Yesterday afternoon, after back-to-back meetings, I checked my voicemail; I had a message from a family lawyer, who lives on the same street as my parents, asking me to call her at my earliest convenience.
I attended a French immersion school in a poor immigrant-centric area for my first 4 years of elementary, by the end of which I couldn’t string together a basic French sentence. So, in grade 5, my mom transferred me to the local school a few blocks from my house, in our very francophone suburb of Montreal. Super Québécois – we were only 4 Anglophone kids out of the 50 “graduating” students. I had a lot of catching up to do. It was also a bit of a culture shock, and my first exposure to prejudice: a homogenous population where my maternal tongue made me an outsider.
Because my mama was my mama, she encouraged/volontold me to sign up for a regional public speaking competition in the fall of Grade 5. In French. Why? Because it was important that I develop the self-assurance and confidence to speak my mind eloquently and convincingly, as a woman in a man’s world. Yes, she would talk to me like that at 11 (thirteen-minus-two) years old. I wrote a text called “Oui, c’est beau la vie“. It brought a tear to my mama’s eye – so mature, so wise, her little Bingi was so wonderful. However, her little Bingi had a brutally thick English accent – the sounds coming out of my mouth didn’t qualify as French words. My mama reached out to a woman living at the end of the street: Mme R, a lawyer specializing in family law, who spoke beautiful French. Mme. R firmly agreed with my mother that the ability to speak my mind persuasively was a critical survival skill-set, and so she agreed to spend 2-4 hours weekly, for two months, giving me free elocution and public speaking lessons.
I quickly grew to love and admire Mme. R. I’d not been exposed to many career women: most of my friends’ moms were either housewives like my mama, or else had simple 9-5 jobs. But Mme. R was the mother of 3 little munchkins and their home radiated comforting love and happiness, just like ours did, except she had a Very Important Job and Didn’t Hide Her Intelligence, my mama said. My embarrassment about my terrible French decreased. I had something to say, and clearly Mme. R thought it was something worth saying and worth listening to (over and over and over…). Her munchkins would sit quietly during my practices and sweetly encouraged their new friend, who was doing something Worthwhile, so their mama told them.
I didn’t rank well at that public speaking contest, despite delivering my best performance. I was the only non-Francophone participating. That was my first time learning that having something worthwhile to say does not mean people will listen.
Mme. R apologized for calling me at work: that was the only contact info she could find via Google. We hadn’t spoken, other than occasionally bumping into each other on the street/grocery store, since I started high school: life happens, that way. She was pleased to see that I’d grown into a belle jeune femme, épanouie et heureuse and hoped that her internet searches were an accurate reflection of my real life.
Her reason for contacting me: she’d noticed that despite last week’s snow storm, my father’s driveway was uncleared, and the flyers were piling up on his front porch. And while she and Mr. R had tried to convince themselves that everything was ok, it had been many days since she’d seen my father around in the neighborhood.
Touched, I explained that my father had left to travel Russia exactly two weeks ago, and obviously had forgotten to consider the weather/mailman in his plans – completely like him. Her relief was profound. She offered to clamber over the snowbank, clear the flyers and reminded me that he could always count on her and Mr. R to perform such neighborly favors. I asked after her family; my mind boggled when she told me the 3 lil’ munchkins were all grown up, and she was now a grandmother! She carefully asked after my mother. 4.5 years doesn’t make the communication of Ma’s death any easier, y’all. Mme. R was dismayed – she’d assumed/hoped that my mother’s absence from the neighborhood was due to her failing health keeping her house-bound.
We didn’t say much else – the memories were too strong.
Our phone call was done in fluent French.
I’d forgotten about that brief period in my life, those hours spent in that safe bubble of comforting love and happiness. I’d forgotten about Mme. R.
I wish I could’ve found the words to thank her. Those French lessons allowed me to be admitted into the prestigious French high school which shaped my personality and taught me the problem-solving skills that make me a good accountant. My ability to speak my mind persuasively & fluently in French has influenced my career: it dictated which Big 4 I was admitted to, the client portfolio I was awarded, the mandates I worked on, the opportunities to travel to France for work, and getting hired here, at my dream job. It is what allows me to pursue my Big Dream to move to Paris within 24 months. Who I am, and what I’ve become, is welded to this language.
Thank you, Mme. R. Thank you for the gift of your time, your language and your love, twenty years ago. And thank you for the gift of your care for my father, now.