Mother-tongue

The language I use now
is not my Mother-tongue.
It is not the language I heard
while lying in my Mother’s womb.
It is not the language I learned to understand
in the first year and a half of my life,
while my family was living in terror,
planning to flee their homeland, Austria,
that had become Hitler’s Nazi Austria.

German was the language I heard
as my family said good-bye to each other.
Good-bye to brothers and sisters and parents,
who thought that maybe
they would never see
each other again.
German was the language
that was used to potty-train me
on shipboard,
as my family sailed the Atlantic
from Vienna to Uruguay.

Spanish was the language I began hearing
when I was just about ready
to talk.
Talk what? German? Spanish?
Maybe both? How?
Spanish was the language I first learned
to read and to write.
I played with friends, I went to school,
I learned the outside world in Spanish.
In Spanish I learned that I was Jewish
and different.

German was still the family language,
the Mother-tongue,
the one we spoke in the house.
I “felt” things in German.
German belonged to me.

Then, before I was ten,
I came to America and
English entered my life.
I struggled to catch on at school,
to use the busses and the trains,
to be independent in English.

I learned about boys
and thought about romance,
became a “50’s” teenager
in English.
In English, I had my wedding
and raised my six children,
and wrote my poems,
and went to college,
and got divorced,
and built my career.
I lived more than fifty years
of my life in English.

And yet, when I hear German,
I strain to listen, but struggle to understand,
because I only have my Mother-tongue
as the language of my childhood.
I only have the German language
of a child,
a child who cannot read or write
but does still “feel” in German.

The language I do best in is English.
So the language where I am most articulate
does not contain my early memories,
but only their translation.
How much is lost in the translation
is something I may never know.

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