The Elderly Lady With An American Accent

She may have passed away a long time ago, the elderly lady who taught me how to pronounce “refrigerator” with an American accent. I wonder if she could hear my whispers, the unspoken words.

I left Shanghai for Oslo when I was 16. I can’t recall much of what happened on the first night I touched the Norwegian soil, but one particular scene remains crystal clear.

In the woods not far from our new accommodation, I was on a swing gazing up at the huge dark skies. Thousands of stars were twinkling in distance, as if they were about to tell me something of profound importance.

I studied them for a very long time, breathing in the chilly autumn air and trying to figure out the message the stars were passing to me. I had a feeling that the stars were aware of how the story of my life in this new place was going to unfold. But I couldn’t decode the message. The stars and I were unable to connect. A sense of uneasiness emerged, stayed for a while, and slowly faded into darkness.

Those first years were, how should I put it, a bit harsh for a teenager with a sensitive soul. I kept a diary and wrote down thoughts that found no retreat anywhere else. I started taking part-time jobs at cafés and restaurants soon after I settled down in Oslo. My daily routine was pretty monotonous – school and part-time job.

One year and half later, I moved to a coastal town in southern Norway with my mother and younger brother, while my father remained working in Oslo.

The same routine continued. I studied at high school and worked at a café in the evenings and on weekends.

Signe, a lady in her seventies came to the café I worked at on a Saturday afternoon in November. The layers of soft snow had covered pavements and roofs of the buildings in the streets. Wearing classic round glasses, a cream-white wool cardigan and long skirt in grey, she looked like a character walking straight out from an old film.

Signe was accompanied by a little boy with an Asian look. I took her order. Despite my limited skills in Norwegian, the conversation flowed smoothly and the tone between us was light and pleasant. The nine-year-old boy was her grandson adopted in South Korea, she told me while running her fingers lovingly through the boy’s short hair.

Signe became a regular customer to the café after that. She always came on Saturdays, accompanied by her well-mannered and curious grandson.

We were a team of three or four waitresses working at the café. Signe often gave a signal that she wished I could take her order. Our conversations became more engaging and personal as time passed by. Her kindness and compassion soothed my sensitive and lonely soul.

“I love languages, especially English, but my English isn’t good”, I said casually in one of our conversations.

“Oh really? You know I emigrated to America with my parents when I was a little girl, and I spent most of my life living in the States. I can teach you English!” She said enthusiastically with a sparkle in her eyes.

Signe and I made an arrangement. On a sunny afternoon, we walked to her house, a white wooden building with a rustic charm.

Turning on the radio on the kitchen table, we listened to Blues and drank black tea with honey and milk. All of sudden, she pointed to the refrigerator in the corner and pronounced “refrigerator” with her American accent. She showed me how to move my tongue to make the rhotic R sound in the way she did.

On Sunday the week after Signe took me to the local church. Sitting closely to her on the bench in one of the front rows, I listened to the grey-haired pastor delivering a sermon.

I couldn’t work out the meaning of every sentence he said but I loved the peace and serenity around me. As the Sunday Song floating slowly in the church, tears filled up in the corner of my eyes. Signe turned her head slightly towards me. Her smile encouraging and warm. I felt a gentleness I hadn’t felt for a long time.

Signe kept coming to have lunch at the café on Saturdays. Gradually, it occurred to me that our conversations weren’t particularly appreciated by other waitresses. I was hired to take orders and serve meals to customers. Speed and efficiency were two key skills for a waitress.

The other waitresses began taking Signe’s orders. She must’ve noticed it, that I was becoming reluctant to hold a decent conversation with her. I could feel her eyes following me as I was taking orders from other customers. The sparkle in her eyes was no longer there. She grew quiet, only exchanging a few words with her little grandson. My heart sank.

Eventually, Signe ceased to come. I moved back to Oslo the following summer. I never saw her again.

A large part of our conversations has faded away after all these years, but the way she pronounced “refrigerator” has remained in my memory. Whenever the thought crosses my mind, something sharp would touch the emotional string hidden somewhere deep inside me. It hasn’t changed much since I was 18, the year I lost her.

I wonder if she could hear my whispers, the unspoken words.

Author: Isabelle

Content writer / editor & Language advisor

28 thoughts on “The Elderly Lady With An American Accent”

  1. What a nice, bittersweet story.
    Actually, it’s good that she taught you to say refrigerator with an American accent, because the British don’t bother. They just say fridge.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I did a subject on the differences between American and British English as part of my English language degree. We went through words like “sidewalk” v.s “pavement”, “line” v.s “queue”, as well as grammatical and stylistic differences. “Refrigerator”, however, wasn’t mentioned in the course book. Thanks for pointing this out. I find the subject immensely interesting. Wishing you and your family all the best at this difficult time.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. I would have handled the situation very differently today. At the age of 18, I wasn’t brave enough to follow my heart. I didn’t have the courage to choose the precious friendship between her and me. I failed to appreciate her kindness and compassion. I gave in. I know how much my behaviour could have disappointed and hurt her. I feel very sad when thinking about it.
      Thanks so much for your kind and thoughtful words, Brad. Deeply appreciated. Stay safe and take care.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The kindness she offered you was a gift, and when you accepted it, you made her happy. That was your gift to her, although you may not have understood it at the time. Your story reminded me of people who were kind to me when I was young, whose kindnesses I never fully repaid. I think we can repay them now by offering kindness to others without expectation of something in return. It isn’t easy, but we can try. Thank you for inspiring these thoughts today. It’s good to be reminded that generosity can have effects that last much longer than we know. 😌

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes, we can return the kindness we received to other people in need. What a beautiful and inspiring thought! Thank you, Brad. Your insightful comment has brightened my day 😊✨

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your generous comment, Kevin. I was concerned before publishing this. Was it appropriate to post a story like this, given most of us are in a crisis? Reading and some writing helps me cope with self-isolation. Thank You! Sending best wishes. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I love this story, Isabelle. I’m sorry you had to concentrate on your job instead of your friend, but that’s what you had to do at the time. She probably realised what was happening and, anyway, the difference in age would have dictated a split-path eventually. But while it lasted, it brought both of you great beauty and calm, so it’s good that you have the memories to savour.

    And – having read your replies to previous commenters, it’s fine to post something like this in these times. People who are stuck indoors, particularly those who are self-isolating anyway, need something that speaks of other people’s lives, to lift them out of their own selves.

    Hugs, be well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your kind and thoughtful words, Val. I’m grateful you shared your thoughts with me. Despite the rather short time we were friends to one another, the impact of this precious friendship on me as a person, a teenager who felt quite lost in a new country at the time, was profound. Her kindness and compassion will continue to have an impact on my life, always.

      I was concerned that this post would cause distractions to people amidst the global crisis. It’s comforting to hear that it may have some positive effect.

      Please be well and take care. Sending love and hugs.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh…..dear, sweet Isabelle. This is so beautifully written it’s crazy. You shattered my heart. I’m sitting here crying. Life is so interesting….we’re all like leaves in a river; drifting together, then apart pulled along at the current’s whim. What a lovely time Y’all had together. I bet some part of her sweet soul did hear Your whispers….and that she answered lovingly. Sending You the hugest hugs. Thank You for sharing Your heart so openly. 🤗❤️🌸🌟🌀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You put it so beautifully and poetically, dear Katy, that “we’re all like leaves in a river; drifting together, then apart pulled along at the current’s whim”. What a lovely metaphor 🌸 We encounter thousands of people during our life time, and I think only a handful of them will leave inscriptions at the end of the day. These lovely people and the beautiful memories associated with their kindness and compassion helped shape the person I am today. They’re a pure treasure in life. Thanks Katy, for your love and hugs. You’re one of them. Sending love and hugs 🤗🎈🌸❤️

      Liked by 1 person

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