November 12, 2020

How my Mother Raised Me to Find Meaning.

The first words to have ever—consciously—come out of my mouth were “mifif teef.”

They might not be of any significance to you, or to anyone else for that matter, but to a two-and-three-quarters-year-old about to start exploring the world: they were golden.

“Mifif teeth” (there was a pointing gesture that went with it and a lot of frantic wobbling) was my way of trying to communicate that a plastic smurf (“mifif”), staring at me with its beady eyes and a daunting set of teeth (“teef”), was making quite the impression on me. So much so that the issue needed to be firmly addressed and a potentially hostile situation to be defused. The thing with smurfs is you never quite know their agenda, which makes meeting one confusing—especially to an impressionable kid.

Obviously, when reaching that far back in memory, there is a point where fantasy will take over from fact; I’m very much aware of that. So I might need to plead guilty to romanticising my encounter with the screaming little dwarf for the purpose of glamming up events. But I do seem to recall pointing at the goggle-eyed maniac and desperately wanting to establish a connection with it, and the world around me.

Giving it a name made me come to terms with its presence, but still left me bewildered by its smirk. Taking on the world at that age involves a high level of mustering out the confusing bits. You know adulthood has happened to you once you’ve given up on making that effort.

I had reached the age, at two-and-three-quarters, that I was slowly coming to grips with the fact that for there to be a “me,” there also needed to be a “not-me.” But that’s as far as my understanding of the universe went, and there was still a lot of confusion with regard to pronouns—and smurfs. Somehow, I did sense that the outside world could only define me if I allowed it to. Giving things a name was my way of securing space between me and all other pronouns. The smurf was most definitely a not-me, and I was pretty sure “me” was not an angry-looking smurf.

Before going any further, I should perhaps state that there is a point to this story. Part of it is connected to whom I eventually turned into, the other part is about the person who made it play out that way.

Sometimes, things come back to haunt you, while others are there to make you revisit what counts.

You see, I was recently faced with a similar situation that took me back to a moment that turned out to be a lot more defining than I initially thought. My dog had fallen asleep next to me, and she was doing that weird thing with her upper lip again—pulling it toward her nostrils, allowing a rhythmical twitch to reveal her upper teeth. Umi is a little whippet who is set in her ways, and weird behaviour is very much her thing. She stops being pretty when she does the thing with her lip, but I have long since accepted it’s just who she is.

For some reason, however, this time, I decided to take a picture of her doing her little Sid Vicious impression and send it to my mother. I added the words “mifif teef” and the compulsory little smiley face indicating that she was “at it” again. I didn’t expect much of a response, aside from a laughing emoji at the dog being her weird little self.

My mother and I live in a world of our own. We always have. Not only do we share a language (and a peculiar sense of humour), we share a love for words.

My mother wouldn’t just read to me as a child, we would dive into syllables together and decipher where they came from. From there, we’d freefall into open skies where letters would swarm around us. We’d rush in like restless travellers looking for new meaning, and trot about like kids in empty movie theatres eagerly jumping from one seat to another, trying them out for size. When such portals would open up to us, we’d charge in and start exploring.

Wings are such great things to have in common with someone. And so are words. They are little summaries of grand ideas just waiting to be explored.

Knowing me is knowing I might, at any point during a conversation, fall in love with a word. I jot things down in one of my many notebooks, just for the sake of curating that extra bit of vocabulary. I also make up neologisms and use them, quite arbitrarily, just to test the waters. I still read dictionaries and walk up to strangers to eavesdrop on their dialects and yet, somehow, I’ve made it to adulthood in one piece.

As a translator and writer, I consume words professionally but secretly still binge on them when no one is watching. They’re like doors that open up toward a greater understanding of what makes us tick. Some of them might scream for immediate attention, while others seem to have more time. It’s the quiet ones you need to look out for. They’ll be hiding in plain sight, waiting to be seen. Until then, they will allow you to flap away at whatever meaning serves you until the right pronoun comes along.

Turns out a “mifif teef” is an even bigger thing to a fully literate 45-year-old than it is to a clueless toddler.

To my message with the picture of my twitching dog, she replied with another image. Turns out the angry smurf had survived all these years, poised on my mother’s night table, hiding in plain sight. It had not forsaken its anger and its blue was a lot more black than I remembered, but the sight of it no longer scared me. The idea that my worst fear had been so tenderly curated by the greatest storyteller of all just blew me away.

It’s people who add meaning to words.

I wish you all a mother like mine. May she pass on the most curious of habits to you and then sit back and see them turn into something that defines you. Flapping is a great way to return to the nest, but there’s something birds of a feather simply do better. When all is well and all is quiet, and angry little creeps have stopped screaming for your attention, you’ll be amazed at how easily the right pronoun will come along.

You see, for there to be a “me,” there needs to be a “you.” And that’s how it goes when those two magical little words flock together.


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