Lost in Translation

This is not where he wants to be, this Florida, this Miami, this crowded pool. Better to be back in Montreal, hip-deep in February snow, trudging to work. But this is where he is, drowning in a sea of white-haired, half-blind sun bathers. Some wage a battle against old age, as if the heavy makeup, the scarves, the sunglasses can disguise their defeated skin. They babble in English, Yiddish, Polish. Some knit two or three languages into a single sentence. Some have heavy accents. A few have tattoos on their wrists. They are old, old, old. This is not where he wants to be.

“Allan. Allan, come in for a dip. The water, it’s delicious.”

He opens one eye and sees his grandmother waving from the shallow end of the pool. She is wearing a lime-green bathing cap covered with bright yellow flowers. The petals droop. Everyone has to wear a bathing cap. Even the men who don’t have so much as two hairs to rub together. Rules are rules. The rules are spelled out in large letters on a large sign at one end of the pool, next to the feeble shower. Everyone must take a shower before entering the pool. That is one of the rules. No children in diapers. No shorts. No food in the pool. And Allan’s favourite: You must swim in your own lap.

“Allan. Please.”

His grandmother now beckons with two arms. Silver bracelets dangle and shimmer from her wrists. Jewellery is allowed in the pool, “at your own risk.” The bracelets were a gift from Gershon Green. Gershon stands next to Allan’s grandmother. He refused to buy a bathing cap but still must wear one. Rules are rules. Gershon’s bathing cap is bright yellow with lime-green flowers. The petals droop. A gift from Allan’s grandmother.

This is why Allan is here: Gershon Green.

See what he’s like. Those were his father’s instructions, his exact words. Allan’s grandfather had died eighteen months before. The unveiling was in August. In October, his grandmother was in Florida. In November, she mentioned Gershon Green for the first time. He was from upstate New York. She couldn’t say where exactly. His wife had died of breast cancer. They had three daughters. One did something with computers. One was a big shot at a big university. (She couldn’t say where exactly.) One lived in Manhattan with a young baby but no husband. The baby was brown and beautiful. Like polished teak. Gershon Green’s words, roughly translated. Like polished teak. He would know. He had owned a furniture store for forty-two years. He was proud of all his daughters, even the one who sold jewellery on the street, her nut-brown baby held against one hip like a bag of groceries.

This much Allan’s father knew. He wanted to know more. He wanted to be sure Gershon Green was straight up. A straight arrow. A hundred percent. He wanted to be sure Gershon Green didn’t have ulterior motives. Not that Allan’s grandmother was particularly wealthy. Not that his father was suggesting Gershon Green’s interests weren’t sincere. Still. He handed Allan a plane ticket and simple instructions. See what he’s like.

“The water doesn’t bite, you know.”

His grandmother has moved closer and stands with her arms folded over the edge of the pool. Gershon Green is beside her. He has plucked a lime-green flower from his yellow bathing cap and is tearing off the petals, one at a time. He says something in Yiddish, then tears off another petal. More Yiddish, another petal. Allan doesn’t understand Yiddish, but knows exactly what Gershon is saying. He can tell by the way he says it, by the way he picks the petals. She loves me. She loves me not.

Gershon Green speaks only Yiddish. One day, he drew a Yiddish line in the sand. Or he drew a line in the Yiddish sand. Whatever. Either way, he has not spoken a word of English since. Not a word. Not to the Hispanic cashier at the supermarket who greets him with a Cheshire-cat grin and says, “Oy, vey! What a day!” Not to the Haitian maintenance man who calls him “Daddee.” Not to his neighbours. Not to his friends. Not to Allan’s grandmother.

She doesn’t complain. One night, she explains. The day Ezra was born was the day Gershon Green embraced his mother tongue like a newborn latches onto a breast. He has never let go. Ezra is Gershon’s grandson, his youngest daughter’s baby. The fatherless child. The beautiful one. Brown like a penny but priceless. The day Gershon holds Ezra for the first time he tells his youngest about his plan. His idea. His mission. He speaks to his daughter in Yiddish. Her Yiddish is rusty, to say the least, but to find someone in New York who speaks the language is not so difficult. She calls a friend. The friend calls another friend. The friend of the friend comes over to translate. Gershon continues. One day, he says, this baby, this Ezra, this child of my child will take a trip. I’m not talking buses. I’m not talking trains. I’m talking his past. A boy like this, half-black, half-white, he deserves the whole truth. He will ask. He will wonder. He will remember the grandfather who only spoke Yiddish. I will teach him a few words. Maybe he will learn the language. Maybe not. One day, he will look back. You can be sure of it. I will be there. Even if I’m no longer here. If you know what I mean. My Ezra, my grandson, he will learn he is who he was. Part this, part that, part Yiddish. I will take care of my part. You, my daughter, must take care of yours. As for his own children, Gershon declares from that day forward he will write to them in English, but he will not speak it. Don’t ask.

Allan says nothing. He nods, he crosses his legs, he chips away at the silence by clearing his throat. Several times. Finally he tells his grandmother that Gershon Green must be a very determined man. Yes, she agrees. He’s determined, and so much more. Later that evening, lying on an uncomfortable sofa bed, Allan searches in vain for a word he can wrap around Gershon Green, a word to describe a man who believes he will one day sit at the head table at the world’s first innercity Bar Mitzvah.

“Time for lunch,” his grandmother announces. “You’ll join us, I hope.”

She has stepped out of the pool and sits on a lounge chair next to Allan. She smells of chlorine and skin cream and perfume. The perfume is a gift. Gershon sits next to her, gently patting her wet arms with a towel, humming to himself. Allan’s grandmother begins to hum. There are no rules about humming around the pool. Not yet. They hum together, eyes closed. Allan watches, then looks away.

Allan does not join them for lunch. Lunch is strictly vegetarian. Gershon Green is a strict vegetarian. Just like Isaac Bashevis Singer, Allan’s grandmother proclaims. Salads, sprouts, beans. If he wanted to eat meat, Gershon Green told Allan’s grandmother, he would change his name to Gershon Red. Still, he hungers for what he calls, roughly translated, the old ways. Allan’s grandmother is happy to oblige. But Allan is not in the mood for tofu chopped liver and mock gefilte fish. Not today. He drives to a bar that serves beer brewed in Quebec. The bar is owned by French Canadians, packed with tanned couples from small-town Quebec who pretend they are twenty years younger. Allan eavesdrops and catches snippets of table talk. A phrase here, a phrase there, punctuated by Florida place names. At least everyone speaks the same language. At his grandmother’s apartment, lunch became an exercise in frustration, a futile clash between the square peg and round hole of two different generations. Gershon Green asked questions. Allan’s grandmother translated. Allan replied. But he grew weary of waiting for his grandmother to bridge every conversation, to recast every word. And so Allan began to reply to Gershon’s questions directly, recycling the same handful of Yiddish phrases he knew. Did you happen to read the editorial in today’s paper, Gershon asked. Shayna punim, Allan replies. Your grandmother tells me you’ve done some woodworking. Kanayna Hora, Allan answers. The economy. It doesn’t worry you? Sholom Aleichem. And so it goes, a conversation running in circles, chasing its tail.

When the waitress arrives to take his order Allan speaks in French. He is not fluent, but he can get by. The waitress comments, in French, that Allan speaks well for a local. Allan tells her he’s not from Florida. Quebec, she asks, raising a plucked eyebrow. He twirls a matchbook and nods. He wants to say more, but he’s not sure what he wants to say or where to begin. Instead, he orders a beer. In English.


He opens the door to his grandmother’s apartment, quiet as a thief. Allan is surprised to hear music when he walks in. They usually nap after lunch, Gershon Green sprawled across the living room couch, blanketed beneath the morning paper, his grandmother curled like a cat in her bedroom. The living room is empty, the paper neatly folded on the coffee table. He finds them in the kitchen. They are dancing, slowly, their eyes closed, arms and legs braided, their grey hair woven into a single cloud. The music leaks out of an old tape deck, wedged between the bread box and the toaster. A woman in a scratchy voice sings a song in Yiddish. The melody is wistful and brims with melancholy. (Months later, back in Montreal, the song will surface, unbidden, when Allan takes a walk on a damp Sunday afternoon in May.) He steps out of the kitchen, out of his grandmother’s apartment, onto the street. He wants to write a postcard to his father. He wants to describe what he has just seen. He wants to tell him about Gershon Green, his humming grandmother, and a part-this, part-that baby. If he can only find the words.

Lost in Translation was published in Parchment