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Personal Essays

My Father Speaks Another Language

It’s been said that parents just don’t understand. But what about when it’s the other way around?

My father speaks another language. I don’t know how long he has spoken it, or where it came from really. I only know it’s how he talks, and in time, I learned to adjust.

‘How do you feel, Dad?’

He gestures loosely with his hand. ‘Eh, scrubbitty bubbity.’

‘What do you think of this, Dad?’

He looks up briefly from the game. ‘Erf. Bloppitty hoppinplop.’

‘Could I do anything? Could I make your life better?’

He sits on the couch listening to talk radio, a glass of wine in his hand. He smiles. But what does that mean?

I guess it’s been hard to communicate in a language all his own, because after a while, he just gave up. Oh, he learned to say a few English phrases. ‘How’s school?’ ‘How’s your car holding up?’ ‘Let me get your mother.’ But those run out fast.

‘I’m fine,’ I say when I call the house. ‘Everything’s fine.’

‘Ergh.’ He is a silent for a while. ‘Whoo-de-whaddy?’

‘I don’t know.’ Silence. ‘Is mom around?’

My mother is the only one who can translate what my father says. Over the years, she has learned his bent syllables, his fist-waving and the pauses, his strange verbal mishmash.

‘Do you want anything from the store, sweetie?’ she asks him.

He stops mowing the lawn for a moment. ‘Blof bedoff.’

‘What’s that?’ I ask her.

‘A Spicy V-8.’

In the evenings, my parents watch Seinfeld re-runs. ‘Oh-oh-oh, this is the one where Elaine does the crazy dance!’ says my mother.

My dad mumbles something and pounds his fist on the sofa.

‘What’s he doing?’ I whisper to my mom.

‘He likes this episode,’ she says. ‘He thinks it’s funny.’

‘Jesus, Dad, why can’t you just laugh?’ I look at my mom and roll my eyes. Sometimes my mother and I make fun of the way my father talks. We even do imitations when he’s gone, talking nonsense and laughing our stomachs sore.

Dad shoots me a wounded look. ‘Floosh de blue de bluster?’

My mother, sitting between us, pats his hand. ‘He says why can’t you just listen?’

My mother takes pride in speaking my father’s language. She feels good when she can be of service. She has always been this way, but it got stronger as she got older. Suddenly she revels in serving dinner, washing dishes, suddenly she would rather break her hip than let a wine glass go empty. I am beginning to suspect this is due to the cosmic frustration she feels at not having grandchildren. She doesn’t say this, but she kind of does.

Dad tells a story at dinner, and I turn to my mother for a translation.

‘He says you should get married soon,’ she says, piling my plate with asparagus. ‘He says if you don’t have children by 35, your organs will shrivel up and die.’

‘Dad didn’t say that!’ I tell her.

My mother shrugs. She can be an unreliable translator.

‘Did you hear that, Dad? Did you hear what mom tried to pull?’

My dad smiles and shakes his head. ‘Ruh-roh, honey. Robble gobble, please?’

And my mother passes him the mashed potatoes.

 

Growing up, I thought no one could understand their fathers. I figured that’s how dads talked. It wasn’t until I spent time with other families that I realized mine was different.

My friend Mary played computer games with her father, who spun her around the room on his shoulders and called her ‘princess.’

My friend Stacy had a brilliant father, a professor, who quizzed her at every meal. ‘What’s the capital of California?’

‘Sacramento!’ she answered proudly, a mouth full of Brussels sprouts.

I marveled at the way they communicated. In full sentences, with gusto. Without the aid of my mother, exchanges with my father were all punctuation marks.

‘?’ he asked

‘?!’ I asked.

‘!’ he said.

‘…’ I said, and eventually, we stomped off, dissatisfied.

On Saturdays, when my father drove Stacy and Mary and me to the mall, I turned up the stereo as loud as I could, hoping to drown out whatever weird sounds he might make. My friends knew he didn’t speak the language, but I didn’t like to call attention to it.

When we arrived at the mall, I paused at his window.

‘Hey, Dad, we’ll be back in an hour, okay?’

My father stared straight ahead and said something I couldn’t decipher.

‘What did he say?’ Stacy asked me as we left.

‘He says it’s fine,’ I said, never looking behind to see if he’d wait, because I knew he would.

 

I’m getting older now, and it worries me that I still cannot speak to my father. I thought something would change as I got older, that some gift of time or maturity would unlock the mystery of his language.

Sometimes, just for practice, I sit down with him and pretend we can communicate.

‘Sassity frassity blue,’ he says.

‘Really?’ I say, nodding. ‘That’s interesting. You know, I saw a good movie the other day.’

‘Ram stam stafferpants.’

‘Yeah, it was good. You should see it.’

These are nice moments together. But it’s only so long before one of us gets offended. We are too sensitive, too willing to read a sea of meaning in each other’s sigh.

‘Wally wally nincompoop.’

‘I am not! I don’t know why I tell you anything.’ And I yell for back-up. ‘Mom!’

My dad slumps back in his chair, misunderstood again.

It doesn’t seem fair that this could happen. How could I live all these years with my father and never learn to interpret his words? Why had he never tried to speak to me? My mother says that when he was younger, he was softer and easier to understand, but as he grew older, his vocabulary dried up, he relied more on this language, these stupid nonsense words I can’t crack.

‘Mom, I’ve been thinking that it’s time Dad tried to understand me.’ I told her this after dinner in the kitchen, while she was washing dishes.

‘Your father does understand you. He understands every word you say. You’re the one who doesn’t understand him.’

This annoyed me, but I played it cool. ‘Look, I don’t want to talk about semantics.’

My mother raised one eyebrow. ‘You don’t?’

I hate it when my mom gets clever. ‘Okay, I do want to talk about semantics. This is entirely about semantics. But the point is that I can’t communicate with him. Like the other day, I told him about something, and he got all mad. He started ranting in gibberish and his veins poked out of his neck—’

‘And he pounded his fist on the table? That means he’s scared,’ my mother said, toweling off a plate.

‘Scared? What’s he scared of?’

‘Scared of lots of things. Scared of what might happen to you. Scared of letting you make your own mistakes.’

‘Jesus. It doesn’t look like he’s scared. It looks like he wants to kill me.’

‘Well, I know. But where your father comes from, that’s what people do when they’re scared. Personally, I’d rather he give expensive gifts when he’s scared, but what can you do? I didn’t invent the language.’

My mother finished the dishes and began making dessert.

‘Okay, well, how about this?’ I asked. ‘I told him about this guy I was seeing and he just stared into space. Like he didn’t even hear me.’

‘Oh, yeah, I know that one. That means it’s hard to let you grow up.’

‘That’s it?’

‘Well, it makes him think about sex, too. And honey, that’s really awkward.’

This was interesting. Was it possible I had misinterpreted not just my father’s words but his gestures too? The sighs and the evasions and the disapproving glances? Maybe it was me that needed to try harder. After all, I wasn’t a kid anymore.

‘So when Dad yells at me about getting my car inspected—’

‘It’s because he wants to feel useful in your life.’

‘And when Dad makes me feel guilty for borrowing money—’

‘It’s because you’re sucking us dry.’ My mom winked at me. ‘Want some cheesecake?’

That night, I sat beside my father on the couch. My mother had gone to bed, so it was just the two of us. He was listening to talk radio, and I brought him a glass of wine.

‘Spronks,’ he said, smiling.

‘You’re welcome.’

We both kicked our feet up on the table. The show was the one with the brothers who know everything about cars. Neither my father nor I know much of anything about cars, and maybe that’s why we both like it. We learn new things this way. The older brother said something outrageous, and my father and I laughed.

‘Yonk stoop dees blues.’

I nodded. ‘I know.’