When you came to this country.
Shame was the first lesson.
Being neither black nor white
Meant you were welcome nowhere.
There were no ESL programs in those days,
So English was not optional.
By the time you were fourteen
Your accent was long-gone.
You sounded just like any other Midwest girl,
With blurred vowels and dropped G’s.
You ate hamburgers and mashed potatoes
And adapted to snow,
But there was no hiding that black hair, that brown skin.
It was easier to pretend you were Italian,
To pepper your speech with arrivedercis
And hang out on the east side with Joe Church’s boys.
You birthed your own true-blue American
But gave her a red-white-and-green name.
The grandchildren began to arrive.
They had names like Robert and George.
Of which I was the fourth.
You called me mjia.
At the market, you would point.
I would say, manzana, pollo, papas.
You would say, ¿Que color?
I would say roja, blanco, marròn.
You would point to yourself and I would say, morena.
You would point at me and I would say, gringa.
When I was seven and you were seventy-two
I refused to answer you in Spanish.
My stubbornness held out till I was twelve
And you were seventy-seven.
I was too young to understand that heritage
Is not a hobby. It’s not something you can just put down
And pick back up again at your leisure.
I was too young to understand that a tongue
Is also a root. What nourished and sustained you
I thought was dust, so I spat it out.
When I was seventeen and you were eighty-two
I spent a summer in Madrid. You were so proud.
You loved my Castilian accent, my postcards of the Escorial,
My recipe for tortillas españolas.
When I was twenty-two and you were eighty-seven
You couldn’t understand the Indian doctor’s accent.
Then you ceased to understand the nurses, the hospice workers,
The soft-spoken priest.
On good days, you thought I was my mother.
On bad days, I was just some white girl.
Names, English, eighty years--
All of it had faded, as if you’d already returned
To that bygone place.
When I was twenty-five and you were ninety
Now I am thirty-four
And there’s no one to call me mija.
Sometimes, I still dream in Spanish.
People I feel great tenderness towards,
I call by Spanish names;
In moments of great distress,
I revert to your exclamations, ¡Ay, por dios!
But I can barely roll my r’s anymore and I no longer
Check the bilingual box on job applications.
And yet, I had you longer than you had Mexico.
If I live as long as you, then I will have had
Sixty-five years to lose and reclaim
A tongue, a nation, an identity,
A root, a history, a shrine,
A lifetime resident of Kansas City, MO, Lauren Scharhag is a multi-genre author and poet. In addition to The Order of the Four Sons series, her works include Under Julia, The Ice Dragon, The Winter Prince and West Side Girl & Other Poems. Her work has appeared most recently in A World of Terror anthology, The SNReview, The Rockhurst Review, Infectus, and Glass: A Journal of Poetry. She is the recipient of the Gerard Manley Hopkins Award for poetry and a fellowship from Rockhurst University for fiction.