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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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In Silence: Growing Up Hearing in a Deaf World

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I returned to my paper dolls, looking for my childhood; I gave my imaginary companions names that rang with mystery. I created “Perchanane” for the paper lady of the Civil War era, delicate and sweet in her white hooped skirt. “Bredadamo” was the handsome male, in soldier blue, off to fight for the Union army. This was my language, mine. It had its own hum, its own resonance.

I had a blue dress I treasured as a child. I did not know its specific blueness, so I named it “delicious” blue. When my first-grade teacher said, “Your delphinium-blue dress is lovely,” I thought, “Delphinium!” It was a long word, a beautiful word, and so easy to say. I was, as always, ashamed to ask about the word. I wanted to know all about the word, where it came from, who made it up, why it was so lyrical. During recess, when the others went out in the springtime to play, I searched the dictionary and discovered that it was the name of a long, slender flower that grew every year from the same seed, a perennial. There was no picture in the dictionary; frustrated, I imagined an enormous blue daisy. I became more competent as time went on, able to find the meaning of every word I heard and sought, I practiced the words, petted them, cherished them.

Words and sounds lulled me to sleep. My nights were radio nights—the radio my mother bought for me. I awakened in the mornings with the radio voices that I had not turned off enticing me to the new day, boring language into my skull as I slept. I remained in bed, deciphering the words, imprinting them into my memory. Many had no meaning, but, oh, the sounds . . .

“Radio very warm, you forget to turn off again?” my mother asked as she gently pulled the covers from my sleep.

“Yes I leave on all night, I forget turn off.”

“Electric bills cost much money. Not forget turn off tonight, okay?”

I had not forgotten, but how could I turn off the sound?

Before I finished the second grade, we moved from the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn to the East Bronx, to a gray tenement facing the Simpson Street police station. My mother, determined to live apart from my father’s siblings and parents, wanted her own life away from judgmental eyes. So she exchanged an apartment with windows to the street for three small dark rooms that faced the brick alley adjoining yet another grayfaced tenement. Months later, unable to bear the sunless days, she said to my father, “Ben, I look for other rooms. I cannot see life in a street. Too lonesome. We have no light from the day.”

He knew the meaning of blue daylight. He understood that light had its own intelligence. He answered with approval: “You look Mary, but cannot afford lots money for rent.”

On weekend mornings, instead of taking me and my brother Freddie to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to feast our eyes on Canaletto’s light-filled canvases, we walked the streets of the Bronx in search of our own light. I was caught up in my mother’s excitement.

“This look good neighborhood. You speak to super, Ruthie, see if he has empty rooms.” I approached superintendent after superintendent without success. My mother remained undaunted.

One summer Saturday morning, my mother and father, my brother and I boarded the Interval Avenue streetcar. “We go that way,” my mother asserted, “get off on nice wide street. Maybe we find street with trees and green grass.”

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