Hands of My Father: A Hearing Boy, His Deaf Parents, and the Language of Love

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1 The Sound of Silence

A Fox in Brooklyn


2 The Child as Father of the Man

The Language of Touch


3 The Fights

Sounds in the Night


4 Another Child

Trains, Trains, Trains


5 Heaven


6 Clothes Make the Boy


7 A Day in the City

Gone Fishing


8 The Smell of Reading


9 Falling in Love


10 Tales Told

What’s in a Name


11 The Sound of Color


12 The Triangle and the Chihuahua


13 My Father’s Language

The Palmer Method


14 Parent-Teacher Night

The Spider-Man of Ninth Street


15 A Boy in Uniform

A Chip Off the Old Block


16 Brooklyn Bully


17 Polio

The End of the Presidency


18 A Boy Becomes a Man


19 Vaudeville on 86th Street


20 Sounds from the Heart


21 My Brother’s Keeper


22 Dad, Jackie, and Me


23 Silent Snow


24 Pigskin Dreams


25 Exodus


26 The Duke of Coney Island


27 Death, a Stranger




To the memory of my parents


Louis Uhlberg


Sarah Uhlberg



“What was silent in the father speaks in the son, and I have often found in the son the unveiled secret of the father.”


—Friedrich Nietzsche


Author’s Note


My parents were deaf, and spoke with their hands, employing signs rather than spoken words to communicate. Today, their language is known as ASL (American Sign Language). Being faithful to the time period of this story, I refer to their language as “sign” and not “Sign.” Further, I refer to them as being deaf, the physical condition, as opposed to the conventional “Deaf,” used today to indicate the full complexity of Deaf culture.

Finally, as ASL is a visual-gestural language, I have transliterated their conversations from ASL to English. Those conversations, spoken some sixty to seventy years ago—conventionally represented in quotation marks—are not meant to be a word-for-word rendition of what was said, but are, rather, the essence of what was meant.

I have also changed some names in my account.

Gore Vidal observed, in his excellent memoir,
“A memoir is how one remembers one’s own life.” He then went on to say, “…even an idling memory is apt to get right what matters most.” This memoir is how I remember my life growing up with my deaf parents, and to the best of my ability I’ve made every effort to get right what matters most. They deserve no less from me, their son.




This book would not have been possible without the help of many people.

To Susan Schulman, my agent and friend who suggested that I write this book, and when I had done so, said, “I always place a book that I love.” And she did.

To Emily Uhry, whose encouragement and advice in the earliest stages helped shape this book.

To Beth Rashbaum, my editor, who saw in my manuscript a possible book, and then with unlimited patience, goodwill, superb advice, and a firm hand, transformed a disjointed manuscript into the book you now hold in your hand. I owe you more than I can say.

And to her assistant, Angela Polidoro, for her blazingly quick responses to my every question.

Special thanks also to Virginia Norey for her heartfelt design of this book.

To Sue Tarsky, dear old friend who, after a long absence, reentered my life in time to suggest that I could have a second (even a third) career as a writer; and then went out and promptly sold my first two children’s books. You changed my life.

To Margaret Quinlin, dear friend, kind soul, dispenser of wisdom in all things literary and beyond, who from the very beginning validated me as a writer.

To Ellen W. Leroe, Eleanor Garner, Milly Lee (“elder sister”), Adrian Fogelin, and, most especially, to Bob and Sandy Weintraub, all writers and staunch friends, to whom I turn for suggestions, advice, and encouragement.

To Sandra Yoon and Pat Lindsay, for their kindness; to Helen Foster Harris for her earliest support; and to Nancy Fritzal, my favorite librarian.

To my fellow CODAs (Children of Deaf Adults), and good friends, Tom Bull, Joyce Linden, and Allyne Bettancourt, for sharing your stories about growing up hearing with deaf parents, and for giving me the encouragement at every step of the way to tell my own story. And to all my CODA brothers and sisters, I respect you and love you all.

To my Brandeis Band of Brothers, almost sixty years and counting, Eddie Manganiello, Charlie Herman, Dick Baldacci, Leo Surette, Jim Stehlin, Bill Orman, Larry Glazer, Tommy Egan, Ron Ranier, Mike Long, Pat Sirkus, Roger Morgan, Dick Bergel, Dave Burman, Ray Deveaux, Rudy Finderson, Mel Nash, and in memory, Hank Thunhorst, Phil Goldstein, Charlie Napoli, Morry Stein, and Jack Kirkwood.

To Joe “Big Red” O’Connor, who listened with sympathy and patience to a problem I had encountered in the writing of this book, and then calmly suggested how I might solve it.

To the best friends a man could ever wish for, Bill McKenna, and in blessed memory, Bob Domozych and Dick Collins, who first met my parents when we were just boys at Brandeis, and who over the years constantly assured me that a book about them would find readers.

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