Trapped between dreams and waking life, I am (just barely) aware enough to know that it is an obscenely early hour. I fumble for the small clock by the bed.
The dregs just before dawn.
By now, I know the difference between a cry for help and a cry for…”
“Ima! Rotsaaaa Cheerios.”
She wants Cheerios. At 3:47 am. After all, she’s 2 years old.
I can picture her sitting up in bed, her curls pillow-matted into a Rastafarian wig. She’s probably clutching her Princess Tiana doll and sucking her thumb.
And I feel an icy trickle of resentment as I rub my eyes.
It isn’t because I’ve been shaken awake at an unholy hour. For Cheerios.
It isn’t because my husband snores serenely beside me in our bed while our daughter whines from her bedroom.
It’s the word: Ima. And the fact that my daughter’s default language is Hebrew.
When my daughter was born, my husband and I made a commitment to raise her in a bilingual household: Aba spoke Hebrew, and Mama spoke English. And since we were living in Los Angeles, I was smug about the whole thing because my daughter’s fluency in English was a given. The Hebrew was just a perk – a way showing off in front of other LA mamas.
And as my daughter grew older, she seemed to understand both languages equally well, although when it came to speaking, she favored English. So, I felt I could afford to be a little charitable, and when we were out in public, I would toss around a little Hebrew for funsies: It was like our secret language, and she didn’t judge my linguistic missteps. After all, she’s 2 years old.
By the time we landed in Israel four months ago, she spoke fluent gibberish. Half English, Half Hebrew, mishmoshing her words into a language that her Aba and I could understand.
“I want to play al ha deshe” (I want to play on the lawn.)
“Ani loveshet princess dress.” (I am wearing the princess dress.)
But after a winter spent in Israeli preschool, her Hebrew blossomed. And her English? Not so much.
“Keep speaking English to her!” My husband says.
And I do. But she resolutely answers in Hebrew.
And while at first, I was able to keep up, her Hebrew proficiency has surpassed me and she is using words that I don’t know.
“What does that mean,” I’ll ask her when she tosses out a word I’ve never heard. And, offering me a frightening glimpse into her teenage years, she’ll roll her eyes and sigh.
Sometimes she’ll translate. Sometimes she won’t.
But I want her to speak English. I want that cultural connection with my daughter forever and ever. Especially in those irrational hours before dawn. I don’t want to feel like I need to carry a pocket dictionary when talking with my daughter, or worse, ask my mother-in-law to translate.
“Imaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa” she screams again, and I think of our neighbors. I take a deep breath, mentally steeling myself for the barefoot walk across the chilly floors.
(But I’m not Ima. I’m Mama. And I want to scream at her through the dense darkness “Call me Mama!” But I don’t. )
I wait. Praying she’ll go back to sleep. But knowing she probably won’t.
So I get out of bed. After all, I’m the Mama.