Lost (and found) in translation

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, October 3, 2010

“I’ll take the 8th Battalion for a week and you keep the house and Michelle for one day and we’ll see who is begging whom first.” —Jeannine Curry

My mother used to like to tell a story about an incident at the public library in Carmel circa 1960.

Dad is in Korea. My siblings are 10, 12 and 13 and I’m almost 2. I’m a royal pain — an imperious monster who throws the kinds of tantrums that require nothing short of a glass of water delivered deftly to the face. An ice cold shower, even, on rare occasions. These are guaranteed to shut down even the most pea-centered princess in the castle, and they work every time on me.

Otherwise, my world is insular and perfect: I have two pet bunnies who follow me around like dogs, my brothers and sisters who have not yet begun to torture me, and, best of all, I have a mother to manipulate 24/7. Somewhere far, far away I have a father in uniform whom I barely know; but he’s far, far away, and so, at bedtime, especially, I have my way with my keepers. They have to sing for the pocket despot and dance the polka to get her to sleep. And she never seems to need much sleep.

My mother spends a lot of time walking me on the beach, trying to exhaust me. The regulars get to know me. They know me even better at the library where I’m hauled as often as possible, since it is the one place I’ll sit still for long stretches, pouring over picture books.

One day, the story goes, we’re waiting in line at the circulation desk where I have a pile of books under my presumably suntanned arm. My mother is speaking her native French to me, an indulgence with the fourth kid whose dad is abroad and whose siblings are at school. The woman in front of us decides — rather unfortunately — to go on a tirade against foreigners who can’t be bothered to teach their children proper English.

How could she know my mother has renounced her French citizenship — an impossible feat!— in order to fully commit to her life in the U.S.? That her language skills are better than most Americans’? How could she know that we were never allowed to speak French when it excluded anyone in the room, and the only reason she’s doing it now is because this woman and the librarian are busy, and because she is probably saying something like “Don’t touch anything on the desk, sister.”

Once the woman lobs her assault, however, I’m sure my mother’s singular thought is how to hold her verbal fire back. She doesn’t have to. At this particular moment, I manage to spill my armload of treasures. “Damn,” I say bending over. “I dropped my books.”

Months of polka dancing pay off in a split second. I’m a bilingual genius, a child with a knack, and timing, and flair. Mom loves the story and tells it so many times over the years I don’t know if it’s legend or what it is. There is photo of me at 2 reading a book (upside down), looking invested, so I figure its foundation, at least, is true.

Now, 50 years later, I’ve stumbled upon the story at its source, which is in one of hundreds of letters my mom and dad wrote to each other — and saved — from the time they got married in 1945 to the time he finally came home from Korea.

Certainly, I was far worse (hilariously so) than I ever knew. In terms of the infamous tale, here’s how my mother told it. She had just sat me down on the circulation desk and told me in French to be careful and not drop my books … when an old lady, a patron-of-the-arts type, dressed to kill, said, “I don’t approve of people speaking their mother tongue to American children.” (Everybody seemed to know her.) To which I said, “I don’t know who you are, but I don’t approve of anybody putting their nose in my business.” So she said, “It is a selfish attitude, for the children do not understand what is going on and look like foreigners…” She did not know your daughter was bilingual. At that time, I heard a crash and Michelle said, “Damn, double damn. I dropped my books.” Can you imagine the lady’s face?”

In these letters and their sparkling, sad, vivid, bittersweet accounting of 15 years of my parents’ life together (but apart), I am reminded of the importance of first-hand stories, the value of original translations, whichever language they’re in.

[Fact checking note on the polka phase: I switched them to rock and roll, right around my 2nd birthday. That was the one where I made them sing happy birthday six times, and a couple of days later was found snacking on the candy-colored candles … ]

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