Hands of My Father, Myron UhlbergHands of My Father, by Myron Uhlberg.

The subtitle of this memoir is “A hearing boy, his deaf parents, and the language of love,” and that encapsulates this story to a tee (as most subtitles should). The author, Myron Uhlberg, was both in 1933 Brooklyn, at the height of the Depression. Born at this tumultuous time into a non-practicing Jewish home on the cusp of World War II, he entered life with challenges, but these were just the beginning.  Myron was born to a strong, hard-working deaf man (Louis) and his equally strong, strikingly beautiful deaf wife (Sarah).

The sweet if frequently saccharine tale discusses the struggles of Myron’s early childhood as the only ears in his household (until his little brother is born) and the quick maturation required so he can communicate on behalf of his parents at retail outlets, at parent/teacher conferences, and even at the hospital. While he clearly loves and respects his parents, he also occasionally resents this role.

Myron’s story is  worthy of being told to the masses – it is interesting to learn of the prejudices the Uhlbergs faced (due more to their disability than their religion) and to get a unique peek into 1930s-1950s Brooklyn. The most fascinating aspect of the story is the glimpse into the evolution of sign language (the precursor to ASL – American Sign Language). Because there are fewer signs than spoken words, emphasis is drawn from body language, turning “angry” into “furious,” for example. Some of the best and most memorable parts of the book are when Myron’s father Louis speaks with his hands and Myron paints the picture:

The sign for responsibility is a dramatic one and leaves little room for doubt as to its meaning … [My father] would place both hands, fingertips relentlessly pressing downward, on his right shoulder.  His shoulder would slump, as if bearing a great burden, and his face would assume a look of patient endurance.

While I appreciate the sentiment of the story, which is humorous, poignant, and inspiring, these emotions were occasionally overshadowed by my frustration with Uhlberg’s flowery prose and tendency to abort a story before its completion.  More than once, he recalls extravagant purchases his father made, adding a “I have no idea how he afforded ______” caveat but never explaining.  Equally frustrating are reflections on particular unique or amusing signs Myron’s Dad invented for use among the family members, but fails to share said signage as he frequently. Perhaps he is keeping these particular memories private, but he does this at the risk of sounding smug. One trap he doesn’t fall into, admirably, is that of martyr, despite his complex relationships with both his parents and his brother.  Uhlberg is a successful children’s book author, and that may be where my problems stem from for this particular read. Ironically, for someone forced to grow up and emit “responsibility” very early on, he sounds, quite often, like he is speaking to children.

Let Me Sum Up: quick read, some winning anecdotes, but a vaguely irritating narrative voice.  2.5 stars out of 5.

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