Since there were five of us, just one year apart, we needed no other playmates. We loudly interrupted each other constantly, trying to get our point of view heard or to interject a few words before a particular subject changed. When we argued, everyone chimed in, siding with one sibling in one moment and then switching sides just a few hours later. Sometimes full-blown battles would erupt. The verbal noise was intense. The games we thought up, the imaginary worlds we visited together, the monumental struggles we dramatized forged a strong bond.
As siblings, we apparently developed our own form of communication, part stutter, part symbolic speech, part hand gestures, part Spanish, part English and mostly uttering urgently the words, “Um, um…um.” Now that I think about it, that’s how our parents communicated, since they spoke Spanish at home and spoke English when they went out into the world. Most of the time, the five of us couldn’t understand our father in any language (very thick accent), so we learned to understand by listening closely, watching body language, looking for clues in facial expressions, and looking at each other a lot for consensus and translation. If you didn’t get what Papi was trying to tell you, he would get mad.
Like most moms that have large families, Mami used to point at us and go through the beginning of each child’s name before landing on the right one. “El, Ev, Na, Mo, Na, yes You.” and say “Go over and get that, the other, over there, get now!!” And point. Both Mami and Papi did that. They’d point in a general direction, sometimes emphatically, not actually saying anything coherent and we had better know what they wanted or we would get in trouble. Inexplicably we learned to decipher and discern what they wanted. Oh my god, we were becoming psychic!
I came to understand that our speech pattern would garner strange looks from outsiders because we mixed our metaphors, stuttered, mispronounce words, simply left words out, made up nonsensical words or replaced words with others that seemed totally unrelated or out of context. When I was young, I kept thinking, “What is wrong with these people? Don’t they understand English?”
Trying to communicate to Queen Maker that I wanted a glass of milk from the refrigerator, I told him, “Honey, could you, um, um, get, ah, ah, grass, cow, um, um you know, liquid-y, white, cold, in big box. The strangest look would come over his face when these things happened.
I call this a “reference trail.” Sometimes this trail could be a long trail indeed and so obscure at times that even I am baffled. Usually words or ideas flash so quickly in my mind that I blurt out words as though they came out of the blue making Queen Maker’s face screw up in pain.
I always felt it was caused by some unknown or yet unnamed form of dyslexia, or brain malfunction. I’ve been meaning to look into it, especially because they might name the disorder after me. I was thinking of heading up a study, but then my husband of 22 years seemed to have adapted slightly to my affliction and at rare times understands some of my reference trail so I feel vindicated.
I try to figure out why my brain chooses the words it does to prove to myself (really, Queen Maker) that I’m not just blurting words out in random. I have come to the conclusion that my brain, when struggling to find the correct words, goes through some kind of misfiring sequence and starts listing words and images that will help bring me, hopefully, to my final destination word.
Just take a look at my asking for a glass of milk. “Honey, could you, um, um, get, ah, ah, grass, (Glass and grass are almost spelled the same.) cow, (Cows eat grass and produces milk.) um, um you know, liquid-y, (milk is definitely liquid-y) white, cold, (both milk and my refrigerator are white and cold, thus stumping me.) in big box. (A refrigerator is a very big box of a thing and milk sometimes comes in a box, thus stumping me.) I ponder and ponder, and there are times I can trace my long reference chain of words logically enough to prove to Queen Maker that my thought processes are legitimate and say, “See, I knew what I was getting at. Really, I did.” He just shakes his head.
I’ve heard the brothers-in-laws talk about it, the Belen girls blurt out random words, so it must be a noticeable family trait. It seems that all the Belens are afflicted by the same problem. Named by the brother-in-laws as Belenitis.
This problem only seems to arise when speaking to non-Belens. When speaking to one another, Belens seem to know what Belens are always getting at. This family language seems disjointed and unclear to others, but we understand it completely. Not only the mixing of Spanish and English, the “um, um, um,” sprinkled consistently throughout, but even the blurting out of random words.
This language understood by five children, all a year apart in age, always together, and rarely separated created our own language, our own vernacular, and our own understanding, completing each other’s sentences and completing each other’s thoughts and sometimes without uttering many words at all. (Tip: When playing word games, don’t allow Belens to be on the same team. You Will Lose.)
So the next time I say, “I’m going downstairs to, stitch, jeans, um, um, water, soap, switch-y, switch-y machine, ah, ah, clean, basket stuff.” You’ll know I’m going to do some laundry.