Poems & Essays

21 Aug

Mother Tongue

General/Column No Response

In 2009, my wife and I became parents. Years before, our sons had been born to a different mother. They entered our life at two and six from a variety of foster homes already having gathered opinions, impressions, and the language of a world far different world from our own. 

When our youngest came to us, dropped off a few hours after our consent, he spoke only Spanish. The case-worker assured us that he understood English even though his only words were in the tongue of his grandmother. He knew simple words, ones we’d learned from high school Spanish or acquired in the back of yellow buses:  gato, leche, puta. His few English words bore the brunt of strained relationships: shut-up and stupid

In those first few months, too often, we could not tell when baby-gibberish met Spanish. And so, started our eclectic family through the miscommunication of broken language.  

He woke most nights screaming but refused our comfort, straining his body away when either one of us instinctually tried to hold him. We’d whisper soothing words, using tones we hoped would convey a message of safety, ultimately lost on terrified ears in a foreign place. In hindsight, the shattering of a dream-world in one language upon waking might be far more frightening than any original nightmare. 

He spoke little, at first, keeping to himself. Always lining up toy cars on the couch while kneeling on the wood floor. Not even making motor sounds like my friends’ sons – only silent cars lined up, heading somewhere. 

Occasionally, he’d bless us with a quick “salud” in response to a sneeze or cough. But mostly, he said nothing. 

Once, I caught the last few words of a song he mumbled as he played with his lined cars. I clumsily asked a co-worker the meaning. “Pio,” she explained, is the sound baby chickens make in a traditional Spanish children’s song. When I asked my older son about it, he explained that their last mother sang it to them at bedtime. 

We scoured the internet and the public library, until, at last, we found a child’s recording of the song. When we played it one afternoon, his head snapped up from his imagined traffic jam to stare in the direction of the melody. Sheer confusion suffused his face. We attempted, in our clumsy English tongues, to sing along. He laughed and just continued playing.

         Cancion Infantile                                                Children’s Song

Los pollitos dicen pio, pio, pio                        The little chicks say pio, pio, pio

Cuando tienen hambre                                    When they are hungry

Cuando tienen frio                                          And when they are cold.

La gallina busca el maiz y el trigo                  The mother hen looks for corn and wheat

Les da la comida y les presta abrigo              She gives then food and grants them shelter

Bajo de sus alas, acurracuaditos                    Under mama’s wings, huddling up,

Duermen los pollitos                                       Sleep the little chicks

Hasta el otro dia!                                            Until the next day!

It was about this time I started singing to him a new lullaby. At bed I’d whisper the lyrics “Jesus loves me” as my wife played on the computer with our older son downstairs. After a few nights, I began to change the words to include his name announcing who Jesus loves, tickling his sides or neck at each mention. One night, my wife forgot the song, and in his newly acquired English, he asked, “What? No Jesus?” Laughing, she knelt down and sang him his lullaby. 

It was amazing how quickly his word bank grew. So many English words to express so many things: ball, truck, more, please. Mingling baby-gibberish and English to create new words: bapple, ooter, Tikkani.

Despite our limited attempts to maintain Spanish–gracias, comer, besos–throughout the year, he lost more and more understanding. 

It was not until a month ago, nearly eleven months after they became ours, that we bumped into his last foster mother and realized just how much was lost. She spoke only Spanish and ran to him. Trying to hug him, he refused her advances. Clinging to my wife’s hand, he shyied away from this woman-stranger, this once-a-mother. In her own broken English she asked about how he was and commented about how much he’d grown. His little fingers wrapped even tighter around my wife’s hand as he repeated the same phrase, “I will go home with you.” My wife reassured him, as his last mother walked away with her new son in tow. She bended to explain to him in someone else’s language her relationship to our little boy.

That night, in bed, I wondered about our son’s dreams. In what language would they be now? And, in giving him a home, what had we taken when his mother-tongue was lost by our own mono-lingual limitation? But in the end, I wonder how much of it really matters, as long as there are lullabies at bedtime.

Tiffany Washington is an 8th grade English teacher, mother of four, and sometimes poet. Her works have appeared in a number of print and on-line publications including Chantarelle’s Notebook, Artis magazine, Long River Run and most recently Thimble Magazine.

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