By Maura Mulligan
“Climbing the stairs is good exercise,” Natalia texts after delivering two large bottles of water to me on the fourth floor.
“It’s a win-win,” I tell her. “I’m grateful to have heavy items delivered and you’re glad to get exercise and help a neighbor.”
I first met Natalia in the laundry room before we had to use Clorox to wipe the washers and dryers before using them. She was folding small pink pajamas with figures of the cartoon character Pinkilicious looking in a mirror and combing her hair, on the top half. The pajama bottoms with feet sported the character in a funny hairdo that looked like two birds’ nests. I had children’s books to give away and was about to leave them on a folding table for anyone who might like them. I had retired from teaching several years earlier so it was time to find these books another home.
“It looks like you may know someone who might like some of these books? ” I suggested nodding at the clothes she was folding. She stopped folding, picked up the Bernstein Bears and looked at it longingly. In halting English, she told me that the family had recently moved from Colombia and that her 6-year old daughter, Camilla, had started school locally and needed help with English. Did I know anyone who could teach her? When you’re retired, that need-to-be-needed pops its head out frequently. You miss being an essential person to whomever it was needed you in the first place. That feeling of loss had been gnawing at me for months. Like many seniors with skills to offer, I wanted to volunteer somewhere and thought of offering my services at the local library – the one that declined to take my books because they already had an abundance of them.
“Yes. Me. I’m a teacher.” I hear the enthusiasm in my own voice answering her question. “Retired now, but I have not forgotten how to teach English to speakers of other languages. I’d like to volunteer,” I add eagerly.
“Oh, no. No volunteer. We pay. My husband, he work for the embassy in New York.”
“It doesn’t matter. I prefer to volunteer. I like teaching,” I insisted. I told her that I was considering volunteering at the new library extension in nearby Guttenberg anyway and “I’d really enjoy helping your daughter.” But Natalia was too proud to accept free service so we finally came to an agreement of $20 per class.
Camilla was a willing student and I enjoyed her creativity. We made sock puppets to practice English conversation. We walked around the apartment naming the contents of each room and their use. At Halloween, she had great fun trying out characters she saw on television. Pinkalicious was her favorites. I told her that I too came from another country and we looked at pictures of my Ireland and her Colombia. She enjoyed hearing that the holiday she liked so much was called Samhain before it became known as Halloween. When I explained that I was going to dress up as the earth goddess, she googled the term and found out in Spanish that the earth goddess wears flowers and leaves on her hair. At our next meeting, she presented me with a lovely headpiece made with real flowers and leaves that she and her Mom had woven together. I wore it at my annual Samhain dinner party.
A year later, Camilla tested out of the bi-lingual class at school and was ready for more challenges in English. I found more advanced books to keep her interested and she was soon reading and writing in two languages.
The columnist adjusts to the new norm.
Throughout my years teaching ESL, I sometimes compared my own childhood to that of my students. I thought about how we spoke Irish in school and English at home. It was the opposite for my students who spoke another language at home and tried to speak English in school. Although I wasn’t aware of it as a child, there were times when the two languages ran into each other and you could hear the literal translation in West of Ireland English when my mother would ask, “what way are you a stór?” It was during my first year of teaching that I discovered the word banbh was not another English word for piglet. The principal observing my Kindergarten lesson on “Farm Animals” pointed to the word “banbh” and told me “don’t let the children write strange words on the board. It might be an expletive in some language or other,” she guessed. “No, only piglet” I muttered red-faced under my breath.
My once- a-week English lesson with Camilla was interrupted when I had to go to the UK for my dear brother’s funeral. They take a long time to bury the dead in that country and I found the waiting around very stressful. When I returned, I couldn’t wait to get back to Camilla’s class as well as my céilí dance class in Manhattan. I ignored the jetlag signs, telling myself I needed to deal with life again. Not heeding my own rule of “never dance in rubber soled shoes,” I didn’t change into my dance shoes at that first class. I’ll just review, I thought. But then someone needed help and I began to demonstrate. Before I knew it. I had tripped over my own feet and fallen backwards. A broken wrist was the result.
Natallia insisted on doing my shopping and Camille put the items in the basket. They cooked soup and brought it to me. They both got to practice English and I felt needed as well as cared about. Now, during lockdown when Natalia delivers jugs of water to “Camilla’s favorite English teacher,” she tells me, “it’s a pleasure to help.” I tell her there’s an old saying in Irish:
“Ar Scáth a Chéile a Mhairrean Na Daoine” / Under the shelter of each other, people survive.
Maura Mulligan is author of the memoir "Call of the Lark."