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WHEN I was seven, when I had learned to read and write in school, I finally got into my father’s head. Until then, he poked me to get my attention, then pointed to things and moved his arms to convey his meanings in signs, leaving me to wonder whether I’d understood all he wanted to tell me.
He had had his problems, too. When I stomped my foot on the floor or squeezed his hand tight to show him I was afraid, he had his doubts, and, in desperation, he’d turn to my mother— who could read my lips—to find the true meanings of my tantrums or fears. M father never learned to speak words as my mother did, and he couldn’t read anyone’s lips, but he was an excellent fingerspeller and signer. So was my mother, but she saved those skills for my father, complaining once in a while that he was less than a man for not anticipating that one day he’d have to “speak” to his daughters.
But Dick, Jane, and Spot changed everything for me. Printed words on the page began to make sense, and my spelling blossomed. When I could spell enough to learn the deaf alphabet, a new world opened up for me with my father: We could communicate. We could sit at the kitchen table where my father—his fingers flying—told me of Indians and Pancho Villa and the days when he hoboed through America in search of adventure.
He had seen Indians in person, he explained, dramatically fingerspelling each letter and punctuating his tales with a smack of tobacco to the side of his cheek and a slap of his hand on the on Independence Day in the summer of I96—when my finger- spelling had progressed to meaningful dialogue, my father explained his fondness for Indians. “Indians fine people,” he spelled, leaving out the little words; deaf language could be understood without them. I spelled back to him in the same way.
“Why Indians fine people” I asked.
“Quiet, strong, brave,” he answered, packing a fresh plug of Mail Pouch tobacco into his cheek. But, at that moment, he changed his mind about his abbreviated language, determined to instill in me the “proper” way to speak. He kept the little words in, and we spoke as if we were writing in English. As I grew older and for the rest of his life, we spoke deaf because he was satisfied by then that I had learned my language—English.
“I saw them out West,” he continued. “I saw cowboys, too. I’ve seen the whole country. I’ve been everywhere.”
I’d never been anywhere. My world was limited to a small part of Chicago—the northwest side and Washtenaw Avenue, to be exact, plus an occasional walk to Humboldt Park, a streetcar ride to Lake Michigan, and exciting trips to the Loop.