The Silent Square Dance

My parents met at a square dance. I know, not a big deal, but if you’ve read some of my other blog posts, you’ll know that my parents were deaf. Yes, they met at a deaf square dance. Now maybe the rest of the story will be interesting…I hope.

After my dad moved to Milwaukee from his farm, he began work at a packing house. Being single, he was making more money than he was used to. He also integrated himself into the city’s deaf community. His life was going along, but he was alone. A couple friends told him about a deaf square dance once a month in a town about 25 miles outside of Milwaukee. They also told him about two single sisters out of the Lake Mills area that usually went.

Now back then, Lutherans married Lutherans and Catholics married Catholics. This seemed to be important enough that my mom had previously refused a proposal from a man before she met my dad because he was Catholic. By the time I grew up, nobody seemed to care anymore. The good thing was that both my dad and mom were Lutheran so that wasn’t an impediment to their relationship.

My dad went to the very next square dance but was disappointed that my mom and her sister didn’t come that month. Instead of looking for somebody else, he went home. The next month his wait was rewarded.

My dad first danced with my Aunt, but things didn’t click. Then he danced with my mom and three months later they were married. They just knew.

Now to answer the question that many of you will have…how can deaf people square dance? Isn’t there a caller and you have to hear the caller to know where to go? Yes…and no. They had a caller who signed the moves and in each corner of the dance floor was a mimicking caller that copied the signs. This way, as the deaf couples swirled round and round, they just had to look towards the corner they were facing and knew what moves were being called. The whole process is fascinating! Also, the music would have the bass cranked up so the deaf dancers could feel the beat even though they couldn’t hear it.

My mom and dad were a perfect match for each other. My dad doted on her and held doors for her up until he no longer could. My mom made sure my dad was well fed and well taken care of so he could work (sometimes two jobs) to provide for us. They talked things over together before doing them and always found a way to agree and make things happen. They had three hearing boys and I can honestly say, I think we were more of a functional family than many families with hearing parents. We all did well in school, we learned adult things at a young age because of the constant translating for our parents, and we were most definitely loved.

The church my parents went to was, of course, a church for the deaf. There were two churches for the deaf in Milwaukee when I was a kid. One was Lutheran and the other was Catholic. Even though I said they didn’t intermarry back then, they did know each other and were friends. Every year they had a big picnic together and it was a lot of fun, so much fun that some hearing people would also attend.

For a number of years, my dad was church president and my mom was leader of the Ladies Guild. Us hearing kids would come to church with our parents and then go across the street to the hearing church for Sunday School. On the holidays, we would stay and attend church with our parents. This is where I truly embraced the beauty of sign language.

Obviously, the pastor would sign the service, but where the beauty came in was during the hymns. Anywhere from 3 to 5 deaf singers would be on stage in robes and toward the back of the church was the song director. The song director would sign the song and the choir would copy the signs all in perfect unison and with a graceful flowing of their hands. The congregation would copy the choir so the whole church was doing a beautiful and graceful almost dance movement in a perfect silent harmony that was mesmerizing. The silence was only broken up by a church organ that was played with the bass cranked up so everybody could feel the music. I’m not kidding, it was breath-taking, at least to me.

The one time I brought a friend to church with us, he was amazed. He asked a lot of questions but never looked at the deaf community the same again. Instead of seeing a bunch of people who couldn’t hear and sounded funny when they talked, he began to see a thriving culture all its own that functioned in perfect harmony with the hearing culture they were surrounded by. He also looked at me and my brothers in a different way as well as my parents. His eagerness to learn to talk with my parents was awesome and made me realize how alone I often felt in the world before this. After this, more of my friends would come over and try to talk with my parents and my parents loved it. My friends became their friends.

Possible moral to this story? Even though I didn’t use as much humor in this blog post as I often do, I still feel it’s an amazing story…not the writing per se, but the story itself. If we would just take the time to view another’s culture with open eyes and open mind, you just might learn something useful. A good example is that my friend no longer just saw hands flying around with little semblance of order, at least from his point of view at the time. Now he saw a cascading symphony of communication and culture that all came together to form the deaf community. This is a beautiful thing.

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