Pieces of Me

Es una manguera. It's my first thought.

My second? Amazement that I remembered the word at all. Yesterday, I couldn't think of the Spanish word for "sink."

My first language was Spanglish. My father and his family were from northern Mexico. My mother, a first generation Mexican-American who had never been taught Spanish. My parents married right out of high school and I spent the first three years of my life living with them in my grandparents' home.

My grandmother spoke no English. My mother, no Spanish.

Until I was in kindergarten, she was really one of the few people I spoke English with at all. It was English at home and Spanish on the weekends we spent with my dad's side of the family. By the time I reached kindergarten, my grandmother had passed away, and with her one of the many reasons to think and speak in the language of my history.

My sisters and I grew up up with directives like, "Ninas, portanse bien." Our elders didn't fight it when we responded with "Yes, Tia. We will behave". We felt special at our elementary school in the white suburbs when we would say things like "Guelo" and "Tio" and then explain to our peers that we were couldn't play with them on Sunday because we had family dinner with our grandfather at our uncle's house.

No, next Sunday either. Every Sunday was for la familia.

As a small child, Spanish required no thought. I could toggle back and forth between languages with no conscious effort. But Thanksgiving dinners of enchiladas and empanadas only caused stress for those who had prepared the meal as the rest of us wondered out loud how we were going to explain to the kids at school next week why we didn't have turkey and stuffing like they did.

My aunt taught us to say all of our prayers in Spanish and would kiss us every night during out sleepovers, leaving the room with a, "Hasta manana."

"Si Diosito quiere." If God wants it that way. It was the response were were taught and one that even my youngest sisters, who never learned Spanish, can still say to this day with a native accent.

But years passed. Weekends at my tia and tio's house were replaced with jobs and responsibility. English soon took over my thoughts, making me question every word when tripping over my own tongue in an attempt to tell one of my relatives how school was going.

"Compre una nueva tapa," I remember telling my aunt once on the telephone. She gently corrected me. I had purchased a new top? Like a T-shirt, right?

"That's a camiseta, m'ija."

I didn't blame her for laughing. It just served as another reminder that my grasp on the language I had grown up with was slowly slipping away.  I thought about a Halloween photo of my half-black nephew as a baby. He was dressed as an Oreo cookie. I wondered, briefly, how many "a-HAH's" I would get if I dressed my kid as a coconut. It really wouldn't be worth it unless I got a few laughs.

My daughter looks over my shoulder as I type, sitting on the couch next to her as she colors.

"Mama," she says. "What's that? Is it a hose"

For a moment I consider telling her the Spanish word. Manguera. I think about the hot summer days and shrieks of bilingual joy as my cousins and I turned the hose on each other in the  backyard. I think of my father and his unexpected passing when she was just six months old and how she probably would have asked me that question in Spanish if he was still with us.

But he's not. And I can't pass on a language my own tongue and brain fight over every time I attempt to speak it. I can, however, teach her what I know, even if it's only pieces of the language I once thought in.

"Yes baby. It's a hose." I turn to look at her. "Can you say manguera?"

She repeats the word.

Pieces will be enough. And I will celebrate every single one.

This post was written for The Red Dress Club weekly memoir prompt. This week writer's were asked to explore memories triggered by the photo at the beginning of this post.