Sunday, October 26, 2008

Grandma Language

My grandmother, a life-long Catholic--who once instructed me on how to say my prayers to the Mother Mary and Our Father--knows very little about my life's work and spiritual affiliations. For example, she has no idea that I am regularly in the company of her most feared and loathsome "others"--black folks, Jews, gay folks and even "those hispanics", which she pronounces as "heeeee-span-ics", spitting out the "span" part of the word and swallowing the "ics" as if there is something worth spitting.

My grandmother is an old woman now, and yet her deep love for me is unquestionably sound and clear. Despite the fact that my life and travels have taken me away from the etched, tender skin of her embrace, I find it refreshing that no matter where I go, no matter I do, I can always be assured that my grandmother will never hesistate to remind me to call more, but talk less. For my grandmother, the world is her world. What is beyond her doorstop is uninteresting and irrelevant. She won't love me less for speaking of what simultaneously exists across an ocean, but she'll lose all interest beyond reports on the weather. That is, of course, unless I tell her about Rome. Why Rome? Because that is where the Pope lives. She has never been so focused as when I told her the story of my trip to Rome several years ago. Beyond this, she has been marginally interested in hearing about Bethlehem. Why Bethlehem? Because that was where the Baby Jesus was born.

Speaking to her yesterday, I immediately found myself lapsing into the dialect of my childhood-- a way of communicating in multiple layers of English with longer vowels, harsher sounding consonants and hissing "s's" and "c's". A long time ago, I realized that this way of communicating was the only way possible for my grandmother to understand me if I wished to be heard. It is a language that Bro and I have long referred to it as "immigrant speak"-- a concoction of words from the New World and Old World--sometimes fully translatable, other times purely nonsensical. Much of it is onomonpoetic, which I love, such as the word "slotchka", which means diarrhea, such as "Don't eat too many of 'dos cherrrries, hunny. Idd'l give you slotchka." Or "Aye-yay-yay", which is pretty universal, but I love to hear her say it. My all-time favorite word is "nebshit", which I believe is short for "nebbish", a Yiddish phrase for "loser", but which my grandmother generally uses to mean "someone in everyone else's business." In fact, there was a time when I realized that part of the lexicon of my grandmother was/is actually Yiddish. When I put all of the pieces of the puzzle together and asked my grandmother about the source of these words, she only shook her head and changed the subject to the weather and how it affects her bursitis...

When she called yesterday, she asked in her scratchy voice:

"Hey Namaste--tell me some-thin' , hunny. I been mean-in' 'ta ask you if you been plan-in' 'ta head back on over 'ta Isssss-ra-el soon?"

"Yeah, Grammie," I replied. "I am planning to return to Israel after the New Year."

Suddenly the pitch of her voice grew a little bit higher:

"Hunny! Now tell me why you keep on go-in' back over 'der? What you think you have 'ta prooove be-in' over 'der? Itz dang-er-ous over 'der, hunnnnny!"

Obviously, there are so many ways I could answer the question. But I decided to package it all up and put it in a language that my grandmother could clearly understand.

"Well, Grammie. I'm going back there because Bethlehem is where Jesus was born, you know?"

"I know, I know, hunny," she replied.

"And my way of looking at it is that if the place is good enough for Jesus, then it's good enough for me."

"Ohhhhhhh," she said.

"And I get to live with Jesus' children and grandchildren there, Grammie. I live there because it is important for making peace," I continued.

"So, it's like you're a meeeeeeeee-ssion-ary," she said rather wistfully. (Yes, I think she was saying "missionary".)

"That's exactly right," I replied, realizing that the conversation would soon be over. "I'm a missionary of peace and tolerance, just like Jesus."

"Well, when you go back over 'der, I want you 'ta go back 'ta Rome," she said, "I want you 'ta bring home more of 'dat Holy Wad-der 'dis time, so 'dat I can give it 'ta 'da new Prieeeeeest at 'da new church 'dat 'dey built..."

I obviously didn't feel the need to remind her of the significant distance between Jerusalem and Rome...

Instead, I promised that I would make a special trip to the Vatican just for her, and bring home plenty of Holy Water for all of her libational needs...

Simply because I know from direct childhood experience that Holy Water helps with all possible ailments, including a nasty case of 'da slotchka...



Arjewtino said...

Great post, I love how you captured your grandma's personality.

Bring me back some kugel.

Alan Ward said...

Been in Rome earlier this year. Managed to keep clear of holy water - and of any other holyness. :D

On the other hand, there are some great kebabs to be had in Rome these days ...

Namaste said...

kugel and kabob. I can think of nothing better...