Hands of My Father: A Hearing Boy, His Deaf Parents, and the Language of Love
Myron Ulhberg was born during the Great Depression, but he was one lucky kid --- his father had a job. But the job was the result of his father's handicap. Myron's parents were deaf.
It's hard to believe now, but there was a time when all handicapped people suffered from the deep scorn and revulsion of their fellow humans. Myron's parents had each other to talk to in vibrant signs, to rely on for communication that was far more sensitized than ordinary human speech. But they also needed to communicate with the rest of humanity, to people hostile and often cruel, people who would ignore and insult them. So they had Myron, their eldest son, as a shield. Myron, who could hear and speak, became their interpreter from an early age.
Neither of Myron's parents was ever able to hear. His father Louis contracted spinal meningitis while still an infant and was sent to an institution where, according to the vogue of the times, efforts were made to force deaf children to make sounds of speech. But in secret, they shared sign language, which was forbidden in school. A whole generation of deaf people spread American Sign Language on the wind of their desperation to communicate, a vast underground movement unnoted in the hearing world. Myron's mother Sarah was a vivacious teenager when Louis met her. She was falling for "hearing boys" she met on the beach at Coney Island. Her family knew that her only hope for a decent life was to find a deaf man with a good job. That was Louis, who had a job at a printing press (where the noise would overwhelm a hearing person) and had a union card. It was an arranged marriage that worked. Louis and Sarah needed each other, and love was quick to follow.
Myron had to learn signs as well as speech from toddlerhood. He quickly became a brilliant clown who, not always understanding the subtleties of his parents' signs, made up his own. At age six he was called on to "announce" the legendary boxing match between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling broadcast on radio. Frustrated at not being fast enough to sign what the announcer was saying, the boy jumped up and began to parody the moves of the fight so dramatically that his parents "saw" the entire event through the boy's eyes. Myron took his father shopping, interpreted with doctors about his younger brother's epilepsy, and even had to tell his parents the negative things his teacher said about him at a parent-teacher meeting. He became, he said, "transparent." At times the responsibility was overwhelming for a child, but because Louis and Sarah loved him so much, a love akin to worship of the one person who served as their link to the hearing world, he rarely expressed resentment at being used as an instrument. His role was as clear as it was inescapable.
HANDS OF MY FATHER is fascinating for the insight it gives into the world of the unhearing. His father told Myron that from his perspective, hearing people are limited: "Mouth-talk is like painting with no color. You can see shape…but it's flat, like a black and white picture…" whereas, signing is "a Technicolor 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." Myron often joined his father in a congregation of "deafies" (his mother’s word) on Coney Island and observed in fascination the dazzling variety of signing styles that shook the air. Myron watched his father carefully wash his hands every day, signing, "Dirty hands do not speak clearly, and with beauty."
In modern times, signing has become the recognized way for deaf people to communicate. Many are so content with signing that they choose to live only among the deaf, in small colonies or communities away from the hearing world of "black and white" speech. Myron's parents were able to survive in a rejecting world with the help of their oldest son. It was an honor and a burden that Myron took seriously. He tells the story of his own remarkable childhood and the saga of his parents' lives of joy and suffering in a way that will provide inspiration to others, no matter what their upbringing. But it will be of special significance to anyone who has lived among the deaf and seeks to understand what a panorama of experience is hidden away from the perceptions of "normal" people by our limitation of "mouth-talk."
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on February 3, 2009