Mother Tongue

When her sisters asked, Janice could not say exactly when it had started. She had been caught off guard. She’d been slow to assume that the bumpy road of her mother’s illness had made another odd passage, that her mother, who had never, not once in her whole life played with language, had a new short circuit in the hardwiring of her brain, that words, like the rest of her rattled new life, from now on would be unexpected.

Lippy schmippy. That was the first phrase Janice remembered from the new onslaught. Accustomed as she was to her husband’s Jewish family, to the polyglot hail and rain of their language at family gatherings, the implication of her mother’s new words, her new word order, had just not clicked. And anyway, it was too astonishing. But now Janice found herself telling her sisters this: their mother—their Irish mother—was quickly losing her English to Yiddish.

They were in the sunroom of the house they’d all grown up in, their Grandpa Finnegan’s house, which he’d bought when he ran his cigar business and which was filled with overstuffed furniture. Oriental rugs, faded now, had stayed on through their father’s years as an insurance executive and his retirement and now their mother’s widowhood. It was December and even this warmest room in the house was drafty. Chill. Janice had passed out lap robes and tea.

Alice, who was the physical therapist and the middle sister with their mother’s good legs, scowled at the loose windows. “This barn,” she said. “Grandpa told me once they named it the Windy City just because of this house. Even if it’s in Evanston.”

“We know,” Janice and Sandra said together, and then none of them said anything. They sat in an unaccustomed silence and drank their tea. Janice reread the plaque on the wall above Alice’s head. It was about smoking cigars. Her grandfather had written it, and her favorite part was its health advice. It warned dyspeptics (apparently, almost everyone) never to smoke in the morning, but it promised them good health if they smoked after dinner and right up to bedtime. Reading, Janice kept one ear alert for the sound of her mother, ready for the childish squeal and metallic bump that meant she’d awakened and was once more alarmed to find rails on her bed.

“You’re sure?” Sandra asked finally. “You’re sure that it’s Yiddish?”

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