Vio­lin scrolls

I began a writer’s life when my daugh­ters were born deaf.

I believed at first that my writ­ing was a way to process new moth­er­hood, with the lay­ers that rais­ing deaf chil­dren (as a hear­ing par­ent) add: how will we com­mu­ni­cate? how will we be close? 

I wrote out my long­ing for inti­ma­cy with my daugh­ters; my fear that a gulf between sound and silence would keep us apart. I wrote about the deci­sions we made, opt­ing for hear­ing tech­nol­o­gy and spo­ken lan­guage train­ing, and our hopes that our daugh­ters would flour­ish as a result.

When we learned that our daugh­ters’ deaf­ness was genet­ic, I researched my fam­i­ly tree and found deaf ances­tors. I dis­cov­ered — and this was per­haps the most impor­tant thing — that the deaf women in our fam­i­ly, when they became new moth­ers, tied strings to their babies in the night, so that when the babies cried, they’d feel the tug and wake to care for them.

It took me years to real­ize that my daugh­ters’ deaf­ness would help me work through feel­ings I myself had as a child: feel­ings of being unheard by my moth­er. My ini­tial wor­ry about whether my chil­dren would hear got turned on its head: my deep­er wor­ry was whether I would hear them. The inno­va­tions of the deaf moth­ers in my ances­try heart­ened me and informed my par­ent­ing, but a long­ing (from my own child­hood) remained.

My ini­tial wor­ry about whether my chil­dren would hear got turned on its head: my deep­er wor­ry was whether I would hear them

When I wrote a mem­oir about deaf­ness in my fam­i­ly, it was in part a sto­ry of under­stand­ing my mother’s hear­ing prob­lems (which were fig­u­ra­tive as well as lit­er­al), and of rec­on­cil­ing myself to the ways she couldn’t attend to me. Many fam­i­lies are worse for the wear after a mem­oir is writ­ten, but my rela­tion­ship with my moth­er improved. The writ­ing of it brought me to a place of com­pas­sion for her cir­cum­stances, and the read­ing of it helped her rec­og­nize my feelings.

Dur­ing a book event for my mem­oir, at which I described our daugh­ters’ hear­ing lessons” and our efforts to encour­age them to vocal­ize, I met a hid­den child of the Holo­caust, who described her child­hood expe­ri­ence, hid­ing in a barn attic with her moth­er. She’d had to stay entire­ly still and silent as her moth­er sought to make her van­ish beneath hay. As I thought about this child and her moth­er, a new writ­ing project — with many famil­iar threads — emerged.

The nov­el that took form is about a musi­cal child, a five year old named Shi­ra, who must stay hid­den in wartime Poland with her moth­er. With music puls­ing through her, Shi­ra cups her hands into a nest and con­jures a bird who can sing aloud the melodies she hears in her head. To keep them occu­pied and to pass the time, Shira’s moth­er, Roza, whis­pers a sto­ry about a brave lit­tle girl and her bird, who live in a silent gar­den and togeth­er avert threats and find safe­ty. And so it goes until their hid­ing place, a farmer’s barn, becomes too dangerous.

I met a hid­den child of the Holo­caust, who described her child­hood expe­ri­ence, hid­ing in a barn attic with her moth­er. She’d had to stay entire­ly still and silent as her moth­er sought to make her van­ish beneath hay.

When Shi­ra is no longer in the barn, she takes up the vio­lin. It becomes her voice, her expres­sion — and her con­nec­tion to her fam­i­ly. Shi­ra plays to remem­ber the chest­nut hues in her mother’s black hair, the crin­kled lines around her father’s eyes. She writes musi­cal com­po­si­tions for vio­lin and cel­lo (her mother’s instru­ment). Even­tu­al­ly she joins an orches­tra and at every per­for­mance she scans the audi­ence, hop­ing that by some chance her moth­er will be there.

It was only when I fin­ished writ­ing that I under­stood I’d writ­ten out my long­ing to con­nect with my father as much as with my moth­er. Music tied my father to his Jew­ish roots, and music tied me to him. As a child, I lis­tened to his night­ly vio­lin prac­tice; often I warmed up my voice (I was a vocal stu­dent) and sang along. We shared this, even when we didn’t share much else. It’s no sur­prise to me (now) that Shi­ra sought con­nec­tion to her par­ents with every bow stroke, the call for a string, wrist to wrist.

I com­plet­ed the nov­el last year, just months before my father’s death. Because of a pro­tract­ed ill­ness he couldn’t read, and he lacked the atten­tion span to lis­ten to an audio­book, so he nev­er learned the full con­tents of my manuscript.

One thing I was able to con­vey to my father before he died was that I ded­i­cat­ed the nov­el to him and to my moth­er. And I was able to sing to him. As I did, I longed for the notes of his vio­lin, his accompaniment.

The Yel­low Bird Sings is Jen­nifer Rosner’s debut nov­el. Her pre­vi­ous books include the mem­oir If A Tree Falls: A Fam­i­ly’s Quest to Hear and Be Heard, about rais­ing her deaf daugh­ters, and the children’s book The Mit­ten String. Jen­nifer­’s writ­ing has appeared in The New York Times, The For­ward, and else­where. She lives in west­ern Mass­a­chu­setts with her family.