Thanksgiving: A Day Like Any Other

When I heard the kids voices yesterday morning, it was 6:48. Like always. Our morning routine followed as every morning: get up and ready for the day; breakfast; snacks made and packed; a bit of piano practice; out the door at 8:00. It wasn’t until after my youngest and I dropped off the older two at school did my approach to this particular Thursday change.

“Mama,” asked my five-year-old, “ist heute Freitag?” Is today Friday?

“No, sweetheart,” I answered. “Not yet. It’s Thursday. Oh wait. It’s Thursday. Alida, it’s Thanksgiving! Happy Thanksgiving!”

Alida replied by scrunching up her face, her way of making it clear something was not adding up. “Aber Mama. Ssanksgiving war doch am Samstag!” But Mama. Ssanksgiving was on Saturday!

“Yeah, that’s when we celebrated Thanksgiving. But today is the actual holiday in the States. Grandma and Grandpa and all of your aunts and uncles and cousins will be celebrating together today.”

It still didn’t make sense. A major holiday (once upon a time for me) reduced (for my children) to just another Saturday get-together, never forgotten but always squeezed in among the other pre-Advent activities. Not only can my children with their German-forming tongues not properly say the word “Thanksgiving”, but it remains impossible for them to grasp the significance of this day for most Americans.

Alida moved on, chattering away about this and that. My thoughts, however, remained. Is it not crazy that Thanksgiving was so far removed from my reality that it didn’t even cross my mind until hours later? And the day to come was filled with a meeting, an appointment and plenty of errands to run. A Thursday like any other, except it’s Thanksgiving.

Melancholy took hold. Luckily because of my busy day, I had little time to really acknowledge it, but it was there, a little knot close to my heart reminding me how very far away I am. That knot sat close to the surface when I couldn’t hold back the tears as I lit my candle at lunch, telling the children I was thankful for each of them. My feeble attempt at making the holiday memorable for my children by allowing each to light a candle as they tell what they are thankful for turned awkward.

Last Saturday we did celebrate Thanksgiving with two chickens we called turkey and all the trimmings. We dish up a pretty mean Thanksgiving meal, my two American friends and I. Although the food is mostly strange for our children, we persevere in the knowledge that it is stuffing, baked corn, pumpkin pie and Grandma Lucy’s rolls that make up Thanksgiving. Each of us brings a bit of home to the table, hoping our children will recognize it. I am forever thankful for these two American / German couples plus kids who now form our Thanksgiving family.

Still Thursday, the day of, remains lonely. I move among people who cannot know that today is special. They don’t know that I am being left out, that in fact I should be with my family, gathered around the table. Of course, I always picture big laughs and lots of fun. Maybe it’s not. Maybe they’re wishing, especially the hipper, younger family members, that they were somewhere else instead of stuck there – again. But it doesn’t matter because they’re together doing that family thing of just being, surrounded by knowledge of where they have come from and where they belong.

Some years are easier. Sometimes I am able to forget that it’s Thanksgiving until late in the day when I can Skype in and say a quick hello before moving on to the next activity. But this year it’s hard. It doesn’t matter that I haven’t celebrated Thanksgiving with my family for the last fourteen years. It still makes me sad that I can’t be with them and that my husband, kids and I are missing from the memorable family photo. And what’s almost worse – no one has even mentioned that we’re missing (on Facebook for example). Perhaps I’m being petty, I can admit it, but it’s sort of like salt in the wound.

Today I am thinking of all you ex-pats who celebrate your holidays in a way that helps you remember where you come from, but which remain only an echo of what would make your heart sing.

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A Family Reunification

The first federal stamp for the reunification of Germany on the 3rd of October, 1990. Wikipedia

Today is the 3rd of October, a German national holiday celebrating the country’s reunification in 1990. The pictures we’ve all seen of Germans tearing down the Berlin Wall or crying with joy as they easily cross over into then West Germany are memorable. The images seared into my 11-year-old mind as I watched the news knowing THIS was history being made might even have sparked my enthusiasm for all things German.

But back then and even now I understand that I don’t really understand what it must have been like: to suddenly against all expectation be free, free to say what you think, free to do what you choose. We who have never lived in such a way cannot truly empathize, even former West Germans. My (West) German husband Patrick was young enough to only have known a geteiltes Deutschland (divided Germany) and never considered it a possibility that it could be different. In fact the DDR (East Germany) was to him and his generation just another foreign country, like Austria or France, only harder to visit. Why should those two countries be united?

Of course others of an older generation who remembered a Germany that included those eastern parts hoped to one day see the country together again. But, as Patrick pointed out, some around here hoped to one day return to their land in West Prussia, what is now Poland. That’s a completely different story, but the point is the borders of Germany had changed so much over the last hundred years that to the younger generation West and East Germany was it, the reality of now. Again why should it change?

When things in the East began to shift with the Montagsdemonstrationen (Monday demonstrations) it was, for those West Germans, like suddenly discovering the existence of a half-brother. (Here I need to add not for all Germans– there were enough people on both sides of the “wall” working towards a unified Germany.) Imagine: the circumstances of how this brother came to be a part of your family are by definition not pleasant, but eventually you deal with the pain and get to a point where you can open your heart and mind to this new possibility. You decide to invite him to the next family get-together and discover, against the list of negatives you have saved in your mind, that this half-brother of yours is quite interesting and even…lovely. Suddenly your family gatherings become fuller and breathe with different energy all because this half-brother you didn’t even know existed a year ago takes part.

The West Germans knew of this person, but didn’t know they were related. The West Germans knew the circumstances in which this person lived were not pleasant and even harmful. But it still came (for some, I am never talking for ALL) as a surprise and maybe partly shock that this person claimed to be family and wanted to be invited to their democratic party.

Stamp in celebration: 20 Years German Reunification Wikipedia

And yet they let him come. Not without reservations and not without needing time to wrap their minds around how this half-brother came to be. Even 24 years after welcoming him home, he is still called die neue Bundesländer (the new federal states). Income levels continue to reveal discrepancy between the brothers, as well as higher levels of unemployment in the east. There is still work to do in welcoming this brother – they’ve discovered by now there is no “half” about it – fully into the family.

But we can celebrate today as a family gathering where everyone who belongs has been invited. Germany is richer and more interesting because all of Germany has come home.

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The Monster in Me

by J-Me Photography

by J-Me Photography

“I mean, what kind of a monster am I?” Even as I laughed at my friend’s rhetorical question, the essence of her question continues to resonate with me. You see these last few days, maybe even weeks, I haven’t really liked myself. It seems whenever I open my mouth something unkind, impatient or inappropriate comes out of it. It feels like most of my energy has gone into apologizing where necessary – much more often than I would prefer – or rehashing reactions where I can only question the correctness of my behavior.

This unfortunate phase started several weeks ago when I was adamant about making a specific point at a church board meeting, only to question later at home if I hadn’t overreacted (just a bit?) and to realize several days later I had been going on misinformation and misunderstandings. Uck. Since then I can add to my sorry list several emotional overreactions, one that included yelling at some kids (boy, that’s really something to be proud of) and on-going mistakes of one kind or another, not to mention  unexplained outbursts while interacting with my children.

Maybe you’re thinking, “Come on, relax, it’s probably just some hormones getting all crazy or you’re having a tough time in life right now.” Sure, we all know those times where things are not running smoothly and it effects our mood and actions. Yes, it could be feasible. Thank you for trying to give me a way out. I appreciate it. But no, there is no unhappiness in my life to speak of right now. Nothing to blame my ridiculous behavior on.

Someone wise once said “if you never do anything, you can’t make any mistakes.” I understand that in a way, this wise tidbit is meant to encourage, is meant to be that under-the-arms oomph that sets you on your feet again. I get that and there are moments when I do feel encouraged by it. But really, when I’m in such a phase like I am now where everything I say comes out wrong, I am tempted to take this little piece of wisdom at its literal meaning: do nothing. If I just hide away, we might all be better off. I couldn’t make a fool out of myself and constantly need to feel ashamed and no one could be hurt by my sharp tongue and forever hurt feelings.

Maybe the image of a monster is a bit melodramatic, as we all know human monsters do scarier things than having uncontrolled emotional outbursts, but I feel it’s an image I can work with. There is a part of me with monster tendencies: uncontrollable and unpredictable. And as with any monster we’re familiar with, both imagined and real, it’s those two traits combined which bring unease, as anything erratic tends to be scary.

I believe naming something and taking the time to see it as it really is takes away its power. So by naming my monster and writing about it, I hope to tame it. Knowing that part of me waits for a moment of inattentiveness to strike reminds me to calm my breathing and thinking before reacting. It reminds me holding my tongue is often the better alternative to letting it lash. It means allowing myself grace when I make mistakes and extending that same grace to others. Of course there are times when my monster will win. But maybe by acknowledging its presence, I can take its strength and allow the real Dora that I hope is motivated by love and respect to become bigger.

I guess hiding away isn’t really the answer. But taming monsters might be.

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Building Wings

rush by J-Me PhotographyA girlfriend shared with me this week how teachers at her child’s school need to almost physically remove parents from their classrooms each morning. The problem sounds familiar. Why else would the principle at our elementary school need to incessantly repeat, “Your child can manage to carry his own backpack. She does not need you to walk her into her classroom and unload her books and snack for her. Trust your child.”

How hard it is to trust our children. How hard it is to give our children wings! We begin building them the moment we first hold those precious children in our arms. We feed them from breast or bottle, looking forward to the day when they can join us at the table. We cuddle and cradle them while we can – don’t we intuitively know those moments can only last so long? – , but praise them when they take those first independent steps. Those independent steps that lead to a wave at the school door as those tiny babies turned children no longer need the hand to support them.

Giving them wings means letting them go. And letting them go means releasing them into the world with all its dangers, joys and snares. Perhaps this is one of the most difficult parts of parenting.

Luckily my children are still small enough that we’re working on little wings like walking alone to afternoon activities or learning to make wise decisions without Mom and Dad’s “yes” or “no”, but I’ve been witness to youth from our church family brandishing wings big enough to take them away for a year. The end of the summer was a regular coming and going at church: two youth returned from a year-long-service-opportunity in the States; two left, one for service, the other for a year of high school in Canada.

Saying good-bye to the latter, a teenage friend who is dear to each member of my family, was especially difficult. But then again, good-byes usually are, aren’t they? My family and I were suddenly left with an empty chair in choir and fewer hugs on a Sunday morning. That’s tough. But what about her parents? As an only child full of incredible energy, she has certainly left behind a quiet house. As good as she is at making her parents pull their hair out, she’s so much better at making them laugh and bringing them joy. Letting all that go for a whole year seems almost reckless.

But is it?

By looking beyond themselves these parents have given their daughter room to flex and stretch her wings. Yes, they miss her. Sometimes maybe even painfully so. But they have ignored the voices warning them not to send their daughter away so early and the ones asking, “isn’t she still too young?” Certainly a year aboard during high school is not for every teenager. But it is right for this teenager. She will not only be able to explore her Canadian roots, but experience the world outside of her sometimes confining German one. She will learn to trust more those fragile wings.

Such a course of action is not without danger. When she returns she will have changed. She will have learned to become even more independent. She will come back full of experiences that will become like treasures inside of her. These might be difficult to share with her community here, and yet, she will be made stronger because of it.

Allowing our children to grow wings can be scary as we forfeit control of everything surrounding our child and even sad as we learn every day just a tiny bit to discharge them into adulthood. But maybe when we can begin to trust them with carrying a backpack, we can one day send them off in good conscience. After all isn’t that why we do our best at this parenting thing? In order to one day be amazed at our well-adjusted, society-worthy adult children?

I applaud my friends for sending their daughter off to her adventure. Is it painful giving our children wings? Certainly. Is it necessary? Absolutely.

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Finding Freedom to Love

 

by J-Me Photography

by J-Me Photography

What a picture my friend Jaime from J-Me Photography provided this week! Our system works like this: when I have a topic for the week’s post, I shoot Jaime an email with something like, “It looks like the topic this week could be “the other”. Can’t wait to see what you come up with!” She doesn’t get more than that and my only hope is that I receive the picture at some point before Friday. Usually the picture is different than what I expected, but always it addresses the topic. It offers Jaime’s unique interpretation on a topic in picture form; I add my own take on the subject in written form. (I hope my readers take the time to examine the photo in order to discover both.)

What’s going on in this week’s picture? Who exactly are the girls looking at? Are they looking down not only physically, but also mentally thinking, “Oh no, here she comes!” Or perhaps they’re looking down with excitement, anxious for the last girlfriend in their threesome to join them. By not allowing us to see what’s going on in the bottom of the photo, Jaime increases the suspense. We can come to our own conclusions about who “the other” might be.

Last weekend my family and I attended the German Mennonite Conference with the, in my opinion, unfortunate theme: “Das Eigene lieben – Den Anderen achten” (Loving Your Own – Respecting the Other). On paper it’s fine, but in conversation it’s almost impossible to get right. And I’ve heard several comments about the grammatical side of it, although I haven’t discovered the difficulties there yet. I wondered how they would manage to fill this boring, blah sounding theme with life. But considering I was more excited about seeing far-away friends than anything else, I wasn’t too concerned.

They (all the individuals who prepared devotions, bible studies and workshops) succeeded in making me (and hopefully other conference goers) question what exactly “loving my own” means, how embracing it can provide a springboard to better loving “the other”, and of course, who that “other” might be. We talked about Daniel 1. Daniel and his Israelite buddies were chosen to be trained for the Babylonian king’s service. This was a king who forced the Israelite people into exile and now expected these four young men to learn the language and literature of the Babylonians. As if being forced to serve in a foreign country was not enough, the young men were given new names, a constant reminder of what they had unwillingly given up.

But still they remained faithful to their God, believing He would be faithful to them. They were able to compromise with the chief official when it came to their diet. Daniel wanted to refrain from eating the king’s food and drink (what a buffet that must have been!) and suggested they, he along with his friends, try a diet of just vegetables and water for ten days. When they looked and performed better than the other young men, they were allowed to continue their diet until the end of their training, at which point no others were found equal in wisdom and knowledge.

Daniel wasn’t just ahead of his times in terms of fad diets. By refusing the king’s food and drink, he set himself apart. Daily he was reminded of the God he served, even when radically removed from his people and traditions. He found a way to “love his own”, which enabled him to be strong in his faith.

I also attended a bible study on 1 Corinthians 9: 19-23. Paul writes in these verses about being free, yet being a slave. He writes he becomes all things to all people in order to reach out to them. Huh? These differences seem irreconcilable, an impossible feat. And is Paul just making lazy compromises in order to keep the peace, acting like a Jew when necessary and then like a Gentile when it fits?

Certainly there is tension in this text and throughout the entire Bible. But I have found this tension only reflects the disparity in real life as I attempt to live out my beliefs in a world that has other priorities. I wonder if Paul felt the same. Here he was trying to meet these people where they were, desiring a reconciled fellowship between Jewish believers and Gentiles when everyone else is consumed with the old rules and obeying tradition. Different priorities.

The bible study leaders suggested normally we meet such differences on a pendulum of individualism and dominance. Either we say “anything goes” without delving into the question of motivation or we reign down new rules of how “true believers” should act. But Paul offers a third possibility – meeting each other in Agape-love (unconditional love stemming from God’s love). I think most have heard this term before and I can see most believers nodding, “Of course, Agape-love. As Christians we love.”

But do we?

This kind of love means putting other’s needs before our own, even allowing the weak to have the upper hand sometimes. It means to waiver rights and privileges. In means loving our own and finding freedom in it, which allows us to turn to “the other” in love. If there’s anything opposite of “cool” these days, this must be it.

When we look over our chair like the girls in the picture, who do we expect to meet? And how are ready to greet them? Have we learned to love what is our own enough that we may be secure in it, preparing us to welcome the “others”? Are we willing to ask questions about them and “their own”, in order to understand them better without fearing the loss of what is ours?

May this weekend and the coming week be one of freedom for you and love for the other.

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Izzy Squared

With much thanks to Molly Burke-Mattocks and Kari Vandervelde, and of course, their Izzy girls. Please stop by and read their blogs izzystory.com and teamvandervelde.wordpress.com.

"Courage" by J-Me Photography

“Courage” by J-Me Photography

One night, as is so often the case, I couldn’t shut off my thoughts. I watched them sail across the screen of my brain, fluttering away when I tried to contain them. I hoped to retain at least the good ideas until morning, knowing nothing would be there after sleep. But then one thought jumped out at me from the screen and made my heart race: two Izzys. Two little girls I had yet to meet, but whom, thanks to blogs written by their parents, I had come to know in a way only possible in the 21st century. Their stories are very different, but two things connect these two girls: courage and the name Izzy.

 

Isabelle Blessing was four years old when her adoptive parents, Kari and John, brought her and her brother Caleb home. This coming home didn’t involve a fresh-smelling baby, only hours old but wise in the knowledge of her parent’s love. These children had already seen and experienced too much to be the empty page most babies are who wait to be filled with love that leads to trust. Instead years of neglect and living in survival mode defined their first years. Izzy’s mom Kari writes, “When you are being adopted as a 4-year-old, I’m sure it can feel a lot like being kidnapped. While things were explained to her as she was going through the process, it was nearly impossible for her as a 4-year-old to wrap her head around all the changes that were happening in her world, to understand all the decisions being made on her behalf, let alone deal with all the pain she previously experienced in her short 4 years.”

Even with loving parents and three new siblings excited about her arrival, making the transition from Ghana where she was born to the States was difficult for Izzy. How can a child suddenly understand that there is enough food when there never was before? How can a child comprehend she doesn’t need to compete for her parent’s love when until now she’s had to fight for everything? And how can she feel safe closing her eyes at night when she has probably never been able to let go and fall into arms that will protect?

Even the language Izzy now heard – even if filled with love understandable to any child – was different. Izzy first spoke Twi (prononunced Chree or Tree), the language she learned in Ghana and came home to the States knowing only a few English phrases. According to Kari it took Izzy only six to eight weeks to become fairly fluent in English. She seems curious and asks about words she hears and doesn’t yet know like fire hydrant or surrender, a word she heard on the radio. Kari shares that Izzy is looking forward to half-day kindergarten in the fall. Only a little over a year since Izzy came home, and already she will start school without any additional language support.

 

Of course I would have to ask permission of their moms, both women I know from worlds past, Kari from high school and Molly from college. Both moms readily agreed and then life took over, as it tends to do, and my idea got put on hold. Months later I felt a nudge, a rekindling of that initial fire. These Izzys were asking to come together, to have their stories of courage and ability to overcome retold.

 

Israelle Marie turned six a few months ago. She too goes to kindergarten every day. At first glance she might even seem like any other kid doing normal kid stuff. Until you get a little closer and notice her pink hearing aids and then you might wonder: is she like the other kids? In countless ways she is – just recently she batted her lashes at her daddy long enough to get the white kitten she couldn’t live without. But in one major way she differs: this kid has gone two rounds with neuroblastoma and come out on top both times.

Izzy was first diagnosed on December 23, 2011. On December 27, 2011 the doctors successfully removed the cancerous tumor, an adrenal gland and surrounding lymph nodes. No further treatment was necessary. This was the first round.

In June of 2012 after a routine six-month check-up, round two began. A large mass was discovered, but that wasn’t the bad news. It had spread to her bones. Stage 4 neuroblastoma. A journey began that included weeks of hospital stays away from her father and brother, chemotherapy that would steal her blond hair, and 56 days in isolation while she waited for healthy stem cells to return, just to take a tiny peek at Izzy’s nightmare that became real.

But even as Izzy suffered pain and questions of her own mortality, she looked beyond herself and used her experiences to touch others. When a 19-year-old young woman was diagnosed with leukemia, Izzy decided she might need some cuddles. Izzy prayed over her, along with Molly, and climbed into the hospital bed that for once was not her own and snuggled. I wonder what healing those snuggles called forth.

Izzy faced round two and fought it. On December 17, 2013, Izzy was again declared to be “No Evidence of Disease.”

 

I have a vivid imagination and a gift (sometimes it seems like a curse) of empathy. It’s easy for me to imagine how others are feeling, for me to feel their pain or share their joy. It is from that place that I write. From far away I watched these girls overcome. I cheered when Izzy was united with her American siblings. I cried at the injustice when doctors ran into problems with Izzy’s treatment because really, has she not gone through enough? And how often have I yearned to drop by with a meal, showing my support to both families in a tactile way just once.

But still those emotions are not my own. If I choose I am able to distract my thoughts and return to my reality. These women Molly and Kari, however, cannot turn off their concern or distract their worrying at night. It is impossible for them to move on to less emotional places because this is the reality they live in.

Since the idea about bringing these Izzy girls together first skipped across my brain, I’ve realized something: theirs is not my story to tell. Both girls have bright smiles that match bright eyes, but I’ve only seen it in pictures. I can’t share their sweet little girl sayings because I haven’t heard them speak. The courage these Izzy girls muster has encouraged me, but only because their mothers (and fathers too – you are not forgotten!) are willing to share their journeys.

I first met Molly in a creative writing class at college. How appropriate that the power of writing is what continues to connect us today. In her blog izzystory.com Molly shares their fight with neuroblastoma in a raw and unguarded way. She writes often of how their faith sustains them – both Molly and Izzy – but shares just as openly about wrestling with God. And when Molly declares life over Izzy, as she does at the end of every new post, she speaks with authority. This woman means business and reminds God of the promises He has made, “stand(ing) firm in (the) authority He has given us to declare […].” But she remains vulnerable, willing to admit when the words fail her. In her post from Feb. 11, 2013 Day 33 – A Love So Deep she writes, she has been “call(ed) to be the mother of a little girl Israelle. To protect her, to fight for her, to be her voice loud and strong. And even just to hold her hand as she falls asleep.”

While John does most of the writing for their blog – teamvandervelde.wordpress.com – Kari quietly does her mom thing. John writes on Day Three! from April 29, 2013, “Izzy is still struggling, but we are working through it.  Kari is absolutely incredible.  Really.  A mother always seems to have a special way to connect and break through the pain and draw a child in.  Kari is making big progress with our little Izzy.”

When Izzy was too scared to fall asleep by herself, Kari dropped all she was doing (which with five kids in the house, wasn’t just a bit; it was probably more like a mountain) and dedicated that time to Izzy, providing her the security she was just then starting to understand. For a whole month Kari took time out of her day to wrap her arms around her sweet Izzy until she fell asleep. She allowed the physical space to grow each week (first from the bed to the floor, then eventually to across the room to the dresser, then the far end of the dresser and finally to [and out] the door), but only after Izzy’s emotional distress lessened.

For both Izzys the journey continues. Izzy has continuing health issues and had several hospital stays as a result. And Molly makes no secret out of neuroblastoma’s nasty habit of coming back. And yet she continues to hope and declare life over Izzy, empowering her daughter to live, as only this Izzy can.

Kari grieves the time lost with Izzy and Caleb when they were infants, knowing those emotional binds “help create (…) healthy attachments and positive bonding experiences that my biological kids got to have, that are so incredibly valuable in the development of a person.” They know a time will come when Izzy will ask about her birth family, will want to know about past family health issues and where her baby pictures are. Not to mention questions about skin color. There’s so much more – issues only adoptive parents can understand – but Kari writes, “the beautiful part is that they have a family NOW. We respect the past and grieve what happened, but we don’t stay there. We celebrate today, as well as what is yet to come, and we are thankful that God brought them into our family. Like I said, we are tremendously blessed. All of us (NOT just them).

Molly and Kari have asked others to join them on their journeys. Honestly it might be easier without other humans along for the ride: humans who rarely say the right thing; humans who are so afraid they refrain from saying anything at all; humans who are always asking questions and who want to know more. And going it alone would mean no one could see their struggles; it would mean keeping those things hidden, which we would rather keep to ourselves. But they have committed to their communities which surround them. They have chosen to open up allowing, others to share in their joy, but also in their pain.

This blog post is not to tell Izzy stories. Their parents are doing a fabulous job and they certainly don’t need my help. But what I do need to write is that your work, Kari and Molly, does not go unheeded or unseen. Your Izzy girls are courageous because you are their champions, raising them up in hope. We look on and are blessed because of it.

Starting out I recognized two traits which connect Israelle and Isabelle: a shared nickname and being two of the most courageous girls I know. But I’ve discovered something else they have in common: incredible moms.

 

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Language Salat(d)

by J-Me Photography

by J-Me Photography

Language salat(d) is commonly served up at our house. It’s colorful with heavily-accented English words thrown randomly into German sentences. Or in my case when an English word hides somewhere in the chaos of my brain, the German word steps in, covering for its English equivalent. Our general rule – Mama speaks English and Papa speaks German – guides us, but does not constrain us.

Patrick and my love language is German. It is the language that accompanied us through our courtship and early years of marriage when I spoke almost no English. And German is the language we return to now in conversation, even when recently this comfortable habit has elicited protests from the children.

            “Warum redest du immer Deutsch mit dem Papa und English mit uns?! Du kannst doch Deutsch!“
(Why do you always speak German with Papa and English with us?! You can speak German!”)

“What did you say? I didn’t understand you.”

“Ach Mama!”

Of course I understand them, a truth my children grasped from the beginning. And, I suspect, the reason my children all respond to my English with German. Early on I questioned our language tactic, wondering why other bilingual children we know always responded in the appropriate language, switching effortlessly from Mama to Papa. What were we doing wrong? But when a friend shared about a Spanish mother who refuses to respond to any language from her children but her own, I hesitated. Is that what it took to hear my children speak English?

I realized it was. And I also knew I did not have the tenacity to follow through with it. The interaction with my children – applauding their first attempts at forming words, no matter what language; allowing them to tell me their stories in German as they gasp for breath from running the whole way home from school; listening to the Bible stories they’ve learned in Sunday school – has priority and constantly playing a game of not understanding would get in the way.

And so I revel in those moments when the English word comes first, making our language salad even brighter. For example this sentence Alida said as she put her shoes away:

“Dann mache ich deet, deet on the shelf, ganz nicely.”

Of course, a sentence like this is hard to translate, but in essence she said when she puts her shoes together on the shelf it looks very nice (deet, deet is a Schmidt word with multiple meanings, in this case “together”).

Or this response from Fenja to my question “Fenja, why are you wearing my socks?!”:

“Immer, immer (always, but said with a heavyAmerican “R” on the end) sind meine in die Vesh! (combo word of the German Wäsche und English wash).

I can’t imagine speaking to my children in German because English is my heart-language, the one with which I still best express myself and the language I heard while being loved upon as a child. That matters. And I am convinced my children notice it too. When Fenja is bursting with love and exclaims, “Oh Mama, I love you so much!”, I know she’s comprehended on a deeper level the honesty of her mother’s tongue. It is those moments that fill me up and remind me it doesn’t matter if they speak fluent English; my kids can communicate in the language of my heart.

When we began this journey of bilingualism it seemed exciting and scary. While introducing ourselves at my first mother-baby-group with Fenja, I tacked on that I am an American and speak only English to her. Everyone “oooed” and “aahhed”, appreciating the advantage my child would have, but I felt more vulnerable than I had in years. It had become easy to merge imperceptibly with the Germans around me. Only by choice or after longer conversation was my Americanism revealed. And now I was “the American” in the group, no longer just another mama with her baby. Bilingualism demanded I become comfortable being different.

Sometimes it’s hard work too. In those first years switching between German and English left me exhausted. My brain was being pushed as it had been when I first came to Germany. Back then putting German words into a coherent sentence left me ragged. I would take hour-long naps on the tiny blue sofa hoping to give my brain time to recover, but even in sleep, it didn’t rest. I would dream of people trying to communicate, speaking the poor broken language I used. When I woke I felt tired and headachy.

After an hour of mama-baby-group I would nap with Fenja. It was joy to speak my mother-tongue with my baby, but a chore to look up and make other sounds come out of my mouth. Again I often felt tired and headachy. But as with anything, practice makes perfect and after almost nine years of practicing, my brain can now keep up.

I see bilingualism as a great gift Patrick and I are able to offer our children, and perhaps a small recompense for “giving up” my own country. I am impressed when my children understand my English mutterings, even when fast and mumbled, and proud when I see their eyes light up at their own ability to express themselves in English. It’s fun to hear my kids translate for their visiting friends and amusing when at about age three they realized for the first time that their mama really does sound different from most everyone else. (“Most everyone” because we are blessed to be imbedded in a community where several native English speakers are friends, giving our children a place among others like them. They even get to have piano lessons in English – a great learning experience and fun for Mama!)

My kids do not speak fluent English, but I’m convinced it’s there, ready to make an appearance when needed. I no longer ask what we’re doing wrong. Instead when we do things at our house like “laufing” (laufen, German verb for “to run”, with the English –ing ending) and schlafing (schlafen, German verb for “to sleep”, with that English ending again) or when Liam asks for more bones at lunch, and I know he means green beans and a conversation like this takes place:

Alida: Was gibt’s zum Mittagessen? (What are we having for lunch?)

Mama: Something yummy! Spinach omelette with potatoes.

Alida: What for potatoes? Mashed potatoes? (looks concerned)

Mama: No, those little crushed potatoes. You like those!

Alida: Oh, I am glad because I love not mashed potatoes.

I know we are only adding to our lovely language salat(d).

 

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