Suzanne Eisinger and Jeanie Silletti
Suzanne Eisinger is an Illinois native with a bachelor’s degree from Arizona State University, and a master’s in Speech Pathology from Ithaca College. Suzanne and her family—which includes three teenagers—moved to Hilton Head Island in 2015, where she is now a freelance writer of fiction, commentary and local interest stories. Her articles have appeared in both print and online publications, including Hilton Head Monthly, Parenthood IQ, Pink Magazine, Kveller.com and The Daily Press of Virginia.
Welcome to Hilton Head (an excerpt)
We had been living in on Hilton Head Island for two weeks and, by all measures, it had already exceeded our expectations. Beaches, bike paths, fishing, kayaking…what was not to love? Our three kids were enjoying a summer of freedom before their new school year began in the fall, and I was well on my way to unpacking our belongings in the house we had rented for our first year here. We were already beginning to feel at home.
Still, the area in which we lived was not a typical neighborhood. Largely made up of vacation and rental homes, the majority of the people we saw were there for a week at most, their over packed cars with out-of-state plates pulling in on a Saturday afternoon, only to be packed up again a week later for the drive home. For this reason, I didn’t expect the traditional neighborhood welcome that usually came a day or two after the moving van left. In fact, it was months before our few permanent neighbors even realized that we were there for good.
However, I did receive a welcome of sorts. It just wasn’t the one I expected.
It was late in the evening. My husband and kids had gone to bed hours before, their quiet breathing barely audible as I padded past their doorways, stopped for a moment to listen, and then walked on to the next. A creature of habit, I tidied up the objects in my path, my steps crisscrossing the house as I put everything back in readiness for the morning’s predictable cyclone of activity.
It wasn’t long before the house was back in shape, the best it would look for another twenty-four hours. I sat down at my laptop, weary but relaxed, looking forward to an hour of complete silence in which I could catch up on my writing. My reward for another relatively successful day in which no one went unfed, untended to, or AWOL.
A faint scratching sound caught my attention. I looked up from my laptop and glanced around the room. Nothing amiss. With a mental shrug, I returned to my work. However, the scratching returned. It sounded nearby, yet was impossible to pinpoint, not unlike the maddening sound of a chirping cricket that you can spend hours trying to locate and never do. This time, I glanced down at the floor, my eyes following the 90 degree turns of the baseboards that surrounded me. Again, nothing. But the scratching continued.
This time I looked up. And froze.
“Welcome to Hilton Head” © Suzanne Eisinger (2019) from Reflections
Jeanie Silletti is a retired community college faculty member who taught classes in cultural anthropology in Ohio prior to her move to Hilton Head four years ago. Her background also includes twelve years of European residence (Spain, England, Italy) and international teaching experiences. Today, she continues her interest in education as an art docent with the Telfair Museum in Savannah. Jeanie enjoys writing, especially vignettes about growing up in a large, Irish family of ten.
A surprise job promotion to Spain seemed a bold but feasible family adventure when first considered from the comfort of our living room in Ohio. Thoughts of affordable help with our young children and an escape from brutal Midwestern winters helped secure our decision. The euphoria of the move, however, evaporated when the realities of living in a foreign land confronted us. With a company translator assisting with the contract, my husband and I rented a house in a university neighborhood of Madrid. Now we were expected to make our own way.
A constant threat, both real and imagined, was our lack of Spanish. Despite some language training prior to arrival, we were severely unprepared for full-immersion Spanish. “Surely, there will be lots of English spoken” was a common refrain in the United States. That comforting statement was simply untrue in Madrid in the 1970s. Guffaws and misunderstandings galore accompanied our every attempt at speaking Spanish. Once, we entered a pharmacy and used the word “sopa” hoping it meant soap. Wrong! “Sopa” means soup. Another time, I frightened a neighbor when I innocently told her our children had smallpox instead of a skin rash. Somehow my mispronounced word sent her into a panic.
Only the confident smiles and onward footsteps of my preschool children comforted me as I faced staggering adaptations. Each day brought a wearisome series of baby steps fraught with either embarrassment on my part or often total bewilderment by the locals. Increasingly, I grew timid in my public interactions and more childlike than our daughters and infant son.
One day, when the moving boxes were only partially cleared, a nanny who had once said “hola” from across the street appeared at my front door. She had in tow a blond, curly-headed little girl about age five clutching her hand. Eventually, with dictionary in hand, I surmised the nanny wished her young charge, Teresita, to play in the sandbox with my three-year-old daughter, Sonya. I was incapable of responding in Spanish that the timing was not good, so I simply complied with the nanny’s request. At first, the girls used facial expressions and hand gestures to communicate, but soon they were silently playing together.
The following morning, Teresita and the nanny reappeared. Presumably, the little girl was eager to be with Sonya again, and the nanny was quite willing to leave the child in my care. My daughter was so delighted with a playmate that I led the girls back to the garden and the sandbox again. This pattern continued for several weeks. One morning, I was shocked to hear Sonya speaking words and even phrases in Spanish to Teresita. How this language transfer happened so quickly remains a mystery.
Eventually, our daughter became my companion and guardian angel on outings to stores and open markets. Often she spoke directly for me to the vendors. Some forty years later, I can still recall her saying, “Mi mama quiere tres platanos.” Promptly, the three bananas would be packaged and the correct change in pesetas given to her amidst a sweet and loving exchange. It was on these shopping trips that I learned an important cultural lesson: The Spanish deeply value children.
The time with Teresita during those early weeks in Madrid still feels magical. It yielded a spontaneous childhood friendship and the gift of Spanish tutoring. In time, I too, realized the value of practicing my bookish and accented Spanish with little Teresita before entering the scary, adult conversation world just outside my doorstep.
Teresita © Jeanie Silletti (2019), from Reflections