It is the last week of school and my days are harried and hurried, but when I saw that jar of pencils, this past post popped into my head. It is a rerun but sometimes things are just as good the second time around.
My Mèmeré, Lorida, and my mother, Germaine (and we four children), at the time they were exchanging letters.
I came across a box of papers the other day and among them were some of the letters my grandmother had written to my mother from 1944 - 1963. They were written in French, my Mèmeré’s native tongue, and each one began Chère Germaine - Dear Germaine.
It brought to mind all the letters that used to fly back and forth between them. Every week a letter would come addressed to my mother in my Mèmeré’s spidery handwriting. Every week a letter would go out to my grandmother, sometimes with little notes written at the bottom in English from her grandchildren. Because the letters were always written in French, my father would tease my mother, asserting that she must be saying uncomplimentary things about him in a foreign language so he wouldn’t catch on. Then he would pick up the latest letter and begin, “Chair Germaine.”
My British-descended father could fracture French like no other. He had no concept of silent letters, pronouncing the “s” at the end of every word whether he ought to or not, thus rendering the French “vous” (you) as voose and “trois” (three) as troys. He would have my mother laughing helplessly as he read, “Say mon mantoe a mon chapo noof key jay dance less portraits.”
We children would be laughing too, knowing that whatever my father had just said could not have come close to what Mèmeré meant. “What does it mean? What did she really say?” we’d clamor and my mother would translate for us.
“Cest mon manteau et mon chapeau neufs qui danse les portraits.” (It’s my new coat and hat that I have on in the pictures.)
Then my father had to laugh. “I would never have guessed that a mantoe was a coat,” he said. He put on his own jacket and went to the door. “I have put on my mantoe and am leaving now,” he said, bowing deeply to all of us as he went out.
Once my grandmother wrote of a party they were having. Hors d’oeuvres were mentioned as part of the menu. “Horse doovers?” my father guessed, and “horse doovries?” Finally, “Horses ovaries? At a party? What kind of party are they having?” My mother was laughing so hard she could not translate but even we kids knew what “or-derves” were.
Bonjour (hello) was one of my father’s favorite French expressions. “Bon joor monsoor,” he’d say, affecting a heavy French accent. Monsoor was any person he happened to meet, male or female. Sometimes he’d give thanks in French. “Mercy bow coop,” he’d say jauntily when someone passed him the butter at the supper table or paid him a compliment of any sort. And at bedtime he would fold his hands and intone, “Nos Pére,” only he’d pronounce it nose pear.
This went on for all the years my mother and grandmother corresponded. When, after Mèmeré died and the letters stopped, so did the fractured French. I don’t believe my father discovered whether or not they ever made fun of HIM.