When my father came home there was laughter, rollicking（申斥，责骂）, rolling laughter. He was strong and handsome; his thick, black, wavy hair fell into his black, laughing eyes. When he kissed me, I pushed his bristled mustache from my tender skin. His hands, thick and squared off at the tips, smelled of the sweet horsehair at the upholstery（垫衬物） factory. His fingernails carried the cotton lint he used to stuff stain sofas.
He signed his name, Benjamin, but no one called him that, I called him Daddy Ben. People who could hear called him Benny.
My father, like my mother, was deaf, so I grew up living in two worlds, our private world and the "hearing" world outside. I was on intimate terms with silence and the language of silence.
My mother was born deaf, and so, I thought, was my father. Then one day he mentioned that he had not always been deaf.
"You weren't ? How did you become deaf?" my hands asked.
"I was sick, a long time. Ask Grandma," he replied.
When Grandma Lizzie came to our apartment, I rushed to her, demanding an answer. She said, "Spinal meningits," and told how my father had been stricken with the disease when he was two. As he approached school age, his hearing diminished until there was none, not even the memory of sound.
He was a bright child, but his intelligence was locked away. Without normal speech at the age when children begin to play with syllables and sounds, my father was separated from his own wit. His other sense did become more acute with time. But he never recovered from early verbal neglect. He could not read a book page by page. The flowing language, line after line, chapter after chapter, was too difficult to sustain. At times the written word confounded him more than the lips he strained to read.
Even so, Daddy Ben was undefeated. He transformed pain into humor. "It is better to laugh at life," he'd say. "It makes easier a hard time."
I began to understand what he meant one evening when my mother gave me money to phone a message to my father at the small upholstery shop where he had found temporary work. I went to a pay phone and dialed the number.
"I have a message for Mr. Sidransky," I told the man who answered.
"I don't know any Mr. Sidransky." The man was annoyed.
"His first name is Ben. He is my father."
"Listen, girlie, I don't have time for this. I'm busy."
"He's deaf," I explained.
"Oh, you mean the Dummy. Why didn't you say that before?"
I don't remember the rest of that conversation. All I remember is the word dummy.
I had heard my parents described as deaf-and-dumb all through my childhood. I always took pains to explain that although they were deaf, they were not dumb, not were they mute.
"Why do you let your boss call you Dummy?" I asked my father the next day.
He shrugged. "It is easier for them. They remember me."
I was enraged. "You are not a dummy. You are a smart man. Tell them your name is Benjamin."
He smiled wanly. "It is all right. I know I am not dummy, that is enough." He spoke of the men with benevolence, forbearing their disdain when they called him Dummy or too roughly poked his shoulder for attention. In a world of fools. Locked in stillness, he was pleased with himself. But I was not.
Dummy. I traced the hateful word on soot-laden cars and erased it with a swipe of my hand. I wrote it in my notebook, tore out the page and crumpled（弄皱） the defamation into a ball.
My father saw my anger. "Don't worry," he said. "I will improve my mind every day. I will learn new words, and you, Ruth, are my teacher. You are my dictionary."
I hugged him.
From that moment, the anger and shame that had coursed through me crystallized into resolve. I was determined that no one would call my father by that name again. I read the dictionary every night, absorbing language, and taught the words to my father. He was insatiable. He and I had purpose. Our minds melded in study.
In this way, my father awakened my own thirst for language.
"I tell you," he signed, then pulled his chair closer to mine. "Language is alive, like a person, like a river; always change, always new works. Not need to speak to know language." He knew language in a way I never will. It danced from his soul.
His primary passion was clear thinking and comprehension. When I was in doubt about a concept that I was teaching him, he said, "You must ask the teacher again. Must be clear."
The sign for the word clear is revealing. The tips of the fingers of each hand are closed, forming a small circle; the two circles join as the fingers touch, and then the hands are opened wide, permitting light to enter. It is a sign of illummination.
Knowledge alone was not what my father sought. It was the process, not the product, that thrilled him. He taught me the art of questioning. If I didn't understand a teacher's response, he assumed I had asked my question wrong. "You smarter than teacher," he said. "Ask another question. Make sure teacher knows what you ask."
And so I became skilled at communication. I questioned my teachers until I understood every facet of their teaching. It made no difference if the teacher was masterful of inept; each had a gift for me. Week after week, I learned whatever was set before me in class and taught my father whatever I could.
When I couldn't answer his inquiry at the most fundamental level, I promised to search for the answer until I could satisfy his wonder. "Now I understand," he would sign.
Then one day there was a betrayal of my dreams. My father told me, "It is not important for girls to go to university. I work hard. I am tired. Now you must work, help support the family."
I looked at him, not caring, not understanding the burdens he carried. I could have shouted, "I want to go to university. I want to be somebody." But I turned without a word and ran away. I stayed at my friend Julia's until night fell.
My mother came looking for me.
"He does not understand," I said. "I want to learn. I want to be a teacher."
"We will explain all to your father," she signed, "He is sorry."
As we walked slowly down the street, my father came toward us. He signed solemnly. "Do not be angry at Ben. I love you, daughter Ruth. You will go to university. I will go with you. You will teach me."
My university years were wonderful. When I came home, my father, still demanding a question mind would say, "What did you ask professor today?"
He would shaked his head at all the books - in the hall, on coffee tables, by the kitchen sink.
"So many books, Too hard to read," he'd sign. "Tell me, who is the best writer in world?"
I signed an opening paragraph of Mark Twain's, word for word. He watched my hands until his concentraition flagged.
"Too many words, falling everywhere, like rocks coming down mountains. You explain better."
Defeated, I dropped my eyes. Then he said with his fingers in the air, decreasing the space between his thumb and forefinger. "Next time we read thin book, I sure to understand every word." His grin was huge. He made me laugh.
One afternoon I rushed home overjoyed. "I won a prize, Mamma," I signed. "I earned a gold key for my university work; Phi Beta Kappa." I spelled each Greek letter for her.
Our eyes met in a long smile. "You worked hard many years," she signed. "I proud of you." She took my face in her hands and kissed me.
The moment my father opened the door, my mother, unable to contain her pleasure, pulled him into the living room. "Ben, I have a surprise."
"I'll take off coat, hat."
"No wait. I tell you now. Ruth has Phi Beta Kappa."
"Funny words. What are you saying, Mary?"
"They are letters of the Greek alphabet," I interjected. "It is the name of an honor society for the best students in university."
He made the connection and shouted with his harsh voice and sweeping hands. "We have good luck! Tell me again how to spell the honor-club words."
Once more I spelled the letters, and he etched them into his hand. Sitting on the sofa, he pulled me down to him and took me by the shoulders with both hands. In halting oral words he said, "Congratulations to daughter Ruth."
We laughed, and he stroked my head in blessing. "Now I'll take off my coat. Mamma, get some wine. We'll thank God and honor our daughter."
It was only then that I realized I did not teach my father. He taught me. It was he who had engaged me in the conquest of language. It was he who told me to be direct, to be watchful, to listen with my eyes and to ask with my mouth. From his silence, my father taught me the true power of speech.