Before switching my first degree major to Communications Studies at the UWI, my major was linguistics – the scientific study of human language.
During my first two semesters I was exposed to an introduction to languages and their elements, all of which gave me a glimpse into the nuances of a few of the thousands of languages in the world.
The Oxford dictionary defines language as “the system of communication in speech and writing that is used by people of a particular country or area,” with morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics and phonology being the five major elements.
Following the sudden hospitalisation and subsequent death (still unbelievable) of my brother-in-law, Mark, two weeks ago, my interest in languages has resurfaced. Not because he was a linguist, but because of his fluency in a form of communication to which I had never consciously paid any attention before.
He was a chef by profession, and at his wake, funeral, and even in casual conversation, literally everyone spoke about how good his food always was. But the goodness of the food never seemed to stand alone. It was always juxtaposed with his humility and generosity, almost as if they were one and the same.
And although I recently discovered that culinary linguistics – the study of food and language across various interdisciplinary fields – is actually a thing, I realised that Mark added something extra to the existing elements – food science and nutrition, the quality of the ingredients, seasonality, flavours and textures, styling and colour on the plate. I’m convinced that the love, heart and soul he put into it was what gave him easy access to the hearts of the men, women and children with whom he interacted, and it was what made him so fluent in “Uncle Mark,” as he was fondly called. “Yuh eat yet?” was, oftentimes, the second question he asked whenever I visited his home. “Wha happening?” was always his first as he came out of the kitchen, usually with some type of sauce splattered over his clothes; or looked up from reading a newspaper cover to cover, playing a game of solitaire or doing a sudoku puzzle.
His parts of speech were his ingredients which, when conjugated in his enormous pots, turned out to be the most delicious expression of love ever, always served up in generous helpings. His plosives (consonant produced by forming a complete obstruction to the flow of air out of the mouth, like the English letters p and t) were the sounds of his cooking utensils knocking against each other. His fricatives (consonants produced when air escapes through a small passage and make a hissing sound, for example the letters s and z) were the sizzling of the food while he cooked. His sentences and paragraphs were the plated end-result, heaped with love.
I vividly recall eating the food his dad had cooked for his (Mark’s) and my sister Sharon’s wedding over two decades ago and thinking to myself, “this is the best food I have ever tasted at a wedding.” I guess that was the source of his culinary skills which he honed to become even better over the years. That, combined with his natural munificence morphed into his love language.
Over the past two weeks, story after story have been told of how he taught the true meaning of loving his brother with something as simple as a meal: Giving a bride and groom the gift of food for their wedding; cooking for large groups of youngsters at camps and charging next to nothing for it; him showing up at your door with an unexpected corn pie and a bottle of sorrel – the list is exhaustive.
“Uncle Mark could have been rich using this talent,” the minister said at his funeral service, before a packed church of teary-eyed mourners with all of whom the master chef had communicated in his love language. But for him, it was never about money.
My three nephews, Stephen, Jovan, and Gabriel may not have been gifted with all the unnecessary, expensive things they may have wanted, but they can never say they ever went hungry, bare-backed, barefooted or didn’t have a roof over their heads. They can never say that their father chose making money over time with them, nor that they didn’t have a life of laughter and good memories. They can never say he didn’t make sure they always had books and uniforms for school, or that he didn’t show them the meaning of responsibility. For, as morbid as it is, he understood that he would not always be around and he taught them to be self-sufficient and kind. He knew that one day all they would have would be memories of him so he did what he had to do to make those memories. He understood his assignment and humbly carried it out to the very end. For even as he lay in a hospital bed hours before his death, paralysed on his left side and completely blind after suffering a stroke about 24 hours prior as he was prepping to cook for his children and their friends, he insisted that they not shirk their responsibilities.
Mark was not perfect – none of us are. But his style as a father was admirable.
There were times when I looked at his sons and simultaneously envied and admired their childhood – the early morning beach runs; his presence at every PTA meeting and their every extra-curricular activities; their long conversations; spur-of-the-moment decisions to see a movie; bus rides; and even those times when he had to deal with them with a heavy hand. If only more fathers would be as attentive to the emotional and social needs of their children, maybe, just maybe we as a society would be in a better place.
But what I admired most about Mark’s style was that he made sure his offspring learnt his love language which is now his legacy. Those boys can cook and they have hearts of roti. My sister isn’t as fluent, though, because she only has the heart of roti.
English is the only language in which I’m fluent, and I always regret having not studied other languages when I was younger and my brain could have easily soaked them up. I’m only now fighting up with a conversational Spanish class that, I have to admit, is really "pateando mi trasero" (kicking my a--). In hindsight, though, I recall my teenage son frequently mentioning that after he and I have had one of our many angry squabbles and we both walk away from each other fuming, that shortly after I would knock on his door and ask him if he wants something to eat.
“Offering food is how you apologise when you know you were wrong,” he insists.
Could he be onto something? I mean, sometimes I can be hard on him when he gets me really angry. Could my sometimes insipid meals really be me inarticulately speaking Uncle Mark? If that is the case, it’s definitely something I want to improve on. That, and to have gospel singer Sandi Patti amend the start to her Love in Any Language to:
Je t'aime (French)
Te amo (Spanish)
Ya ti-bya lyu blyu (Russian)
Ani o hev ot cha (Hebrew)
Yuh eat yet? (Uncle Mark)
I love you
Rest in eternal peace #myforeverbrother-in-law. Love you always.