BY BOB BRODY
I tend to take life personally. And nothing is more personal to me than family and friends. That’s why, as a writer, I specialize in personal essays.
Ever since 1978, I’ve written frequently about my parents in particular. My father was born deaf, and my mother, stricken with spinal meningitis, became deaf in infancy.
They are by deafness defined. And so—to a certain extent, even though I have normal hearing—am I.
This guest post is by Bob Brody. Brody, an executive and essayist in New York City, is author of the memoir, Playing Catch with Strangers: A Family Guy (Reluctantly) Comes of Age, from Heliotrope Books. This piece is adapted from a presentation made to The American Society Of Journalists & Authors. Brody has freelanced as a writer for more than 40 years, both full time and as a sideline. He has contributed to many magazines and newspapers, including The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post and Esquire.
In my earliest memories, for example, I’m talking to my mother. She’s reading my lips and asking me to repeat myself and speak more slowly. The process is frustrating for us both. A lot gets lost in translation.
In the years since, I’ve written about how her special school in Manhattan forbade sign language, only for her to use sign language with her friends in class anyway, secretly, under the desk. I’ve recounted how my maternal grandmother, with the best of intentions, insisted my mother take lessons in piano and dance even though she could never hear any music. I’ve chronicled going to the 1964 New York World’s Fair with my parents and marveling with unbound optimism at the futuristic phone TV at the AT&T exhibit that would let deaf people see each other while conversing on the line. Such pieces have appeared in The Los Angeles Times and Newsday.
In the last 10 years, however, I’ve written many more essays about my father than about my mother. In some, I explore how his parents sent him to a special school for the deaf 800 miles from home at the age of 5. In others, I pay tribute to how my father, always talented in tinkering with technology, proved instrumental in establishing a nationwide communications network for the deaf community. Such pieces have appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic and Forbes, among other publications.
Why my late-life shift from mother to father? My mother was always around (and still is, at age 88), a stay-at-home mom, and so I knew her well and writing about her came easy. But my father was always working, leaving the house early and coming home late. Even when he was physically present, his mind was elsewhere, focused on the real estate he managed or on devices for the deaf he would someday invent.
In short, I hardly knew him and had almost no luck figuring him out. My whole life, he was more alive as a figure in my imagination than in my everyday reality.
And then, in 1997, at age 70, he died.
Soon enough, I was writing, for example, about how as a boy I had stolen money from his pants pockets just to possess something tangible of his. Writing about someone so quiet and remote and mysterious inevitably came much harder. One day, I scoured the web for clues to his past, and by chance came across a secret he had kept from our family. A story in a deaf newspaper, published after his death, looked at his background as an amateur boxer.
As it turned out, an opponent he had faced in the semifinals of the Golden Gloves in Madison Square Garden in 1948 wound up going to the hospital for injuries suffered at his hands in the ring, and almost died. My father quit boxing then and there, declining to appear in the finals. He would never hurt anyone again, he vowed, and indeed spent his life pulling his punches.
My essays about my father have turned out to be nothing less than a posthumous attempt to connect with him, and to honor his legacy as a communications pioneer. These pieces have brought me closer to him than I ever felt during his life, and have served, in effect, to resurrect him, both for my sake and for the general public.
We write about our parents, I suspect, for the most basic of reasons. If we better know and understand our parents—how they acted, the lives they lived—maybe we can better know and understand ourselves and possibly our children. We look at our parents in order to see ourselves and even our futures.
Writing about your parents is both easy and hard, almost equally so. Easy because you know the subject as well as most anyone alive. Hard because it exposes the private and the intimate and can resurrect pains long dormant. But it’s a dilemma that comes with its own built-in solution. Writing can ease that hurt.
My advice? If you want to write about your parents, you should. Period. You may do it well or you may do it poorly, but you’ll never really know what’s inside you until you try to pull it out and take a long hard look at it.
My own motives for writing about my parents are complicated. For starters, the disability of deafness rendered my upbringing unusual. And so I feel a duty as a journalist to report on it as a kind of public service.
But the reasons I write about my parents are infinitely more personal than professional: to express my outrage over the innate injustice of deafness itself, to ease the anguish over the traumas my entire family faced for decades as a result, and to attempt completing an ongoing process—namely, growing up.
But ultimately, I write about my mother and father, neither of whom has ever heard my voice, to achieve a goal long elusive. It may even be the central reason I write anything at all in the first place, and why other writers may, too.
To be heard. And, better still, to be understood.
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This post is edited by Writer’s Digest Managing Editor Tyler Moss. In addition to working with new submissions and a regular stable of freelance contributors to WD, his own freelance credits include Conde Nast Traveler, The Atlantic, Outside and New York magazines.
Follow Tyler on Twitter @tjmoss11.