A sunny morning, wandering the Village St. Paul in Le Marais, Paris. We'd already explored l'Eglise St. Paul, following the instructions written in my Moleskine by a charming older woman, une vraie parisienne, a few nights earlier. Sitting coude à coude at the tiny, bustling, red-check-tableclothed Au Pied du Fouet, we'd struck up a conversation with her and her dining companion, and she'd insisted on some must-see's, reaching for my notebook to write directions in a classic French hand. She was right. The church we'd by-passed on earlier visits to the area more than repaid the time it took to peek inside, where there was a Mass just ending. So we'd also obediently and gratefully paid attention to other ancient buildings whose history our vieille dame had summarized. Now, released from duty, we were following the dictates of eyes and stomachs. Clinking glasses, the aroma of garlic and butter and cheese and grilled meats were coaxing us to ignore windows displaying paintings and sculpture, wonderful ceramics, textile art, exquisite shoes, candy-coloured handbags, enticing scarves . . . The demands of the stomach were winning, until I was caught, seduced by a precisely wrought object in the window of a stationery store.
Leaving aside the content for now, what strikes me as I hold this little book reverently in my hands (my reverence directed as its age, the way it captures traces of my beloved grandma, rather than at its religious nature) is that my grandmother, even as a young child, could read it. By the time I knew her, the only hint of her French-speaking past was in the dinner-table command she would give as we sat down to eat: Servez-vous, mes enfants, she would say, and we'd begin to pass the roast beef, the mashed potatoes, the green jello and cottage cheese wonder, studded with walnuts, that had thankfully replaced the dreaded tomato aspic. Only occasionally was there a flicker of an accent, more an inflection really, barely detectable. Indeed, even my mother had little more familiarity with Grandma's French-speaking self than I did, although sometimes when her Aunts Blanche and Leah visited, the Langevin sisters must have sequestered themselves in the language that gave them privacy from their broods.
Some of Mom's cousins, raised in Maillardville, a French-speaking community outside Vancouver, stayed francophone, and even today, I must have relatives -- 3rd, 4th or 5th cousins, four times removed? -- who maintained their language, but for us, it was all lost when Grandma was sent to school in rural Manitoba, sometime around 1904. Precisely when or why she switched from the francophone education system that issued her little book (certainly an extension of the Catholic church) to English-only, I never thought to ask. Instead, I was shocked and saddened to hear her tell about being smacked for speaking French. If you'd known my grandmother, you'd find it as impossible as I did to imagine her, even as a child, behaving badly enough to deserve corporal punishment. But to have it inflicted because of speaking her mother tongue? I know. Those were the days. . . . And the method was certainly effective. She learned quickly to conform, worked that accent right out of her English. And eventually, her youngest daughter, my mother, met and married an Englishman, straight off the boat from Yorkshire, and my linguistic future was determined.