Illustration of a girl painting with a large paint brush on a canvas  with the text  "Hard to Say"
Illustrations by Katty Huertas

Hard to Say

Val and her family speak different languages—or do they? 

By Sharon Morse
From the November 2021 Issue

Learning Objective: to write a well-organized paragraph that explains the relationship between the story and its title

Lexile: 680L
Other Key Skills: inference, word choice, character, text structure, symbolism, interpreting text

Think about the title and how it connects to the story.

There’s so much I don’t remember about where I was born. Venezuela is just hazy scenes in my mind, so loosely tied together that they feel like dreams instead of memories. I don’t remember my school, except for the sweet, smiling face of one of my preschool teachers. I don’t remember our home, except for the balcony off the living room, where I could feel the tropical breeze brush across my cheeks and whip my hair into a halo around my head. I don’t even remember the language—my first language. It, too, got lost to the haze of dreamlike memories.

My sister remembers it all. She was 10 when we moved, old enough for her memories to remain intact. I had my sixth birthday just after we got to the States.

I walk into the kitchen to the sweet smell of cinnamon pancakes and the sound of Clarísa speaking Spanish on the phone with our grandmother. My sister laughs and asks how she and our grandfather are doing. I know enough Spanish to at least figure that out.

“Morning,” my mom says. She slides a plate of cinnamon pancakes in front of me. It’s a tradition my mom has insisted on since my last day in kindergarten, when she knocked the cinnamon over and it went flying into the batter.

“I’m 15,” I say. “You don’t need to make me special last-day-of-school pancakes anymore.”

“I’ll be making you last-day-of-school pancakes all the way through college, kid. Deal with it.”

I pop the top off the syrup bottle. “So you’re going to travel to wherever I’m attending college and make pancakes on a hot plate in my dorm room?”

“FedEx,” Mom says, dropping the pan into the sink. “Or you can go to school close enough to come home for pancakes, like your sister.”

Then Mom does that thing where she watches me like I’m going to grow up and leave the house if she dares to look away.

“I still have two more years. There will be more pancakes.”

“I know.” She purses her lips and nods. I cram another bite in my mouth while Clarísa paces the kitchen with the phone pressed to her ear. Her mouth moves a mile a minute in perfect Spanish.

Even though Spanish was my first language, now I have trouble piecing together the most basic conversations. I can understand bits and pieces when someone speaks slow enough. But I can barely find a response with two hands and a flashlight unless it’s , no, or gracias. It happened without me even realizing it.

One day it was just . . . gone.

Dad shuffles into the kitchen and gives me a loud kiss on the top of my head.

“History final today?”

“And I have to turn in my final art project,” I say, nodding to the canvas on the kitchen table, a landscape of Texas bluebonnets and an old hill country barn to showcase perspective.

“I call dibs once it’s graded. I want to hang it in my office.”

Clari holds out the phone. “Dad, Ita wants to talk to you.” Ita and Ito became my grandparents’ names when Clari was little and couldn’t say Abuelita and Abuelito.

Dad grabs the phone. “Hola, Mamá,” he says, walking away before we can hear anything else.

Dad’s voice floats down the hall, and Clari and I lean back on our stools, trying to hear more. I can tell that something’s up. We turn our heads to Mom, who starts cleaning surfaces that are already clean.

We both know the situation in Venezuela has been getting worse. We’ve been waiting for crumbs of updates from American news outlets. Every time an update comes about the violence, the lack of food and medicine, the millions of people leaving the country daily, I feel the tension in the house rise.

Dad shuffles into the kitchen.

“Dad, what’s going on?” Clari’s voice breaks.

Dad runs a hand through his thick curls. “Things in Caracas are not good. You know already.”

I know my parents have been sending money to my grandparents for several years and that sending money has turned into sending boxes of grocery staples and household supplies and finding an American doctor who can help us send Ito his heart medication.

Dad sits down on the stool next to mine. “Your mother and I have been working with an immigration lawyer. We wanted to wait until we knew for sure to tell you girls.”

“And?” Clari asks.

“We’ve got their visas.”

“They’re coming to live here?”

I ask. “With us?”

Dad nods.

“When are they getting here?” Clari asks.

“Day after tomorrow,” he answers.

“That’s really soon,” Clari says. There’s a lot in that sentence that she’s not saying. Mainly, how long they’ve been hiding this from us.

“Where will they sleep?” I ask.

“In your room,” Mom answers. “You can move into Clarísa’s room, and you two can share while she’s home from college for the summer.”

I nod. My room is bigger and the bathroom is attached. Of course that’s where they should sleep. But Clari and I have never shared a room. We haven’t shared much actually. I love my sister, but we’re not like TV sisters. We aren’t really close, but we don’t fight, either. We’re just . . . sisters.

“I can move my stuff after my last final today,” I say. I’ve felt helpless for so long, watching my parents deal with this. At least I can do something to help.

“Are you going down to get them?” I ask. Ito and Ita are in their 80s now. Dad gets up from his stool and paces across the kitchen.

“A few years ago it was simple for a citizen to sponsor a family member, especially elderly parents. But these days it’s . . . different.” I can tell he wants to say more.

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“The lawyer recommended I don’t go there right now.”

All our relatives in Venezuela moved back to Argentina, where Ita and Ito are originally from, several years ago. And most of our family friends have spread across the world. Everywhere from Miami to Lisbon to Singapore

“Who’s going to help them pack?” I ask.

“They have to leave everything behind,” he says. “It won’t be easy for them.”

“No,” I say as I poke at the last bite of pancake. “I guess not.”

When we open the front door, the squeal out of my grandmother’s mouth is so loud, I’m surprised the neighborhood dogs don’t start barking. She grabs my face with both her hands and searches my eyes. I smile as she talks to me. Something about how I’m beautiful, and, my guess is, how grown-up I look. She hasn’t laid eyes on me since I was little, so I’m sure it’s as strange to her as it is to me. She squishes my cheeks again before crushing me to her chest. I sink into her hug and breathe her in. She smells like peppermint and the stale cabin air of the airplane.

Then she turns to Clari and does the same thing.

I turn to Ito, and he gives me a shy smile. He looks much older than in the photos we have of him. His hair is whiter, and the skin around his eyes and mouth is more wrinkled and weathered. I lean in to give him a hug, and he puts his long arms around me. He kisses the top of my head the way Dad does and holds on just a little longer without saying anything. Ito is a man of few words. Right now, that suits me just fine.

We sit down to eat in the dining room. There are empanadas as far as the eye can see. Dad informs me that the ones on the white platter are his, and the ones on the platter with the flowers are Ita’s, and I’m to eat one of each and compare.

The table erupts into arguments about which one is better. Or at least, I think that’s what everyone is talking about. The conversation flies back and forth so fast that I barely catch a word.

Clari jumps up and puts a napkin ring on Ita’s head and laughs. When I hear her say “la reina,” I finally get the joke and laugh along with everyone else. Clari has crowned Ita the queen of empanadas.

It only gets harder to keep up after that. The conversation flows easily, with laughter and raucous interruptions and gestures. Ito says something to Dad, then looks at me with a smirk. Dad throws his head back and laughs. I look from Ito to Dad to figure out what they’re saying. When I don’t get a clue, I look to Mom, but she’s laughing too.

Dad finally catches his breath. “¿Recuerdas ese viaje?” he asks me.

I blink and try to decode what he’s asking me. If I remember something. But what?

“Of course you don’t, you were so little,” he says, switching to English. But then he switches back, turning to Ito, and I’m back to not knowing what anyone is talking about.

I grab another empanada off the tray—one of Ita’s, because they are better by a slim margin—and pick at the braided edge of the pastry as the conversation goes on around me.

I sleep in the next morning, because it’s summer and I can. When I go to get some cereal around noon, Ita and Clari are in the kitchen. My sister is chopping something green while lta gives her directions.

“What are y’all making?”

“Chimichurri,” Clari says without looking up. “To go with dinner.”

I hug lta.

“Buenos días, Tinita,” she says, giving me a kiss on the cheek. Tinita was her nickname for me. Mom and Dad used to use it, but when we moved here, I preferred Valentina or Val, so I asked them to stop. Now I kind of wish I hadn’t.

“Buenos días, Ita,” I tell her. I hope my pronunciation is OK. I’m trying to keep my mouth open more when I pronounce my vowels. I read that online somewhere.

I gesture to the pile of herbs Clari is working on. “Can’t you just make that in the food processor?” Dad always does. Chimichurri is an Argentinean sauce; Dad probably makes a batch every week or so.

Clari shakes her head. “Ita says that’s, like, sacrilegious. Hand chopped is the way to go.”

“Sí,” Ita responds. “A mano.”

“Can I help?” I ask.

“You can grab the oil.” Clari nods toward the pantry. I grab a couple of bottles, not knowing which one they want to use.

Ita inspects the bottles. After taking a taste from each one, she settles on the olive oil. Clari dumps the parsley into the bowl with the rest of the chopped herbs, garlic, and red pepper flakes. She asks Ita something that I don’t understand. Their voices get louder, gestures more pronounced.

“Mírame,” Ita says, pointing to the corner of her eye. Watch. She grips the bottle of oil in one hand, thumb over the top to control the flow. With the other hand, she begins to lightly stir the mixture
as she slowly streams in the oil. She does it like a Top Chef contestant sprinkling salt in a pan. Clari has more questions. And the two of them are off again on their intense foodie conversation. The more excited they get, the faster they talk. And the faster they talk, the less chance I have of picking up even a single word.

While they’re distracted, I stick my finger in the bowl and lick it. It’s good. Better than Dad’s.

Forgetting about the cereal, I go back to my room. The chatter continues in the kitchen. Ita and Clari don’t even notice I’ve gone.

“We were having fun and you just left,” Clari says as she comes into the room.

No, you were having fun, I don’t say. I try to stomp past her, but she grabs me by the shoulder.

“Just tell me what you’re mad about.” Clari always wants to hash things out as soon as they come up. Doesn’t she get that some of us like to stew in silence for a while?

“Just let me by.”

“No.” She blocks the doorway.

“Ugh. Clari. I don’t want to talk about this right now. Especially with you.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means you can’t understand. You and Ita are, like, best buds.”

“We were trying to include you.”

“Well, you were doing a bad job.”

Clari doesn’t have a clever retort. She leans against the door frame and I squeeze by her.

I finally let myself cry once I shut the bathroom door. Of course Clari doesn’t understand why I’m upset. She hasn’t had to grieve for something she doesn’t even remember having. The steam fills the bathroom, fogging up the mirror while I let the water wash away the tears.

When I step into the kitchen, Mom looks up from sorting through a bunch of bags. “Oh, good. There you are.”

“What is all this?” I ask.

“I took Ita to the art supply store to get some things so she could paint.” Mom pulls a tube from one of the bags. “We dug your easel out. Hope you don’t mind.”

I shake my head. “No. It’s fine.” I survey the stuff spread over the kitchen table. My tabletop easel is set up, and there are new canvases stacked on the counter. “You guys didn’t need to buy all this. I have plenty of paint and brushes.”

“Ita likes to use oil paint,” Mom says. “She says that you don’t use the same type of brushes for that.”

No one at school uses oils. Someone asked our teacher about them once, but she went on a tirade about the smell of turpentine, so no one asked again. Plus, you have to wait days for one layer of paint to dry so that you can work on top of it again. I can’t wait all the way through a YouTube ad without hitting skip.

Ita walks into the kitchen holding an old box. “Come,” she says. “Sit.”

“Me?” I look from Ita to Mom. The timing of all this makes me wonder if Clari said something to Mom about my meltdown.

“Sí.” She sits at the table and opens the box. It’s full of old pieces of paper. I sit beside her as she sifts through them all, not really searching for anything. Just looking. The box is full of beautiful images—magazine clippings of people and clothes and buildings, photos of animals and places. They’re all really old, the paper crinkled and starting to yellow. Then she reaches a stack of photographs, and I recognize me and Clari.

“Qué linda,” Ita says. How cute.

A photo of a beach catches my eye as she sifts through the stack. I reach for it. I know I remember this place. The way the palm trees lean in, surrounding a half-moon bay. And the color of the sand. Red. Almost like Texas dirt.

“That’s Playa Colorada,” Mom says over my shoulder.

“In Venezuela?” I ask.

Ita nods. “Sí.”

“I’ve been here before?” I ask.

“¿Te acuerdas?” Do you remember?

“Sí. Me acuerdo,” I say, impressed at my on-the-fly conjugation. “Or, I think I do.”

Ita starts to tell me the story, then switches to telling Mom. Her way of asking Mom to translate. Mom tells me we went there a few months before we moved to the States.

“I think I remember. Clari buried me in the sand. . . .”

Ita nods, smiling. Her smile makes me remember more. Playing with the other kids, sitting with Ita in the hammock Dad strung up between the palm trees. Dad hacking away at a coconut, trying to get the sweet water inside. Mom digging that giant hole in the sand so that Clari could bury me. Ita sifts through the photos, and there it is: just my head, sticking out of the red sand and Clari holding the shovel with an evil grin.

Ita grabs the photo with the palm trees. She says something to Mom, nodding to me.

“She wants you to paint this.”

“Me? I thought she was the one painting,” I say to Mom.

“I show you,” Ita says to me.

And she does. We start with the sky, blending blue and white into thin, wispy clouds on a sunny tropical day. The oil paints blend together so easily, and you can keep blending the colors even after you’ve spread them on the canvas. It takes some getting used to, but I love the feel of it.

After a while, Mom leaves us on our own. The second I realize she’s gone, my chest gets tight with worry. What if I have a question, or Ita asks me something and I don’t understand? But after blending the reds and browns and yellows to mimic the bright color of the sand, I realize we don’t actually need words right now. I pay attention to the way she changes the angle of her brush, and I watch as she shows me how to get the texture of the sand to translate onto the canvas.

The brushstrokes are their own language.

Abridged from “Hard to Say” (c) 2020 by Sharon Morse. First published in Come On In (Inkyard Press, 2020). Used by permission of Inkyard Press/Harlequin Books S.A.

Writing Prompt

Explain how the title “Hard to Say” relates to the story. Respond in a well-organized paragraph. 

This story was originally published in the November 2021 issue.

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Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

Close Reading, Critical Thinking, Skill Building

1. PREPARING TO READ (15 minutes)