I always knew my mother couldn’t hear, but I can’t remember when it dawned on me that she’d always be deaf. If I was told, I didn’t believe it. It was no different when I learned about sex. Someone may have sat me down for the facts of life, and although I wasn’t really shocked and probably already knew, I couldn’t bring myself to trust any of it. In between knowing something and refusing to know it lies a murky chasm that even the most enlightened among us are perfectly happy to inhabit. If anyone gave me the official report on my mother, it would have been my grandmother, who did not like her daughter-in-law and who found my mother’s deaf friends as repellent as ungainly fowls squawking in her son’s living room. If it wasn’t my grandmother, it would have been the way people made fun of my mother on the street.
Some men whistled when she walked by, because she was beautiful and sexy and had a way of looking you boldly in the face until you lowered your eyes. But, when she shopped and spoke with the monotone, guttural voice of the deaf, people laughed. In Alexandria, Egypt, where we lived until we were summarily exiled, like all of the country’s Jews, that’s what you did when someone was different. It wasn’t full-throated laughter; it was derision, the stepchild of contempt, which is as mirthless as it is cruel. She couldn’t hear their laughter, but she read it in their faces. This must be how she finally understood why people always smirked when she thought she was speaking like everyone else. Who knows how long it took her to realize that she was unlike other children, why some turned away, or others, meaning to be kind, had a diffident way when they allowed her to play with them?
Born in Alexandria in 1924 in the wake of British colonial rule, my mother belonged to a middle-class, French-speaking Jewish family. Her father had done well as a bicycle merchant and spared no expense to find a cure for her deafness. Her mother took her to see the most prominent audiologists in Europe, but returned more disheartened after each appointment. There was, the doctors said, no cure. Her child had lost her hearing to meningitis when she was a few months old, and from meningitis there was no coming back. Her ears were healthy, but meningitis had touched the part of her brain responsible for hearing.
In those days, there was nothing resembling deaf pride. Deafness was a stigma. The very poor often neglected their deaf children, condemning them to a lifetime of menial labor. Children remained illiterate, and their language was primitive, gestural. In the snobbish view of my mother’s parents, if you couldn’t cure deafness, you learned to hide it. If you weren’t ashamed of it, you were taught to be. You learned how to lip-read, not sign; you learned to speak with your voice, not your hands. You didn’t eat with your hands; why on earth would you speak with them?
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[S]he had spent her first eighteen years learning how to do what couldn’t have seemed more unnatural: pretending to hear. It was no better than teaching a blind person to count his steps from this pillar to that post so as not to be caught with a white stick. She learned to laugh at a joke even if she would have needed to hear the play on words in the punch line. She nodded at precisely the right intervals to someone speaking to her in Russian, to the point where the Russian was convinced that she understood everything he’d been saying.
The Greek headmistress was idolized by her students, but her method had disastrous consequences for my mother’s ability to process and synthesize complex ideas. Past a certain threshold, things simply stopped making sense to her. She could talk politics if you outlined the promises made by a Presidential candidate, but she was unable to think through the inconsistencies in his agenda, even when they were explained to her. She lacked the conceptual framework or the symbolic sophistication to acquire and use an abstract vocabulary. She might like a painting by Monet, but she couldn’t discuss the beauty of a poem by Baudelaire.
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She spoke and understood French, learned Greek and basic Arabic, and when we landed in Italy she picked up Italian by going to the market every day. When she didn’t understand something, she pretended that she did until she got it. She almost always got it. In the consulate in Naples, weeks before immigrating to the United States, in 1968, she had her first encounter with American English. She was asked to raise her right hand and repeat the oath of allegiance. She babbled some soft-spoken sounds that the American functionary was happy to mistake for the oath. The scene was so awkward that it brought out nervous giggles in my brother and me. My mother laughed with us as we walked out of the building, but my father had to be told why it was funny.
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When friends at the playground asked why my mother spoke with that strange voice, I would say, “Because that is how she speaks.” Her voice didn’t sound strange until it was pointed out to me. It was Mom’s voice—the voice that woke me up in the morning, that called out to me at the beach, that soothed me and told me tales at bedtime.
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Several years ago, when my mother was in her mid-eighties, I bought her an iPad, so that she could Skype and FaceTime for hours with friends abroad, people she hadn’t seen in ages. It was better than anything I had imagined as a boy. She could call me when I was at home, at the office, at the gym, even at Starbucks. I could FaceTime with her and not worry where she was or how she was doing. After my father died, she insisted on living alone, and my biggest fear was that she would fall and hurt herself. FaceTime also meant that I was spared having to visit her so often, as she well understood: “Does this mean that you’re not coming over tonight because we’re speaking with my iPad?”
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She was acutely discerning and had a flair for people and situations—from the Latin verb fragrare, to scent. Her radar was always on: whom to trust, what to believe, and how to read an inflection. She made up in scent what she had lost in her deafness. She taught me spices, naming them in a grocery store by dipping her palm into the burlap bags and letting me sniff each handful. She taught me to recognize her perfumes, the smell of damp wool, the smell of leaking gas. When I write about scent, I am channelling not Proust but my mother.
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She made you want to offer intimacy, too. Better yet, she made you reach into yourself to find it, in case you’d mislaid it or never knew you had it in you to give. This was her language, and, as with prisoners in separate cells learning to tap a new language with its own peculiar grammar and alphabet, she taught you to speak it. Sometimes my friends, within an hour of meeting her, forgot that she couldn’t hear them and came to understand everything she said, even when they couldn’t understand a word of French, much less French spoken by a deaf person. I’d try to step in and interpret for them. “I get it,” my friend would say. “I understand perfectly,” my mother would say—meaning, Leave us alone and stop meddling, we’re doing just fine. I was the one not understanding.