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The Secret Language of Sisters


Hoong Yee Lee Krakauer

Note from Josh: This is the most beautiful post I have ever had on this blog. I’m going to leave it at the top of the homepage for the next week at least so anyone stopping by will see it first. Please share it however you can on the web. And my heartfelt thanks to the author.

Guest post by Hoong Yee Lee Krakauer

Way back when I wandered through hallways of English, understanding only Chinese and hearing Yiddish on my babysitter’s radio, she was there with me making sense, actually fun and nonsense, with all of those words.  My younger sister and I were two little button eyed girls growing up in Queens, New York,  trying to figure out the world around us as Number One Daughter and Number Two Daughter.  Hoong Yee and Hoong Wei.   I actually thought those were names like Jane or Sally from my Fun with Dick and Jane reader.

“Just a little.”

“Yi dian dian.”

“A bissel.”

A little?  Wait a minute, maybe we should ask for more!  Who needs yi dian dian when there’s all those cookies?  And wouldn’t it be great to get a Big Huge Bissel of Bosco Chocolate Milk?  You ask, you’re bigger than me, Hoong Wei would say.

And then she would smile sweetly and wait for me to get the goods.

Soon, we were running around the schoolyard and backyards with all of the kids on our block armed with street game English yelling,

“Tag, you’re it!”

“Lai, lai lai!”

“Holt din zocken!”

Of course, by this time we knew a bissel of a lot of languages and created our own code only we understood.  The other kids didn’t know who to tag, who to throw the ball to, or if one of us was going to steal a base.  The older generation who used to speak in Chinese amongst themselves so that we wouldn’t understand what they were saying now scratched the backs of their necks wondering what the hell we were babbling about.  Our Jewish bubbe babysitter Tante Lainie and her friends, Sylvia (Immerkrank, remember her?), Betty and Rita peered curiously at us over their pince-nez perched on their noses as they played canasta.   Catching a word here and there, a familiar sounding phrase, rhythm, and Bam! crazy sounding words tumbled out like pots falling from a window.  Our secret language was the soundtrack of our childhood.

My sister and I thought in Cantonese and erupted in Yiddish.  The world lay before us, a wonderland to figure out, to reinvent in our own words.

Years passed.  We found ourselves living and studying piano in Salzburg, Austria, just the two of us clutching well worn manuscripts of Beethoven Sonaten, Brahms Klavierwerke and a Langenscheidt’s Deutsche Worterbuch.  Now, if you think for a moment that we had any command of German, especially the Salzburg dialect of German that sounds like you just swallowed an alpine yodel, we did not.  Once we were accepted into the Hochschule fur Musik und Darstellende Kunste Mozarteum, all of our classes and piano lessons were conducted in German.  It was sink or schwimm.

“Oy vey ist mir!  ”

“Ay yah!”

“Gott in himmel!”

Again, my sister and I recreated a farmisht, mixed up, cuisinart vocabulary for ourselves.  This time with a gesund Guten Tag’s worth of Oesterreichische Deutsch thrown in with some indignant Cantonese idioms.  Very useful when

“Hey, remember Mrs. Immerkrank who lived across the street from us?  Can you believe her name means always sick?  No wonder she was always kvetching about her arthritis.”



Fei cheong fabelhaft!”

In the last years of her life, we spoke to each other in a different language.  There was no need to find other words to say chemotherapy or clinical trials.  We could not rewrite the reality of her cancer.  Silences and unanswered questions became inevitable parts of the landscape of our shrinking world.  In the secret language between sisters, there were no words for this time.  No funny double entendres, no joyful jumbling of jargon.



Hoong Yee and Hoong Wei, age 3 and 4

I stood on the edge of her life, feeling helpless and for the first time, speechless.

As the cancer took more of her breath away,  I did most of the talking when she could speak on the phone;  she tired easily from long and painful coughing and I could not bear the thought of her fighting for each breath for every word she tried to say.

Her last call to me was brief and painful, she was gasping for air and could barely speak.  I remember saying to her, “Rest.  We can talk later.”

That was the last time I would hear her voice.

Almost a year has passed since she is gone.  They say that when a language dies, people write poetry.  What my sister and I had created for ourselves was more than a language.  It was a universe of two, a work for two pianos, an endless duet.

I am standing on the stage by myself.  Just me, Number One Daughter.

Our secret language of sisters, now a song without words.

About the author:

Hoong Yee runs five miles a day on the beach and writes style notes about artful living at www.hoongyee.com.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Mitchell January 24, 2011, 6:07 am

    Now that’s truly beautiful. When it comes down to the essence, we’re nothing, and can only strive to find some meaning, rather MAKE some meaning, while we’re here, passing through.

    Thanks for posting this, Josh.

  • Jodi Kaplan January 24, 2011, 7:57 am

    What a lovely post – a mechaieh.

    • hoongyee January 24, 2011, 8:26 pm

      Hey Jodi
      That’s a great word! It reminds me of metziah – a great bargain.

  • Gustavo January 24, 2011, 11:16 am

    I was just passing by, never expecting to find this micro gem. It helps a lot when something so simple hits you on top of your head. Makes you remember you can still be sensible.

    My love goes with Hoong Yee and congratulations to Josh for publishing this story.

    • hoongyee January 24, 2011, 8:33 pm

      Wow Gustavo!
      When Josh asked me to check out the comments I didn’t realize what an amazing experience it would be to hear from folks like you!

      I appreciate your kind thoughts, Hoong Yee

  • Beth L. Gainer January 24, 2011, 2:10 pm

    Absolutely beautiful posting. I am speechless.

    • hoongyee January 24, 2011, 8:38 pm

      Hi Beth
      I appreciate you stopping by and reading the post.

      Hoong Yee

  • Kirk January 24, 2011, 7:12 pm

    As someone who is currently facing cancer I found this gorgeous post poignant and striking. When I read: “In the last years of her life…” I knew what was coming before I ever saw the word cancer. “…there were no words for this time” is such a stark truth of facing cancer that I nearly cried just reading it. “They say that when a language dies people write poetry”… Poetry indeed. What a lovely tribute to a sister and an incredibly difficult to describe part of life laid bare for all to feel. The more people that have the opportunity to read this, the better.

    • hoongyee January 24, 2011, 8:46 pm

      Kirk, I will keep you in my thoughts and prayers. I am so glad to be able share this post with you.

      Hoong Yee

  • hoongyee January 24, 2011, 8:13 pm

    Thank you for your comment, Mitchell, and your on the mark observation about how we can make something meaningful and, if we try hard enough, something magical of our time on this earth.

    hoong Yee

  • cinderkeys January 25, 2011, 12:03 am

    This was beautiful.

  • Pauline January 25, 2011, 1:40 pm

    Thanks Josh, and thanks Hoong Yee, for this marvelous interlude in a dark, dreary day, which is no longer so dark and dreary because of the wonderful story.

    • hoongyee January 25, 2011, 1:54 pm

      thank you pauline, and of course a big thank you to josh for so generously allowing me to share it with you.

      hoong yee

      • Josh Hanagarne January 25, 2011, 2:07 pm

        Generous? Ha! I should just butt out and turn everything over to you on this blog.

        • hoongyee January 25, 2011, 2:47 pm

          what a great community of readers you have! i consider it a tremendous gift to be part of the conversation.

          hoong yee

  • Melissa January 25, 2011, 9:04 pm

    Hoong Yee – so beautiful! And the photo. Crazy beautiful. Your story of your relationship with your sister through the magic and inexhaustible thing we call language is truly moving. Made me think of my brother, my relationship – through words – with those I love. Thank you for posting.

    • hoongyee January 26, 2011, 12:36 pm

      Hi Melissa

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment and I am glad my story sparked some thoughts and memories of your brother and loved ones. Isn’t that truly the magic of language?

      Hoong Yee

  • troyswift5 January 26, 2011, 10:01 am

    Thanks Josh & Hoong Yee. This story was very special…

    • hoongyee January 26, 2011, 12:38 pm

      Appreciate you stopping by the World’s Strongest Librarian to read the story!

      Hoong Yee

  • Mikki K. January 28, 2011, 10:05 am

    That was a really beautiful. It took me a while to read the whole thing because it made me cry a little. This is a lovely tribute to her life and the language that you two shared….

    • hoong yee January 30, 2011, 8:47 pm

      Thank you for your thoughts and comment.

  • rox January 28, 2011, 10:32 pm

    Thank you for sharing Hoong Yee and Josh.
    Warmest wishes to you both.

    • hoong yee January 30, 2011, 8:48 pm

      i owe josh a great big thank you for making it possible for me to share my story with you.

  • Liz February 4, 2011, 12:27 pm

    I am at work, trying to look dignified after reading this. I have no idea how I stumbled across this post, but I can tell you I am grateful to have done so.
    There are moments, traditions, and even people in our life that are seemingly eternal. That is, until their flame is extinguished.
    Thank you for reminding me of this in such a beautifully written and poignant way.

  • hoongyee February 6, 2011, 6:25 pm

    hey liz
    thanks for your heartfelt comment.

    hoong yee