Sometime in the last few years, my sixty-five-year-old father, a Soviet mathematician who spent the first fifty years of his life in Moscow, began speaking to me in English.
That I can’t recall when exactly this happened makes the shift seem, at least in retrospect, both gradual and sudden. One day he was correcting my Russian, his laughter once ascending into a taunting squeal as I attempted to casually use the swear word svoloch (along the lines of “scum”) and mistakenly said slovoch, which, if it were an actual insult, would mean “worder.” Another day, not much later, during what must have been an argument, I couldn’t find the Russian words to describe whatever I was feeling, and I remember my father, calm and patient, saying, “Say eet een English, my luv.” Then last week, a voice mail: “Hi. It is me. Call me back please.” When I return his call, the voice that I know to be father’s asks, without the sharp edges that used to define his accent, “Have you ever been to the Hamptons? Nice place.”
When we moved to the States, I was ten; my father, forty-eight. What this meant was that I lost my accent by the time I started high school while my parents still pulled up to the gas station attendant and said, “Fool up regular.” I spent whole afternoons then explaining to my mother that “ze” and “zat” were nothing like “the” and “that.” That no one in America hung Persian rugs on their walls as decoration. That boiled potatoes were not dinner. When my haughtiness was amusing, they called me “our little Americanka;” other times they looked at me with unrecognizing dismay—there was a stranger in their home, or, worse, a traitor. Read More