Simcha Lazarus'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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's review
Oct 21, 2009

it was amazing

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.

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