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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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The Silents

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My sister Adelaide, my mother and father, and I had just returned from the Loop that afternoon after watching the Independence Day parade on State Street. We lit sparklers in front of our apartment building, and, when it started to rain, Mama made cucumbers, tomatoes, green onions, and sour cream for lunch. We all sat around the kitchen table, eating and trembling with every thunderclap. Adelaide and I heard it with our ears, Mama and Papa felt it through their feet, but we all shook with each rumble. Mama’s eves glinted with annoyance (it was no fun to have the quiet of your body disturbed) and Papa jiggled with laughter at our fright.

Papa’s laugh came out as a hmn, hmn. When he was really convulsed with amusement, the sound came out as a cough, cough. Mama always laughed with her mouth closed, her eves squinted, and her hand to her lips, so the sound came out like Papa’s hmns, but much quieter and more lilting.

He finished a large Indian head and presented it to me, his hmns mingling with the chewing of his tobacco. “I was born in Indianapolis,” he said. “You know where Indianapolis is?”

“No, Papa.”

“Not far. Near Chicago. I’ll buy a map, show you where it is. I’ll buy another map and show you where German’ is.”

“Why do I need to know where Germany is?”

“Because your grandma and grandpa Herzberg, my parents, came from Germany. Lucky for me I was not born there.” Then he put his fingers to his nose to say Germany stinks. I understood the sign. Long before I’d learned to fingerspell, he’d been putting his fingers to his nose to say “you’ve got something in your diaper” as he marched me to the bathroom, or “whv did you get yourself all dirty in the backyard? Don’t you know how to behave like a lady?”

I pinched my nose, gave him a questioning look, and crossed my lips with my index finger. “Really, Papa? Is that the truth?”

“Yes, Joe, why would you sax Germany stinks?” my mother signed from her chair across the kitchen table, sarcasm spilling from her fingers, her eyes blinking with fatigue from the long streetcar ride home. “You were never there, so ho would you know Germany stinks?” Her fingers could poke a hole through my father’s talk like a surgeon’s scalpel. Sometimes it took only one finger—straight up in the air.

He blinked, a sign that he was wounded by the attack; bending his head so his jaw took on its own sharpness, he spelled, “Listen, Ruthie,” followed by a storm of words that I couldn’t follow. After telling her oft he turned to me and said, “America is the only place to live. I love America.”

“I know, Papa, you told me before.”

“The land of the free,” he said.

“And the home of the brave,” my mother spelled to him. She hmned quietly, then smiled. He coughed and smiled at her.

“Did you see the way Mayor Cermak waved to me at the parade today, Ruthie?” he asked, heartened by her smile.

“Don’t be silly, Joe. He waved to everyone.”

But that didn’t stop him. He told me proudly that he had shaken the mayor’s hand once, then rattled off the names of aldermen and other Chicago “pots” whose hands he had touched in greeting. I was impressed. My mother stuck her finger in the air.

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