As I child, I spoke French. From the time I was five, until I was seventeen, I was immersed in the language at school, beginning with the colors and the months of the year, the days of the week, and the four seasons. I remember singing French songs, embarrassment at the guttural “r”, and I remember my surprise when I learned that the book Good Night Moon was really an English story. I had thought that Au Revoir, La Lune was a special French story for the ears and hearts of French-speaking children. I remember dreaming in French. For the bulk of elementary school, we were taught through vocab drills and songs, small acquaintances and awkward courtship with the language, until a certain teacher introduced the concept of culture. Mme Tuck. I’ll never forget her. I think about her often, as I realize that so many little habits of mine began under her tutelage.
I make my number one with an elaborate, deep flag, and slash through sevens and z’s, just like the French. I probably picked this up because of Mme Tuck’s fierce and persistent admiration of French penmanship. I have a love for simple teacups, as they remind me of the etiquette lessons she gave us. She would stand at the door as we came in from lunch or music, and assess our posture as we entered the room. She would rate the way we seated ourselves at our desks, and she set up tea parties with slate blue ceramic dishes, to allow us to practice our manners. Je voudrais un café, s’il vous plait one seated child would bleat to the child acting as waiter. A slate blue cup, with a cadet blue rim would be presented, full of water of course. Merci beaucoup, Mademoiselle. I kept one of the blue cups for such a long time after.
Mme Tuck was messy, by many standards, but an inspiring, highly moral, artistic woman, all the same. She wore purplish lipstick, lace-bottomed leggings, and exotic jewelry. She had spent years in the Peace Corps, bore twin children on her own birthday, and she spoke eight languages fluently. I remember vividly her scrawling Arabic on the blackboard. We thought she was insane. Why Arabic, Mme? But now, looking back, I remember how beautiful that language looked up on the board. Like icing. Like lace. How long might I have gone without an awareness that one could read lace, make poetry of lace, if it hadn’t been for Mme Tuck, swirling up Arabic in chalk, just because? She read Les Miserables to us, first in English, then in French. She blasted Edith Piaf tunes, made us sing to the plants, and required every student to fashion a paper piano keyboard for the edge of her desk. Each morning, she would dim the lights, turn on Mozart (who is decidedly un-French, but cultured all the same), and make us play. Play! Joue! She would say. Sens la musique! And we did.
Mme was wildly emotional, not at all afraid to share the sharpness of life with ten year olds. We watched her fall in love, and she shamelessly cried for us as she spoke of the worry for her children. She signed her name, reliably, with a flourishing cartoon of a flower. She reread and repeated passages in Les Miserables and emphasized their emotion, as Fantine begged for salvation and mercy. Really, she gave us such a surface for diving. She taught us to tap our souls. She was highly principled, exasperated with poor behavior, emitting many Zut! And Mon Dieu! exclamations, along with the standard, you’ve-gone-too-far-and-now-you’ll-pay: ARRETE! JE SUIS TRES FATIGUE AVEC TOI, her voice rising predictably with each word. I can still see her feminine finger, pointing toward the guilty etudiant, while she clicked her tongue: Tck tck tck. Once she even required a bully to grovel on the floor, apologizing (Je suis desolee!!!), while the girl she had made fun of stood on a chair and towered above her bully. Mme Tuck worked a world of symbolism. She affected knowledge upon us. She was frightening, yes, but I loved her irrationally. After leaving her class, I continued my French studies almost out of emotional habit. Without question or complaint, I was attached.
I didn’t get to use my French in many practical ways once I was out of school. Confounding, in all my travels, I never made it to France. In Greece, I casually ran into a busker from Swaziland, who had a note in French at his feet. We spoke briefly. He had a smile full of broken, but beautifully white teeth. In Vietnam, I heard, and understood, the soliloquy of a mildly angry woman, on a bus in Ho Chi Minh City. Other than that, the language has remained mostly locked away inside my brain. I have felt it slowly dwindle within me, to my great, sincere regret. I have struggled to hold onto it. I speak it to my children randomly. There are short, perfunctory lines they expect and know the meaning of. From birth, they were mes petites, and when we all must go, we don’t just go, we Vas-y! Vite! Vite! I love hearing their little voices repeating the words back to me. The sound of French expressions is wonderful. They are emotional commandments, not just statements. Trouble with homework: tete dans les nuages! Going for a kiss: Baises! I’m using it even more now in my single parenthood. It feels appropriate and exotic. It’s something else that is all ours. As I recall tiny phrases, and have aha moments recovering lost vocab words during my commute, I feel less like I’ve given up on this thing that was such a huge part of my life.
Oddly, I find also that as I’m divorcing, French is coming back to me, somewhat more easily. With so many wonderful, colorful memories of the language, I have felt curious that it is coming back to me now. After all, divorce has been just about the saddest, longest sadness I’ve ever come to know. It is disturbing, un peu, that this great language of love and romance is dusting itself off in the eaves of my brain at the crossroads of serious betrayal and excess suffering. At a time of great loneliness, this is ironic. As this chapter of my life draws out finally, like a long, dark blade, I have such mixed emotions. Coeur confus. I remember Mme Tuck got a divorce while we were in her class, and the emotion came through. How could it not? But the French in everything made it seem more appropriate. Mme Tuck, her theatrical lessons, her sensitive French rants, her raw, rich, raving passion. She brought a language and a sense to emotional reality, and I am thankful. I realize, at this troubling moment in my life, that she somehow, in small ways, taught me how to do this, too.
Very soon now, I will sell off or abandon the last of my old life that I made from scratch. While any release is painful, I should ultimately feel relief, and I do. It’s time to move on. I said goodbye to all of that stuff a while ago. I haven’t set foot on my farm since June. I don’t go often to my business. I thought the grief I felt when I watched a caravan of my friends and family driving my stuff off of my farm in March, in a bizarre funeral procession of my old life, was the grief I would feel in general. I thought the loss I felt when I left my shop would be the limit of loss. But I admit now that with the end in sight, the loss feels limitless. Why, in the face of release, should one feel so defeated? I suppose it’s just the final boom. This. This really failed. And as I sit, with this mingled realization of freedom and blistering denouement, I think only French words do it justice. Disparu. Fini. J’abandonne.
I think about Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love, and consider that her journey to learn Italian after her divorce could be comparable. Maybe I’m calling up francais as reclamation of beauty, romance, and self-identity. But the more I think about it, it doesn’t feel that way. Hardly shiny and new, this feels old. Rough. Odd. I think of The Great Gatsby, boats against the current, born back ceaselessly into the past. Maybe my French, and everything that goes with it, is this prodigious recovered memory, and I’m subconsciously trying to use it towards change, to become un-anchored from what has come before. Or maybe, these memories are not unique, and French matters little. Maybe I’m just a trauma patient who, upon gathering her life and senses anew, finds deactivated parts of her brain suddenly firing with different energy.
And perhaps, peut-etre, this is about love. So many of my beliefs about love and commitment have been upended. So much of my faith in human relationships has been dashed. Are we capable of fighting for each other? Are we willing? Is solitude our best, least fussy state? Are weaknesses really allowed to us, or must we forge ahead, feigning as little sentience as possible, in order to seem appealing and, yes, strong? French is not all about love and éclairs. I’m pretty sure there was a guillotine in there somewhere, among other things. And love is not at all about gentle possibility. Sometimes, it is about hard, hard facts. But oh, mon Dieu, how we reduce things. Sometimes, we convince ourselves of so much smallness.
If I can think about my life not as a set of rules and patterns I must master, and more about the texture it has laid under my skin, I suppose I can let the idea of love hang around, no matter what the past has done. My Larousse can go beside my Neruda on the bookshelf. My memories of Mme, and my joy at the tiny recollections of French phrases are worth their weight on principle, but the imprint of their emotion has been priceless in my life. I look back with hilarious, big, revelatory memories. My one wish is that I would keep this up. Souvenez love? Remember? It’s that language we know. Practice. Remember, it’s the culture you inherit, and build.