For Mothers Day my youngest son —the crazy adventurer, Eric—gave me language lessons. This was one of the most inventive gifts I’ve ever received, and one I wished I could return. Thoughtful as it was, this gift spelled only failure. How did I know I would fail if I tried to learn another language? It is because I grew up in a two-language household.
German is my mother’s first language. When she came to the United States as a teenager, she wasn’t allowed to go to school until she learned English. She mastered the language in a year. Since then she toggled easily between German and English without the trace of an accent. I am not so linguistically blessed. Frankly, I count myself lucky that I manage English.
With Thanksgiving upon us, I’ve been thinking a lot about my family. My grandparents, aunts, uncles, and my dad are gone, my mom at 96 does not speak German any longer. Still my memories of holiday meals are bright. My mothers family would gather in the kitchen. As they worked, I heard their quick guttural conversation. It sounded both exotic as they gave direction, warned one another that a dish was hot, and laughed at who-knew-what. In the big family room, my dad made drinks and corny jokes befitting his Kansas roots. The English speakers did nothing more than wonder when the turkey would be done.
At our holiday gatherings, language created two states and the border wall was the long bar that separated the kitchen from the family room: Germany on one side, U.S. of A. on the other. But when it came time to eat, the dining room became our country.
We took our places around the huge table. My father carved the turkey. He offered fleisch and kartoffel to everyone.* Grandpa tried to teach the children German words. We forgot them a moment later. But he taught, we tried, dad carved, and all moved in and out of different languages as if both were understood by all. The ritual was repeated at each holiday gathering. In the end, there was no lack for conversation.
I miss the two ‘countries’ in my mother’s house. I miss my brothers and sisters around a table. I miss all those who are gone. I am thankful to have had them all for so many holidays. I am grateful that the real language spoken at the table was that of love and respect, even if we disagreed.
This brings me back to my son’s gift. I am learning to speak Albanian, and doing pretty well. Maybe age has given me the confidence and determination to learn another language. I mightbe spurred on because I hate to see anything go to waste (especially a gift card). But in my heart I know that I’m holding on to something precious. I want to go to Albania and visit the friends I have made in that country. I would like to speak to them in their kitchens in a language that is not my first. I hope it will warm their hearts in the way the memory of German chatter from my mother’s kitchen still warms mine.
No matter what language you speak, I know that you will understand this. Have a happy, healthy, and blessed Thanksgiving. Use your words; make a memory.
*meat and potatoes-the only two German words my father knew