by Jan Martinez
What I thought I heard him say was, “I don’t eat bees.” I was on the phone with my dad several years ago, when cell signals weren’t as reliable as they are now, inching my way eastward on Walton Blvd toward the Livernois intersection where Rochester Hills became Rochester and home.
I’d had a particularly tough day of negotiating with Purchasing at one of the Big Three automakers. My buyer, whose initials were M.D., aka Doctor, had accused me of falsifying information, insulted my intelligence, and thrown me out of his office. My father, the only other family member who’d worked in “industry,” immediately understood and informed me cheerfully that all Purchasing agents were going to Hell. I laughed, delighted that Doc, who gave me such Hell, might one day figuratively go there, at least for a visit.
We’d moved on to produce, groceries, and my stop at Whole Foods, always a mood lifter, when my father had announced, “I don’t eat bees.”
“Bees?” I asked. Of course you don’t eat bees, I thought. No one eats bees on purpose. Maybe bears when foraging for honey, but they’re after the honey, not the bees.
“Fleas!” he insisted. “I don’t eat flees.” Of course. No one eats fleas on purpose either. Maybe dogs, accidentally.
I had eaten a termite once, on purpose. But it was offered to me, and so it seemed the honorable thing to do. I was visiting a camp along the Tambopata River, a tributary to the Amazon. We were about an hour out from Puerto Maldonado, Peru, when we stopped at a small jungle farm. We met the farmer, his wife, and two small children in their shorts and once-white t-shirts. After a tour, we’d been offered a fresh cacao bean, the white pulp tasting like a delicate, floral chocolate grape, a slice of papaya, cut with a machete used to cut everything, and a termite. A tiny wriggling creature, not at all like the winged house-devouring giants of the Midwest. I was the only one in our group to eat the proffered termite. There was such warm sincerity in the offer of this humble household staple. It tasted both dusty and minty — ochre brown, somehow, the way tannins of the river wash everything brown over time.
“Fleas?” I asked my dad. “Peas,” he insisted, or “beans.” By now I was crawling past the high school, where a friend of mine said she’d taught theater arts to Madonna in the ‘70s. Yes, that Madonna. I once saw a newspaper headline that proclaimed, “Madonna, Live from New York City!” I bet that pissed off Kid Rock, Ted Nugent, and the whole mitten-shaped state.
“Beans, Dad? I see you eat beans all the time.”
“Seeds!” he shouted through some miraculous shift in cell towers. Like my commute, it seemed the world wound down to stillness and in that stillness came focus. And something else like sadness, regret, or humility. I’d been chatting happily about bread, Seeduction bread, which was full of seeds: pumpkin seeds, poppy seeds (earthy and a little dusty – a bit like termites without the mint), sunflower seeds, whole millet, tricolor quinoa… and this bread had seeduced me from day one. This had been the item I was most looking forward to if my commute ever ended.
Here’s the thing, my father had given up nuts and seeds many years ago after recurring bouts of diverticulitis – excruciating and sometimes requiring long courses of antibiotics or hospitalization. We all knew. Even so, he’d started introducing himself to friends and strangers as, “Hello, my name is Inocencio Martinez, and I do not eat seeds,” something like, Mandy Patinkin in the Princess Bride: Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die. It had all become a family legend, and here I was babbling about a bread that was chock-full of seeds.
I’d finally cruised through the Livernois intersection and was nearing the hospital, walking distance from home, as another family legend surface, far older than the diverticulitis that had stricken somewhere in my dad’s 60’s. This was the one about all the epic ways my father had experienced being misunderstood since coming to this country in his late teens. There was the airport van driver who asked my father “what airline?” to which my father answered “Delta.” Repeatedly. Somehow this mono-tongued, mono-eared, driver managed to hear and respond with: Malta? Northwest? TWA? Air Lingus? before finally conceding that my father had said, “Delta.” In Atlanta, Delta’s hub, no less.
Personally, I only speak English fluently, but I do speak some Spanish and some German, but moreover, I have a curiosity about languages and an uncharacteristically high level of patience when it comes to listening to people whose first language isn’t English. At the time of said commute, I didn’t think in terms of “being seen” or “being heard,” but I knew its presence as a felt sense of safety, warmth, belonging. And I knew its absence as a queasy, off-kilter quality of misalignment. So empathy bloomed in my chest whenever I encountered immigrants or visitors struggling to be understood in the face of the American Linguistic Cyclops. It still does.
“Seeds, he said again, “I don’t eat seeds.”
“Oh! Seeds…” I laughed a little sheepishly. In the space between strong cell signals I had become a Linguistic Cyclops. “Yes, Dad,” I backpedaled, “of course, I know you don’t eat seeds. I also bought some great pumpernickel – caraway all ground up – and the biggest jicama you’ve ever seen.” I paused for a moment, by now turning into the haven of our neighborhood, and went for the save, “Hey, how’s Mom anyway?”