Friday, June 11, 2010

Magpie Tales #17




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.  


Chair Germaine

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.

24 comments:

Barbara said...

Some people just don't have a gift for languages. Sounds like your father was one of them. French has to be the most beautiful language in the world when spoken properly. I'm wondering how often you got to see your French grandmother.

Molly said...

When I was learning French I used to be so impressed that what I struggled with came naturally to little children all over France! And French sounds so romantic, that even if someone was threatening to kill me, as long as they did so in French, I would swoon!
My husband thinks he can does a great imitation of Irish accent...... He's the only one that does!
This was so much fun to read. Your parents sound like lovely people....no surprise there!

Molly said...

Oy! "do," obviously!

Meggie said...

A lovely post, and well worth revisiting. Your parents must have been fun.

Paul C said...

You capture the excitement of receiving those weekly letters, now filled with warm nostalgia.

Marion said...

Oh, I love your Dad...he would have had me in stitches over his pronunciation of the french words.

Just as funny is the way my friends butchered the German language. I was born in Hamburg, and would receive letters from my grandparents. My friends thought those letters were hilarious...it didn't matter what the words actually meant...it was only the way they were spelled that brought on the humourous hysteria!

School will soon be over for this year...I know how busy you are at this time. Take care!

Carrie Burtt said...

So glad you shared it the second time around. Letter writing has become a lost art. Thanks for sharing this. :-)

kathew said...

Thanks for sharing this story about your family-nothing better for a child than a loving family that knows how to laugh!

Aoife.Troxel said...

@Molly, I agree! My father loves to try his hand at Irish accents...the less said, the better. The funny thing is, you have to know the language or the accent too to really appreciate the hilarity!

Chair Pauline, great Magpie! :)

Brian Hayes said...

On a roll, Pauline, offering us delightful fair-minded narratives, hay-rides of spirit and warmth. Thanks.

Pauline said...

Barbara - she lived only an hour away. She emigrated from Canada when she was a teenager and came to Holyoke, MA to work in the silk mills.

Molly - my folks were a lot of fun. French is a beautiful language. My mother was bilingual. I only wish I'd paid more attention.

Glad you enjoyed it Meggie :)

Paul - I still have the letters and read them occasionally. They do bring back warm memories as you can see.

Marion - this last school week is always frantic!

I still write letters, Carrie - not often but I still enjoy putting pen to paper.

true kathew - thanks for stopping by to read

Merci, AT!

Brian - and thank you for popping one into your blog!

Debbie said...

What a great post! I always love reading about the people that everyone has loved in their lives.

Hilary said...

This is so cute. I had friends who visited from New Zealand when I lived in Montreal. Learning the days of the week in French was an unintended comedy routine for one of them who pronounced words like Loondy, Mardy, Macreedy, Judy, Vendreedy, Samidy, Diemarch. He never did get through the months. ;)

pieceofpie said...

how wonderful to remember letters arriving on a weekly basis from family afar... sounds like a family who loves....

Tumblewords: said...

I'm pleased that you re-posted this lovely tale so I had a chance to read and enjoy it. Thank you!

willow said...

I wonder if the art of letter writing will eventually die out with the onset of the internet. I'm such a romantic...I certainly hope not.

Delightful read!

Jennifer said...

Lovely post. I adore letters, and I mourn that they seem to be becoming a thing of the past. I remember the thrill of getting a letter. My first penpal was an elderly great aunt, an inveterate letter writer.

Jennifer said...

(Oops - sorry for the double post!)

Jennifer said...

(Pardon the pun, haha!)

Brian Miller said...

oh how i love old letters...i hope they do not die out...as i am a hopeful romantic...and they are such glimpses into the heart...

Stafford Ray said...

Mercy beur! Lovely story, lovely dad.

Patience said...

I loved reading this! It reminded me of my own dad; he failed french 1 nine times! we have a good time making fun of each other and our odd french accents (I seem to have inherited my father's talent for the language).

soundoffreedom said...

what wonderfully homespun memories..very nice magpie!

Helen said...

I studied Latin in school .. I wish I had also studied French ... nicely written Magpie!