The walk of temptation was extraordinary for a five year old. My mom parked the Chevy Impala in front of Ben Franklin that Saturday morning. I could already see the candy through the double glass doors. My impatient feet jittered up and down next to the parking meter as she rummaged through the bottom of her purse for a quarter. I rolled my eyes as she pushed aside Kleenex and breath mints. “C’mon,” I would never say out loud, but released through the clenching and unclenching of my chubby fingers. The coin dropped and the red flag moved aside. We were free. I raced past the front cashier and stood in front of the penny candy. If I saw it today, with grown-up eyes, the square plastic bins stacked on an end cap, might not seem so magical, but then, oh, then, it was glorious! It was Tinkerbell’s wand waving over a colorful rainbow of sugar. I could feel my chin drop. “Wait!” I said as she led me down the aisle. “Can’t we just get a little bit..just one color even…just a piece of red…” “Next time,” she said, “We have better things to do.” Better things, I grumbled underneath my breath. Impossible, I thought. And dragged my bumper tennis shoes along. The aisle became stacked with toys. Beautiful, plastic covered toys! Yes, I thought. These must be the better things. I began to touch everything. I wanted it all. Or anything! Something pink and shiny! Please, I begged, perhaps out loud, or just with heart-reaching urgency. I felt her hand on my shoulder again. “Better…” she promised. It couldn’t possibly be, I thought. Yet, she had never lied to me. But here, in the center aisle of the Ben Franklin, I must admit, I had my doubts. We walked through the back door. A large pillared building stood in front of us. I began to near the grass, but she pulled me to the sidewalk. “You need to see all of it,” she said. We stood in front. The Alexandria Public Library. It was beautiful, but what was inside? “Books,” she said. “They give them to you. With just your name.” I could only breathe the word, “OHHHHH…” We walked up the stairs and opened the doors. “It smells like words,” I said. She smiled and led me down the stairs to the children’s section. I could barely move. Every spine, every cover, called to me. “Take your time,” she said. Each letter tugged at my sleeve until my arms were filled. I signed (printed) my name on the small mildewed card. My heart beat sugared from the inside. “Do you want me to help you carry them?” I shook my head no and carefully maneuvered myself and the precious cargo down the stairs. I started walking up the sidewalk. “Don’t you want to cut through?” she asked, pointing at Ben Franklin. “No,” I said, “this is better.” We walked the long way to the car. Books in hand, I held the keys to the kingdom.
There is a reason we call it spelling. The magic of the letters, when put together to form words, can indeed cast a magical spell within and around us.
She stood in front of the class of first graders. Mrs. Bergstrom. Tall and straight. Not with a robe, nor a hat, but she did have a wand. Some might remember it as just a teaching pointer. But not me. As she tapped it against each letter chalked perfectly on the blackboard, white dust — fairy dust I was sure — sprung into the air. We were spelling. And it was magic.
That magic moved from the blackboard to our Big Chief notebooks. Then marched with us single file to the library down the terrazzo halls of Washington Elementary. With each book we moved into neighborhoods. Made friends with dogs. Rode horses with cowboys and bloomed into teenage girls, and boys with paper routes. Everything was possible in the words.
I’d like to think it still is. As I type each morning, I take that magical journey. With each letter I make a path. Sprinkling it with a stroke of Mrs. Bergstrom. Because it’s all beautiful, even the hardest of days — when wanded into the words of “look what we survived,” and “look what we’ve become” — are nothing short of magical! I still believe it. I have to believe it. I hope we all can.
Because she didn’t just give us the happy words. She taught us how to spell. How to make our way through it all. Today, I too will stand straight and tall. And I promise, I will not waste the magic.
I spend a good percentage of my life lost in translation. That seems reasonable, living in another country, but it has actually been the case for most of my life.
And I don’t mean this in a bad way. Maybe because my mother was so different from her siblings and not only survived, but thrived, it made it all seem possible. She spoke a language of fashion and make-up, of poetry and romance. A language I understood. A connection so familiar that it turned this “other” into something spectacular. I didn’t need to be understood by everyone, because I was understood by her. A safety net I count on still.
Perhaps it was this security that set me free.
This French that I think I’m speaking, is mostly understood by my husband. I often hear him repeat to others the very thing I heard myself saying. And I could let that bother me, or I can choose to see it for how special it actually is, to have this one human really understand me.
I stumble upon new words every day. Not ones I hear in conversation. No, those are rare. So often when I ask what does that mean, I get the response, “it really doesn’t translate.” And I must admit that is a lonely feeling. To be left hanging, alone, with no connecting words. But the other day, I found one. Such a gorgeous word. Chamade. Even without knowing, it sounded familiar. I looked up the meaning. Chamade — a wildly beating heart. It was my “jimbly.” My racing, excited, almost nervous, anticipating, open, risking, love-filled heart. Inside this word, these beautiful letters, I was not lost in translation, but found.
I shared my glorious discovery with my husband. He smiled and said that his mother loved that word. I was, am, connected, still and again. My heart beats wildly!
The first time I visited New England was with my mother. I was just out of college. Up until then all of my “vacation” time had been used to have surgery. To say we both fell in love immediately would not be an exaggeration. The main street was lined with seemingly freshly painted white houses. Porched and welcoming. A street sweeper (by hand) waved us in. Washed windows revealed the contents. Clothes. Beautiful clothes for sale lived in this house. My mother looked at me and beamed. We walked the white stairs and opened the door. Was that the slight hum of angels singing? Or just my mother’s heart.
It was all like this – this understated elegance. Lobster on paper plates. Lawns mowed. Cars washed. Nothing gilded. Nothing shouted – it wasn’t necessary, it showed.
I visited again. Several times. I have never harbored a New England address. And though I may have never actually “there,” I have lived in it, here.
There are so many gorgeous places around the world. I have been lucky enough to visit so many of them. And as the saying goes, “if you’re lucky enough to be here, you’re lucky enough.”
I have, in the past, been guilty of waiting — waiting to be happy if I was in the right place. I’m learning, daily, to create those places, those feelings, that joy, that comfort, in the exact place that I am. Making the hotel breakfasts. Dressing up to go to the grocery store. Eating slowly. Seeing the day for the first time, because, aren’t we all? Today is really our vacation from yesterday. Our journey towards tomorrow. I’m going to take those photo opportunities along the way.
The electrician was here the other day. He finished his job. I don’t know his name. But I invited him inside. He vacationed for a few brief moments at our kitchen table. A cup of coffee. A plate of cookies. I smiled, hoping, for these few moments, that maybe I was his New England. He asked where I was from. And, as so many people do, asked which place I liked better, the US or France. How could I explain that I was trying to live in the best of places. That I carried a piece of it all within me. That I was a French breakfast in a New England town. A relic of Rome. Dancing to the joyful music in Spain. Dangling my feet in a summer Minnesota lake. Standing in front of my own painted “Mona Lisa.” My heart jimbled at the thought. I could hear the angels softly sing, my mother now one of them. “I love it all,” I said. And meant it.
I’m here. And I am home.
A passing moo!It was the first language I ever tried to learn — cow.
Of course the car windows weren’t automatic. We had never even heard of such a thing. You had to turn the handle round and round to make the window go down. (I think I still make the cranking motion to indicate opening a car window.)
There were lots of fields en route to my grandparent’s farm. Sitting in the back seat of the chevy Impala, I waited to see them — the giant black and white beasts. If I caught a glimpse at 55mph, I cranked the window and urged my mother to slow down. I sucked in a giant breath and mooed out the window. They stopped chewing for one brief moment. Staring at me with such confusion. Almost bewildered by what was coming out of my mouth.
I stare into that same look quite often here in France. With deep breathed delivery, I converse in what sounds to me like perfect French, but I understand what they are hearing — a passing moo.
Some days, I really have to crank to return to that childlike confidence. That willingness to open myself to the world around me. To be brave. Vulnerable. Present.
I suppose we all have to do that for varying reasons. Every day.
The sun is up. I crank my arm round and round with youthful vigor! I am ready! I am here! Mooooooo!