The summer I was fourteen, after our first nine months in America, my parents and I went back to Spain. When we returned to the U.S., our friends the Kendalls picked us up at the airport and took us home. After we had unpacked and readjusted to the tropical steaminess of Birmingham, Alabama, my mother said \”We must write a letter of thanks to the Kendalls.\”
With a year in an American school under my belt, my feelings of terror about functioning in an English-speaking world were beginning to abate. My father too, in his work as a musician, had achieved a degree of comfort with the language. But for some reason, this was not the case for my mother. Despite having studied Greek, Latin and French at university, despite being a well-read, intelligent person, English came slowly to her.
But that was o.k., because she had me. Since I was in school all day, she was pretty much on her own as far as spoken English went. But letters were different. Letters could be saved until I got home in the afternoon. And for reasons that I couldn\’t grasp at the time, I had grown to dread those letter-writing sessions.
\”Get a pen and a piece of paper,\” my mother said, \”and I will tell you what to say.\”
If my mother had simply said, \”Write a letter to the Kendalls thanking them for picking us up at the airport,\” I would have managed a simple letter that was within the confines of what I knew how to say. I remember doing that a lot in those days, in school work as well as around my classmates. I would take a mental inventory of the things I knew how to say–nouns, verbs, idiomatic expressions–and would then compose something that lay within that set of capabilities. In other words, I didn\’t start out with an idea, and then try to find ways to express it. I started out with what was possible, and then combined and recombined those elements to come up with something that would be appropriate to the situation.
The trouble with my mother was, she started out with what she wanted to say, in the way she wanted to say it, rather than with what she could say–or what I could say.
\”Write \’My very dear friends,\’\” she began. I wrote \”Dear friends.\”
\”Now say, \’Your generosity makes me ashamed.\’\”
I felt a wave of nameless aversion, coupled with obstinacy, wash over me. \”You can\’t say that in English,\” I muttered.
\”What do you mean, you can\’t say it. Can you say \’generosity\’?\” I nodded. \”Do you know the word for \’ashamed \’?\” I nodded again. \”Well, then,\” she commanded, \”say it!\”
\”No, I can\’t\”
\”Because you don\’t say things like that in English.\”
My mother would want to know why you didn\’t say those things in English, and all I could answer was that you just didn\’t. She would get angry, and I would become sullen. Somehow the letters always got written, but they took a toll on our relationship.
Many years later, when I knew that a language is more than words–that it is a way of thinking, an attitude towards the world, a way of being–I remembered the letter about generosity and shame. To express shame or embarrassment at being the recipient of another\’s kindness is not bizarre or crazy in Spanish. The speaker is simply saying that your kindness towards her puts her in the obligation of reciprocating said kindness, a thing that she, being so much less worthy a person than you, is incapable of doing. Hence the feelings of shame. (This way of putting things is, I feel sure, a legacy of the eight centuries of Arab domination in Spain.)
The \”shame\” letter was just one of the countless balancing acts I did during my teenage years, translating the culture that I was wading into to my mother, and translating my mother–who made a point of honor of not changing who she was–so that her American friends and (especially) my friends would not think she was insane.
Eventually, after I married and moved away, my mother had to write her own letters. Eventually, her efforts to steer me away from the dangers of excessive acculturation subsided. Many people found–and still find–my mother quaint, exotic, fascinating and original, and I can now accept that persona without cringing. However, when she asks me to look over her letters –overly effusive, baroque, emotional–I still want to yell \”but you can\’t say that in English!\”