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  • Hands of My Father
  • Written by Myron Uhlberg
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  • Written by Myron Uhlberg
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A Hearing Boy, His Deaf Parents, and the Language of Love

Written by Myron UhlbergAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Myron Uhlberg

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List Price: $13.99

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On Sale: February 03, 2009
Pages: 256 | ISBN: 978-0-553-90627-1
Published by : Bantam Bantam Dell
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

By turns heart-tugging and hilarious, Myron 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.

“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 Uhlberg’s 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.

Uhlberg’s 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 father’s 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 father’s 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.

Excerpt

Chapter One


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 father’s 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 father’s 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 father’s 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 father’s 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 father’s graveside Leon screamed his name, as if, finally, his dead deaf brother had been granted the power to hear his name on his brother’s lips.

In 1910, when he was eight years old, my father’s 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 father’s 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 father’s 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 father’s 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 wouldn’t be distracted by the noise of the  printing presses, and the clattering of the linotype machines, but I didn’t care. I also didn’t care that the deaf workers were paid less than the hearing workers because Captain Patterson, the big boss, knew that we wouldn’t, couldn’t, 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 can’t 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 didn’t have to do that anymore. You can’t 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 other’s back. They could do handstands.

“I was older. I didn’t have muscles. I couldn’t stand on my hands if my life depended on it. I didn’t have a brown tan. I would get sunburned. My skin turned red. And then I would peel.

“It didn’t 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 didn’t 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 father’s 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 father’s 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, she’s 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.
Myron Uhlberg|Author Q&A

About Myron Uhlberg

Myron Uhlberg - Hands of My Father

Photo © Andy Kim

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.

Author Q&A

Author Q&A for Hands of My Father by Myron Uhlberg


Describe yourself in ten words or less.

•Living in two worlds: what was, and what might be.
•Deeply interested in how other people have lived their lives.
•As endlessly fascinated at the breadth, and limits, of language.

You are having a drink with one of your favorite authors. Who is it, and what would you ask that author if you only got to ask him one question?


While drinking anisette with Ernest Hemingway: “Papa, why did you do it?”

Which came first: the idea for the book, the title, or a passage from the book?

The idea of writing a book that would be both a biography of my two deaf parents, and a memoir, was my first inspiration, but until I thought of the title, Hands of My Father, I didn’t know how to begin.

Many writing experts advise, “write what you know.” Do you agree with this? And what practical advice would you give an aspiring author?

Writing what you know is good advice, but you also must understand what you know in order to write well. As for advice: write as you would speak, freely, then revise, as you would want to be read, closely.

Praise

Praise

"In his moving memoir, Hands of my Father, Myron Uhlberg captures the essence of one exceptional family’s life in Brooklyn in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. Uhlberg is a compassionate writer of truths. His book is full of surprises, written with a generous, loving spirit. In vivid scenes–sometimes wrenching, sometimes mischievous and sometimes hilarious–he takes us inside the singular world of his childhood. And there the reader discovers the profound, everyday courage exemplified by each member of the Uhlberg family."—Lou Ann Walker, author of A Loss for Words

“In telling the story of his very unique childhood, Myron Uhlberg has created a book that is universal.  His feelings of love and responsibility, of shame and enormous pride, can teach us all something about being a member of a family.  I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t love this book.”–Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto and Run

“Fascinating.... [Uhlberg’s] circumstance made his childhood exceptional and well worth recalling, which he does in an unpretentious but vividly evocative style.”—Wall Street Journal

“A well-crafted, heartwarming tale of family love and understanding…. [Uhlberg] 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”—Publishers Weekly

“Heartfelt...[Uhlberg] describes significant episodes of his early life with artful economy and sincere emotion.” —Booklist, starred review

Fresh and engaging.... In Hands of My Father: A Hearing Boy, His Deaf Parents, and the Language of Love, Myron Uhlberg ... documents a family life severed from the mainstream.”—Cleveland Plain Dealer

“A fascinating look at an uncommon childhood.”—OK! magazine

"A warm family chronicle as instructive as it is inspiring ... opens a window into a world of isolation and “eternal silence” unimaginable to most people."—Christian Science Monitor
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