Myron Uhlberg is an acclaimed coda author of several children’s books as well as his adult memoir, Hands of My Father. He was born July 1,1933 in Brooklyn New York.
Uhlberg’s family included his deaf parents Louis and Sarah and his younger coda brother Irwin. Louis became deaf at the age of four after he contracted spinal meningitis. He was raised in the Bronx, New York, went to the Fanwood School, and worked as a printer with the New York Daily news for 40 years. Sarah contracted scarlet fever and became deaf as an infant. She attended Lexington School for the Deaf. The two met one day at Coney Island and shortly thereafter they were married. Uhlberg was born nine months later. His younger brother Irwin followed, four years later. Uhlberg recalled that with the addition of his younger brother came the responsibility of alerting his parents to Irwin’s needs. After Irwin was diagnosed with epilepsy at a young age, and the family struggled to keep him safe, particularly at night. Uhlberg recalled, in his book Hands of My Father, his father telling him, “Your mother and I are counting on you. You can hear. We are deaf” (p. 55).
His hearing status was frequently a source of interest for members of his family. After he was born, his grandparents, aunts, and uncles visited weekly to test his hearing. “They always came when you were sleeping, [Uhlberg’s father told him] I made sure of that. Before making themselves comfortable, I asked them to stand at the back of your crib. Then they pounded on pots and pans I gave them. You heard a big noise and snapped awake and you began to wail.” (p. 20) Their concerns reflected broader attitudes toward deaf people and signed languages in the mid-twentieth century, acknowledging the discrimination and marginalization that deaf people frequently experienced.
Regardless of his hearing status, Uhlberg’s first language was American Sign Language. “My second language was spoken English,” he recalled. “I have no memory of learning this language, or at what age, but somehow I did.” (p. 26). For most of his childhood, Uhlberg was called upon to interpret for his parents. “As the hearing child of a deaf father, I was expected to perform the daily alchemy of transmuting the silent visual movements of my father’s hands into the sound of speech and meaning for the hearing, and then to perform the magic all over again for him, in reverse, transmuting invisible sound into visible sign” (p. 26). In Hands of my Father, Uhlberg recounts powerful stories of these experiences, highlighting the difficulty and complexity of serving as a conduit for communication and access. “[E]ven though my role as interpreter was a source of pride, it often left me feeling confused. Here I was, mouthing the adult words and concepts of my father, an adult, to another adult. But I was not an adult. I was a six year old child… unlike my friends I had a dual role.” (p. 31)
Uhlberg graduated from high school in 1951 and was recruited to Brandeis University on a football scholarship. In choosing to attend Brandeis, Uhlberg acknowledged that he was choosing to forge a path of his own separate from his parents and the deaf community. He wrote, “Stepping on the train that day, I took the final step, the step from my parents’ deaf world, so familiar yet so foreign, to my own world, the world of the hearing.” (p. 215) At Brandeis, Uhlberg excelled, and he was later inducted into the Brandeis Hall of Fame in 2008.
In 1955, a week after completing college, Uhlberg enlisted as a paratrooper in the Army in the 82nd airborne division. Myron stated in an interview with KODAheart that he decided to join the paratroopers because “I was a daredevil sort of kid, loved to climb trees, and the side of brick buildings, and loved adventure.” After two years of service he was offered a job in the fashion industry through a man he met in college who was a long-time supporter of Brandeis and the football team. According to the Brandeis publication, BrandeisNow, he designed and sold men’s clothing around the world for more for over 30 years.
When he was 66 years old he published his first children’s book, Mad Dog Mcgraw. Myron explained during the interview, “Reading was always a passion of mine, from the earliest age my nose was buried in a book. And when I finished reading a book, I wondered how the author had written the book—the choices the author made in telling the story, the language the author had used, and how the author managed to keep me reading the story until the very last sentence. Then I would put the book down, and imagine writing my own book someday.” He has since published five more children’s’ books and one memoir. His book chronicling the tale of the baseball player Jackie Robinson, Dad, Jackie and Me, won several awards including the Schneider Family Book Award.
His memoir, Hands of My Father: A Hearing Boy, His Deaf Parents, and the Language of Love, is an ode to his upbringing and his relationship to father. “My father’s hands were strong. His language was strong. He did not try to become invisible by making small signs in public. His signs were not furtive, fearful, timid, or apologetic… my father’s hands would not be contained. “Look at me, world,” they pronounced. “I’m a deaf man. I’m proud. Hearing people can go to hell, I don’t care.” (p 130).
Currently Uhlberg resides in California with his wife Karen. For more information about his memoir and his life check out the NPR podcast, Talk of the Nation (transcript) or this video. To stay up to date with his future events and new books, check out his website or his facebook page.