Today, June 15th marks year 4 of life without my mom, my eema.
This is for her.
When I was a little girl, my mom spoke broken English in a thick, Israeli accent (that I adored) and even though she would eventually learn to speak English by watching American TV sitcoms, Bewitched, I Dream of Jeanie and I Love Lucy, she still looked and sounded very much like a foreigner in the San Fernando Valley where I grew up.
I remember watching people treat my mom like she was less than on several occasions. People who happened to speak English as their first language and couldn’t seem to fathom how someone might need them to speak a little slower. Their lack of patience and eye rolling made me livid. My little body would shake with anger when I saw someone treat her like she was stupid. She’s not stupid!She’s just not from here! Then I’d “translate” for her. I put “translate” in quotes because I didn’t translate in Hebrew, which I didn’t speak. I simply repeated what the person had just said. For some reason when the words came out of my mouth, eema understood me perfectly.
She always understood me.
And I effortlessly had the patience for her that I struggle to give to myself. Why is that?
I’m currently stumbling around the Italian language in Italy in my 10th year of attempting to speak it. I seem to be of the opinion that when I want something I should immediately excel at that said something. I love the Italian language and want to speak it, therefore, it should come to me as easily as uno, due, tre. It hasn’t. Not at year one, and not at year 10. There’s some change, si. Some improvement, si. But it’s not happening at the swift speed that I’d like.
Why don’t I already know this thing I want to know? NOWWWWWW?! Of course I know I could study with a teacher and study properly but that feels a lot like school to me and the thought of it makes me want to ditch class and go to the beach. Instead, I study every day for thirty minutes using the Pimsleur method. I think it’s working, but again, it’s working so slowly I feel like I’m trying to run a marathon under the Adriatic sea. At least it’s warm.
I love my amici & familiga Italiani but I sometimes wonder, since I can’t share with them my stories and ideas and my sparkling wit, I mean, can they even tell who I am? My humor and my stories are such a big part of me, if they can’t see that, what are they seeing exactly? Just a smily, bubbly American who tries a lot? Can they really see me?
I think about my mom a lot when i’m here. I think about my mom, a lot when i’m everywhere but there is something extra that happens when I’m in Italy.
My mom, my eema, left her home in Israel, to come to America when she was in her late 30s and she didn’t speak a lick of English. She ran away from an abusive husband, taking her two small children, who would soon become my half brothers, to America where her sister, my aunt Aliza, started her new life. My aunt introduced my mom to my dad, a nice, single Jewish boy who lived in apartment building near her. Even though my dad didn’t speak any Hebrew, they fell in love immediately. Isn’t that romantic? Yes, that would make for a nice love story, but that’s not exactly the way it went down. At least not the falling-in-love bit. Theirs, alas, was not a great romantic love. But it was not full of battles either.
It was something in between.
Eema was an elegant, exotic beauty, unlike any woman my dad had ever seen. And my dad, as advertised, was indeed, a nice, Jewish boy. Eema, on top of being a stunner was an awesome cook and she made dinner for my dad for their first date which went over well. My dad, possibly intoxicated by her beauty and an exceptional Mediterranean meal, stuck around even after meeting my mom’s highly “energetic” children. Eema told me many times how impressed she was with how my dad was immediately so calm, good and patient with the boys. Two weeks later, it appeared that my dad was not ready to say goodbye to my mom, who was going to have to return to Israel for good. So, instead of saying goodbye, they said hello. Two weeks after their first date they got married in Aliza’s backyard, eema stayed in the country and within a year out popped yours truly.And even though neither of them would profess to be the love of each other’s lives, my dad loved and raised my brothers as if they were his own (I didn’t even know they were my “half” brothers until I was 12) and my parents managed to stay married for 4 years. Eema did learn English, still, it seemed as if my parents never really spoke the same language. Although i’m not sure that had anything to do with words at all.
Each year I travel to Italy with my Italian husband to visit his family and I look forward to these trips in a big way. In the month or two that I’m here, I’m the foreigner. I use the wrong words, mispronounce things and in my effort to understand quickly, respond to a question with an enthusiastic, “grazie!” Sometimes there’s uproarious laugher around me and I don’t know if I missed the joke or if I am the joke. It makes me curious, even after becoming an American citizen, did my mom always feel like an outsider? I wonder how often she lived a day in America and felt unseen. We were impossibly close and I learned how to say many things in Hebrew,
side note: it’s true what they say about a kid’s mind absorbing languages so quickly. When I was six I spent a summer in Israel with eema and I came back fluently speaking Hebrew! Which I swiftly forgot after non use. Still, I learned without even TRYING!
Anyhow, ours was a mostly English speaking home. Unless eema got angry and yelled (most likely at my brother, Miram) then we’d have what I call Ricky Ricardo Moments. My dad never learned a word of Hebrew. I love my dad. He’s a writer like me and he’s funny and kind. I still visit him once a week but I never understood why he never attempted even just a few words in his wife’s native tongue.
It’s too difficult.
But couldn’t you have at least learned, ani ohev otach.
(I love you)
Shalom. I know Shalom.
Maybe part of me is trying to learn another language at mid life, not so much for the challenge (I really don’t think I’m so big on those) but for my eema. As I sit in our Italy apartment watching The Good Wife, Elementary and Bewitched reruns dubbed in Italian, I can catch many words and I get the meaning and I’m so proud of myself I give myself an award in my mind. (I’m a big fan of “mind awards” - I have thousands!) Now, every time I get my tenses right, every time I show up to a conversation and make an effort, I give myself that mind award because I’m proud of myself and I wish I could go back in time and tell eema that I’m proud of her too. Because it is difficult. But she did it. Her way. And I can only hope that she didn’t always feel like a foreigner in her own home.
In my brief, yearly outsider status, in my trying, it connects me to my mom in brand new ways and maybe, just maybe, that’s why I haven’t given up.
So, for that, my beautiful eema, and for so much, much more…