Talking to Daddy Dougan


Do kids still make flip books? Before GIFs, we did the same thing by making a series of tiny drawings in the pages of a textbook, and passing it to a friend fan through the pages and see the picture move. Kids with better drawing skills could make two faces come together in a kiss; a less ambitious project was making a smiling face into a frowning one.

I wonder what they were thinking when they took these photos in the 40’s? There are only four; not enough for a flip book, and they certainly couldn’t have imagined how they could be displayed online, 70 years later!

Poor as they are, they are the only existing pictures we have of anyone talking to my grandfather using the hand alphabet. It’s my Uncle Trever, and since he’s talking to Daddy Dougan, it’s surely not a four-letter word!

In the 1910’s, Grampa and Grama went together to day classes at the Wisconsin School for the Deaf, in Delavan, Wisconsin –so that Gramp could learn the “hand alphabet,” and Gram could learn how to communicate with him. He wasn’t taught our modern American Sign Language– which communicates whole words or concepts –when he was losing his hearing.

All us grandkids learned the hand alphabet as soon as we could spell. Even before that, for we’d imitate Daddy or Grama, waggling our hand, and Grampa would pretend to understand us. It was a handy language to know in school, too –you could spell secrets to your friend across the classroom.

My mother never learned alphabet spelling. Grampa asked his daughter-in-law not to. “I want to look at your face,” he said, “and try to read your lips.” Concentrating on flashing fingers didn’t allow for seeing the expression on a speakers face, and Grampa knew how much he missed.

Today’s ASL has evolved to include facial expression and whole body gesture to allow the deaf to encompass the whole range of human expression. I wish it had been this way for him, for all of us. It would have made our interchanges so much more satisfactory.

*Full disclosure: It’s true that some of the stories in my books are only known because of Grampa’s written conversations!

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