Gimme a Sign

Gimme a Sign

During college I worked part-time at the university library, mostly at the circulation desk and the adjacent reserved reference book counter. It was probably the least amount of stress I would ever experience at a job, and it helped me meet some interesting people. One young lady was very bright, but had limited verbal skills because of her deafness. One day I saw her at one of the upstairs library tables, surrounded by books and documents. When asked if she was working on a research paper, she replied that she was studying for a big test. Drawing on my limited knowledge of American Sign Language, I gestured to the materials before her, then touched the tip of my index finger to my right temple while asking “Do you know it?” Her face lit up and she smiled broadly, recognizing my attempt to communicate in the way that she knew best: a combination of lip-reading and signing. While I was sad to have to explain that I actually knew very little sign language, the mere fact that I had tried seemed to mean the world to her, and any time thereafter when I was working and she exited or entered, she always threw a smile and a wave my way.

A couple of weeks ago my dad and I were looking through old photographs he’d scanned into his computer, including the one featured in this post. Mr. Owen Parkey lived on a farm near the small town where my parents grew up. With a 1940 population of 243, the number of people in town on Saturdays was substantially higher as the farm families all rolled in to do their weekly shopping, trading, and visiting. The feed store, the meat locker, the barber shop, the hardware, the grocery, and both taverns were abuzz with conversation. For Owen Parkey, however, there were usually only two guys in town with whom he could “talk”:  the men who would become my dad and my grandpa. Owen and his sister were both born deaf, and had gone to a special school to learn sign language. At the shops, he would present his list for purchases, written in perfect penmanship. But in Charlie May’s radio and TV shop, he could pass a bit of his perpetually quiet time in animated conversation, hands and fingers flying through the rapid movements that made up the letters, words and phrases that he knew. As my future father began hanging out more and more with his future father-in-law, he quickly picked up on signing, and joined the party. Decades later, he still smiles at the memory of the those pleasant encounters, and recalls Mr. Parkey as one of the nicest guys he ever knew.

The story reminded me of a video I’d seen recently, and with a quick YouTube search, I was able to play it for Daddy. Here’s the link:, and it’s called The Most Emotional Surprise of the Year. (Warning, have your hanky handy!) It made me cry. It made me grateful that I can hear. It made me appreciate the efforts of my Grandpa Charlie, and of my dad.  It made me want to learn sign language. It made me want to be a better person; to be more understanding and accommodating to folks less fortunate. It made me feel. And it made me wish I could hug Mr. Parkey.

photo credit Howard Weilmuenster


  1. white owl says:

    What a beautiful tribute!

  2. Howard Weilmuenster says:

    Nice to see a picture posted of my first car, a 1925 Studebaker,
    purchased when it was 24 years old.
    Cost $80 in 1949.

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