I became a mother at a time when the idea of “baby sign language” was steadily gaining steam. Classes popped up everywhere, countless articles touted its benefits, and most of my friends were trying it with their infants. Once I gave birth, I understood why. After enduring months of wordless newborn wails while feeling bleary-eyed and frustrated, the ability to communicate with my babies in any way seemed almost sacred.
Once my kids could tell me simple words like hungry, tired, milk, and all done, parenting felt a bit more manageable, even though they didn’t always get the signs exactly right. For instance, each of them had their own way of communicating the word more. My son touched his forefingers together, while my daughter hunched up her shoulders and tapped her palm. Still, I knew what they meant, even before they could speak.
But I had another reason for teaching them to sign, and for continuing to use it even now, several years later. My great-grandparents were both deaf, and American Sign Language was the only language my grandmother knew until kindergarten. On the remote farm where she grew up, long before the existence of television shows or other forms of media, my grandma heard very little spoken English. Instead, she and her six non-deaf siblings created their own spoken language to use with one another. With their parents, they used sign language.
My grandma cried throughout her first day of school because she couldn’t understand her teachers.
“They thought I was dumb,” she told me, “and I believed them.”
But every afternoon she returned home and taught her siblings the English she’d learned. Years later, she would attend college and become a middle- and high-school teacher. After retirement, she was an interpreter for the deaf until she was in her late 80s.
She could sign faster than I could speak. When my grandma came over for dinner each Sunday, I challenged her to a race: I’d say the alphabet as quickly as I could, my tongue tripping clumsily over itself, and she would sign along from A to Z. She always won. It wasn’t even close.
For my third-grade talent show, I could have tap danced or jumped rope or played a rudimentary sonata on the piano. Instead, I performed the song “Sunshine On My Shoulders” in sign language. I practiced in the kitchen with my grandmother and mom for weeks. To this day, I remember the warm spotlight and the applause. I remember my grandma’s proud arms around me. And somehow, I still remember every single sign of that song.
My mother is fluent in sign language, but I am not, though I could painstakingly participate in a conversation if I had to. One of my greatest regrets is that I never realized how special it was to fully embrace this piece of my past. As a child, I should have begged my grandma for lessons. I should have insisted that she teach me all of the words, not just the ones required for a talent show. I can’t let this part of my family history vanish.
I met my husband four months after my grandma passed away. At our wedding, while a soloist sang “The Lord’s Prayer,” her sister signed along. Now, I try to learn new signs as often as I can and teach them to my kids.
My daughter doesn’t share my grandma’s bone structure. My son doesn’t have her curls. And even though my grandmother never got the chance to know my children, she is with them. She’s there every night before bed, when they sign Water, please. And she’s there each morning when they flash I love you with their hands as they disappear into school.
Melissa Bowers is a writer who lives in California. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Email your 650-word essay on a relationship to email@example.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.