I always regretted the fact that my family did not raise me bi-lingual. I understand it though, my Grandparents were first-generation Americans, their parents had immigrated from Poland and Lithuania to find a better life. They wanted their children to be Americans, true and through, so they were only supposed to speak English. They knew how to speak Polish, but they didn't teach their children: my Uncle, Aunt, and Mother. Arguments were in Polish though, so my vocabulary was, well, limited. There were a few phrases, which were also used around the house, but not enough for an understanding of the language.
I spent most of my childhood with my grandparents since my mother had to work long hours. It was a good way to grow up. I had a very privileged opportunity, not only was I exposed to the new, but I was surrounded by the old. I discovered the wonders of radio shows and Model Ts before I found cartoons and Porches. It was amazing and magical, to know how technology had changed the world in only one lifetime.
My Grandfather and I were good chums back then, regular Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, or as much so as age and adventure would permit. We would go on bike rides together, go to baseball games, and of course go fishing. It was like a ritual every time we went down to the fishing pier; Gramma would say, "Where are you going?" Grandpa would reply, "Tamae Nazat." I'm sure that's not how it's spelled, but it sounded that way.
Being only about seven years old, and not knowing how people ritualize phrases and actions for different circumstances, I always assumed he meant he was going to the fishing pier. I liked going there even if I had already started to dislike fishing. I liked the people there, Grandpa's friends; they knew so much and the sense of comradery was special. I felt like I was one of them. I had a place in their circle, even if it was only as "Joe's boy". Joe being my Grandfather.
I thought it was cool to hear people call him "Joe". At home, we called him "Dad", an honorific denoting his patriarchal standing. Gramma called him "Dad", my Mother, of course, called him "Dad", I even called him "Dad", except when we were at the fishing pier. But to me, he was always Dad, and a good one, as I think back on it all.
I heard one of his friends call him "Dad" once. It was meant as a joke and we all were amused, except Joe. He flustered and fumed, which made it even funnier.
One day, I heard the usual ritual; "Where are you going?"
"Tamae nazat." The fishing pier I thought, and it being a boring afternoon, I thought it would be a good change of pace. "Can I go to Tamae Nazat, too?" My Grandparents both looked at me and laughed. I didn't understand. "What's so funny?"
"Tamae nazat isn't a place, boy. It means 'to go there and back again'."
"Why didn't anyone ever tell me that?" I managed to fluster out.
"We thought you knew."
Unfortunately, I still haven't learned Polish. Someday, I keep telling myself, someday, I'll know.
The story used to end there. This was my Grandfather’s favorite story, I think he liked his little bit of fame, but more so he liked the parental relationship we rediscovered.
When my son was born, Joe would occasionally call him by my name. Joe would become embarrassed and upset about his age and bad memory but, I didn’t mind, it gave me an opportunity to see how he was when I was just a baby. Not many people can experience that. I felt so proud to be Father and even better to have the man who raised me to be proud of how I was doing.
I had an opportunity to write another story about Joe: I had to write his eulogy. It really was the most difficult thing I ever wrote because I wasn’t just eulogizing my Grandfather, he raised me, he was my Dad in that respect, and to make it even harder, he was also my best friend. I did at least manage to learn one new phrase in Polish by then: Ya kohum chiebe, Gedig; I love you, Grandpa.