Mother Tongue

I play videos on my phone of the Belizean chef Sean Kuylen cooking every night. I’m not making any food; I’m in bed and can’t sleep. I close my eyes every few words to revel in the way he sounds, especially how he pronounces each word. Ai nayli bon aaf mi aiybrow, he says, while flambéing a butter sauce for black cake, a Belizean take on holiday fruit cake. He’s nearly burned off his eyebrow setting the sauce ablaze with a culinary torch. I smile at the way he pronounces the word ‘burn’ like ‘bun.’

Each night like clockwork, Sean’s voice lulls me to sleep. He sounds exactly like my grandmother, who was also born and raised in Belize. They speak what Belizeans call Broken English. I later learned the official name of the language is Kriol, and it’s a version of the Creole spoken by Caribbeans that is specific to Belize.

My grandmother and I hadn’t been close since we lived together in California during my childhood. We grew apart when I left for college, and in my adulthood, only talked a couple of times a year on the phone.

My mother kept tabs on her. Last December, my mother told me that my grandmother was in the hospital with a debilitating stomach pain. In March, the hospital called to tell my mother that my grandmother’s kidneys were failing, and she would not live much longer. It was the height of the pandemic, but I dropped everything and booked a flight to California. Close or not, I didn’t want my grandmother to die alone, and I wanted to say goodbye.

I hadn’t seen her in seven years. I wondered what her failing kidneys had done to her. I worried most about her speech, fearing I wouldn’t understand her.

I walked into the hospital room and announced myself. I approached her slowly and pulled down my gold sequined mask to kiss her forehead. I caught her eyes glimmering and asked, “Do you want a mask like mine?”

She nodded and interjected, “Bot Ai noh waahn fi mi maas bee soh bizi bizi.” I sighed with relief. But I don’t want my mask to be too busy, she had said.

We spent the next two days together, talking when she felt like it. When she didn’t, I just watched her sleep.

The next morning, she passed away. I stuck around to sign paperwork and arrange cremation services, and then flew home.

#

For weeks after my grandmother’s death, I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t miss her, because I didn’t really know her. I didn’t know anything about her interests or passions, or much about her life before she was my grandmother.

But I knew what she sounded like. And that’s what I missed.

Although I couldn’t speak a word of Kriol, I understood every one of hers.

Mikays, nuh, mek wee geh bak faas. Hurry up, okay, so we can get back quickly.

Lef mi loan; yoo di dischrak mi fahn di teevee. Leave me alone; you’re distracting me from the TV.

Chef Sean’s voice brought me back to my childhood. The ten of us—my mother, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandmother, and I—crammed into a small house in a middle class suburb so that the kids could go to a good school.

My grandmother watched us while the adults worked. She didn’t watch us the way that professionals provide childcare nowadays. She was there in case anything broke or caught on fire. She stayed on her side of the house—everything white and pristine—watching Oprah in her rocking chair and occasionally yelling to the other side where we played. Unu pikni beta stap di goh aan soh. You children better stop carrying on that way.

We quieted down immediately.

I understood my grandmother so well that I didn’t know she was speaking a different language. I didn’t even detect an accent. Then, when I was seven, she took me on a trip with her to the grocery store. She asked the cashier at the register, “Ya ku chaynj dis dala intu foa kwaatas fi mi?”

The cashier waved his hand at me, pulling my attention away from the candy offerings at checkout.

“Hey kid, what is she saying?” he demanded. “I cannot understand her. What does she want?”

“She needs change for a dollar,” I said, annoyed that he didn’t understand what seemed perfectly understandable to me. The cashier’s face illuminated and then I knew.

My grandmother hurried me along, muttering an insult about yenkees on our way out.

#

My grandmother’s six children ditched their accents soon after the family emigrated from Belize in the early 70s. They wanted to thrive in America, and thought their Broken English would hinder their success.

By the time my siblings, cousins, and I were growing up in the 90s, they all spoke Proper English at home. But, when my generation wasn’t around, or they thought we couldn’t hear them, they fell back into the comfort of Kriol. It came out after a deep sigh, pent up all day and relieved to be released. In Kriol, they complained about their low-paying jobs and conspired about how to get the rent paid or Christmas gifts under the tree.

We only heard their Kriol by accident when a word slipped out that didn’t exist in English. “It’s cold in here, hais up the window,” they said.

We snickered and chided, “It’s ‘raise’ the window.”

The only intentional Kriol we heard came from my grandma. It had none of the self-consciousness of my mom’s and her siblings’ speech. It sounded unashamed and pure. I savored that sound.

I assumed my grandmother couldn’t ditch her accent. Perhaps that’s true. Or maybe she didn’t want to.

By the time I knew her, my grandmother had stopped working. She didn’t know how to drive. She left the house only to go to the grocery store or the doctor’s office. She didn’t interact much with strangers. As a child, I thought she didn’t feel comfortable out in the world. She had a 2nd grade reading level. She had an accent. She didn’t want to play the ‘where are you from?’ guessing game with yenkees.

But my grandmother got on a plane in Belize by herself, bringing along her 2nd grade reading level and accent and not much else. She landed at JFK International Airport and found a place to live in Brooklyn. She got a job cleaning houses in Manhattan and saved up enough money to send for her kids. She filled out immigration paperwork and counted money and went grocery shopping and took the subway, all with her 2nd grade reading level and accent.

Maybe she didn’t want to turn it off. Maybe she loved the way she sounded as much as I did.

#

My mother had no Belizean accent during my childhood. In addition to buying into the myth of assimilation, her reason for purposefully losing her accent was more personal. In middle school, her classmates bullied her, constantly slinging xenophobic insults and even assaulting her. So she raised her kids to speak Proper English, not wanting us to have a similar experience.

Then my mother had a stroke in her early fifties, and her accent came raging back.

The sound of my mother’s new voice disquieted me. I didn’t recognize it. The stroke caused verbal apraxia, a motor speech problem defined by slurred and airy speech and difficulty with pronunciation. My mother sounded like a flighty Belizean schoolgirl, a younger version of herself whom I’d never met.

Unlike my grandmother’s Kriol, my mother’s brought me no pleasure. It reminded me of her weakened health. In her voice, I heard the stroke, the heart transplant before the stroke, and the heart failure before that. It highlighted her inability to control her faculties the way she’d done before. She wasn’t healthy enough to push her accent down like she had for forty years. I knew how important self-control was for her, and how much it pained her to lose it.     

Embarrassed, she asked me to speak to the waiters at restaurants. “Ai kyaahn with mi voice,” she whispered in a mix of Kriol and English while cowering behind the menu. I can’t with my voice.

Then my mother had a stroke in her early fifties, and her accent came raging back. Click To TweetI felt for her, back to fearing she would be bullied for her accent.

I went away to law school and called to check up on her every few days. The apraxia reached its height in the mornings. She fought to get every word out and strained to find the English equivalent. I grew accustomed to hearing her inner monologue. Now, how mi fa seh dis eena Inglish? Now, how do I say this in English?

I stopped calling in the mornings. Not just because I didn’t like to hear her struggle or sound sick. I didn’t like the shame I heard in her voice.

On her birthday one year, I had an eight-hour final exam. I broke my rule and called her in the morning on my walk to class.

“Hello my daughter, are you ready to ace your Torts exam?” she asked in clear, easy, perfectly-accented English. I heard the mother who raised me. I stopped in shock.

“Are you there?” she asked. Same Proper English. I couldn’t believe it.

“Sorry, I’m here,” I jolted out of my reverie. “Happy birthday! Yes, I think I’m ready for Torts.”

“Thank you. You got this. Your hard work will totally pay off.” Even her American diction had returned.

The next day, I called her early, excited that my mom was back.

But she wasn’t.

Heloa mi daata, she said slowly, as if to contain the Kriol. It spilled out anyway. “How di egzam mi gaahn?” How did the exam go?

I swallowed my disappointment and pretended not to notice. I didn’t want her to feel ashamed.

I went back to evening calls, but it didn’t matter. I never knew who would answer when I called, or what language she would speak.

#

Even with full command of my faculties, I can’t master a Belizean accent. I can’t say anything in Kriol. I listen to Chef Sean and repeat his words. I don’t sound anything like him.

But in my head, we sound the same. Our Kriol is thick but breezy. One morning, making breakfast, I ran to the stove thinking, Ai hafta mek shoar mi noh bon op di oatmeel. Yet out of my mouth came: I have to make sure I don’t burn the oatmeal.

I don’t have a connection to place, despite being stuck in the same one until I went to college. I have no geographic allegiances. I don’t root for any sports teams or Olympic delegations. I’m American, but nothing in my home growing up hinted of America: no Fourth of July festivities, Turner Classic Movie nights, or Hamburger Helper dinners. My family is Belizean, but I didn’t go to Belize until I was 29 years old. I ate tamales at Christmas and heard stories of Hurricane Hattie in 1961, but I didn’t know Belize City from Belmopan.

My connection is, has always been, to sound. To words I can’t spell with meanings I don’t remember learning. A language that I can pronounce only in my head.

#

Chef Sean says a few words I’ve never heard before. The closer I listen, the more I hear how healthy, happy, and alive he sounds. It reminds me that my grandmother is not.

I turn it off. I Google the unknown Kriol words, hoping some enterprising Belizean has made a YouTube channel for yenkees like me.

To my great fortune, I come across a Kriol-to-English dictionary created in 2007 at the behest of the then-governor-general of Belize, Sir Colville Young. In the forward, he explains the necessity for the text: “Appreciation of and literacy in one’s mother tongue is essential for self-enrichment and expression of identity.”

I pore over the dictionary’s guide and grammar notes, the etymologies from Spain, Africa, Britain, and the Miskito people. I guess at the spelling of words my grandmother and mother used and rejoice when I find them. I go down the illustrative sentences one by one and guess the meanings before reading the English translation. When I get it right, I cheer inside like a kid who has just aced her multiplication tables.  

There in the words is my connection to my grandmother, my culture, my country. As Sir Colville decreed, there I am.  

Sir Colville also writes that because English is the most widely spoken language, it is often said to be the most useful. Not for me. Not for connecting to culture, for keeping a person’s memory alive, for finding what was there all along. For these, there is only your mother tongue.

So now I call my mother at different times of the day. I learn Kriol so I can speak to her in whatever language I hear on the line.

Heloa mi daata, unu di kohn bai fa di paati? Hi my daughter, are you guys coming by the party?

Ahaahn Ma, wee waahn kohn rong chree. Yes, Mom, we will come around three.

Her voice perks up as we keep talking. The pride I hear fills me with warmth.

I savor the sounds. I cherish my mother’s survival, and the endurance of her language too.

Before bed, I close my eyes and hear my grandmother in the hospital, at the grocery store, on her side of the house. I talk to her out loud in Kriol, getting up to check the dictionary if I get stuck. I tell her I love her and miss her. Sometimes I just tell her the things I wish I could’ve said. Grani, Ai waahn mek sure fi yoo maas noh soh bizi bizi. Grandma, I will make sure that your mask is not too busy.

Author / Ilustrator

  • Ofelia Brooks (she/her) is a Black, Latiné, first-generation writer and lawyer. Her work appears (or will appear) in Drunk Monkeys, Amplify, Spillover, Honeyfire, and Diem. She can be found on Twitter and Instagram @ofeliabrooksesq and at ofeliabrooksesq.com.

  • Stills from Sherlock Jr, a 1924 film directed by Buster Keaton and starring himself and Kathryn McGuire.