Bonnie's Reviews > Hands of My Father: A Hearing Boy, His Deaf Parents, and the Language of Love

Hands of My Father by Myron Uhlberg
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Aug 22, 09

bookshelves: biography, nonfiction, memoir, recommended, reviewed-books
Recommended to Bonnie by: Montambo
Read in August, 2009, read count: 1

4 ½ stars

I have read a half-dozen or so books about Deafness in my research on Hearing Impairment, and each of them is entirely different. Hands of My Father is unique in that Myron Uhlberg is not deaf, but as he says in the first sentence of this biography of his parents and younger brother, Irwin, and a memoir of his own life: My first language was sign.

As a traveler, I speak a smattering of Spanish, French and Thai, but twenty-something years ago a night class on Signed English was offered at the local college, so I decided to take it. I learned over 3000 signs, including numbers and the alphabet – some things can only be finger spelled. Knowing sign language first came in handy when I worked as a Teacher-on-Call for a year in between regular teaching assignments. Signing became part of my “kit” – a portable package of lesson-plans suitable for any grade level – and I was able to use it for almost all the classes I covered. Students invariably loved this new experience; and teachers rarely objected to having a little less preparation. After that year finished and I again had a class of my own, I of course taught my own students to sign; a bit of a mistake, as it turned out, since it was no time before I noticed friends signing to one another from across the room, not doing what they were supposed to be doing. That was the end of that. I still managed to maintain “the language” to a degree by using it in other ways. The most memorable one was a Christmas concert. My Grade 3 / 4 class sang and signed the words to four different songs in English, French, Spanish and Zulu. Even one of the students with Down’s syndrome participated on stage in front of a packed house. The audience was suitably impressed by the whole performance; many had likely never seen sign – nor heard Zulu. All languages are unique, but Sign is definitely underrated, let alone not generally acknowledged as an “official” language. And yet it is a beautiful language of and in itself.

What I loved most about Ulberg’s story is that he described the hands of his father so well that I could see him translate the radio commentary covering the boxing championship between Joe Louis and Max Schemling – at six years of age, Myron didn’t have know enough signs to tell what was happening, so he leapt up and acted out both roles. I could also feel the frustration both father and son felt when Dad wanted his boy to explain to him what waves sound like. At first, all Myron could come up with was that they sound wet, but then he knew that his father would want to know what wet sounded like. When he made the sign for “wet”, anyway, his father demanded, “What kind of wet? Wet like a wild river? Wet like soft rain? Wet like sad tears?” Myron was stumped. Finally, he signed, “Waves sound like a billion wet drops breaking apart when they smack down on the hard sand, all the tiny sounds joining to make one great sound. A wet falling ocean sound.” His father got down on his knees, took Myron into his arms and told him he now understood.

This coming-of-age story takes place in 1940’s and 50’s Brooklyn, but is recounted by Myron Uhlberg in the present day. It is actually a tribute not only to his father, but to both his parents, as they chose to take a chance on bearing hearing-children despite protestations from their own parents. As Myron learned, his grandparents, aunts and uncles visited the apartment on a weekly basis for the first year of his life. Why? To see if Myron would wake up at the sound of banging pots and pans! Passing this story on to Myron, his father signed how wonderful it had been to witness him waking up, bawling at the noise. Myron’s reaction was to sign back, “Wonderful for who? Now I know why I have trouble sleeping some nights.”

The narration is well-balanced, except for the fact that Myron didn’t write much about younger brother Irwin who suffered from grand mal seizures for his first five years; of course it was Myron who heard and had to tend to him nightly. Uhlberg doesn’t stint on his memories of the prejudice and ignorance encountered on a daily basis, and he admits to obvious feelings of resentment at times for being burdened with the role of interpreter for his parents. But he often refers to how appreciative and loving his father was for this son who always tried his best to satisfy his dad’s enormous curiosity about a world that was largely shut off from him.

Hands of My Father will move you in many ways and, unless you yourself are deaf, it may well open your eyes to a world that is foreign to you. The Prologue and Epilogue are poignant bookends for this remarkable story. I began reading with anticipation, and ended with tears.

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Comments (showing 1-8 of 8) (8 new)

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message 1: by Kris (new)

Kris Ah, a lovely, lovely review, Bonnie.


message 2: by Lisa (new) - added it

Lisa Vegan This has been on my list for a long time. Great review, Bonnie. Sounds like a terrific book. I learned a little American Sign Language a couple of decades ago. Unfortunately, I don't remember any of it. But I did have some fun with colleagues communicating when fairly long distance from one another, so I could definitely see that happening in a classroom.


message 3: by Trevor (new)

Trevor Yes, wonderful review.


message 4: by [deleted user] (last edited Aug 23, 2009 01:16AM) (new)

I loved this book. I particularly was touched by the part when Myron learned to love his name. And now I'm remembering so many other moments that have really stuck with me. I'm glad you liked it, Bonnie.


message 5: by Eric_W (new) - added it

Eric_W Bonnie, excellent review. Thanks.


message 6: by [deleted user] (new)

I once had the good fortune to take a class on folklore with a hearing woman who was fluent in ASL. We were forever trying to get her to tell us jokes in sign language, and then translate them. She'd sputter and try to explain, but the jokes were always so inexplicable, based on a different culture and grammar. Lovely review.


Bonnie Thanks so much for your comments, everyone; and thanks again Montambo, for recommending this book!

Yes, I was touched by the part about how Myron came to finally appreciate his mother's choice of name for him, too. And do you remember the chapter about the signing project he and Eve did for the class in Grade two; how, in her haste to come to Myron's aid, Eve forgot about her own own "shame"? So many anecdotes worth recounting...



message 8: by [deleted user] (new)

Yes, I do. I loved the boxing sections, as well.


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