My mother wanted to learn some German
for my father and because her children
could already speak it a little.
She was tired of dusting the stacks of books
she couldn’t read, tired of the letters
she always had to ask him to translate.
He was usually willing to translate
the cards his mother had written in German.
But sometimes there were other letters,
and when he read them to her and the children,
she had the same feeling she’d had with books
before she learned to read, when she was little.
She said it bothered her a little
that her own children would have to translate
for her, that they could pick up the same books
that were as Greek to her as they were German.
She started learning it from her children
and decided to leave my father letters.
She wrote my father daily love letters
and carefully placed them on the little
table where they put things for the children,
next to our favorite set of translations
of fairy tales we first heard in German.
She leaned one every day against his books,
the white paper stark beside the dark books.
But my father never answered her letters.
Instead, he returned them with his German
corrections in the margin, his little
red marks—hieroglyphs for her to translate,
as if she were one of the children.
Maybe she was just one of the children
in that house surrounded by rows of books.
Maybe her whole life was a translation
of what she imagined in the letters.
The space between them made her that little
girl, wandering lost inside the German.
Because her own children were half-German,
she built her life around those little books
translating the lines of her own letters.