MOTHER TONGUE

THE LOVE AFFAIR THAT GOES ON BETWEEN IMMIGRANT NANNIES AND THEIR “ADOPTED” CHILDREN LEAVES AN INDELIBLE LIFELONG IMPACT.

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New York is a city of second mothers.

When I was three-months-old, my parents hired a Haitian woman named Andre to be a live-in nanny for my sister and me. But my sister, who was a year older, clung to my mother and wanted nothing to do with Andre. So, over time, she became my nanny. Five days a week, from morning till night, she would hold me, feed me, play games with me, push me in my stroller, and rock me to sleep.

While I don’t remember her well, I’ve been told we were very close. Andre had left several children of her own behind in Haiti, so I suppose I became the beneficiary of all the mothering she couldn’t give to them. Because her English was poor, she spoke to me in her native island French and I responded in my own primitive patois. She was also a light skinned Haitian, while I have dark Mediterranean coloring, which apparently confused the neighborhood children. When they saw me without Andre, they would ask, “Where’s your Mommy?” even when my mother was present. They thought that my sister and I had different mothers.

When I turned five, Andre was unceremoniously and abruptly let go. I was told nothing about her departure until that spring morning when I was called to the back porch to say goodbye. I remember the moment vividly. I saw the suitcase first, a brown Pullman that was much larger than her usual weekend bag. Andre was standing silently to one side of it, a neighbor who was driving her to the airport on the other.

I didn’t understand right away. Then the porch swayed. When Andre knelt down a few feet in front of me, I refused to hug her or say goodbye. I didn’t cry. But as soon as she left, I climbed over the porch railing into the backyard, ran behind a big oak in the corner of the property, and hid there for an hour. I must have been working hard to close the lid on my lifetime with Andre, because I cannot remember having a single thought about her for almost 40 years.

That changed in the fall of 2000. I was on a business trip to Paris — my first visit to France — and within moments of arriving at the airport, I felt a strong attraction to the city and its people. I was suddenly comfortable in spite of being a nervous traveler. For five days, I experienced an almost euphoric calm, which I attributed to the mystique and magic of Paris. In the evenings, I would sit alone in crowded sidewalk cafes, nursing Oranginas and bathing in the buoyant sounds of the music and conversation.

Then on the third night of the trip, I had a dream about Andre — a vision of her chopping carrots in the kitchen of my childhood home while I lay silently nearby, watching her from a bassinet. The dream was so vivid I could smell cooking odors and feel the fabric of her blouse on my face as she lifted me from my cushion.

Upon returning to New York City, I registered for a beginner’s French class hoping to recapture some of the blissful feelings I’d had in France. We started with the basics — counting to ten, learning colors, naming simple objects in the room. On the night of the first class, I had another dream about Andre. She was sitting next to my crib reading a book near an open window, white curtains billowing behind her head.

Only then did it occur to me that my visit to France and these flashbacks of Andre might be connected; as if the familiar rhythms of a language long forgotten had re-fired synapses in my brain that had been dormant for decades.

As my curiosity about Andre grew, I wanted to see her face again. I dug out dusty boxes of family albums filled with hundreds of old photographs, but I could find no evidence of her. How could she have been in our lives so completely, for so long, and not appear in a single, family photo?

I phoned my mother. She seemed reluctant to speak about Andre and said she didn’t remember her well. When I asked about the absence of photos, she could offer no explanation. Then I asked my mother if she liked Andre, and her response was measured: “No, not really, I didn’t like her very much. You were always going to her when you needed something … and that felt funny to me.”

I never did find a photo of Andre, although I see her sometimes in the faces of coffee-colored women on the subway. If I hear the lilting French, I’ll try to find a seat nearby and let the fluctuating cadence wash through me. I’ve also continued to study French informally, not so much as a way of honoring Andre, or to revive the feelings of love and intimacy that passed between us, but because there remains a joy in it for me. Speaking French, and hearing it spoken around me, is reassuring and familiar, conveying a sweet and abiding pleasure that bypasses my brain and goes directly to my heart.

I was reminded of Andre again recently when I saw a little blonde boy in the park, no older than two, lolling in the lap of a dark-skinned, middle-aged woman. When he started to fuss, she produced a baby bottle filled with apple juice and cooed soothingly to him. As he stared up at her happily, he babbled a song to himself with a single, simple lyric: “Mama … Mama … Mama.”

It wasn’t French, but it was a language I understood.

Written by

Writer. Satirist. Author. Cyclist. Visit me at allanishac.com.

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