I never knew my grandparents could speak English. They never did, when the families got together. Nor did I ever know a white-haired person who spoke English without a thick foreign accent. In New York City after World War II, they were all from ‘the old country’.
But after the interminable War ended, no one in the US wanted to speak — or wanted their kids to speak — anything but English, the language of victory, of peace. Of success. So I could never talk with any of my grandparents, other than to say (in Polish) “Please pass the butter” or “It’s cold outside!”
To me as a kid, ‘Grandmother’ or ‘Grandfather’ were just words. Those old people didn’t talk to me, and they lived far away — no Interstates back then, so going from NYC to eastern Pennsylvania was a massive, difficult trip. Their vague, distant figures meant nothing real to me. They were just the dark-clad old people who populated the background of our family get-togethers. They had special names — Babci and Dziadziu in Polish — but other than that, were not special to me in any way.
Now, I’m about to become a Babci.
How does one learn any new skill? Normally, by repetition. Practice. Hours spent on the piano bench or at the basketball court. So I imagine most people learn to be grandparents by interacting with their own grandparents for many years. But I couldn’t interact with mine. The language barrier was complete.
So a brand-new learning experience awaits! On-the-job training, as it were. One involving cuddling, and cooing, and smiling (and crying, I’m sure), and lots of learning. And more importantly, lots of making up for lost opportunities.
I can’t wait!