"Her Radar Was Always On"

In a moving tribute to his mother, Andre Aciman describes (New Yorker (3/17/14) her as beautiful, everyone thought so too. He says she was also vibrant, spirited, funny sometimes. She was born in Egypt, sent to a special school in France by her Jewish parents, well mannered with many friends.

She was also totally deaf as a result of meningitis as a child. There is no cure for it and she became deaf when the disease affected that part of her brain responsible for hearing. How she managed the rich life she lived borders on the miraculous to me.

She never learned more than a rudimentary skill at sign language and while she spoke, it was with a monotone, guttural voice that most people could hardly understand. They were more likely to laugh and make fun of her. She shrugged it off and sometimes laughed along with them.

But she did learn to read and write, although Aciman says she wasn’t able to form general concepts or understand abstract vocabulary. But she compensated for being deaf by her vivacious personality “her warmth, her unusual mixture of meekness and in-your-face boldness.”

Aciman’s family fled Egypt, along with a great many other Jews, shortly before the start of the Second World War. They settled in Italy for a while and then migrated to this country. But she never was able to master English, as well as she had French or Greek. But like deaf people often do, she pretended that she did and mumbled something in exchange that was usually understood, although she was never sure.

The various ways the deaf try to deal for their condition interests me greatly as I no longer hear as well as I once did. She carefully watched the lip movements of those she spoke to, as well as their gestures, her perception of their warmth, closeness, smile or frown, and all the other cues we normally use, often without realizing it, in observing someone’s body language.

With the increasing versatility of digital forms of communicating, Aciman dreamed of some device that would enable his mother to communicate more readily with her friends. When she was in her mid-80s, he gave her an iPad. She took to it immediately (in her 80s, no less!) and would Skype and FaceTime her friends, some of whom she hadn’t seen for years.

Aciman believes his mother was among the most discerning, perceptive persons he has known. She didn’t need language and was able to communicate in ways all of often use, again without being aware of it. But it gave her a life, a life that Aciman points out and, as I have come to appreciate more and more, is sometimes more direct, more telling. He concludes:

“Now that I think of what Shakespeare might have called her “unaccommodated” language, I realize how much I miss its immediate, tactile quality, from another age, when your face was your bond, not your words. I owe this language not to the books I read or studied but to my mother who had no faith in, and no latent or much patience for, words.”