Who Am I?

By Elizabeth Kaur, TIWP Women’s Writing Program

My father was born to parents who didn’t know sound, deaf mutes who found each other in the non-hearing community of 1920’s San Francisco.

His Jewish father had fled Russia as The Revolution swelled, sheltered with his 16-year-old sister in the bathroom of the Trans-Siberian Express, coins for passage caught in hems and cuffs. From Rostov to Harbin, China, to Japan with passage to San Francisco made possible by a fur trader.

I tell you this because who I am is the granddaughter of a man I never met. A man without sound, embarking for America at 13, maybe 14, without language. A monster, circus freak, retard. Defined by his time.

He had no words for this new world, any world, really, except the small one he shared with his sister. He did have a bit of luck: he enrolled in the California School for the Deaf.

I am the granddaughter of Isador Modin, his named logged by Underwood keys in the school register of 1914. He learned to sign and upholster furniture and to read lips and eventually fell in love with a woman named Alice.

I never met her either. Irish and Catholic, pale as captured in the one photo my father has of his mother. Lovely hair. Soft, absent eyes. She had two hearing boys who would sleep between the wall and her and my grandfather’s feet in their bed in their tiny Capp Street apartment.

I wonder, when you can’t hear, when you can’t speak, what do you take in, what can you say. Is it full, is it complete, infused with all that sound offers through all of life: coo-ing babies and birds, the hum of electric lights in the evening, feet moving through dry leaves?

I am the granddaughter of a young woman too weighted by what was missing in her life, I think. Weighted by unending silence. So she left. She left the Capp Street apartment, her husband, her children.

I am the daughter of a boy who at the age of six lost his mother to silence.

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