BookBrowse Reviews Hands of My Father by Myron Uhlberg

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Hands of My Father

A Hearing Boy, His Deaf Parents, and the Language of Love

by Myron Uhlberg

Hands of My Father by Myron Uhlberg X
Hands of My Father by Myron Uhlberg
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    Feb 2009, 256 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Beth Hemke Shapiro
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Myron Uhlberg tenderly describes his unique life, divided between two worlds: One as the child of two deaf parents, the other a mischievous boyhood typical of many others in Depression-era Brooklyn

Loads of bestsellers chronicle the lives of celebrities, politicians, or people who have overcome tragedy. This deeply touching memoir, by contrast, originates from an ordinary man who experienced a very special childhood filled with love. Author Myron Uhlberg tenderly describes his unique life, divided between two worlds: One as the child of two deaf parents, the other a mischievous boyhood typical of many others in Depression-era Brooklyn.

Uhlberg's first language was sign, and he vividly compares expressive sign language to written language:

Sign is a live, contemporaneous, visual-gestural language and consists of hand shapes, hand positioning, facial expressions, and body movements. Simply put, it is for me the most beautiful, immediate, and expressive of languages, because it incorporates the entire human body…..sign was a language of the heart. Sign was a beautiful painting, absorbed whole, evoking emotion along with meaning. Written language-my second language-was a language that required the brain for translation.

Just as spoken and written language varies from person to person, so too does sign. Uhlberg's family often joined a wider deaf community which gathered together regularly at a special spot on the Coney Island beach. Over a hundred adults would form a circle of beach chairs and umbrellas, with their kids supervised in the middle, and Uhlberg recalls observing different styles and accents from the signed conversations which occurred across the circle's expanse. While shy personalities employed tiny gestures, outgoing individuals would sign more loosely and expansively. A couple originating from Georgia communicated with a drawl, using slower movements.

Uhlberg's father manages to straddle both languages--sign and the written word--by working as a devoted press printer for the New York Daily News. Readers can't help but wince as the author describes the humiliation his father often endured as a deaf person. "Like most in the hearing world, they treated him as if he were an alien-primitive, incapable of speech, and lacking human thought: a person to be avoided if possible, and if not, ignored." When young Myron visits his father at work one day, he endures comments uttered behind his back: "Look at the dummy's kid. He looks normal." And "Hey, look at that, the dummy's kid. He can talk good."

In many ways, the author was no different from any other Brooklyn kid, in that he possessed awesome powers "…with which all Brooklyn kids were genetically endowed to enable them to transform their environment into something more exotic." Emulating Tarzan, young Myron created a "vine" from a clothesline and daringly shimmied up a telephone pole, progressing along the cable from one pole to the next. Similarly, like Spider-Man, he scaled his three-story-high apartment wall, terrifying his window-cleaning neighbor.

While his antics unite him with other Brooklynites of his age, Uhlberg relays plenty of hardships unique to his situation. Forced into serving as a translator for his parents, he's even called on to translate his own parent-teacher conference. He also acted as somewhat of a third parent to his younger epileptic brother, caring for him during seizures that his deaf parents couldn't hear. Facing the judgment from the hearing world, the twin feelings of familial shame and pride are palpable, but it's clear which one wins out.

Uhlberg has written two picture books for children about himself and his father, (The Printer and Dad, Jackie, and Me) and it's obvious from Hands of My Father that whatever struggles he faced as a child were eventually soothed by glowing admiration for the man who raised him. Readers cannot help but be drawn into this poignant reminiscence, and long after the book's pages are shut, Myron Uhlberg and his family will continue to inspire.

Reviewed by Beth Hemke Shapiro

This review is from the Hands of My Father. It first ran in the February 19, 2009 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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Beyond the Book:
  Sign Language & Deaf Culture

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