Lessons in Language

In the middle of an IKEA showroom, I agonized over the transition between two sentences. I was wrestling with a second-grade assignment on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. While I knew any seven-year-old could cobble together two statements about Dr. King, bridging together two thoughts about his achievements with one seamless transition proved to be impossible for me. I treated the plywood desk as my own while I sulked in its Örfjäll swivel chair and stared at my elementary school homework with my head in my hands. Unaware that her only child was facing a literary crisis, my mother took her time as she flipped over price tags on the matching bedroom set. She was busy furniture-shopping for our new apartment. I got up from my desk to interrupt her and tugged on her shirt for help.

“Add the word ‘hence’,” she answered. Then, she glanced at the assignment again to suggest a more age-appropriate solution, “Or even ‘henceforth’.”

“What’s that mean?”

“It’s like, uhm…” After a long pause, she handed me back my paper and sighed, “Just write it.”

Explanations were always difficult for Mom. Finding the right words to provide additional context often left her feeling vulnerable and easily frustrated. She was especially annoyed when she had to provide such explanations to her young, American-born daughter who only spoke English. My language would never be quite as seamless for her compared to her native tongue of Tagalog. Although my mom could speak English fluently, she still fumbled with pronunciations out loud as she confused her f’s and p’s—the fine line between foot and put being a classic example. She took long breaks between sentences as she searched her mind for the right phrases in her upcoming thought. She repeated nonsensical errors in her speech when they were left uncorrected. They even bled into my own imperfect English and became the reason why I thought easy over was my favorite style of eggs.

 

Somewhere between fumbled words, botched sayings, and foreign accents, my mother and I were destined to be lost in translation. While there were certain lessons in language she’d be willing to teach, explaining the terminology behind the complexities of love was never one of them.

 

My mom’s written English was an entirely different story. She gravitated toward lengthy formalities and embraced vocabulary that most people would find verbose. It was as if each written document was an opportunity to prove her English was up to par. She could take time articulating her thoughts and flaunting her fluency. In the safety of her handwritten notes, no reader could criticize her mistakes or fault her for having an accent. So, in addition to hence, henceforth, and other advanced adverbs, my mom would teach me to write formally as well. Every time Father’s Day, Christmas, or my dad’s birthday rolled around, she would pick out a card for him. She’d then instruct me to pen the salutation, “Write, ‘Dear Dad’.” After a brief pause, she’d correct herself, “‘Dearest Dad’.” The first few attempts included “Father,” and as she stared at the end of the card, I could practically hear her debating the use of “Cordially” in her head. When signing the card, I’d ask my mom if she wanted me to include her name. She’d politely decline with a shy smile. Her response always confused me, and in the early years of their separation, I think it confused her too.

Like many IKEA shoppers, Mom was living on her own for the first time in America. Because, like one out of every two American couples, she was ending a marriage. While the separation should have upset me, I was more concerned with the details of my paper on Dr. King. At seven years old, I easily adapted to our new normal because my parents hardly spoke about their problems. I took my dad at his word when he told me the change was temporary, and I simply assumed my mom’s silence was her way of agreeing with him. While I was confused when she moved into her new apartment, I took comfort in the reassurance I had been given and focused on other matters at hand. After all, Mom needed my help with picking out new furniture.

The apartment had a decent amount of space to fill as it boasted two bedrooms, a sizeable living room, a terrace, and a kitchen that was much larger than the one in our original apartment where Dad still lived. However, our new Grand Concourse neighborhood seemed different from our former Riverdale home. There, we lived in a co-op that came equipped with a kids’ playground and a modest garden where our elderly Jewish neighbors would sit and quietly gossip with their nurse aides. Mom’s new apartment was in a walk-up with no amenities, and we only had one neighbor named Victoria. A kind woman whose bright blue eyes amplified her sadness while alcohol stained her breath. I’d usually hear her fighting with her husband downstairs, but occasionally she’d come up to our apartment to talk to Mom and ask her for help. Sometimes she’d cry, other times she’d have bruises, but every time, she’d go back to her husband.

Mom eventually stopped allowing Victoria to visit. It became too difficult for her to support a new neighbor while being in the thick of her own marital issues. While I understood that much about the situation, I still wanted to know the details. When I asked my mom to explain the circumstances, she refused. For one thing, the pronunciation of the word circumstances always tripped her up. She’d pronounce the “I” in the first syllable as “ɪr” rather than “ər” so that it sounded more like searcumstances. After avoiding that word, she then told me I was too young to understand such adult topics. These were including but not limited to why married people fight, why they stay together, and why they don’t. She shifted the conversation by asking me if I could higher the volume and close the doors so her cooking didn’t smell the room. She’d leave the conversation at that and go back to preparing our dinner. In turn, I’d make sure the bedroom doors were closed and then raised the volume on our TV to drown out the sounds of Victoria and her husband as they either fought or loudly made up.

Coming back from IKEA, Mom and I lugged our new furniture up the second-floor walk-up. We left the packages of disassembled pieces scattered on the living room floor for us to deal with later. Then, we collapsed onto her bed where my mother smiled and held me so tight. Without any words, I knew she was in a state of bliss. The separation was the start of a life that she chose for herself, and the happiness it gave her was not lost on me. While our apartment may not have been in the perfect building or neighborhood, she took pride in the fact that it was ours. As we cuddled in her new bed, I was surprised when Mom prompted a language lesson. One that would be filled with explanations and translations that usually annoyed her.

“Do you want to learn my language?” she smiled.

“TAG-a-log?” My American-born tongue was too heavy on the “T” and elongated the first syllable, but I was intrigued. My father never wanted to teach me Tagalog. Also raised in America, he feared I would be teased at school like he was for adopting even an ounce of Philippine culture. He made sure my English was like his, smooth and free of any alarming accents. However, my mom presented her language as an opportunity rather than a burden. When I agreed to a lesson, she excitedly propped herself up on the bed and tried teaching me simple numbers.

“Can you say, ‘Isa’?” she asked.

“Ee-sah?”

“Good. Then, ‘dalawa’.”

“Da-LAH-wahhh,” I joked.

She repeated herself, “Dalawa!”

“Your language sounds funny,” I told her.

My mom made a few more reluctant attempts. Her foreign words, odd pronunciation, and strange-sounding syllables were only met with more teasing. It was the first and only time she ever tried teaching me her language. Although my immature responses were said with laughter, they managed to serve as an unforgiving echo of her new reality. She was a foreigner who was living on American soil. An immigrant who was on her own for the first time. A single-mother who was misunderstood by her only daughter. Mom would continue speaking imperfect English while teaching me written words that were several years above my grade level. She would do her best to downplay her accent in public. She would hand me the phone whenever she needed to order take-out. Every now and then I’d hear her speak to family members and certain friends in Tagalog, all the while never knowing what exactly she said.

During yet another round of furniture shopping, Mom explored our options in a nearby shopping mall as she crossed her fingers for a sale at Stern’s. Although I was warming up to our new apartment, I began to develop more questions about my parents’ marriage. I was hearing about a word called divorce that, unlike a separation, was permanent. It was gradually being used more and more along with other ominous terms like custody and attorneys. My family members repeated these expressions in whispers when they thought I wasn’t listening. Even my friends and classmates talked about it as their own parents showed concern. It seemed as if divorce was a bad word that wasn’t so much connected to my mother’s newfound happiness but more so to my father’s sadness and our family’s disbelief. While Mom tried her best to shield me from the complexities of marriage, she couldn’t contain my curiosity as the finality of our new normal began to sink in.

“Why are you and Dad getting divorced?”

My mother got quiet, not expecting the question to come in a parking lot during an afternoon shopping run. “It’s hard to explain,” she replied. I pouted in the front seat. I knew she wasn’t great at explanations, but I wanted an answer. Now seven-and-a-half years old, I deserved to know what was going on. “How about this,” she smiled, “I’ll tell you when you turn sixteen. Promise!” The white lie and allure of a grown-up birthday present was exactly what my mom needed to buy herself some time and to quell her young daughter’s growing curiosity. With child-like satisfaction, I agreed to her offer and held her hand as we walked to the mall.

Somewhere between fumbled words, botched sayings, and foreign accents, my mother and I were destined to be lost in translation. While there were certain lessons in language she’d be willing to teach, explaining the terminology behind the complexities of love was never one of them. While there would be a time when she finally spoke about irreconcilable differences, falling out of love, and other intricate phrases that shaped her marriage, these explanations never took place during my childhood. Or even on my sixteenth birthday, as promised. They happened well into my adulthood when factors, such as time, experience, and patience, would gradually mend our language barrier. Perhaps my mom could have explained things to me right then and there in the parking lot. Perhaps she could have written down the details with her eloquence and precision. But neither of those options were the choice she made. It wasn’t that the divorce and its adult terminologies were too difficult for an immigrant to teach. Rather, they were too painful for a single-mother to convey. Looking back on it, I’d like to believe my mom was simply trying her best to find the right words.

 

Kristen Gaerlan is an emerging writer and native New Yorker. Her home is in Brooklyn, her roots are in the Bronx, and the roots to her roots are in the Philippines. Her work has been featured in publications that include Bustle, Pop Sugar, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. She’s currently writing a memoir about Filipino-American assimilation.