Words overheard one holiday season took Elaine Held back to a childhood place that she thought she said goodbye to long ago. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns
By Elaine Held
As some of you know I am half Native American. Lakota was the first language of my great-great-grandfather. Growing up I spent my summers with Lakota friends in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Being young I easily picked up the language. I spoke Lakota until I was 18 and off and on during my college years.
After moving to Los Angeles in 1960 I did not hear a word of Lakota for 43 years. I lost the language and the memories that went with it. I buried my memories deep.
In 2003, Bill and I were in All American during the Christmas season, which in All American was called "the Rush." The store selected one area and put all of the Christmas items in those three aisles. This meant a huge traffic jam with people fighting for items and cursing each other, loudly.
All of this I hate, but it is necessary at times. The crowd was unbelievable and they were all yelling in Spanish. My claustrophobia was beginning to kick in.
I had a death grip on the back of Bill’s belt as we made our way through. I was being jostled, kicked and shoved so my concentration was on staying alive.
Through all of this I thought I heard-no-yes-Lakota. I knew that couldn’t be so I listened with everything I had. Two people were coming toward us against the traffic and yes, they were speaking Lakota in All American, in Downey, California!
Not aware of what I was doing I whirled and latched onto them, or rather the sound. At that moment my entire world was a small cocoon whirling about the three of us.
The young man and the woman were completely unaware of a third presence even though my body was Velcrow-ed to them. Goosebumps covered my entire body and tears made me blind.
When they got to their station, as they worked there, I didn’t realize I followed them to where I was not supposed to be. Finally, it dawned on them they were not only not alone, but that there was a fat old lady nose to nose with them.
Did you know there can be total silence amid cacophony? The three of us stared at each other forever. Finally, I managed to say, ”Please don’t stop.” And with that, the woman knew. Maybe it was my tears.
She asked in Lakota who I was but I quickly asked who she was. The young man looked from one to the other of us not knowing what was going on. As completely as I was concentrating, I cannot tell you one thing about what they looked like.
Customers began to pile up while she told me her story. Then the young man told his, and finally I told mine. I was forced to step to the side as they started to take care of customers.
The young man was speaking Spanish to customers, the woman was speaking English, and both were speaking Lakota to me.
If you have spoken English all of your life, imagine moving to China at the age of 20 and not hearing English for 43 years and someone walks by speaking that language. Your ingrained beginnings are all there is in that one capsule of time.
In the meantime Bill was lost. I had not one thought about him. was so hungry for the sound of my early language that nothing else penetrated.
But I deliberately did not ask them for their phone numbers. I needed to cut it off. If I became a part of this, it would take over. I had said goodbye once with deep pain. I knew what was down that tunnel. I needed to walk away.