The five days passed with many hours spent in conversation. I could not understand a lot of what Guille said. But to my great surprise, by the third or fourth day I found I was, at least once in a while, thinking in spanish.
When has one become bilingual? Not when one thinks in the second language, as I found on this occasion.
One time, I remember not where or with whom, I brought up the question and a little girl, perhaps eleven, said knowingly, –You are bilingual when you dream in the second language.– I was amazed at such profundity in a child.
But it was not profundity at all, only error. Shortly after the girl’s statement, in 1993, I began learning to read latin. I wanted to be able to read the church’s liturgy in the church’s own language. I also had in mind learning spanish on down the road and thought latin would make an excellent preparation. (It did.) I began to dream in latin shortly after beginning the study, and still do, though I am still by no means fluent in latin. Similarly I began to dream in spanish soon after beginning to use it, and still do, though I am still not fluent in spanish.
Guille and Beny, her husband, had seven children, four
girls and three boys. One son, as I told
you, lived in
Guille herself led a lonely life, insofar as her husband
passed most of his time working around
Seven children in a three room house, with Daddy in
I passed much of the five days seated on a sofa in the open air living room. Also joined in with the chores, chopping wood, keeping fires going, sweeping the house, washing my clothes.
Meals were simple, tasty, and generous, nearly always built around pinto beans and tortillas. Guille was careful to note what I liked best and be sure there was more of it at subsequent meals. Most meals were eaten in the mexican poor man’s way, without flatware. One uses two tortillas, one to push with and the other to scoop up food and carry it to the mouth, where it is taken along with a bite of the tortilla. Now at my first meals I found my place at table was always set with fork, knife, and spoon. But I quickly learned to eat using tortillas only, and after a couple of days flatware stopped appearing at my place.
One of Guille's daughters married a man named David. David was a small child with two siblings when his father died in an industrial accident, leaving his mother to raise the three in poverty and in a single room. It was not until after the children were grown that Ramona met Henry, a solid man and twice former municipal president, and became his wife.
One night Guille and I went over to Henry's and Ramona's house, a charming place near the main plaza. Henry and I liked each other at once. It was to Henry and David that I turned a month later for help in finding an apartment, to which story I will return. As for this night -- when Guille and I got back to her house the children were gone and we found we did not have the right keys to get in. So Guille, with practiced moves, dismantled her kitchen window, and I climbed in. I went through the kitchen and out onto the porch, waiting while Guille reassembled the window and came around the house. We turned to go in, and found I had closed the door without unsetting the lock, and we were locked out again. And amidst near uncontrollable laughter I delivered the only words of english I spoke on this trip, –Son of a bitch!– I liked it so well I said it twice.
* * *
There are very many restraints on human behavior. When we are away from home it is easy to forget some of these restraints, and act as if we were as free as birds. But if we had a bird’s eye view we might find that birds are just as constrained as we are, just as we find of ourselves when the illusory freedom of a trip is ended.
In Duncan Guille was free, or at least felt free, to find friendship with me, and she did. And she was overjoyed that I took up her invitation to visit. But over the course of a few days back home the restraints began to act. I was in the way. Her adult children at home did not have unlimited access to her. She had a new friend who took up a lot of her time. And they put up resistance. Towards me it took the form of a simple cold shoulder. What words or signals they might have given Guille I don’t know. But they had their effect. Initiating a new friendship in the freedom of a strange place was one thing; maintaining it at home was another.
In fact the children put up enough resistance that I thought it best to cut my visit, originally planned for a week, down to five days. And so I did.
On subsequent trips to
I also made efforts to win over her children at home. Making friends with Dick was easy. Next time I drove up he was on the roof of the storage shed making repairs. I did not even look for Guille; rather I climbed up on top of the shed and pitched in with the repairs. The repairs finished, I offered him a cigar and soon we were talking like two good buddies. He showed me his army photo album and before long even removed his shirt to show me the bruises he had got recently in a bar fight. And Dick and I got along nicely ever after.
Mague was a different story. She responded to diplomacy and a modest gift (which she accepted and kept) with overt rudeness. And it was due to this rudeness that I stopped visiting Guille. Not, you understand, that I could not handle the rudeness. But rather that I did not wish to see Guille humiliated by the behavior of her own her daughter.
* * *
On the sunday of this visit Guille and I went to mass at
the barrio chapel. It was a low roofed,
inexpensive building, with slab floor and thin poured concrete walls. It was the first time I had attended mass in
the interior of
I will look at just one angle of the intensity. All through the mass the very small children, say ages three, four, five, were romping all over the place, playing games, running in the aisles, rolling balls, as if they were at home. And I realized that they were precisely just that. They were at home in the House of God. “Let the little children come to me. Forbid them not.” I flashed back to my own age three, four, five, in the methodist sunday school at Dunlap, with the white haired Mrs Layne teaching us to sing, “I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the House of the Lord.” Lætatus sum in eo quod dixerunt mihi: In domum Domini ibimus. This was the Lord’s House. These were his children. They were at home in his House. They would never remember a cry room or babysitter. Their earliest memories would be of the House of God, of the solemn offering of the Sacrifice of the Ages, accompanied by choirs of children, singing the songs of children and dancing the dances of children in the aisles while the priest danced the dance of Melchizedek around the altar.
After mass Guille introduced me to the priest and to various friends. We were among the last to leave the church. As we walked to my car I caught sight of a woman, a woman with white hair, a woman tall, lean, straight, but frail, walking home from the House of God on a rocky, dusty road, slowly, with two little granddaughters, one on either side, holding her hands, guarding her steps.
© 2004 Joseph Mansfield