Photo by ▲ r n o
Photo by ▲ r n o

The Sign for This

It’s said that in the old deaf boarding schools, the ones that didn’t allow Sign, the students would wait deep into the night for their moment, feigning their dreams until the teacher was satisfied that they were asleep. Only after she stood from her rocking chair, after they smelled the snuffed candles, felt the door open and re-latch, after they waited the memorized beats of a descent of stairs—only then would they open their eyes, let them adjust to the darkness, lift their hands from beneath their blankets and begin to sign. It was here, in the darkness, that the language lived and grew.

This history is lore—no one has ever remembered it to me personally—but it’s hard to doubt that it happened. Between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, Sign was routinely forbidden in deaf schools, educators and philanthropists believing that it marked the deaf, that it kept them apart from society, and that it stood in the way of learning English. Students spent their educations learning to speak and lipread. If they tried to use their hands, they were punished.

They spent their days in intensive lessons: Hold your hand to your teacher’s throat and feel the vibrations of voice; study the shape of her lips, her tongue, her cheeks; feel the air escape from her mouth, the force of the breath a whisper or a sigh or a shout. Students would practice with feathers, balloons, candles and mirrors—objects that reflected sound into something they could see or feel. They practiced one sound at a time: a hard h sigh; a long, mournful o; or k, like the release of a choke.

All day long, students practiced how to talk like hearing people; they practiced how to see invisible vowels on someone’s speaking lips; they practiced how to listen. All day long, they practiced undoable things, and at night, in their dark dorm rooms, the children who knew the language like they knew light taught the other students how to sign. It was here that the signing Deaf gave their language to those who’d grown up in non-signing homes.

The members of my maternal grandmother’s family were the signing Deaf. They carried a recessive genetic strain of deafness: My grandmother’s parents were deaf, her sister and brothers, too. They all signed, and I’d always imagined it was they who taught the others at night, who taught students who grew up in homes without Sign, like my grandmother’s deaf husband. I imagined it was they who carried our legacy in the form of language.

My mother was born hearing, and my sisters and I were, too, though I learned to sign before I could speak. It was years before I understood that my grandparents’ deafness made them different from me. And once I understood this, I began to believe that I was becoming deaf like them, that as surely as I would someday have grey hair and wrinkles, someday I wouldn’t be able to hear. At night, I would practice my deafness, pull the batting from a stuffed bear and fill my ears against the sounds of the world, the peepers and crickets distant to the point of disappearance. I found that I didn’t mind it. I believed that Sign was fundamental, that speech was accessory.

But as I grew up, I learned that a hundred years of education had sought to wipe out Sign, and only recently, with the 1980s Deaf Pride movement, had the Deaf managed successes in demanding Sign as part of their education. In my family, the memory of an education that shamed Sign is still fresh. Since neither of my sisters learned to sign, I came to believe that the responsibility of keeping our family’s language alive lay with me. I would carry my grandmother’s staunch refusal to bend or break; the language that she taught me, that bonded us together, would live in me and no one would take it from us. But by the time my grandmother died, when I was nineteen, I had almost entirely forgotten how to sign. I could barely talk to her, and, most of the time, I could barely understand her words. And though I knew how to say I’m sorry, how to rub my fist in circles on my chest like rubbing worries into a stone, I didn’t know how to ask for her forgiveness.

 

Shortly after my birth, my grandparents moved to my small New Hampshire town, to a home we called Knotty Pine, just around the bend from my house. At home, my parents, both hearing, spoke mostly English with a smattering of Sign, but when they went to work, I went to Knotty Pine, where I was immersed in Deafness.

The house was small, on a quiet dirt road, hemmed in with trunks and branches, shadowy and dark and surrounded with birds. The sky was full of their wings and the dirt was full of their corpses, which we’d bury, unceremoniously, after the cats delivered them to the porch. Everything at Knotty Pine was easy to understand with just your eyes: The lamp blinked on and off when the telephone rang, and on the television, we watched mostly sports and weather, which were defined by action and icons. Outside every other window was a birdfeeder, and my grandmother would find the birds’ feather patterns in her birding book and read out their song, the best she could imagine: pee-ah-wee, pee-ah-wee. But most of our words were made for the eyes. Around me, their fingers flew, their arms and their faces, their bodies playing out a language I would begin to use before I could crawl.

Everyone assumed I would learn to sign, but they didn’t expect it to happen so young: I was six months old when my mother noticed me at the window signing “snow” to the blizzard outside. Once they started watching, they saw that I already had a vocabulary. Mother, father, I love you, thank you, bye. It was the early eighties, and linguists were just beginning to understand how early children can learn to sign, long before the phrase “baby signs” became a household term. Now it’s common knowledge that a child can begin signing months before she begins speaking, her visual and tactile skills developing more quickly than her vocal cords, but scientists didn’t know that yet. Linguists at nearby Northeastern University began to study my signing. They called it “The Katie Project,” and they wanted to know when my languages would split apart, when I would understand Sign as one thing, and English as another.

In her notebooks, my grandmother wrote down my signs as I learned them. She made a record of them in her second language, English, and though her whole education had been delivered in this language, she never gained fluency—today understood as a common outcome for deaf students who are denied access to Sign. Her English is full of unexpected rhythms, her tenses slip into the tenseless world of Sign, her sentences have no idea when to end. In the notebooks of my signing, she wrote down my words as I learned them: bye, lights, stop, ouch, oh-my, no light, gone. Occasionally, the lists are interrupted with observations.

Dec 24, 84

After I put Katie to bed in the crib—I left the door ajar—the crying light went on and off steadily as Katie talks—so I peeped through the ajar door to see if she is alright—to my amazement—I saw Katie talks and sign at the same time—like fly—she waved her hands flapping, mom—she sign mom—etc—I never thought she would do that—like this—

My mother and I found these notebooks, along with my grandmother’s other writings, after her death. She had left Knotty Pine the year after my grandfather died, and moved into an apartment in a small Deaf community in Danvers, Massachusetts, where she lived for ten years.    The notebooks were a type of gift, and some of them were intended for just this moment. My mother had given some of these notebooks to my grandmother, so that she could write down the story of her life for her grandchildren. Through them, I came to know her in a way I never had in life: the shame we shared that I never thought we did, but also the things she went through on account of her deafness that I have never had to experience. She wrote things she’d never told me with her hands, and I couldn’t help but wonder why not. I wondered if it was because of that stubborn pride that defined her, or if it was something else, if it was because of how poorly I spoke her language, how hard it eventually became to tell me even the simplest of things. She must have known—just like I must have known—that there had always been that distance between our experiences, between hearing and deafness. Not even Sign would bridge it. But when she writes about my childhood, when I was learning her language so quickly, her words feel full of hope. I wonder if, in the end, I disappointed her.

 

When the first American deaf school opened in 1817, in Hartford, Connecticut, Sign was considered close to heaven, close to holy. It was considered a natural language, and things that were natural were close to origins, close to Eden. A Frenchman named Laurent Clerc brought French Sign Language to that school, and deaf children from around New England brought their own homespun and community sign languages, influenced by the British Deaf who were often employed for hard manual labor on the ships that came to port in Massachusetts, and by the deaf communities that had formed in Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

But mid-century brought the Civil War, which fractured our national identity, and an increase in immigration. Settlers pushed Westward, into American Indian territory. Soon enough we were not One Nation Under God; we were a mishmash of peoples and opinions, a fractured whole that needed to be reassembled through education and assimilation. This was enough of a threat to Sign, which marked the Deaf as different when to be different was acutely threatening, but then Darwin came into the mix, and things close to our origins were understood, instead, as close to monkeys. As these elements coalesced in the American consciousness, Sign came to be associated with savagery, immigrants, primates. And it would have to be corrected; it would have to be abolished and replaced. They began to teach lipreading and speaking, a whole education no longer delivered through fingers, but through sound. They called it oralism. Sign language was no longer allowed, and students who signed were punished. I have been told this story more times than I know, on any number of hands, but never my grandmother’s, though it is her whom I always picture as its subject.

The story is short, a mere two gestures, but full and heavy, carried in the nuance of how the hands are held, whether or not the eyes well up, the balance of anger and sadness on the eyebrows. It begins with two palms held out, upturned, waiting, and then, as the signer’s face stiffens into the teacher’s, she takes her right hand and hits the palm of the left, takes the left and hits the palm of the right. The signer’s hands end upturned, sometimes trembling and sometimes stiff. Her face is her own again, not crying or broken, but hard with reclamation.

But non-signers always find the story difficult to understand. Why didn’t they just stop signing?

Imagine yourself as a child, imagine yourself in a school, far from home, where now you live. Imagine yourself with no ability to see, a permanent blindfold. Instead of speaking, like you’ve always done, you will need to communicate visually. If you open your mouth, even accidentally, your face is slapped. You lose your supper; you’re told you’ve done something bad; you won’t be able to go to the movies on the weekend. Listen to the teacher erase points next to your name listed on the board—by the weekend you’ll have none: no privileges. Use everything you have to communicate visually. You cannot see. Don’t open your mouth.

My grandmother’s hands were slapped black and blue, with rulers, with the paddle back of a hairbrush. It happened over and over. For a century, deaf students were taught to speak and lipread English with no assistance from Sign, and these tasks were so immeasurably hard that many of these deaf students graduated with only a loose grasp on English, with voices they would not use for fear of being mocked, and a deep sense of shame for signing.

My grandmother never seemed ashamed of Sign, but I see her journal entries about me as a defense of the language: I can picture her, an old woman at Knotty Pine, writing down the language as it emerged from the hands and arms of an infant. It was a sort of collection of evidence in the case for Sign. I imagine her watching me, two generations removed from physical deafness, and knowing that the people who taught her were wrong, knowing that Sign must be something natural after all, something close to heaven, close to holy.

 

As my mother and I packed up my grandmother’s apartment, we moved from the less painful to the more personal: from the kitchen to the bedroom, and back again. We tackled the dilemma of frozen cinnamon raisin bread, and then we went to her writings. My grandmother had always carried a memo pad with her to communicate with people who didn’t sign, and though she didn’t keep most of these, she did keep a few torn-out pages. She kept the notes she and her neighbor wrote to each other when my mother was giving birth to me; the neighbor would call the hospital and write down the updates for my grandmother. There were also diary-like notes, small snippets of observation—I don’t know if they were written to anyone, or if they are just an effort to make a record. And then, there were the notebooks: the records of my progress with Sign, the stories of her life.

When she was four, she moved away from her signing family in Peabody, MA, and to a deaf residential school, the Beverly School for the Deaf in Beverly, MA. School was my real home then, she writes. There, everything—the very words with which she was allowed to make sense of the world and her position in it—changed.

From the first day she was different. Most of her peers came from hearing homes, and her genetic deafness put her at a distinct disadvantage. Instead of coming to school hungry for language, she was already comfortable in one, but it was the wrong one. Signers had a reputation: When it came to speaking, they were likely to resist; when it came to using Sign, they were likely to succumb, even when they didn’t mean to. It was as though it were a weakness, an unholy temptation.

In her writings, my grandmother remembers the first day, she and her classmates awaiting their teacher, who arrived with matronly command, not thin or delicate like they expected. The teacher took attendance, went to her desk and read a note. Then she asked for Rose Burke, my grandmother, to please stand up.

“I knew why,” writes my grandmother, who refused to stand. She believed that she was being identified as the sole signer, as the student to keep an extra close eye on. But all the other students were looking around the room and eventually, stymied by the teacher’s patience, she gave in. Like a warning, she stood: She was the thing they most needed to reverse. More than that, she was a threat; she was like a disease that could spread. They’ll have to be careful with me + be sure I didn’t teach the deaf pupils how to sign, she wrote plainly.

When I picture my grandmother’s time at school, I always picture her teaching the other children to sign, staying up late at night, shaping their hands and adjusting their faces, keeping our language alive. She never told me that she did this, but it is what she did her whole life—with me; with my mother; with her first husband, who was hearing; with a late-deafened best friend. Everywhere she went, she brought Sign. In my mind, it was an act of rebellion as much as it was an act of preservation. The schools told her that she would need to learn English in order to get by; instead, she taught other people her language. I couldn’t think of a stronger, more stubborn, more glorious thing to do.

 

Knotty Pine evolved with me in mind: There were two bedrooms to start, one for my grandparents and one that became mine. There was a screened-in porch that also became partly mine, with a cardboard bureau filled with my toys. To get in, I had to go window to window, jumping up and down while waving my arms or waving branches, hoping someone would see me and come to the door. Eventually, my grandfather built another doorknob, a foot below theirs, a little jut of wood for me to enter by.

In the warmer months, when we weren’t at the water, we spent our time on the porch. My grandmother had a chair out there, and I sat on the ground with my toys. Occasionally, we talked about her hearing. She’d told me she couldn’t hear anything, and I understood that from my own observations. But I also thought that she could hear herself, shimmering inside, like I could. I always imagined that this is how she learned to speak. But she told me that wasn’t true, that she couldn’t hear herself. They taught her to speak anyway.

“I’ll show you how,” she said. She ripped a corner from my coloring book, held the slip of paper straight up between her pointer and her thumb, and placed it in front of my lips. “Say puh,” she said, and I did, and the paper blew back. “That’s how.”

I must have looked unconvinced, and I was. “Stay here,” she said, and disappeared into the house where I could hear her rummaging around in the kitchen. When she came back, she had a birthday candle, and lit it. She held it in front of my lips. “Say puh,” she said. When I did, the flame flickered. She held it in front of her lips, said puh, and blew it out with her sound. “Like that.”

But she was the type of woman who cheated at Go Fish and then refused to look up so that you couldn’t argue with her; she wasn’t always to be trusted. When she showed me the candle, smoke curling from it, I nodded my head like I understood. In truth, I found the whole thing suspect.

When I asked my mother about it, she confirmed what my grandmother had told me, and explained that the teachers would do whatever they could to help the students see the sounds, so that they could understand whether they were making the sound the right way or the wrong way. A student who pronounced muh instead of puh couldn’t blow out a candle.

It was then that my mother began to tell the story of speaking: that speaking replaced signing, that some people thought speaking was better, but they were wrong. We would creak back and forth on an old rocking chair, my mother’s face, her furrowed brow, her stern frown, her fist knocking against her chin: wrong.

Still, the fact that my grandmother could speak was like some dark magic to me. She didn’t do it often, and never in front of strangers, but I knew she could. I just didn’t know how, or why. Speaking seemed irrelevant; our lives were full without it.

When I would spend the night at my grandparents’ home, my grandmother would sign to me from my favorite book, full of ’60s-style woodprint and watercolor images of squirrels and seagulls and geese. She would sign to me the stories of the animals, interrupting the book with the world: When we got to the picture of chickadees we would put the day’s crusts in the feeders or on the windowsills; when we got to the spider web stippled against a lampblack night, we would point to the corners of the ceiling, where we also had this little piece of life; and when we would get to a page with cerulean puffs of flowers and tiny bees hovering above them, I would receive a spoonful of honey. It was my favorite book.

Years later, I learned it wasn’t a children’s book at all, but a book about faith, a book whose language might have been too abstract or convoluted for my grandmother to fully comprehend—she couldn’t read anything much more advanced than a newspaper. I wonder if she made up some of the words or stories, or even all of them. Still, she caught the gist of it, and passed it along: This is the world around us, full of creatures so unlike us; we must care for it and fill it with love.

I think all those notebooks and scraps of paper my grandmother kept—notes of my signing, the story of her education, her mother wishing she was hearing—told a story of longing, of wanting her language, her self, to be enough. But they tell another story, too, one of quiet attention. My favorite scrap is from when she lived in Florida: One of our cats caught and brought home a Least Bittern and Green Heron or egrets (looks like water legged wandering birds) We saved them—One almost full grown one and one younger—We put them back at the marshes—We patted their long bills and they trusted us with good cares.

I love the language of it—water legged wandering birds—and the simple way she could care for things so different from herself. It wasn’t hard to do. It was the way I remember her and my grandfather, a quiet care for the world around them.

When I spent the night, in the mornings I would go with my grandfather to the lake. Unlike my grandmother, he didn’t grow up in a signing family, and when he went to the Beverly School, he had no language at all. They tried to teach him to speak and lipread English, but without an accessible language like Sign to assist him, he never grasped it. He was what was called, in his generation, an “oral failure,” though later generations would point out that it was the education that failed these children, and not the other way around. My grandfather learned by watching, though there was no readily visible language. He learned how to work wood, learned how to go through the movements of prayer, and learned that there was a beautiful girl, my grandmother, who worked in the school kitchen during her education—though she was several years older and didn’t have time for him. He would spend over a decade at the school, and graduate with no language at all: He could not read, could not write, and could not speak.

He didn’t learn Sign until his twenties, when he started frequenting Deaf clubs. They must have taken him under their wing, helped him shape his hands, pursed their lips when he didn’t do it quite right, and nodded with a proud satisfaction when he said something intelligible. Years later, after he learned to sign, he reunited with my grandmother in one of these clubs. But he always seemed to carry with him the years of having no language at all. I could still feel it in him when I was young, and while my time with him was filled with Sign, it was filled with something else, too, with languagelessness.

He carried his fishing rod and tackle box and I carried mine and we walked to the shore, the sounds of birds and branches and our muted footsteps on the dirt. Trees gave way to the water, covered thick in fog, disappearing the far shore. We tipped our bodies into the boat, and he paddled us out, sank his line into the water. He held his body still and patient, as steady as the heron we could see standing misty at the shore, who waited in the water until his feet became part of the landscape, until the fish forgot he didn’t belong. We were taking lessons from that bird, though I didn’t know it at the time. We were learning about stillness and disruption, about how little power we had in the water. It wasn’t really our world. Our task became one of recognition and surrender, of watching and waiting.

But I wasn’t good at it. From the boat, I scared away the fish.

“Look,” my grandfather showed me, “when your hands move, the boat sways, your words send ripples.”

He held his hands up like a parted prayer and then pivoted them palm-down to graze the bottom of the signing space, like smoothing the wrinkles from a tablecloth, soothing the ripples from the water. I always struggled to remember which word this corresponds with in English: Is it quiet or peace? In truth it’s a little of both, a suffix of sorts, the part of the sign that recognizes the space shared by the two ideas, but manipulated in my grandfather’s hands, applied not to a concept, but directly to the water. It’s a word that embraces the malleability of the language, a word for that exact moment. In a way, the sign is his alone, or ours alone: You hold your hands up like a prayer, and then you make the water still.

He could make the whole world still, it seemed.

 

I know that to say the Deaf world is quiet is a trope, a profound error among the hearing, but that’s how I remember it. Not that there weren’t sounds; there were always sounds, often an excess, as my grandparents would turn on the TV volume for me without any sense of how blaringly loud it was. I grew up listening to news of a cold front moving in at a volume that would make punk rockers shudder. But the quiet was deeper than that, and it was something that I would carry with me into the hearing world. The only other time I’ve felt a quiet like the one I felt growing up at my grandparents’ house was in Guangzhou, China, when English offered me the same sort of solitude as Sign once did. I was surrounded by people for whom noise was comfort, but the noise, the words, held no meaning for me. On a crowded subway, my language was a secret, something I held close and shared, maybe, with one other person beside me. This is how I remember being a signer in the hearing world. It was a thing that was mine, a security blanket of sorts, shared only with the most precious people.

As those people started to die, my language started to die with them, piece by piece. With every death came a barrage of noise, a clamor of moving closer towards the hearing world, moving further from the Deafness that marked my childhood.

My grandfather was the first to die, when I was eight. His hearing family, none of whom could sign, gathered for his funeral. It was then that I started to see it, the way hearing people watched me sign. They couldn’t get enough of it; they saw my signing—as many people have since—as a symbol of my love.

His funeral was days after my First Communion, and I wore my new white dress as I stood on the altar and read a story I’d written about him. My First Confession came two years later, around the time when my grandmother’s brother, Frank, was dying. By then, I’d stopped spending as much time with my grandmother. We had all been in such close quarters through my grandfather’s illness that the wake of his death was, in part, a redefining of households, of boundaries. My grandmother didn’t come over to our house as much, and I didn’t go over there. I spent time with friends my own age. Within a year, she’d moved away.

I had already begun to forget the language by the time I started visiting Frank in the hospital, in the year before his death. When I lifted my hands to talk to him, there were words I couldn’t say, things I stumbled over. It had never occurred to me that there would be a time when I couldn’t communicate with ease, but as soon as it happened, I believed that it was somehow my fault. All my life, I’d been the child who could sign. It was how I held on to a legacy, how I embodied an inherited resistance, how I loved. Before I learned otherwise, it was who I was becoming, and without question, it was who I had been.

I didn’t know what I would tell the priest when it came my turn to confess—my sin wasn’t covered anywhere in my CCD books—but I knew what I was most ashamed of, knew it for the way it kept me up late into the darkness, staring blankly at my ceiling, trying to figure my way out of it. I remember that, for all of our First Confession preparations, I didn’t know how I would say it until I entered the confessional, until I kneeled and told the priest that I didn’t love my great-uncle Frank the way I should, that I couldn’t love him the way I should. I understood that this had everything to do with my hands, but I still didn’t have words for that.

I began to sign to myself alone at night, trying to hold it. Tented under my covers, I had whole conversations, signed out my favorite songs, told my oldest stories. I wanted not to lose it, but I became ashamed to sign with my grandmother. I didn’t want her to see the way my fingers flawed. I didn’t want her to see the language slipping away. Maybe it is the ache of this that has made me feel closer to my grandmother in the years since her death. My grandfather always simply was peace, but for my grandmother, peace was a struggle against pride and disappointment, against perceived failures, against some unknowable heartbreak. When I read her writings, I see it all over them: the things she wanted to be that she couldn’t, the things other people wanted her to be that she wasn’t.

When she was a baby, at first she responded to her mother’s hearing tests—banging a spoon on something behind her to see if she would turn. She was truly very happy about my hearing, she writes. She knows I would help her with all the sounds which she herself never heard. But eventually, my grandmother began to fail the homemade hearing tests. The deafness in my family is a sex-linked recessive gene: The boys are born deaf, but the girls live a few years before their deafness settles in. She describes her mother: She was so terribly downcasted for her first son Frank was also deaf—she cried and cried—that was her story about me when I got older. She explained it to me—with her sign languages—.

Imagine it: to be defined by the story of the thing that you aren’t, the kind of person everyone expected you to be, the messiness of what is real all entangled with projections of hope.

My mother remembers my first sentence, in Sign, when I was 12 months old: “Birds fly away, all gone.” The motion of the sentence is to begin close to the self and then flap the wings away. It ends with helplessness on your face, as though nothing could have been done about it.

 

While my mother sat on my grandmother’s bed, reading through the notebooks, I packed up the contents of the dresser. Everything smelled vaguely of the nearby ocean, carried on the air, but it offered no solace. We went though the movements slowly, systematically. I threw away the underwear, and put aside a pair of striped toe socks I’ve given her for Christmas a few years back. I would bury her in them, a small secret to help us smile, like my grandfather who wore to his grave a World’s Best Grandpa T-shirt underneath his shirt and tie. I opened another drawer, filled with knick-knacks, and lifted out a tangle of wires connected to small metal boxes, a soft clatter and then a pause that drew my mother’s attention. “Hearing aids,” she sighed, and looked at them hanging limply from my fingers.

“But I thought she couldn’t hear at all,” I said.

“She couldn’t,” she said, lifting her body slowly from the bed to examine them herself. “I hope she didn’t spend money on those.”

It wasn’t just one set; there were several, the shades of beige telling of how old they were, or how new. Sometimes, my mother told me, doctors gave deaf people hearing aids for free. We didn’t say anything else, just toyed them in our fingers before dropping them into the trash.

She couldn’t hear, not anything, but her whole life was full of trying anyway. At school, my grandmother writes that she was the only stone deaf student in the class, that everyone else had a little bit of residual hearing. Still, the teachers expected her to work on her hearing like everyone else during a weekly session testing different systems of amplification and group hearing aids. Everyone put on headphones and the teacher placed a record on the turntable. Students were supposed to feel the resonance of the lowest sounds, to refine this understanding, make sense of it, to hear. The students had to identify the song with only this information.

I never name the song right—the teacher scolded me for not trying to listen hard enough but it was always the same thing for me—. So I had to memorize the first, second, third like thumps then I name it right but it was very difficult—the teacher was so pleased but I didn’t do it all the time so she was furious—again + again—…

It’s so jarring to read now, to think that there was a time when this was considered empowering. After all, the teachers and pedagogues who endorsed this method of education were, for the most part, trying to help. They were hoping that students would leave their schools and be able to move seamlessly into the hearing world, that they could walk around that world using their voices and reading lips, and even if hearing people could identify them as deaf, their deafness would pose no imposition. The deaf would be able to get whatever job they wanted, because language would be no barrier. They would be able to go to schools of higher education, move into influential positions, advocate for themselves. They would not be relegated to asylums or poorhouses. If they could be closer to hearing, if they could do the things that hearing people could do, if they could speak and listen, then the world could be theirs. But the education was so oppressively difficult, so punishing for so many. Many students left the schools having learned that Sign was for people who were too stupid to learn to speak.

It was also true that, before legislative protections, life for a deaf person was punishing enough. The last substantial conversation I had with my grandmother was a little over a year before she died. It was after Easter dinner, and everyone had retreated to their respective corners; it was my turn to entertain my grandmother, but her presence filled me with guilt. I was the one she had trained to talk with her, and I couldn’t do it anymore. The shame alone was enough to overwhelm whatever I still remembered of the language, but that day was different—I don’t know why. Maybe I was tired of feeling ashamed. That day, I found that with patience and repetition and with both of our attentions concentrated on the task, my grandmother and I could still, slowly, communicate. She would drawl out her signs and I would fingerspell what I couldn’t remember, and she would show me the right sign and then she would correct my gross misinterpretation of it. We went back and forth like that for awhile until something happened, somewhere deep in my mind something switched, and though I didn’t have access to all the words I once did, I was able to understand more of hers; I was able to listen. She put a stack of sewing books and old card boxes on the table.

“I wanted to be a dressmaker,” she said, opening a box and lifting out a pattern. My eyebrows pulled together, so she spelled “D-R-E-S-S-M-A-” until I nodded my understanding.

She shook out the pattern and drew her lips to the side before she folded it up again. She had worked on this dress, designed it, transferred its chalky outline onto the fabric, cut, and sewed. She would need it for her application. “I applied to FIT: Fashion Institute of Technology. You know it?” I nodded. She continued, “They sent me a letter in the mail. They said that they couldn’t afford to hire an interpreter for me.” I imagined I’d misunderstood, and asked her to say it again. “They couldn’t admit me,” she said.

Her eyes fell and focused on another box, this one full of newspaper clippings. “Oh, this one,” she said, “is very good,” and handed me a 1933 article on sewing seams. “I worked…” her hands paused while she thought. “Where did I work?” She pursed her lips and looked to the side for a moment, then up. “All the women sewed. They made dresses, but they said ‘No. No, you sweep.’ I swept the floors. New York, it was in New York.” She shuffled through the books she’d brought me: pattern-making, textiles. “I worked, and worked.” She held my eyes with hers. “I wanted to make dresses like the other women. I wanted to work the machines. I thought, if I keep working, they will let me.”

Sweeping floors. Pushing dust and threads and fabric bits across the factory—imagining a machine to pump, fabric to guide—snipping articles, and waiting.

She also talked briefly of the oralist education, of the school her siblings went to, which was even stricter than hers. The thing that stopped me, the thing that haunts me, was that she said it was a very good school. She said it like she wished she had been there instead of New York. She said it as though she wanted that education. I couldn’t help but wonder if, for all her pride, there was a part of her who wanted her education to have worked.

I don’t know if someone gave her the hearing aids and she rolled her eyes and stashed them in that drawer, or if she sought them out, if every few years she forfeited the collected scraps of her income in a gamble she could never win. What I do know is this: Many things about my grandmother’s life would have been fundamentally different if she could pass as hearing, and they would have made her into a different person. And maybe this is too much, but I don’t want my grandmother to have had to change; I want the whole world to be different so that she could be the person she was, without fear, punishment or struggle, without having to face the decision whether to direct her longing for change outward or inward. For a lifetime, she’d been told that she was the problem.

Sign brings the Deaf community together; it defines them and their culture. And, yes, it does create something separate from the hearing world—this was the basic fear of those who forbade Sign in their classrooms. With Sign, they thought, students wouldn’t be able to function in the hearing world; they would be forced, always, to live among the Deaf.

But even if that were true, that fear is small compared to other fears: fear of a people marked by shame, by a sense that words that come easy are wrong. My grandmother was the one person in my family who never seemed marked by that shame. But now I wonder if she was just too proud to show it, if even she was weighted with this longing.

 

Around the time of my grandmother’s death, my mother brought me to the New England Home for the Deaf, a short walk from where my grandmother lived. It was an old mansion of high peaks and stained glass, rippling ocean light reflecting on the ragged paint, but inside, it was surprisingly dark and smelled of old carpet and urine. There was a muted tapping of lips and fingers. We nestled through the place, my mother always keeping her eye out for someone she might know, placing a light hand on an arm before embracing, or else explaining her genealogy until their eyes would alight. There was a reason for this trip, though. We headed out back, past the kitchen, past the nurses, and into a cafeteria or maybe a meeting hall. My mother whispered, “Here they are.”

There was a wall lined with group photos, each as long as my arm, of the members of the New England Association of the Deaf. There were dozens of people in each frame, representing decades, people who communicated with each other, found each other through schools and Deaf clubs, found each other through a tangle of the hearing, found each other, and signed. This is what a century of education tried to dismantle: a community of the Deaf in which they didn’t have to try to blend in, a community of those who were often considered strange, pitiful, deformed, but a community in which they were anything but, in which they didn’t have to pass. As she walked the length, my mother tapped the glass when she would see someone she knew. “There’s Frank,” she leaned forward to inspect. “And here,” she breathed, “here’s your grandmother. Right here,” and pressed her finger to the glass. As she edged her way down, I stared at the shadowy ghosts where her fingers had landed. Her voice echoed ahead of me, invoking the names of the dead.

These were my people, I felt. This, my history. But as soon as I thought it, I knew it was both true and not true, and that that divide was central to this longing. When I was a child, I believed that I was on a trajectory towards deafness—and I was never ashamed of that, but I did become ashamed of my hearing: ashamed of what some hearing people had done to the deaf, but more centrally, ashamed of forgetting Sign, of losing the one concrete scrap of Deafness that I still had.

My grandmother couldn’t quite find a place in the hearing world, whether she wanted to or not, but I couldn’t escape it. Maybe we can’t help the impossible things we seek; maybe all we can hope for is to carve out moments of care, moments to quietly observe, to disappear ourselves so that we don’t disappear others.

I still sign to myself at night—not the way I used to, tented beneath the covers, but in smaller ways. I practice my hand shapes, my fingerspelling, I have small half-conversations as I fall asleep, still struggling against forgetting. Sometimes it carries over. Sometimes, in my dreams, I sign. I can never sign more than I can in real life, my fingers still stumble and stutter, but they’re not weighted the way they are in the day. When I sign in my dreams, it is with the feeling of being with my grandfather on the water, of being at peace.

It is here, in that peace, where our signs belong; here where my grandmother brought them, pulled them out of the darkness and made for them a home in the light of day; here where my grandfather received them; and here where they gave them to me.

His hands are crinkled, the light shimmers off water onto skin, and the sign is illuminated from above and from below. This sign, to me, is sacred, as natural as remembering or forgetting, complete with all that a language can hold and all that it cannot. It takes our desires and disappointments and soothes them; our stubborn pride—mine and my grandmother’s—this is the sign that heals it. He shows me: Our hands suggest a prayer, upright but with enough room to hold a person between them, and then we pivot at the wrists, move our palms face down, and draw them slowly apart. There are ripples and wrinkles everywhere, everywhere there is noise, but we draw them slowly apart; we make the water still.

 

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