The water frightened me. When I was small, my father, whom I barely remember, would lift and carry me down to a dock that extended long out in to the river. And it was deep and green and completely opaque; so at odds with the tall apartments behind us. We looked across the wide water and I remember gasping, feeling what it would be like to fall into that water from the dock, several feet above the surface and float in the current and be lost.
“I won’t let that happen,” Father said. “Besides,” he continued, “I grew up on the water, sailing boats like those you see across in New Jersey,” he pointed. “So I’ve fallen in this river many times. And I’ve survived it. I’ll teach to you to swim. But I won’t do it here, because now, unlike when I was your age, the water is too dirty. Damn the polluters.” He cursed and said what sounded like “magar”, something in another language I didn’t know.
“What did you say, Father?” I asked him. But he just shook his head.
“That’s not English.”
He said simply, “No, it’s Rom and you don’t need to know that.” He looked so severe that I didn’t question, although I had heard my father’s sisters speaking it and my mother singing in Irish and longed to know what the words meant. “You’ve got to speak English, girlie.”
“I do speak English, Father. But I want….”
“No,” he said sharply, and I stopped trying.
“Look,” he said, “you’ve got my hair,” ruffling my black curls, “and your mother’s eyes, and they will get you far in this world. But if you start speaking Rom or the Gaelic, life will be hard for you.”
We stood looking down river toward the city, New York City, for a while. Then my father lifted me, kissed me on the forehead, and set me back on my feet.
“Now, run along home,” he said. “I’ve got to get to work.”
I turned and began to walk away. At the corner, I stopped to look back at him, but he was gone. And in my memory that was the last time I saw him. I had walked back home, to meet my older brother Isaac coming in from his baseball practice. His good friend Finn, whom I secretly loved, was with him, and they were drinking milk and eating cookies that our Grandmother Radha had made. She was sitting in her rocking chair, smiling her lovely smile. Finn handed me a glass of milk and a sugar cookie.
Radha said to us all, “Tell me about your school today,” but she looked only at me, and I leaned against her lap.
Instead of answering, I asked her, “Grandma, won’t you teach me your language?”
She frowned. “No, I can’t, my doll, your parents won’t allow it,” and as my father had, she muttered some word foreign to me. “Someday you’ll learn, so be easy about it. So come, tell about your school.”
I thought about it, hesitating. I watched Isaac and Finn begin to study together. I felt like I had to make something up. Did I? I thought about my classes. “We learned in history about when different people came to the new world, and how they spoke all different languages. Some learned English, like our people were forced to do when the English took over our country. But some stayed in small groups and made their own worlds and excluded others.”
“Do you think that was good, child?” she asked.
“Yes,” I answered. “Look at how our people were forced to be slaves to the English and they took our language and customs? That wasn’t right!” I said firmly.
Her smile faded. “My bright golden angel. That’s not what you learned in school.”
I saw that Finn watched me from the corner of his eye. I leaned closer to Radha and smelled her perfume.
“Did you even go to school today?” she whispered. “You can tell me.”
“Oh, I did.” I replied honestly. And I truly had. My mind wandered in class; I scratched in my notebook, dreams and spells and just whatever came to me. I turned the page when the teacher came around, hating her watchful eyes. She knew I was making up my own lessons but there was a look in her eye that approved, coming from deep within her. After class one day, she handed me a small book with a black cover. The Mabinogion, it said. On my way home that day, on the subway, I began reading. Now, I slipped it from where it was hidden in my notebook and showed it to my Grandmother.
“Ah, that.” She patted my hand. “That’s from the Welsh. They’re our distant neighbors. Cousins, if you will. Many of them have hair like yours. Is there a tale in it that you like best?”
“Oh…Blodeuwedd, the owl queen. And Branwen. And King Arthur’s tale, of course. It’s so sad! Grandma, do you know the Welsh language too?”
“No, I don’t,” she said.
“I wish Father would let me learn another language,” I whispered to her.
Her arm came around my shoulder and she pulled me close. In my ear, she whispered, “I can teach you the language of the trees, the stones, and the water, if you like.”
“Yes!” I said, hushed.
“No one would know except the two of us,” she said back to me, her voice also low. “It’s a language of the mind.” I sat further onto her lap and our foreheads pressed together. “I taught your mother too, so she can’t object to it. And we don’t have to tell your father. Would you like a lesson now?”
My eyes shone. “I would indeed!”
“Put your books away and change your school clothes and meet me in the study.”
I whispered again, “Can you teach Finn also?”
Radha smiled and said, “Someday, child, you’ll teach him.” She kissed my cheek. “Go, change.”
About the author:
Jeanine DeNitto is a Veterinary Assistant and works for a mobile veterinary vaccine clinic. She lives in Central New Jersey.