“I’m sure the red fern has grown and has completely covered the two little mounds. I know it is still there, hiding its secret beneath those long, red leaves, but it wouldn’t be hidden from me for part of my life is buried there, too. – Wilson Rawls, Where The Red Fern Grows
When I first moved to Virginia at 8 years of age, my elementary school called Franklin Sherman was just across the road from our house. I do not remember children remarking on my accent but the adults did.
“Say something, I want to hear your accent,”
Or they would clarify my vocabulary.
“A plaster? What’s that? Oh, you mean a bandaid?”
Outside of the home, I learnt quickly to censor to be understood and to mediate my self expression so I wouldn’t draw attention to myself. I sometimes did not understand what adults said to me. My soccer coach would bark instructions whilst I was on the pitch.
“Anticipate the play, anticipate the play!”
I would pretend I knew what he was talking about.
When a book report was due, I thought my teacher meant do and I rehearsed my presentation on Harriet Tubman nervously the night before only to be told off because my homework was not done. My father caught me checking my ears one night in the bathroom.
“Ellie, what on earth are you doing?”
“My teacher told me to check my ears.”
He later saw a school newsletter which had a section Check Your Errors! I still remember him wheezing with laughter at the kitchen table, explaining what I had misunderstood. My parents were perplexed however when they learnt I was being taken out of class for remedial lessons. I saw before me from the special education teacher words like you’re and your or piece and peace. The exercises were boring and pointless to me but I didn’t tell her. She would grade my pronunciation and intonation and point out spelling mistakes. They weren’t mistakes, I was simply spelling the British way. Looking back, perhaps this hadn’t occurred to her; that before her did not stand an American child. Or maybe it had? I’ll never know.
At McLean Family History Week, my history was nowhere to be found. I could not see myself. I had wished my grandmother had been invited to speak like the other ones. She had recently visited. I had taken a picture of her standing in front of The White House in her red woolen coat. That’s not to say I wasn’t enthralled by the talks given. One of them still haunts me. A Vietnam veteran told of how he used the Tap code to communicate with other prisoners of war. He had been held captive for 10 years. His son Danny was in my class. Back at home I practised the technique on my bedroom wall but I heard no message back.
My teacher would read us one chapter a day during the last hour of school, sometimes a poem. And I became aware that whatever was British or across the Atlantic Ocean was to be kept at arms length. I stared wide eyed as my teacher recited Paul Revere’s Ride…
Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,…He said to his friend, “If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
I felt a chill when she read aloud the Highwayman and checked it out of the school library to read during the school’s allocated Silent Sustained Reading
And out o’ the tawny sunset, before the rise o’ the moon,
When the road was a gypsy’s ribbon, looping the purple moor,
A red-coat troop came marching—
King George’s men came matching, up to the old inn-door.
At a friend’s house, I saw upon the wall a portrait of Oliver Cromwell.
“Do you know who that is?” the father had asked me
“Well, you should. He was one of yours. He cut off the King’s head.”
I was horrified.
“That’s not very nice,”
“Well, who needs a King?”
I did not know who was right or wrong in this debate but there was a definite cut from the Old World, although not so for me. The Old World and the New World were very much alive. The Presidents on the dollar notes Washington and Lincoln had English names. So too the place names all about me; Richmond, Fairfax, and Georgetown. But if I pointed this out to my peers, they didn’t get it.
“Oh, there’s a Boston in England too?”
My family crossed into West Virginia to meet a dog breeder one summer. My father, a keen folk singer, sang the John Denver song Take Me Home, Country Roads to welcome us to the State. The dogs, Rhodesian Ridgebacks, were similar to the coonhounds in my favourite book at the time, Where the Red Fern Grows. As I saw the dogs with their red coats bounding through the dense woods in the region, I felt like the boy in the novel. I still hear the snap of branches and feel the whoosh of their bodies as they raced past me, once knocking me over so that I lay laughing in the leaves. I explored every inch of the cabin we stayed in. I felt a sense of what I now know is called deja vu. I spent a lot of time outside it too helping to take care of the animals on the property. I wept when we had to leave as I felt so at home.
We had stopped at a grocery story on the way there, completely lost. My mother asked a group of men in a pickup truck for directions. They had long beards and rifles.
“Sure, we know the way. We’ve known you were coming. Follow us!”
Before we did, we got some provisions. The owner was a redhead double of my father.
“I’ve been expecting you,’ he said
Back in the car we discussed how when we’d first arrived in Virginia we had gotten anonymous and untraceable phone calls;
“Are you M******** from Northern Ireland?”
In a local coffee shop where I live in The Netherlands, the owner struck up a conversation with me.
“Oh, your daughter will be trilingual like me!” he said
“What languages do you speak?”
“My parents are from South Africa so I grew up speaking Afrikaans at home, Dutch at school and of course I learnt to speak English.”
“Do the Dutch understand Afrikaans?”
“No,” he laughed, “but we understand them.”
I laughed with him, immediately knowing what he meant. There are many South Africans in Holland. It’s an obvious choice of country due to the language. But it seemed sad somehow that a language developed from an old one so differently as to be almost indecipherable. A language enclosed and in isolation.
As we walked home I had the following conversation with my daughter. It is important to me that she can answer these questions that nobody asked me when I was a child.
“Where are you from?”
“The UK and Venezuela.”
“Where do you live?”
“What do the people speak in Holland?”
“How do you say that in Dutch?”
Code switching or the knowledge of parallel but moored worlds is very much a part of me. My daughter’s culture is being influenced by my being a third culture parent.