Mother Tongue

Last week I read two words I’d never seen
but knew how to pronounce: Jó reggelt,
what my Hungarian grandmother used to say
while serving juice and maple-buttered toast.
Good morning. Which it always was,
a day to fill with walks down Brookdale Road,
cow-corn bending to shade the dusty flowers
she’d point out: loosestrife, Queen-Anne’s-lace.

Dining in Boston, my Romanian friends
extol the homely taste of cabbage rolls.
I know these too, hamburger, onion, rice,
heaped with sauerkraut and wrapped in leaves
to simmer until soft, slice open, sprinkling
salt and pepper. They ask if Grandma’s cooking
was spicy, laced with bright paprika. No,
the food was plain but she served up plenty,
hús leves with its hunks of beef and carrot,
noodles in clear broth, dill pickles canned
from cucumbers grown on her New York farm.

Her name was Anna Kish, from kicsi,
little, another word I learned by ear
like kicsi ördög, little devil, an epithet
bestowed on both my brothers in turn.
I was kicsi lány, little girl; my grandpa
she called kedves feleség, beloved spouse.
She taught me words for dearest, pretty, bird –
morsels I swallowed gladly, as proud of them
as that, for years, my gypsy skin resisted
sunburn; that I alone among my siblings
could clean my plate of every bite of cabbage.

I’ve heard those whose first speech is Hungarian
can learn any language, their tongues prepared
to shape all syllables. My tongue only knows
some twenty words, her pickles’ vinegar tang,
the richness of stewed meat. The nutty green
of cabbage furled around that same dense heart
from Lebanon to Finland to Brazil
as in my grandma’s kitchen, where her days
began and ended. Jó reggelt, jó estét.


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