Myron Uhlberg

Hands of My Father

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Hands of My Father Summary

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Myron Uhlberg’s, Hands of My Father: A Hearing Boy, His Deaf Parents, and the Language of Love (2009) is a memoir about growing up in 1940s Brooklyn with a deaf mother and father. Normally a writer of children’s books, Uhlberg departs from his typical genre with this story of his own childhood.

Neither of Uhlberg’s parents had ever been able to hear. At the time, there was little understanding of how to serve the deaf population. Uhlberg’s father, Louis, for instance, as a child is sent to an institution that forces deaf children to vocalize even though they can’t hear what they are saying. Like all deaf people at the time, Louis picks up American Sign Language, an underground movement established by the deaf community to could communicate with one another, if not the world at large. He finds a job at a noisy printing press—unbearable for those with hearing—and his station is secured with union membership. Meanwhile, Uhlberg’s mother—a teenager—flirts with boys with hearing. Her parents think she would be happier if she found a deaf man with a good paying job. They arrange a marriage with Louis, and love soon follows.

Uhlberg, however, is born with hearing. Uhlberg’s first language as a child is American Sign Language. As soon as he picks up speaking English, however, he begins to interpret the world around him for his parents as they walk down the sidewalk or go to the store. In a sense, he is bilingual, though he can’t always decipher his parents’ hands and their meanings, so he makes up some of his own signs.

There are plenty of colorful memories for Uhlberg to draw upon in his memoir. At age six, Uhlberg is called to interpret the radio broadcast of the historical boxing match between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling. The radio announcer speaks so fast, Uhlberg eventually gives up trying to interpret the match for his parents and instead acts out what he hears so they can see the action.

At the same time, though, as his parents’ window to the world, Uhlberg is forced to interpret uncomfortable situations. He interprets a negative report at a parent-teacher conference. He accompanies his parents to the doctor’s office, interpreting the news that his younger brother has epilepsy. Worse, Uhlberg accepts the responsibility of watching his brother because his parents can’t hear his seizures. At an early age, Uhlberg understands that he must be “transparent” for his parents. It is a lot of pressure for a young child, but he can’t escape the reality of being his parents’ best link to the hearing world. Also, it’s hard to be resentful when his parents are so loving and appreciative.

In fact, Uhlberg adores his parents and their optimism. After all, these two deaf people were married and started a family at the height of the Great Depression. Their passion for life is translated into their signing styles. His father calls signing a “Technicolor language,” full of depth and emotion that is missing from spoken English. Nowhere is this gusto more apparent than when his father takes him to regular Coney Island meetings with other “deafies,” so-called by his mother. Uhlberg watches with fascination at the many signing styles of his father’s community.

As a memoir, Hands of My Father first and foremost tells the story of a young boy coming of age in the midst of some of the twentieth century’s most significant moments—the Depression, World War II, the Polio epidemic, and the beginning of the Cold War. His responsibility of interpreting for his parents, though, offers a unique perspective of the time. For instance, handicapped people were a marginalized group while Uhlberg was growing up. As he lived within this marginalized population, he watched other marginalized groups also try to succeed. He and his father were able to watch Jackie Robinson—Louis’ favorite player—make history while playing for Brooklyn.

Through it all, two themes pervade the story of Uhlberg’s early life. It is clear that Uhlberg adores the thirst for life that both his parents display even as they struggle as deaf people in a world ill-suited for them. The ability to hear almost comes across as limiting, and he questions what a “normal” life experience looks like. As much as Uhlberg loves the unique perspective of his parents and the greater deaf community, his adoration for his parents shines brightest. Their love for each other pulls them through joy, despair, happiness, and hardship. In that sense, Uhlberg enjoyed what is very much a normal childhood, where he still enjoyed climbing trees, getting up to no good, and coming home to a doting mother and father.