December 16, 2023

Drucilla Ronchen - Presente!

Image credit: Deaf Women of Chicago

In 1982, I attended a party to celebrate my cousin's First Holy Communion. It was at that party that I was introduced to a book (I later found out this book was "The Joy of Signing") that demonstrated a language using your hands, arms, and body -- American Sign Language (ASL). I thought this was just the coolest thing, and for about a year or so thereafter I explored it some with other books I found, including one featuring Linda from Sesame Street. My work on ASL would wane, but I vowed to myself that someday somehow I would learn ASL.

Fast forward to 1996; I'm about to start graduate school. I was fortunate that (A) ASL was offered as a credited course, (B) it fulfilled a degree requirement, (C) I was able to enroll in a class, and (D) it helped me fulfill the vow I made to myself so many years earlier. My teacher was Drucilla Ronchen -- Drucie as she was called -- and I took a year-long sequence in ASL. I learned enough ASL to be conversationally competent, I visited the Chicago Club of the Deaf, I attended an ASL conference, I saw some ASL theatre, I had a conversation through soundproof glass, I had gotten a name sign, and I had served as an interpreter for Drucie at a get-together.

I had the opportunity to use ASL over the years in various random locales -- on a bus in Chicago, at Los Angeles International Airport, at a conference where I represented the news program Democracy Now! Drucie and I even ran into each other in passing over the years; she once taught me the ASL sign for "cancer" after I told her I had a family member who was diagnosed.

In late 2023 at a venue north of Chicago, I had met a Deaf couple who were signing (to respect their privacy, I will decline to mention them by name here). It was the first time I had occasion to practice my ASL skills with other people in person since the COVID-19 pandemic. We got to talking about each other's children, about where we lived, why I learned ASL, and how I learned ASL. I had known about variations in ASL signs -- the ASL signs for "football" are a classic example; indeed, in our conversation I learned a different ASL sign variant for "Chicago".

I had mentioned Drucie and they knew Drucie (of course everyone knew Drucie), and then they broke the news to me that Drucie had died. I was shocked; I didn't know and started to cry and asked them for a hug which they graciously obliged. They weren't sure when she died -- maybe five years ago? They then mentioned a sign I didn't recognize but which I inferred later was another variant sign for "cancer".

I later found out that Drucie passed away in 2021. I'm still sad over the news, but I'm grateful I got the chance to know Drucie and to learn from her. Thank you, Drucie, for all that you have done.

Drucilla Ronchen, presente!