For someone born nostalgic, language almost immediately acquired tactile, scenic compatriots. I’m sitting under my mother’s ironing board, listening to her sing to the slap-hiss of the iron above my head: “Lavender’s blue, dilly, dilly, Lavender’s green.” I’m probably two and a half; my sister may be about to be born or already in her crib. It’s that magical entry point, when many experiences first lodge in memory, and nostalgia begins.
For years I thought the song was no more than melody and spoken sounds until some equally illustrative day when clouds parted and I realized that blue and green designated colors, and that king and queen followed in the next few lines. It took much longer for lavender to fix itself on anything other than a delicious combination of vocalizations. I still prefer saying it to seeing what it’s supposed to represent. Language has its own, single-minded uses.
For instance, my father’s crooked pointer and index fingers sweep across my cheek and grab a bit of flesh. “Eh, paisan,” he chortles and shakes the fleshy cheek. As soon as he indicates that this act is called a pizzichille, or pinch kiss, the embodiment can no longer be separated from its name. No one else in the entire world has ever bestowed such a kiss on my cheek. It belongs to his thick, smooth fingers with their wide nails, and to that sudden yet humorous attack from above, for he is, after all, far taller than I am at age five.
Ashley Hall, where I went to school from first through sixth grades, still resides along Rutledge Avenue in Charleston, South Carolina, though the small houses where the early grades sat on small chairs or lay down for naps may not now be part of the campus. I never graduated to the upper school with its columned portico and stately mansion, though a few times, I did visit the shell house nearby, a small stucco embellishment covered with shells where “white elephant sales” were held. The whole business required such tongue twisting that I soon gave it up and returned to our lower-school houses with their creaky, twisting staircases.
First and second grade were, naturally, on the first floors where we could look out onto a sandy playing field and beyond to a grove of seesaws and swings. Mademoiselle, the French teacher, looks nothing like anybody I’ve ever met before, with her dark curls caught up in a topknot and small gold earrings stuck through her ears (was she wearing a black ribbon around her neck and puffed sleeves? I want to believe she was). She also seems closer to us children sitting on our nap rugs at her feet, perhaps because she bobs up and down as she has us repeat: “Je m’appelle,” and then we sing “Sur le pont d’Avignon, l’on y danse, l’on y danse…” By reason probably of my already unmistakable oddity–my father is Italian (well, not really, but that’s how I consider him at six and seven) –learning French seems no different from hearing him tease and chant in Italian on Saturday mornings.
In any case, “l’on y danse” penetrates and lodges in memory, only to be resurrected much later when I start learning Italian on my own and am presented with another very odd construction: the “en” which means “of it” or “of them,” as in “I want two or them,” as in “Io en desidero due.” The “y” in French means simply “there,” and the “l’on” means “someone.” It’s only now that I recognize how peculiar these tiny indications are to someone schooled in English. Learned so early, the French “y” and “l’on” never give me trouble; whereas, the Italian “en” often slips from its necessary place, making my foreign version of the language obvious. (In fact, I’m not sure even now that I’ve written it correctly.) When occasionally on Italian soil, someone who’s just heard me speak Italian asks if perhaps I’m French, I smile with pleasure, for after all my first foreign language, learned so early as to be almost native, was French.
Now I want to be able to hear American English in my head. Not the “hearing” that is the personal, silent embodiment of a written text, but the actual reading outloud of something written in our hugely diverse American speech. And I pull from my hat Nelson Runger giving voice to the biography of John Adams by David McCullough. Though it’s been several months since I listened to this audiobook, I like to think I can still call up Runger’s light tenor voice, with its humorous dry lilt and careful though not emphatic enunciation. I hear no accent to it at all because, of course, it’s the spoken English that surrounds me in the upper Midwest, the English that has become a standard for news casts and certain kinds of sit-coms.
But when I challenge myself to hear in my interior ear American speech brought to its essence on a page, it’s Twain embodied in Huck Finn. They are on the river which moves Huck’s rather melancholy ruminations along at a sprightly pace. And as Huck blends both observation and reflection, human with river drama, he concludes that, after all, he may just have to go to hell, if the only other choice is Tom’s high-falluting frippery which would separate him forever from his beloved Jim. And in the process take away their freedom to move constantly down a river, through the land.