When I was very little and my mother had time to do things with her life, one of them was scrapbooking. Quite honestly those big bound books full of family photos, arranged so much more lovingly than a stark grid of pockets, are some of the best gifts my mother has given us kids. This summer when I first came home from school Kristen and I spent an hour going through them all again like we used to do when we were kids (there is substantially more to go through now, of course). And when we didn’t finish before I had to run away to do a thing, Kristen actually wanted to finish them the next night. It was happy. She and I don’t actually do a lot together, though we try. I should try harder. Okay, enough guilt. This was supposed to be a cute little story.
One of the pictures in the album is of my family sitting on our front porch. We are a family of five; the picture is of four. I was four years old. Underneath it my mother wrote, So sahen wir damals aus…our family of four in 19–.
I could read when I was four, but not in German. Oddly, I never asked my mom what it meant. Maybe she was never in the room when I thought to ask, or maybe I knew even then that it’s more fun to translate things for yourself.
As I grew older and my mother made sure I knew how to count in German, I remember being – oh dear, eleven? twelve? – and wondering if the word ‘wir’ could be ‘vier’ – the German for ‘four.’ Was it a direct translation of the English that followed?
No, it couldn’t be. But it was still gibberish, at the time.
First-year German, and I finally learned that wir means we. It couldn’t be a direct translation.
I didn’t look at the albums again for years. Maybe around the time I graduated high school or thereabouts. So sahen wir damals aus.
On that note, damals is one of the most beautiful words in the German language.
The awesome part of this is that though I can remember reading those words and not understanding them, I do not remember how it feels to not understand them. I cannot look at So sahen wir damals aus without understanding it. It’s like English. It happened this summer with Swedish, when I almost failed to grasp the concept that someone could look at these words and see only letters they didn’t understand. I
It’s like the time when I was about nine years old in my backyard and my dad was teasing me about how I was always reading, and I glared sullenly at the True Value Hardware bag I was helping him stuff leaves into. And he laughed gleefully and said, “See? You’re doing it now!” and it was then that it occurred to me that I could not not read.
So the fact that I am doing this now in other languages is terrifying and beautiful.
So sahen wir damals aus. (So sah ich aus, seit so viele Jahren.)
I am not going to translate So sahen wir damals aus for any of you. It took me fourteen years to learn it for myself, and it was sweeter so than it would have been anyhow else.
And when I told the story of my comprehension of So sahen wir damals aus to Kristen last summer, she said, “Well, what does it mean?”
I didn’t tell her either. Rude? Yes. Will I regret it? Probably not.
I love the organic way I grew to understand what my mother was trying to say. “Don’t be a UN translator,” she would tell us in first-year German. “Just try to understand what you can.”
Talking of gifts my mother gave me.