Two of my cousins, my brother, and I spent many summer days in the care of our grandmother, an ornery Cuban woman who mopped daily and wore her housecoat low-cut on purpose. Her name was Evelina, but everyone called her "Mama." We knew to put our feet up when the mop slid our way and to sit quietly during The Price is Right. We also knew that not a word was to be uttered in English. If so, we got kicked outside. We were raised in Miami, so outside in July and August was not where we wanted to be.
My grandmother, with the stomp of her slipper, reminded us that we could speak English at school and outside, but in her house, it was Espa?ol.
My parents are not as demanding about their granddaughter's bilingualism. They would never dream of kicking this child-who-hung-their-moon outside. Their approach has been to encourage Maria's use of the familial language by teaching her traditional songs, ranging from the hysterical to the poetic. Her Spanish always improves when they are around, though I, in the tradition of my grandmother, usually stomp a foot to remind them that Spanish, not English, is to be spoken when they are here – or when we are in Miami.
As I write this, my father is loading his truck with Cuban coffee, guava pastries, tropical produce, and countless blank DVDs. He will be spending a few weeks with us in Tennessee, so I know that the lag in Maria's Spanish this summer – which is my lazy fault – is about to be made up. It is hard to be her prime teacher in a language I speak, but do not always think in. My father, on the other hand, is a limitless font.
He teaches her Spanish songs that my mother says are generations old and traditional rhymes and Spanish prayers. She remembers them all and will recite them out of nowhere, weeks and months after she learned them.
Of course, Maria also picks up his accent.
Last year, she told me she saw his "pee cup.'' His what? To our relief, she meant "pick-up,'' which sounds like "pee cup'' when he says it.
Growing up I never thought passing on Spanish would be work. I imagined, if I thought about it at all, that it would happen organically, the same way I learned it or in the same way other families pass down Nonna's marinara recipe or shared Seder rituals. It just happens.
But, I live far from the mother country (that would be Miami) and my familia. So we have to plan it, work it, promote it. Maria attends a Spanish immersion pre-school, we buy bilingual books, download bilingual and Spanish songs, and I repeat myself in Spanish moments after I have said something in English. It is work in a way I never dreamt. It is so much habla habla I want to tell myself to shut up sometimes. It has paid off, though, because my chiquitica understands most of what I say to her in Spanish. It's a delicious victory.
I know that sometimes she doesn't get my father on the first go – he who is part hummingbird, part puppy, part Rain Man.
But, it doesn't matter. Laughing needs no translation.
As for that Cuban grandmother of mine, she fooled us for many years pretending she didn't understand English. When I was about 14 and snotty, I was on the telephone. My grandmother wanted me to hang up. I told my friend: "This old woman is driving me crazy.'' My grandmother immediately said: "Oye! Me no drive you crazy!'' Snagged.
Sometimes, when my husband rolls his eyes at me, I wag my finger and borrow the line.
Mama would be so proud.