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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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The Silents

Charlotte Abrams

Preface

IN 1962, when I was thirty-three years old, my husband Al drove alone to Los Angeles to start a new job with Hughes Aircraft Company. Some months later, my three children and I boarded the Super Chief train to join him. My father had suggested we go first class, just as he used to. At that time, every aerospace company in the West was hungry for engineering talent, and Hughes Aircraft was willing to pay all our moving expenses. It was an offer we couldn’t refuse, so it was easy to oblige my father.

The whole family had come to see us off: aunts, uncles, friends, my sister Adelaide, my mother, and my father, who stood stoically with his arm around my mother, his ever present wad of chewing tobacco like a ping pong ball in his right cheek. He took my hand and kissed me. Then my mother gave me a small peck on the mouth (she wasn’t big on kissing). Instead, it was my father who would fill with emotion at the slightest provocation. But this time, he stood bravely by.

They would come next year, he promised, for my oldest son’s bar mitzvah. Who knows, if they liked the weather, they might leave the snow in Chicago every winter and come to see me. I needn’t worry about them. Adelaide would be there to talk for them. And Adelaide would call long distance to let me know how things were.

There were no tears; I would learn later that they had saved them for the ride home. My tears were saved for the ride across the Mississippi the next day, for I had never been more than a bus ride away from their deaf talk or more than a week away from touching my mother’s hand.

I wondered how it would feel to keep my hands still for long periods of time. Sometimes I would sign to myself to clear my thoughts as my father did. Now I supposed I would do more of it to keep me remembering. My favorite place to sign alone was in the bathtub before going to bed, when the house was quiet and I could sink into my thoughts.

It was strange to live where nobody knew my parents were deaf. I would find an excuse to tell people and turn ordinary conversation into a personal revelation. Then, of course, the questions would pour out: How did you . . . ? When did they . . . ? Why did they . . . ? Yet, as much as I wanted to enlighten these new acquaintances, 1 resented their intrusive questioning. They are my parents. How much more do you need to know? They are my past. This is my new life. But, just in case you stumble into some foolish remark about deafness, I think you should know . . .

But my past was always with me. I would stop deaf people in the street, butting into their business with my fingers to tell them “My parents . . .” Then I would say good-bye arid mentally kick myself for my impertinence.


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