How one family met the challenge of deafness
By Anne Stanton
Christmas was a wonderful time in the Hoxsie family; the three Hoxsie
kids would get up early to shake their presents thinking their
parents, who were deaf, couldnt hear them. But somehow they knew.
They would wrap the gifts and label them with one of the other
siblings names. So just when we thought we were getting one gift,
they would ask us to trade, said Tom Hoxsie, the oldest of the three
But Christmas was really like every other day of the yearnot a whole
lot different than any other family. Tom, Sr., and Ruth Hoxsie
couldnt hear Christmas carolers or gift-opening squeals, but they
could read their childrens faces. On one early Christmas morning,
they watched Tom freak out when he got up and saw Kermit the Frog
sitting on the TV. He thought Kermit had somehow escaped out of the
television set, Keith said, laughing.
Perhaps the toughest time for Ruth and Tom, Sr., was at the baby
phase. Tom was just one year old, when twins Keith and Barb were born.
The couple had no idea that twins were on the way and had to scramble
for an extra set of clothing and supplies.
How did Ruth and Tom, Sr., hear the babies cry?
Barb said her mom told her shed sometimes sleep with her hand inside
the bassinette. If she felt a vibration or a strong movement, shed
wake up. Ruth wrote in her email that she also had an alarm
device that would flicker light if one of the babies cried.
When we were little, they were tired all the time, said Barb, adding
that they rarely, if ever, hired babysitters. She barely got any
sleep. They had to keep their eyes on us all the time.
Ruth and Tom, Sr., used sign language with the infants, enabling them
to communicate. Barb, who later ran a daycare, also taught sign
language to her young charges and their parents. The trend is catching
on with parents since babies can sign before they can talk.
A KEEN SENSE
Although their parents relied almost wholly on sign language, the
three Hoxsie kids speak clearly since they heard the spoken word at an
early agefrom their grandparents and Head Start teachers.
Ruth e-mailed that she and her husband had to diligently watch their
children 24/7, since they couldnt hear them yell from a hurt or for
When we had hearing family members around, we were able to relax a
little more, and we could depend on them to hear what the kids were
doing and if there was anything wrong.
If the kids needed their parents, theyd stomp the floor with their
foot. A parent would peek their head around the corner, and sign,
What do you need? Ruth and Tom, Sr., developed a keen sense of touch
and sight. For example, they knew someone had come into the house from
the feel of
the door whooshing closed. They often checked mirrors or windows for
reflections of people coming in or out of the house or nearby rooms.
And despite the fact they couldnt raise their voices or use stern
inflections, they ran a very tight ship. The kids knew they meant
business by their facial expressions and how furiously they signed.
Tom, as the oldest, had the main duty of interpreting for his parents
at doctors visits or during phone calls. He remembers starting from
the age of three or four, interpreting answers about insurance
policies, phone bills, and bank accounts. But all the kids remember
taking a turn.
My dad went to a class reunion (at Michigan School for the Deaf in
Flint) and all the people in the room were deaf. The waitress wanted
to know what my dad wanted to drink, Barb said. He said, A
screwdriver. So I told him again, She wants to know what you want to
drink. She doesnt want to know what kind of tool you want. Tell her
a screwdriver. Im really embarrassed. I looked at the lady and
said, He wants a screwdriver, and she started writing it down, and
my dad said to me, Im not dumb, its the name of a drink. But I was
seven years old. I was seven!
All three kids filtered out the swear words for their parents. And
there was always a strange curiosity about how to sign swear words,
One German teacher offered to exchange swear words in German for swear
words in sign language, he recalled.
All three kids spent their childhood dealing with the occasional rude
remark or strange behavior. Tom remembers once thrashing a friend for
saying something mean. Telemarketers often offered to call back after
learning their parents were deaf. Go ahead, but not much point.
Theyll still be deaf, Keith would tell them. People tend to speak
loudly, even knowing their parents are profoundly deaf, as if it could
help them hear better, he said.
Both parents lost their hearing at a very young age due to illness.
Ruth was mainstreamed in Traverse Citys public schools, while Tom,
Sr., went to the Michigan School for the Deaf at the age of 4.
Tom, Sr., studied tool and die making at Northwestern Michigan College
with no interpreter. Hed take notes of everything written on the
chalkboard and memorize them. If he had questions, hed write them out
for his instructor. Tom left a trimester before he was supposed to
graduate; he had a new family to care for, and fortuitously found a
full-time job. He spent most of his successful career at United
Technologies. Ruth worked second and third shifts at Chef Pierre, so
she could be home with the kids.
Tom, Sr., and Ruth didnt want their kids to think of their deafness
as a handicap. Tom said his dad would have the kids cross out the
definitions for deaf and mute in all of their dictionaries. In his
email to the Express, Tom, Sr., expressed the same philosophy.
We are very proud to be deaf and dont wish to be any different. We
enjoy our culture, friends and family. And they would not want us to
be any different.
Wrote Ruth: I am okay with being deaf and the only time it was
really difficult for me was when my children would sing or perform. I
wanted to be able to hear what the audience was hearing. We did have
interpreters, and so it helped us see what words they were singing and
we could also see them dance and act.
And singing was a big part of the childrens lives, as they grew
older. As it turns out, a little ironically, all three children have
amazing voices. Tom and Keith still regularly perform with the
Overtones, a mens a capella group, which evolved from Men of Note.
The advantage of deaf parents, Keith and Tom said, was that they could
endlessly practice scales or a difficult piece of a song without
bothering anyone. Our parents never told us to shut up unless we were
bothering one of our siblings, Tom said.
There was singing around the house all the timeuntil 11 at night,
Barb said. Keith and Tom would be sitting in the bathroom, it had the
best acoustics, and theyd work on whatever Mr. Larimer , their old
instructor said. Work on these keys. Mom wanted us in bed, and, of
course, we snuck around. We never abused it, but if they wanted to
practice late at night, theyd turn out the light.
I felt really bad for our neighbors. Keith used to have trouble
sleepinghed stay up really late. I remember talking and talking
through the heat vent with him in the summertime, What kind of car
will you own, what do you think youll do? . And finally, at 1 am, I
had a neighbor who yelled, Could you guys please shut up?
The entire family spent a lot of time outdoors, tent camping,
fly-fishing and deer hunting.
The only thing I didnt like is being my dads ears when he went deer
hunting, Barb said. My brothers told me if dad shot his deer, hed
have to gut the deer right there. So as soon as my dads head would
turn, Id cough, Id make all these obscene noises.
Finally my dad wouldnt take me anymore. He said, Every time I take
Barb hunting, I never see anything. You can print thatI told him.
Before the age of texting and TDD phones in Traverse City (where an
operator serves as interpreter), communicating by phone waswell,
impossible. If an after-school practice were canceled, the kids would
just have to wait out the two hours at school.
My mom would finally pull up listening to hip hop music at full
blast, and it was so embarrassing. She liked to feel the beat of it,
Keith said that the TDD device is a little oddwhen he was 16, he
dated a girl and theyd talk with the TDD interpreter; one was a black
woman with a strong southern accent. She said, Honey, I love you,
too, and it was just too weird. I dont like it when I get a man for
my mom: Keith, are you feeling any better? I heard you were sick.
And the guys voice is really deep, asking these personal things.
All three kids have remained in the Traverse City area, with
children and careers of their own. Tom and Barb are certified
educational sign interpreters, while Keith, a subcontractor, works in
the building trades.
Keith admits that signing for him feels like work. In contrast to his
brother, Tom, who loves to interpret an entire conversation with all
of its nuances, Keith listens for several minutes and sums up the
message in a few words.
Their dogs knew sign language. Special friends and spouses quickly
learned sign language so they could hang with the family. But people
rarely would play charades with the Hoxsiestheyd never win.
And some of the Hoxsie legacy is a little odd. The family never talked
at dinnerit was considered rude. If you were signing rather than
eating, the food would get cold. Tom Hoxsie still doesnt like
chatting at meals, which his family members view as ungracious. Barb
is extremely reluctant to hire babysitters, having heard during her
entire childhood: I care for my children. My children are my
And for several years after Keith and Tom moved out of the home, they
both signed in their sleep. Jenny (my wife) would wake me up and say,
Keith, youre signing again!
Yet each of the Hoxsie kids said they were much closer as a family.
Keith said you grow up with a larger heart having parents who cant
hearthey werent perfect kids, they gave their parents a hard time
just like any teenager (Tom remembers play-acting a scream in the
grocery store, really angering his mom). But his parents modeled grace
and strength through it all.
For my 31st birthday, I had a friend come over, a local performer. We
sat around the campfire, and my mom and dad were there. He was
performing for everybody. So as not to leave my dad out, he grabbed my
dad by the hand, and had my dad hold his guitar while he was playing
so he could feel the rhythm through the guitar, and the different
beats and stuff. It was the coolest thing; Id never thought to do
that. While he was playing, my dad was getting a piece of what he was