Useful Gifts

Carole L. Glickfeld

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About the book

Charged with the mystery of childhood, with curiosity and daring, confusion and fear, the eleven interrelated stories in Useful Gifts explore what Ruthie knows. The youngest child of profoundly deaf parents living in Manhattan in the 1940s and 1950s, Ruthie Zimmer speaks and signs. Interpreting for her parents, she tries to make sense of worlds as close as her family's fourth-floor apartment, as expansive as her rooftop playground and as diverse as the neighborhood below.

The ways of language, its ways, its habits, its humor—as well as the demons that rise within us when we fail to communicate—form an undercurrent in many of Carole Glickfeld's stories. In “What My Mother Knows” Hannah Zimmer gleans the neighborhood gossip from her apartment window, telling Ruthie in a gesture that Mrs. Frangione is pregnant again, and announcing in clipped, terse signs that the O'Briens have divorced. “Know drunk? . . . Unhappy, fight, wife, divorce.” There is, in "My Father's Darling" the hoarse, choked screaming of Albert Zimmer, "Honorfatherhonorfatherhonorfather" striking his daughter Melva has she sinks to the floor muttering "Misermisermisermiser" in the distant, disembodied voice of a ventriloquist. And, in "Talking Mama-Losh'n" there is Sidney, Ruthie's older brother, "getting down to business," sprinkling his speech with Yiddish, French and German—words that project a wisdom and cosmopolitanism he clearly craves.

Three floors below the Zimmer apartment, Ruthie enters the altogether different realm of Dot, a thrice-married hatcheck girl, and her daughter and son, Glory and Roy Rogers. These are characters who, as their names seem to promise, bring adventure and excitement—from acted-out fantasies of Hollywood to gunfights amid the rooftop battlements of "Fort Arden," from impulsive, stylish haircuts to Chinese food with pork. And, across the stoop, Ruthie visits with the Opals family—Iris, Ivy, and Ione—three daughters whose endless lessons in charm, elocution and posture prime them for future "fame and glory."

In Useful Gifts, Carole Glickfeld creates, through the optimistic voice of a young girl, intimacy with the complexity and heartbreak of a world we hope she can survive. In the closing story of the collection, Ruth Zimmer, twenty years older, retraces her neighborhood—not only to preserve her memories but to understand, finally, their effect on her now, a grown woman living three thousand miles away.

About the author

Carole L. Glickfeld, a Child of Deaf Adults (CODA), has won numerous awards for her fiction, including the Washington State Book Award for her novel Swimming Toward the Ocean and a National Endowment for the Arts Literary Fellowship. Her stories and essays have appeared in literary anthologies and journals including William and Mary Review, Worcester Review, and Crosscurrents. She lives and teaches in Seattle.

For discussion

1. In what ways do the Zimmers represent the experience of all families, those where the parents can hear, for example? What difficulties arise for Ruthie from her parents' inability to hear? What troubles in the family are unrelated to the parents' deafness? How would Ruthie's life have been different if she'd grown up with hearing parents?

2. Are there similarities between Ruthie's experience as the child of deaf parents and that of children of immigrant parents? What about Ruthie's childhood contributes to her precocious understanding of people's behaviors? What character traits of Ruthie are admirable?

3. What kind of ethical or moral guidance does Hannah Zimmer provide to her children? How would you describe her instincts and behaviors as a mother? What are her unique personality traits? Are they endearing to the reader or off-putting or both?

4. Does the father have redeeming qualities, and if so, how would you describe them? How does his authoritarian style of parenting affect Melva and Sidney? What kind of relationship does he have with his wife? What is his influence, ultimately, on Ruthie? Does it change over the course of the stories? Is she her father's darling?" Do we see a different Albert Zimmer in the novella?

5. How do relatives of the Zimmers bring other perspectives on family life to Ruthie? How would you contrast the influence of Aunt Sadie and Uncle Ben in “Begin the Beguine” with that of Aunt Lois in “Relics of Stars”? How insular is Ruthie's world? What serves to enlarge it?

6. How is Ruthie influenced by the downstairs neighbor Dot Rousse? How would you contrast how Dot raises her children with the way Albert and Hannah raise theirs? Or the way the Opals raise their daughters in the story "Useful Gifts"? What kind of relationship does Ruthie have with Glory and Roy Rogers, especially in "Fort Arden" and "My Second Favorite"? Does Ruthie envy the Opals girls—why or why not?

7. How does Melva relate to her younger sister? How do we know that she is complicated and even troubled? How is Ruthie affected by her sister's behavior, especially in "Peola and Petunia" and "In the Shadow of the Boardwalk?" Does Ruthie benefit from the relationship? Is she harmed by it?

8. Is Sidney a likable character--why or why not? How does his relationship with his father help or hinder his progress in life? How do we know how Sidney feels about his younger sister? How does Ruthie view her brother, especially in "Talking Mama-Losh'n?"

9. What moral lessons can we derive from the "shoplifting" incident in the story "Useful Gifts"? Or from the encounter with Mr. Abdullah in "Plastic Flowers?" Or Ruthie's visit to her brother's workplace, Baum Fabrics, in "Talking Mama-Losh'n"?

10. In "Relics of Stars," Ruthie retraces her past. What insights has she gained over the years? How did her childhood affect her emotional development? What discoveries about her father does she make in the novella? How will they affect her future?

11. How does the novella contrast in style and subject matter with those of the stories? Do you wish there had been different outcomes for the characters, and if so, what?

12. What details does the author use to evoke the world of Manhattan in the 1940's and '50's?  What is memorable about that time? Can you visualize the neighborhood where Ruthie grows up? What is Ruthie's apartment building like? How would you characterize that area of New York? What physical details or cultural references stand out? What effect does the beach and boardwalk in Brooklyn have on Ruthie?

13. How does the author convey what it is like for a hearing person to be around the deaf? What did you learn about the world of the deaf? Does the author make this world plausible?

14. The author makes a distinction in the use of sign language between words that have a "shortcut" sign and words that have to be spelled out. The grammar of American Sign Language (ASL) differs from that of English. Did the author's rendering of ASL add to your understanding of what sign language is and how it is communicated?

15. Ruthie's mother believes in "useful gifts." How does this serve as a metaphor for the book, overall?