The Language of Life: Spanish Sessions Over Tea Teach Far More Than Vocabulary [An Essay]

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Illustration by Rachel Idzerda

We called ourselves “Las Damas,” six women in a Spanish class struggling to master verbs and expressions in a new language. The once-weekly class concentrated heavily on grammar but not much on conversation. Practice in speaking was what we needed.

One lady suggested we meet an additional time each week to work on conversation only. We liked the idea. Someone else offered her home as a meeting place. A plan came together. We settled on Tuesday afternoons and would speak only in Spanish about events in our lives. No English allowed.

So it began, over tea and cookies around a kitchen table, girl talk in halting and frequently incorrect Spanish. It became easy to lapse into English when a needed word wouldn’t come. One member kept us honest by sternly reminding, “Español, por favor.” Sometimes an hour seemed like several to our hardworking brains. We gained a new respect for those fluent in more than one language. 

Over time we evolved from babbling and bumbling over tea and store-bought cookies to doing so with specialty tea and bakery cookies. We originally named ourselves Las Damas de Cervantes but quickly dropped “de Cervantes.” We didn’t think the Spanish author needed to be associated with us, at least not until we improved.

Our weekly hostess was gracious, but we soon realized it would be more equitable if the rest of us shared hosting duties. So began a rotation. Maybe this is when things started to get out of control.

Serving tea remained the one constant, but everything else ramped up. No more coziness around the kitchen table. Places were now set at a dining table. Fine china and glassware were brought out and only something homemade accompanied the tea. Tables now included candles or flower arrangements. Not just any flowers, but those grown in the hostess’s yard. I looked forward to my turn so I could use my collection of porcelain cups and saucers. They always made for a lovely presentation.

One of our members had an ocean-view home in Laguna Beach. A terrace encircled the perimeter where her rescue dog, a protective German shepherd now living in luxury, roamed freely. Unfortunately, he was brought into the house on occasion, where he guarded his mistress and frightened us. Sometimes he’d follow us to the bathroom, sit outside the door and bark ferociously, waiting for someone to come out. We’d be afraid and stayed until he was pulled away by his owner, who never understood why we feared this “cream puff.”

Nevertheless, visiting there was a treat. We drank in the view and feasted on her great dessert. Our Spanish wasn’t necessarily improving, but we were eating well.

When my turn came again, I searched for a recipe I hadn’t yet served, chose one, and prepared it. I set the dining room table and placed a dessert portion at each setting, planning to add ice cream once everyone arrived.

I went into the garage to empty trash, and the laundry room door shut behind me. Correction, it locked behind me. In disbelief, I tried the door, although I knew the solid click I heard was undeniable. I had locked myself out of my house. Just two weeks before, the key I’d kept hidden in the garage for emergencies but had never used was given to my daughter. Talk about timing! There was no way to get in. I would have climbed through a window if one had been open. I was desperate.

While I sat in the garage, I devised a plan to get into my locked house. My husband had done his usual escape and headed to a class at the senior center nearby. As soon as one of my guests arrived, we’d drive there, get his house key, and be inside in no time. He never kept his cellphone on, so calling him would be useless.

Several ladies showed up at once. One volunteered to drive me while the others remained in their cars. When I went into the class, my husband wasn’t there. He hadn’t shown up, according to the instructor. Frustrated and embarrassed, I returned home with the bad news. We’d be meeting in the garage, no tea, no dessert, no comfort.

One of the members who lived closest to me in Laguna Niguel offered her home. She thought she had some ice cream to serve and a pot of tea wouldn’t take much time. We went there, rescuing some of the afternoon.

My husband came home to find me sitting in my car. Before he could speak, I spit out, “Where were you?” He had changed his mind on the way to the senior center and gone to the gym instead. He was full of apologies when he learned what happened. I quit fuming. There was nothing to be done now except get over it.

I’d like to think this little episode had nothing to do with the gradual unraveling of our tightly knit group, yet I’ve never completely believed in coincidences. We continued to meet, but our usual perfect attendance became spotty. Appointments or a stuffy nose interfered. One woman suddenly announced she’d sold her house and would move to Wisconsin with her daughter. We didn’t even know her house had been for sale.

Shortly after this news, our Laguna Beach member had a bad fall and was hospitalized. Her beloved German shepherd had to stay at a kennel. The few days that had been anticipated for her recovery stretched into weeks when an infection set in and other complications occurred. The day before she was set to be released home for further rest and to retrieve her beloved dog, her dog died. Our friend never returned to Las Damas.

Our group, now reduced to four, clearly needed rethinking. We agreed to soldier on with four, but no fewer. It didn’t take long to reach three. Our original San Clemente hostess had developed hearing problems, which hearing aids didn’t correct. Being able to converse with us in Spanish became increasingly difficult. She reluctantly dropped out.

So Las Damas, which had met for four years and seemed like it might go on for many more, had run its course. We tried to stay in touch, but the time between contacts grew. Last year, we had a reunion lunch, but no Spanish was spoken. We caught up on one another’s lives and vowed to meet again soon. Only we haven’t.

I still practice Spanish whenever I can. I’m able to travel to Spanish-speaking countries and hold my own. I can thank my time with Las Damas for that, but I do miss those weekly meetings and the great desserts. Adios, mujeres.

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