January 26, 2011
I speak Latin, therefore I speak English
Seeing an older lady at the grocery store today reminded me of my own Grandmother. She came to the U.S. a few years after we did. At 70 years old, she was eager to learn the culture, to try everything new, and to live the American dream. My Grandmother had lived through the Holocaust, moving from town to town by horse and carriage to avoid getting caught by the Nazis, survived Communism, had all kinds of health issues, and yet she was the most positive person I have ever known!
She lived with us for a while, but always wanted a place of her own. Being an incredibly social person, and always living in a metropolitan city, she was very depressed living in the Orange County’s suburbia. So, when we found her a place in a big apartment building that was known to house quite a bit of Orange County’s Russian population, she was ecstatic. Those were her requirements: big apartment building, Russians, if they are Russian Jews even better, but she was ready to tolerate any Russians.
As we were busy moving her in, she was busy making new friends. By the end of moving day, she had already made friends with – her words exactly: “the nosy red-head upstairs, the deaf one down the hall, the one in the wheelchair who has a nice looking husband, and the psychic professor who would like to tell me my future.” My Grandma had a thing against people’s names, she only referred to them by their attributes, mishaps, or hair color. As we found out later, apparently Grandma was using the wheelchair’s husband for rides to the Russian store, since she didn’t drive a car. I don’t even want to know what she gave him in return. As she liked to say quite frequently, “his wife doesn’t do anything, but complain and bitch, she won’t even have sex with him”, which was more than enough information that I needed to know.
When my Grandma passed away years later, going through her belongings we found a box that contained only what I can describe as: a lifetime supply of Condoms! They were also Russian, Communist-issued Condoms that I spoke about in my earlier posts. I believe that she was smuggling them from my parents! Not only was she smuggling condoms every time we had her over, but somehow other things would go missing after she’d leave as well. For example, rolls of toilet paper would be gone, and you know how big all Russians are on toilet paper! After the sand paper we used back in the USSR, American toilet paper is like heaven to us… I am not sure if she was re-distributing it between all the Russians in her building, or saving it for a rainy day, but a roll here and there was always missing. We never understood why she wouldn’t just ask us for it, or have us buy it at the store, we never said no to her, always took her shopping. Go figure…
Even though she didn’t have a car, somehow my Grandma got around to many places on her own. We did take her grocery shopping at least once a week, and there was nothing more hysterical than watching her shop. There were many times when I wanted to run out of the store out of sheer embarrassment, but held it together long enough to get her out of there. My Grandma didn’t speak English, but she did speak Russian, Yiddish and knew sign language. And when I say “sign language”, I mean literally using her hands to show, point, and demonstrate what she was talking about. Even though I was always right next to her in the supermarket, she would go up to people in the store and start asking them where the certain items were! And not just store employees either! If she couldn’t find anyone that worked there, she would just walk up to random strangers. Imagine a tiny, four-foot-ten-inches old lady coming up to you, waving her arms and hands violently in the air, pointing to random objects, meanwhile speaking Russian, Yiddish and her version of English! Most of the people had a look that only said one thing: Terror. The first time she did it, I explained to her that she shouldn’t do that, it scared people because they can’t understand her. “Nonsense, she looks Jewish, she must speak Yiddish!”, was her usual response. Or: “They understand my English when its accompanied by me pointing to items in the store.” How can anyone argue with that?
Grandma always reminded us that she could read, write and speak fluent English. You know why? Because she was a Dentist back in the Soviet Union, which meant that she learned how to write prescriptions in Latin, which was basically English! As much as we argued, and tried explaining to her that just because she learned some very basic Latin names for medications, did not mean that she could speak the English language, all to no avail… It was useless, she was a very strong and independent woman and insisted on doing everything herself. After a while, we just let her do her thing and just stood in the corner of the grocery store, waiting until the Manager announced: “Did anyone lose a Grandma that seems to be speaking a few foreign languages at once?”