Site design: Skeleton
by Ingrid Wendt
the Mother Tongue"
It's wicked, I know, but sometimes I can't help feeling just
the tiniest glee when my good German friend, whose English tongue
has mastered the footwork of all Swan Lake ballet, stumbles over
the English translation of wenn, saying "if" when she really means
"when," and vice versa,
while I, good German American, keep
clumping along: learning the word Kopfsalat, for example ("head
lettuce"), so proud of myself: first time in the land of all four
grandparents, shopping for salad, asking the produce clerk "Haben Sie
ein Kopf, bitte?" "Ja, naturlich," she answers. "Und Sie?"
But this is what comes of book learning, not every day stretching
the tongue: discipline, discipline, flash cards, syllables
splashing in and out of the ear
out of context: out of their forests
of kelp: circling, circling, whole
words unbidden as fragments of tunes
Denkbar, I hear, and it's one of those reef fish floating up
to my face mask, right out of my fish classification book
but right then the name won't come, I have to look it up
Ergebnis, I hear, (outcome/result)
Abgeschiedenheit (solitude): listen
what am I telling myself, and in whose voice?
"Brr," I practice, over and over, the special teacher so happy
(so easy to please), "Brr, Brr, Brr, Brrd" (such a pretty
poster: blue jays, orioles, robins) and then
we blow the candle out. Not
with lips puckered, oh no, that's the usual way,
but because I am special, this secret: the tongue
not behind the teeth ("Duh"), but rather just
a flicker beneath: "Thhh, Thhh, Thhh," the breath
we can chase with another nice sound: "The," "They," "This,"
"That." Six years old. And two weeks later I master what
my German-Chilean father, with more than twenty years in this country,
whose accent has read to me to sleep each night from the moment
books began, still
Always the question: Did our Illinois family speak German at home?
During the war years in which I was born? Let’s qualify:
Father born 1902 in Chile. Mother, 1911, in Michigan. There, that does it.
Except for the shadow. (Fit in. Fit in. What else is there to know?)
And still, "Mach schnell!" (when I was too slow).
"Strewwelpeter!" (my hair was a mess).
"Dreh dich rum," my mother would say in her Schwabian mother's
tongue, never, of course, outside of the family, never
translating: sporadic spices her tongue dished out without
one of us questioning. Look!
In this textbook, the recipes: words with real
meanings attached. “Make quick!” “Naughty
child from Heinrich Hoffmann’s pen!” It’s not
after all, just
family oddness, not
baby talk. Look at
this middle-aged tongue abandon its teetering. This
fabulous, sturdy new foot!
Yet what translation for what wasn’t spoken?
A child's duty is following orders, no questions. A leader is bad, if he fails.
Parents are always, always, always right. You've had your fun. Now, duty.
Where this came from, what child thought to ask? She knew.
Ach, this relentlessness. Ach, this unforgiving
side of the tongue. "Grubeleien," the German-American poet
Ted Hirschfield calls it. “The German search for perfect order."
(Good, better, best. Never let it rest, till the good
is better, and the better, best.) Meaning: Good is never
good enough. Good is always one step backwards into bad.
Which maybe has something to do with "Case": the ways all nouns
can be rearranged (Who does What to Whom, unpredictable):
lacking the right "the," you can say something strange:
The mother gives the girl a spanking.
The girl gives the mother a spanking.
The spanking gives the girl to the mother.
Not Why, of course.
Why did the father never
punish the child? Why let the mother
shoulder all anger? All
those years the child thinking her father the most
perfect: the one she failed to please the one
time and one time only, all
the years of her childhood the one time she asked him
to teach her German and he raised his voice in such fire
as never could issue forth from him and all
because she could not pronounce no matter
how many times she tried, the “u” umlaut he over and over
tried to teach her and over and over all
her stubby, graceless tongue could muster was “oo.”