Exhibition in my family comes in the form of personalized vocabulary. We are the most eloquent-- and the most ourselves--when we use words we have made up ourselves. My maternal grandmother grew up speaking Yiddish in a Jewish household in Cleveland, Ohio, which later translated into Finklestein, a watered-down dialect used specifically between my mom, my dog, and me. The words have no linguistic meaning, but rather rely on a powerful emotional oompf. These nonsensical words may sound unimportant, but I first realized their true power when I studied abroad in Granada, Spain, as a junior in college.
Exhibiting me means exhibiting my family, which, at its very essence, means exhibiting the meaning we translate from nonsense.
"Hatzburg, hatzburg, three-three-four."
These are the first five words on my mother's audio tape, the one that recorded her trip to visit me in Granada, Spain. Not "testing, testing, one-two-three." One of my mother's favorite motifs is "normal is boring." And hatzburg is never boring.
She sits in the San Francisco International Airport in her black exercise pants and matching zip-up yoga sweater, eyes gleaming with an almost fervent innocence to travel, to be places, and to go there with people she loves. If any word describes my mother, with her Tinkerbell hair and infectious, record-skipping laugh, it is the one she and I made up: hatzburg.
It was a startlingly bright day in early spring 1993. I was taking off my shin guards after AYSO soccer practice and she was calling in our dog from the front porch. Maybe she had forgotten the dog's name (it was Tipper, although it could have been Tom; all our dogs had T names, as per family rule), or maybe she had forgotten my name (my brother and I have J names), or maybe I had forgotten her name. In any case, we both groped for words, and what resulted was the sudden and familiar amalgamation of syllables that became "Finklestein."
Why Finklestein? Why not Finklestein? Every syllable of the word is satisfying to say. We didn't know what it meant, but it didn't matter. Yiddish, Hebrew, and German were my grandmother's and great-grandmother's languages, which meant that although I couldn't understand them, their words carried an almost instinctual weight. Finklestein sounded like a word our ancestors had used--maybe in jest, but used all the same.
My mother is a mistress of words. She uses a beady red pen the way surgeons use scalpels, or loggers use saws. And yet her literary and editorial eloquence transforms in our family home. She has taught me that some sensations, especially those as specific as I'm-not-mad-at-you-but-would-you-take-out-the-trash-already, are best described by words or phrases that we ourselves create. Call it improvisation or nonsense, the intricate and guttural language that we use carries a weight neither of us can ever deny.
I'm not sure why we call it Finklestein, but it is important that we call it that. Most words are related to, derived from, or otherwise indicative of dogs.(Usually border collies--we had a series of very fine dogs during that almost impossibly optimistic, Clinton-era gleeful oblivion of otherwise worldly problems, that sixteen-year continuum that was my childhood.) Once, in sixth grade, I got in my mind to write a Finklestein dictionary. This was during my first obsession with autobiographies (think Laura Ingalls Wilder and Anne Frank), when I erroneously assumed that any coherent eleven year old's mental leftover would one day be historic, and therefore of some cultural value.
The dictionary backfired, though, when I realized that the key vocabulary words (t'chazkabeeg, hurtzenburgen, finkasteina-fortyneina, etc.) defied definition, and in fact, thwarted meaning. They were too slippery, too liberally and ambiguously used, to be all that helpful.
My dictionary was only six lines long.
In a way, though, it was appropriate that Finklestein was inexplicable. The words we used were placeholders for those oft-forgotten daily niceties ("Could you pass the hatzenschkeegen, please?"); they were perfect for capturing that familiar mixture of familial frustration inspired by love ("Oh, hatz, I just washed the t'chazkabeeg!").
Finklestein was aptly as adolescent and in-between as I was. Upon closer linguistic inspection, the rhyming, rhythmic, and guttural phonemes that my mother and I exchanged were really just Yiddish, watered down two generations.
"You two would be good at German," my brother's best friend Doug once said, when we gave him a ride from Davis to Los Angeles. We were busy replacing the lyrics to Jewish folksinger Debbie Friedman's "I'm a Latke" with common Finklestein nouns. He was right.
Hatzburg hatzburg three-three-four.
Fast forward ten, twelve years. My mother still sings to the dog (our latest border collie is Taj) sophisticated original lyrics about the day's news or whether or not he needs to poop. I'm away, further away than when I went to university; this time I'm living a parallel life in a parallel hemisphere--Granada, Spain, to be exact.
We haven't seen each other in five months, the longest I've gone yet without Friday night Shabbat candles, weekly or even daily family updates, and that mystical therapy that is Finklestein. There are a lot of profound and emphatic chemical reactions happening in my body as a result of my willful semester-long exile in Andalucía, but these are all personal epiphanies that go beyond the present thrill: My mother, father, brother and Finklestein, together for the first time in five months.
Late night in Granada is a mystifying cultural cocktail, something that often leaves me speechless in two languages. And then my family arrives, pulls up in a taxi in front of the Isabella la Católica fountain at two in the morning in late May. And then the whole world, the one I had carefully filled with Federico García Lorca and Semana Santa and flamenco, translate into something all too familiar: Hatzburg hatzburg three-three-four.
They had just flown San Francisco-Madrid-Malaga, and somehow gotten in a cab all the way to Granada, nearly two hours northwest. They are on the cabbie's crappy Vodaphone until the last minute, asking:
"Isabella la what? We don't see you-wait...!"
And then I am jumping up and down on the corner of Reyes Católicos and Recogidas, hailing down the taxi as six arms reach out of three windows to hug me before the car has even stopped.
The first words I hear:
"There's my HATZ!"