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Forgotten Language

You can't spell 'butterfly' without b-a-d


Here's my thing: I used to be a Spanish interpreter. I swear this is true. I studied Spanish in high school, which was almost unnecessary since I lived in LA then, where Spanish is pretty much the primary language. I continued to study it in college, though not seriously until my second freshman year, when I'd decided to take college itself seriously. By then, I'd moved to San Diego, which, let's face it, might as well be deep-fried and served with a guacamole side. Last November, when Lary and Grant were driving back from Tijuana, which is a decent bike ride south of San Diego, they took the San Diego Freeway north and didn't notice they were out of Mexico until they saw the two blinking, massive metal boobs of the San Clemente nuclear facility in the distance. At that point, they knew they had to turn back to pick up Daniel, whom they'd misplaced somewhere in Balboa Park on their way down.

So yeah, I spoke Spanish at one time, and maybe that language is still in my head somewhere, with all the correct conjugations and tildes in place, but as of this moment, the only thing I can remember to say in Spanish is, "I forgot the entire Spanish language." I said this recently to Omar, the Cuban dude who runs my favorite thrift store. He was talking to my 5-year-old daughter, who speaks many languages, including Bird. It turns out Omar is fluent in Bird as well, and the two of them spent our entire visit chirping to each other like little parakeets.

Then Omar said something to me in Spanish, and I again told him, "I forgot the entire Spanish language," but he just kept talking to me, because Omar doesn't believe me when I say I forgot. "Really," I insist, "I forgot. I speak German as well, and every month I fly to Germany where I have to speak German, so I don't remember the Spanish language." It doesn't help my case that I've said all this to him in perfect Spanish. It doesn't help, either, that I've always understood every word he's ever said to me, all while insisting I no longer speak Spanish.

"The only thing you forgot," he said to me, "is that you remember." Then he went back to speaking Bird with Mae.

I pulled out my calendar just then and saw that Mae had covered the month of December in drawings of princesses, as well as her name in a florid, curlicue script. Twelve months ago, it was stick people, then by September she was augmenting her people with bows and ruffles on their hair and clothes. Now she's much better, and soon the stick people will be gone altogether. So I follow Mae around, collecting the stick people feverishly, knowing that their time on this earth is limited. I put them in plastic boxes. Mae is prolific, though, and I need more boxes.

Now Mae is writing stories to accompany her drawings. They are like haiku poetry: "I went to the park and saw a butterfly. It landed on my finger. I named the butterfly Betty and let the butterfly go." The stories are rife with the most lovely misspellings. She spells "saw" s-o-l, exactly how she pronounces it. I don't correct her. She will learn my language soon enough. Right now, she is teaching me hers. Oh, "BADRF" means "butterfly" in Mae speak, I discovered. I love that. I want to cling to it. I want to put it on a satin pillow and surround it with soft lighting.

But soon she'll ask me how to spell it the same way everyone else does, and I'll have to tell her. So I keep her current writings with me, preserved, kind of like how those 800-year-old Indian chiefs preserve their tribal tongues for the benefit of future generations -- not so much so they can communicate with each other outwardly but with themselves inwardly. So they can remember who they are. Another example is Switzerland, where I learned to speak German, where there are four national languages, one of which nobody even speaks anymore. It exists because two Swiss mummies arise from an archive somewhere every decade or so to defend against any campaign that threatens to remove the language from its official status, and to create a couple of stirrings throughout the country to relearn it. Occasionally someone actually does.

So that will be me. I'll be the mummy at the archives preserving a forgotten language, ready to reteach it when the day comes -- and it will, it comes for all of us -- when my daughter forgets who she is, when she thinks no one understands her, when she feels like she is reaching, but there is nothing there to grasp. I lay awake worrying sometimes that I won't be there to take her in my arms -- or worse, that she'll be so lost she won't want me to -- so I have these here plastic boxes, see, brimming with stories of butterflies and princesses, to remind my daughter of who she is, to reintroduce her to her own language. To show her that she is not forgotten. "The only thing you forgot," I'll tell her, "is that you remember."

Hollis Gillespie is the author of Confessions of a Recovering Slut and Other Love Stories and Bleachy-Haired Honky Bitch: Tales From a Bad Neighborhood. Her commentaries can be heard on NPR's "All Things Considered."

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