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Mother Tongue

I lied to them. I said, “Of course, if you want, I will speak to your baby only in English.” But they still looked skeptical. Mr. Appelblom turned to Mrs. Appelblom and, when he thought I was not watching, he raised one eyebrow and cocked his head to the side. Mrs. Appelblom shrugged her shoulders. Well, actually, she twitched them. She hiccoughed her neck, that is what she did, and asked, “How old did you say you were, again, dear?”

“Seventeen.” I could not lie about that. They would see the truth on my green card.

“Seventeen.” She tapped her fingers like playing a piano and clicked her tongue against her lip. “That’s awfully young.”

Maybe. Maybe it is awfully young, when you have passed the seventeen years doing nothing more than going to school and arguing with your mother over how late to get home on a Friday night. But after spending the last six months deciding which belongings to keep and which to leave, saying goodbye to my parents, my home, my friends, and climbing alone on a train that would eventually take me from Odessa, U.S.S.R., to Vienna, Austria, to Rome, Italy, to a 747 Jumbo Jet bound for New York, to a one room studio on the seventh floor of an apartment building in San Francisco, after spending hour after hour waiting and filling out forms inside the Immigration offices, and then desperately reading the newspaper and following up every hint of a job opportunity all the while remembering that if I do not find work within a year they will send me back to the newly collapsed Soviet Union where my parents could not in any way afford to keep me, if that was the way everyone felt at seventeen, then I would not say it was awfully young at all.

Of course, I cannot tell the Appelbloms that. I do not have the right words or verb tenses to make them understand. So, instead, I only say, “I have much experience working with children. I am very responsible.”

More looks, more shrugs, more wordless conversations between husband and wife that I am not supposed to understand, but I do, because people in America are not really so different from those in my old home which I should not think about because if I do I will start to miss people and risk crying. I come from a family of very loud, very expressive Jews for whom gestures are as much a part of the conversation as any mere words, so I can guess what every little Appelblom twitch means.

Finally, they both reach agreement. Mrs. Appelblom gives a little shake of her head from side to side, like meaning, “It could be better, but it could be worse,” and Mr. Appelblom takes a deep breath so that both his nostrils expand into perfect circles like a figure eight, and nods his chin, once, but sharply, stamping the final punctuation on their silent discussion. They turn to me with smiles on their faces. Smiles that stretch their mouths, yet do not quite reach their eyes, ” which still show sprinkles of uncertainty.

But I will accept a half-faced smile. It means they are giving me the job.

It is not too difficult, working as a nanny for a ten month old girl. She is a good child. She eats what is set in front of her. Of course, American baby food looks so delicious, I eat it myself I lick the bottom of the jars after little Melissa has finished. I do not think her parents will mind. They have so much of it stacked in their cupboards, and I am always careful to eat only what Melissa does not finish. Otherwise, the Appelbloms would just throw it away. I did not believe it until I saw them, but that is what they do here with leftovers.

I remember my father buying a bushel of potatoes and storing them under the bed in my mother’s old nylons for the winter. We ate the spoiled spuds first, before they grew even more rotten, and left the good ones for later. My father used to say his greatest wish in life was, just once, to eat a potato before it went bad and had to be fried to hide the bitter taste.

My father would like the potatoes in America. Once I show U.S. Immigration that I can keep a job and not be a drain on their society, they will give me permanent residence status, and I can bring my father to America. And my mother. And my aunts and my uncles and my grandparents. And my little brother who when I left still sounded like a child, but who now when I call has a voice so deep I mistake him for my father.

So, for now, I take extra good care of Melissa Appelblom.

Her parents have very definite ideas on how she should be raised. Everything on a schedule, everything in its place. They only speak proper English to Melissa. No baby talk. And when I offered to talk to her in Russian, so that Melissa could grow up bilingual, they said, “Oh, no. No, you mustn’t do that,” and opened their eyes wide like I had suggested teaching Melissa to swim by tossing her off a pier.

They are very strict about nap time. She must have three hours of sleep every afternoon between one and four, or else she becomes cranky at dinnertime and interrupts her parents while they are eating. I watch the clock carefully, making sure to put Melissa down exactly at one, and refusing to lift her out of the crib until three hours have passed. If she starts to cry, I offer her a stuffed toy, or pat her back.

Only today, she wouldn’t let either method work. I spent close to an hour trying to get her to sleep. I fed her, I changed her, I took her temperature, but still, she would not stop crying. I even gave her a pacifier, which Mrs. Appelblom is one hundred percent against, but Melissa only sucked for a moment, then spit it out with a loud “phwue” and let it float on a rivulet of saliva down her cheek.

So I sang to her. I sang the same lullaby my mother used to sing to me when I was little. I sang in Russian, of course, and comforted myself with the rationalization that I had promised never to speak to Melissa in a foreign language, but had taken no vows about singing to her. She quieted down almost immediately. Rolled over on her stomach, bottom in the air, one cheek resting on a lacy pink and white pillow, and went straight to sleep. How was I to know she’d become addicted?

At first it was only one lullaby before nap time. Then two, then five. And then she only wanted me to speak to her in Russian. I could tell, because whenever I would even tiy to piece together a sentence in my from-the-textbook, heavily accented, strained English, Melissa would hop up and down in her crib until the mattress squeaked, pound a tiny fist against the bars, and babble in what I am sure she thought was a language of her own. When I gave up and switched to Russian, she smiled and held out her arms for me to pick her up. Maybe I only imagined that Melissa preferred my speaking Russian.

Maybe I was just using her as an excuse to make my life easier; but it was maddening, spending an entire day tripping over a language so complicated it made my tongue hurt just to speak it. On the bus ride after work, I recited Russian poetry and talked to myself, trying to clear my head. It rarely worked. By the time I arrived home, my thoughts were such a jumbled mass of half-English, half-Russian, and a little Yiddish thrown in for good measure, that even I didn’t understand them.

Yet as soon as I switched to Russian with Melissa, not only did the confusion stop, but I think the baby started liking me better. Because I wasn’t so nervous anymore. And I could put real emotions behind my words now, not just definitions I’d read out of the dictionary.

I didn’t even realize what I was doing, until, one morning, Melissa Appelblom looked right at me and said, so clearly that no one could pretend it was just a syllable of baby-babble, “Sok,” which is Russian for juice. Then, as if to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that she was not referring to footwear, Melissa pointed to the bottle of apple juice I had just brought in, and made sucking noises.

I took a step backwards. Despite being three weeks short of her first birthday, Melissa had yet to utter a word that could be interpreted as having any meaning beyond mere sound. Her parents were very worried. Both their bedside tables were piled two feet high with books on child development, the passages on speech highlighted in pink and yellow markers.

And here Melissa was. Talking. Uttering her first word. But it was hardly one I could rush to tell her parents about.

“No.” I told her in English.

“Nyet.” She agreed with me in Russian.

“Speak English,” I told her.

She only giggled. “Sok. Dai. Moi.” Juice. Give. Mine.

“Oy vey,” I thought, and quickly clamped a hand over my mouth, lest I inadvertently teach her Yiddish , too.

Her parents were going to kill me. Worse. They were going to fire me.

I told Melissa, “You must only to speak English.”

“Da,” she agreed.

I was afraid to take her out of the house. What if, during our walk, we ran into someone her parents knew? And what if Melissa then opened her pretty, pink mouth and quoted Tolstoy?

Mr. Appelblom called Melissa from work, as he always does, at noon. They play this game, where Daddy sings her nursery rhymes over the phone, and Melissa drools into the receiver.

I thought to tell him Melissa was sleeping. But then he might think she was ill, and want to come home. I thought to tell him she was busy eating. But then he would only call back later. And who knows what new words she might know by then?

So I gave Melissa the phone. My stomach tightened to the size of a tennis ball. My hands shook so much I couldn’t hold Melissa’s ear steady with the receiver. She took it from me. I could hear Mr. Appelblom singing loudly on the other end. Something about silverware running off with a cow. Melissa listened. I held my breath. Melissa looked at the receiver and opened her mouth. I wondered if a worker’s visa entitiled me to unemployment insurance. Melissa brought the bottom of the receiver towards her lip. And bit it.

For the rest of the day, all I could do was worry. What if Melissa never learned to speak English? What if I had done some sort of linguistic damage

that could never be corrected? I leafed through the child development books, but their language was too complex for my English. Besides, none offered a chapter on how to get a child to stop talking once she had started.

The Appelbloms were certain to fire me. But would they take me to court? Americans like to sue people. I know because there are so many television shows about it.

By five-thirty, I felt so nervous that every sound shot up my nervous system like a bullet. I imagined I heard the garage door opening a half hour before the Appelbloms were due home. I jumped each time the phone rang.

Meanwhile, Melissa sat beside me in the playpen, stringing together her six word Russian vocabulary into sentences that, while grammatically nonsensical, were clearly identifiable as most certainly not English.

I grabbed my jacket and slipped out the back door the moment Mr. and Mrs. Appelblom came home. I didn’t want to be there when they figured out what I’d done to their daughter.

On the bus, I read posters over my seat. The ones offfering to train people in new and exciting careers as dental assistants and welders. I wondered how long the courses took and if I’d be able to afford them and whether U.S. Immigration would consider that work and not make me go back right away.

My telephone was ringing, even as I slipped my key into the lock. When I picked up the receiver, Mrs. Appelblom’s voice came as a relief. At least I could stop waiting for the log to fall on my head, and just get it over with.

“You’ll never believe it.” She did not sound at all the way I thought she would. But then, maybe people get angry differently in America. “Melissa finally said her first word.”

“Oh. Really?” I sounded like a choking frog. Dry mouth.

“And do you know what it was?”

I thought about the list she’d recitied for me that afternoon, and did not dare take a guess. “What?”

“Mama.”

Alina Sivorinovsky was born in Odessa, Ukraine, and came to the United States in 1977 at the age of seven. Site currently lives in San Francisco.