hands of my father

“…[A]s a student in college, I came across this line from Wordsworth: ‘The child is the father of the man.’  I immediately understood its meaning–even if it wasn’t what Wordsworth himself had intended.”

These sentences, more than any other two in Myron Uhlberg’s memoir Hands of My Father, sum up his story.  In this excellent depiction of a hearing boy’s life with his deaf parents in Brooklyn in the 1930s and ’40s, Uhlberg tells the story of his childhood chapter by chapter, story by story. Each anecdote illustrates a piece of his father’s character, and simultaneously expresses his own love for his parents and his constant turmoil at having to be their ears in world not accustomed to their needs. 

Uhlberg’s parents, Louis and Sarah, were both deafened by illness early in their lives; although they attended schools for the deaf and were taught to sign by the other deaf students (the hearing teachers, sadly, thought this way of communicating was for “idiots”), they were both largely cut off from communication with the outer world, including their own families.  But they found each other, and with the financial security borne of Louis’s training as a printer, established a home and started a family of their own.  

The first few chapters, which outline this background and introduce us to Louis and Sarah, felt slow to me.  But following their son’s birth, the stories come quickly and humorously, with each tale detailing a different aspect of the family’s life.  Most revolve around language — the expressive sign used within the home, Uhlberg’s role as his father’s translator to the outer world — but others show Uhlberg’s attempts to live a “normal,” albeit trouble-making, childhood.  Through them all, we get a picture of a man’s struggle to be a father in a world that questions his intelligence and capabilities, and a son’s struggle to be a child when he is called on to be an adult in so many situations.  But we also, ultimately, get a picture of this family’s love, reliance, and loyalty to one another.

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~ by Molly on January 20, 2009.

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