As I said before, my mother cursed perfectly in English. The streets of New York City were not kind to her. Life was not kind to her, until she met my dad.
Every swearword blasted out of her petite mouth. And before her fists could do the same, my father grasped her shoulder and said. “Nastasia. It’s fine.”
The principal contained a chuckle.
“He’s not retarded, you idiots. Haven’t you tested him for reading and writing? You’re the ones who are retarded.” Mom said (some f-words in there.)
The principal was spooked. “You must leave or I’ll call the authorities.” He said.
“I’ll call the authorities. Something is wrong with this school. This isn’t how it should be. Something is wrong with this whole town.” Mom said. (F-words were used where ever they could be, as participle adjectives and adverbs using –ing(and even adverbial proper noun intensifier that didn’t use the –ing marker e.g. “the f-word wrong.”)
We left the principal’s office. My mother was swearing under her breath.
One of my Special Ed teachers, the not-so-nice one, decided to be brave and say something to my mother.
“Your son is definitely retarded Mrs. Ankarsvard. And you and your family should seek professional help.” The teacher said.
Too quick for me to follow, Mom punched her in the face, the nose to be exact. Blood spurted downward.
Screams and screeching from the office ladies filled the room. The principal yelled about calling the police. My dad grabbed mom with one arm around her waist while she kicked and screamed more swears, this time in Polish.
Before the police came to take my mom to the station, my parents had the biggest fight I can remember.
I didn’t bother with playing with my wooden toys in the living room, I went to my room and listened to their jumble of English and Polish and Swedish.
“Odin.” My mother said. Her voice loud and thick. “You mustn’t go.”
Yes. My father’s name was Odin. His father, Gustaf Ankarsvard, was even more fanatic about the Norse cultural revival. My grandpa wanted his son to be a leader of gods and men. Lo and behold, he sired his own god amongst men, my father.
“Nas.” Father said. This was his endearment name for mother (always an s-sound at the end, unlike the z-sound that the men from the streets of New York City called her, Nasty Naz to be exact.)
“Nas. I have to. This is the last time.” Odin said.
“No you don’t. We’ve saved so much money.” Nas said.
“I know. But I promised them one last run.” Odin said.
“I can’t live like this anymore.”
“Like what?” He said.
“Like I’ll never see you again.” She said.
“I always come back.”
“What if this is your last time? What the hell am I supposed to do then. Your son needs you, now more than ever. I need you. And if you go there to that land of death, you may not make it back and you know it. You know it more than anyone.”
“I have to. There’s no more argument.” He said.
“Says who? You? Why is there no more argument? Why don’t I have a say in how you risk your life? A life that is your family depends on.” She said.
“There is much money saved. You’re taken care of.”
“I don’t care about the money.” She said (f-word +ing before money).
Mama yelled more and more in Polish with a mix of English swears (and a few Swedish ones too). Papa stopped talking. Mama was yelling so loud that I put my head under my pillow. I heard mama throw a dish then something else that smashed then some pounding on something hollowish, probably papa’s chest. I started to cry.
The racket calmed. The police had arrived.
Mama came into my room and lifted my pillow gently and kissed my head. “I’ll be home soon Bozhi. I love you.”
The police hauled her off without handcuffs. Mama had calmed, and the police must’ve thought she wasn’t a risk. Lucky for everyone, she had calmed herself down.
“Papa.” I said.
“Yes son.” Papa Odin said. He was sitting at the kitchen table with a hand on his chin (he didn’t wear a beard back then). He passed me a notebook.
How long will mom be gone? I wrote.
“She’ll be back soon. They’re just bringing her down to the station to write her a ticket.”
Am I going to another school? I wrote.
“Yes son. We are going to teach you at home. We are going to fix these speech problems of yours, no matter what it takes. I’m retiring from my business in three months. And we’re going to move to Our Island.” He said.
For years there was talk of Our Island. My father had been saving all of his money from his business in order to buy an island in Lake Superior. He had his heart set on a different one in the Baltic Sea, until he became on bad terms with his homeland Sweden (and the whole of Europe for that matter).
Father settled on a new one in Lake Superior, Little Tree Island. But he never called it that. It was either Our Island or Yggdrasil Island. He also named the biggest tree on Our Island, Yggdrasil, the World Tree in Norse mythology.
Father was gone for the three months that he had been contracted for. Mother and I spent those three months in a motel far enough away from our old town where nobody would recognize us.
My mother was persistent if anything. What she wasn’t though was a speech pathologist or a teacher. She earned a nursing degree in New York, so she could take care of me if I got hurt, but she didn’t know how to help me get over my speech deficiencies. But she knew where to start, the university library.
We were staying in a motel just outside of Marquette in Upper Michigan. Northern Michigan University had a library with the books my mother needed.
“I need to make it up to you Bozhi.” She said, shuffling through a card catalogue.
We were standing in front the stacks, a labyrinth of books. I was surprised that they were on shelves, because when mother kept saying “got to go to the stacks and find some speech books”, I thought that the library would have literal stacks of books.
“I can help you Bozhi. I know I can. I’ve been neglecting you for all this time. I was so worried about making up for my sins that I forgot to help you with the thing you needed most, talking. And you had to suffer because of my hatred of people and this world.” She said. She marched me by the hand down the stacks, huge shelf after shelf.
She put too much blame on herself, till the day she died. She nurtured me more than anyone I have ever met. She never forgave herself for her lack of communication with my school and that she didn’t give me speech therapy early on. I never blamed her for anything, and I always made sure that she knew that.
I learned soon after her death in one of her journals that she was paying penance for the years on the streets in New York City when she was selling herself sexually to survive and get through school. She wrote about how she hated herself for those years regardless of how much my father didn’t care in the least. It was her issue with God and herself, and even with God’s forgiveness, she would never forgive herself.
The time I spent in school, she volunteered helping sick and old people at a Protestant church. She wasn’t fond of the Protestant faith, being Roman Catholic and all, but she had even had issues with the Catholic Church. She could sniff out hypocrites and liars anywhere, especially a clergyman.
I stood next her in the silence of the stacks. She fingered through a medical tome. “I can do this.” She put it back and marched me to another stack.
She pulled out three books side by side. “Forgive me father.” She said (in Polish). She genuflected and the books into her handbag. “Now let’s go see what we can do about your tongue.”
On the way out, she put a wad of money on at the book checkout counter. “For the books.” She said to the woman.
“First off, you have ankyloglossia. You’re tongue-tied, literally. Stick your tongue out.”
Mom had a splay of medical supplies on the motel desk and a couple bottles of vodka.
“I should have known this was a problem. You were terrible at suckling as a baby.” She said. “Stick your tongue out.”
I was trying, I couldn’t. She touched the web of my tongue and the tongue itself. “This has been hurting your speech. Bozhi, understand? I have to fix it.” She said, in her endearing Polish accent.
She was prepping me for what physicians call a lingual frenectomy. A minor procedure where the frenelum of the tongue is snipped.
She poured some vodka in a small paper cup. It was Polish vodka, I was familiar with it. My parents raved about how supreme is was to vodkas anywhere, especially Russia.
I smelled the rim of the cup. It was awful and burned my nostrils.
“Just shoot it down. Don’t think about it. Close your eyes, pour it down your throat and think of fire.” She said.
I closed my eyes and shot it back. Fire. Numb.
“How do you feel? Little dizzy? Not yet. Have another.” She said.
This wasn’t my first experience with alcohol, my parents gave me a beer or wine on holidays. This was the first time for liquor.
I shot another back. It burned less. My vision changed like the times I tried wine.
“Good?” She said.
“More.” I said (sounded like /mo/).
“One more Bozhi and that’s it. I can’t have you passing out on me.” She said.
I was fine, no, great. I had no fear of what was coming.
She raised the scalpel and held my chin with her powdery rubber-gloved hand.
Blood and saliva trickled down my chin. I felt like I could embrace the world.
Mother finished up and took a moment to stare at me.
“We’ll get you talking in no time my dear boy.”