblings made very little effort to communicate with them, and so they grew up virtual strangers within their own families. They were each sent to special schools for the deaf where the children were strictly disciplined, since they were believed by their teachers to be wild and unintelligent. Sign-language was forbidden and so the children furtively learned it from each other in the darkness of their dorm rooms, as their teachers were sleeping.

When Uhlberg's parents married both of their families strongly discouraged them from having children but his parents when ahead and did so anyways, resulting in Myron and his younger brother, both of whom were able to hear perfectly. But as the oldest hearing member of the family, Myron often found himself having to be the ears for his father, his conduit to the outside world. Myron's role was often confusing to him as he was forced to communicate as an adult with outsiders, in his father's stead, but then revert back to a child as soon as the communication ended.. Adding to the strain was the birth of Myron's younger brother who Myron was immediately responsible for, being the only one in the family who could hear his cries at night. And when his brother began having seizures it was 9 year old Myron who was in charge of caring for him.

But despite the resentment and occasional embarrassment that Myron felt towards his parents, his overwhelming love and respect for them is clearly felt throughout the book. This probably had a lot to do with the fact that his father was so demonstrative in his love and affection towards Myron and his brother, which was uncommon for men of that time period.

Uhlberg take a particular pride in the elegance and beauty of his father's signs, often providing vivid descriptions of the movements of his father's hands. While the neighbors all referred to Uhlberg's parents as "dummies" for not being able to hear or speak properly, Uhlberg's father shared the same disdain towards his hearing neighbors for their clumsy method of communication.

    "Hearing people talk only with the mouth. Hearing words tumble from the mouth, one word after another word, like a long word train. The meaning is not clear until the caboose comes out of the mouth tunnel. These are only dry words, like dead insects. Mouth-talk is like a painting with no color. You can see shape. Understand an idea. But it's flat, like a black and white picture. There is no life in a black and white picture."

    "My language is not a black and white language. The language of my hands and face and body is a Technocolor language. When I am angry my language is red-hot like the sun. When I am happy, my language is blue like the ocean, and green like a meadow and yellow like pretty flowers."

I particularly enjoyed Uhlberg's descriptions of the different ways that way his parents and their friends communicated with signs, all of which was completely new to me. The scene below takes place at an outing at the beach in the special area where the deaf visitors would congregate.

    I was intrigued even then by the wild diversity of language on display, the different styles reflecting a wide variety of personalities and geographic origins, as well as differences between the sexes. The men tended to sign more aggressively, more assertively than the women. The outgoing personalities signed expansively, while the shy tended to make smaller, more guarded signs. Some were so reserved that they made only the most tentative gestures in the air, constipated strings of small, stunted signs. Some signed with abandon, even boisterously, while others signed demurely. Some signed loudly, some softly. Some signed with comic exaggerations, while the signing of others was more controlled, more thoughtful. A couple who had moved to the Bronx from a small town in Georgia signed with an accent I didn't recognize. My father told me they signed with a drawl, and it was true that their signs did seem to flow from their hands like syrup, thick and slow.

I found these descriptions of sign language fascinating and really loved the idea that an accent exerts itself even in hand gestures.

Hands of my Father is a wonderful memoir in which Uhlberg's pays tribute to his parents, their struggles and their successes. I came away from the book awed by the
Uhlbergs' strength of spirit and wishing that I could have had the chance to meet them myself but glad that I at least got to know them a little through the book.


The excerpts you posted are simply amazing. I neve realized that signing could have a discernible accent or thought about how one's personality can be revealed.

Wow, this looks fascinating. One of the kids in a family that's friends with my family is deaf, so I grew up with a little bit of signing around me. We all went to the Mass that had the signer, so I know tons of religious signs and very few real-life signs. :p

Stephanie: I had a hard time limiting myself to only these two excerpts since there were so many others that I wanted to include. This was a great book.

Jenny: You know, one of the things about this story that particularly saddened me was the fact that Uhlberg had no concept of religion even though his father was an orthodox Jew because his father barely communicated with him, so it's interesting that you mention religious sign language.

Nice review, it does sound like a good book. Not that big on memoirs myself, I guess I always did love the fantastic too much

Memoirs, when direct and honest, give us an intimate moment, a glimpse of history from a unique perspective. Perhaps it's only a small peek, subtle. Still, it can be memorable. As an historian, I find first person narratives intriguing and stirring.

I will have to investigate this. Thanks

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