String Theory

Learning To Listen To My Deaf Daughters

By Jennifer Rosner

Published March 26, 2010.
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This past Yom Kippur, my daughters and I wrote lists; each of us detailed the ways in which we hoped to improve ourselves in the coming year. We then constructed a time capsule, made out of a breadcrumb canister and decorated with shiny ribbons, and we placed our lists inside of it. We agreed that we would open the capsule to assess our progress — once after six months, and again after a year. Yom Kippur came on September 28, so the half-year mark is fast approaching.

‘Just the Right Pull’: The author and her daughters
Paul Shoul
‘Just the Right Pull’: The author and her daughters

My daughters, ages 6 and 9, love this sort of project. Sophia, my older daughter, wrote her list, and then went on to write a list for our collie, Goldie. (Goldie’s list included the goal to bark less when guests come over.)

After sealing the capsule, with all of our lists safely inside, we “buried” it in the unfinished knee-wall space of our attic. Just before closing the trap door on it, I tethered a length of string to the capsule and let the loose end trail out. When the time comes, we’ll need only open the door and tug on the string, and the capsule will emerge from all the other sundry items we’ve stored in the attic. This last innovation, for retrieval, came easily to me because I am obsessed with string. All kinds of string: rope, line, bouclé, tallit fringe, eyeglass danglers, lanyard.

My daughters are deaf. When Sophia failed the newborn hearing screen, a geneticist in the hospital told us that our Ashkenazi roots put us at higher-than-average risk for carrying recessive genes for deafness. Upon closer genealogical research, I found my family tree to be peppered with deaf ancestors — some of them sibling pairs like my daughters. My great-great aunts in Austria in the 1800s were deaf, as were my great-uncles in Bronx, N.Y., in the 1900s. In all that I subsequently uncovered about my deaf ancestors, the most meaningful detail came from my grandmother: She reported that, when my deaf ancestors had babies, they tied strings from their wrists to their babies in the night. When the babies cried, they felt the tug and woke to care for them.

My Yom Kippur list included a parenting goal: to work on steadiness in my connection with my girls. I have a tendency to hover too closely, then to back away too far. A balanced, even connection — a line with just the right pull — has been difficult for me to achieve. This too has roots in the past, with a grandfather and a great-grandfather who fled their families, and with parents who struggled with abandonment and their own difficulties with closeness and connection. Though my hearing is perfect, I work to hear my daughters, while my daughters themselves work to hear with the help of cochlear implants and hearing aids.

My daughters thrive: They are happily ensconced in school; they skate and dance and play with friends. They listen and speak; they even sing in tune. They do miss idioms and expressions that most kids learn incidentally. So I teach these explicitly: “An offer with ‘no strings attached’ is an offer with no limits.” I search the Web and find that this saying has its origins in the 18th century — when silk merchants marked the flaws in their cloth by tying a small string at the bottom; I tell my girls that a tailor looking for flawless cloth would have asked for cloth with no strings attached.

I long for strings, though — for a connection to my girls even if it is flawed. So I work hard to learn, from my deaf ancestors and from other time capsules, how best to listen to my children all the year round.

Jennifer Rosner is author of the forthcoming “If A Tree Falls: A Family’s Quest to Hear and Be Heard” (Feminist Press, Jewish Women Writers Series, May 2010).


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