Speaks French and Saves Son: Or What Do You Have Hiding In Your Back Pocket?
I am eager to report on the incidence of back--pocket knowledge in the
possession of several individuals is much like the phenomenon of back--pocket
religion. Whenever some Jonah--fish comes along and dunks our private,
unseaworthy ships. Who do we call? I don't think it's Ghostbusters.
When a neighbor boy fell 15 feet out of the tree house on our property,
landed on his feet and only had the wind knocked out of him, I said, "Allah
be praised!" Our youngest asked, "Who's Allah?" "God to a large
part of the population of the world----they call God, Allah." "Is
that what you call Him?" he asks. "What do you call Him?" I reply.
Next in line is back--pocket knowledge. Unfashionable, therefore
laughable knowledge. Knowing something for which others can laugh
at you for or about. Like knowing a second language and growing up
with it in the State of Maine and not admitting to knowing the second language.
Until, of course it becomes a necessary handy skill to be able to speak
another language. (State of Maine mono--linguals, can we talk, I
mean, can we really talk? After you took the second language and
our culture, where'd you put it? Can I have it back now? Or
do you mind if I parlez--vous? Jig? Bake tourtière.----I'll
Second language necessary skill happened when the youngest was stung by
a bee while we vacationed in Québec this past summer. Sometimes,
while in Québec and when I speak French, the person to whom I am
speaking will reply in English letting me know that their knowledge of
English is in direct or equal proportion to my English. But sometimes,
this past summer, they did not speak English when I spoke French!
My brain becomes physically tired from the exertion of speaking French.
I have to work twice as hard at thinking and speaking and, come nightfall
in French speaking lands, I sleep very well.
You can get a picture of my French speaking capacity when I speak my French,
my oldest brother remarks, "Where the hell did you get that French."
I didn't. Remember? My attitude, which I am convinced is 80%
to 90% responsible for the successful learning process----attitude and
enthusiasm----my attitude was "I'm not going to learn that stuff."
To which my father replied, "Têtu!" "Tête--croche." and "Tête
de poiche." I knew my refusal to learn to speak French was working
by the amount of frustration I was working him into and finally giving
up on the final child he would console himself and chide me "You are going
to regret it." "Tu vas le r'gretter." "Oh no I'm not," I would
defiantly, over--confidently reply----knowing full well I would.
He could not have devised a more effective punishment. One that lasts
a lifetime. I hear his voice in my head. "Tu vas le r'gretter."
Mon, Dieu, je pense que oui.
My parents continued to speak to me every day in French----or rather their
brand of Franglais----half--French and half--English. "Va me cherchez
une tasse de coffee." Or Rhea (Rhéa if ever we were in public, Rhéa
was my formal, public name) donne moi les sciseaux et le thimble."
I, quite frustrated, would say, "Will you pick a language and stick with
it!" They'd laugh. "I don't even think. Sometimes I don't
remember the word and then I get lazy or I just say what comes first in
my head." "Excuses, excuses."
Lexicons were a matter of convenience. Astride the two languages
they had access to deeper waters and meanings.
The funniest things and I suspect the richer in heredity possibilities
that my mother had for back--pocket knowledge that she allowed us only
glimpses of occasionally was her repertoire of sayings or proverbs in French.
Something like "A stitch in time saves nine." Life's wisdoms in a
nutshell----in French. As the situation arose to prompt her she would
say a "saying" as I called them, very fast and embarrassed at even uttering
it aloud. Even to my ears they sounded foreign----although I do not
speak perfectly, there's usually nothing wrong with my hearing or understanding
what you are saying in French. The sayings were different.
They were so unfamiliar.
"What was that?" I'd ask her. "Oh some old wives tales foolishness.
Those old sayings they always used to say," she would reply. "Repeat
it," I would demand. "It's nothing," she'd tell me. "Say it
again." She would repeat it even faster and more embarrassed at being
caught having back--pocket knowledge and from the past----God forbid.
The sound of these sayings was lyrical, musical, open, wide. Full
of wisdom. Ancient. She had my attention. "Translate
it," I would further demand. I had to insist or she would fluff it
off. It was unimportant to her. Something she would prefer
to lose because at the time to know those sayings it was not valued knowledge.
She would not say the sayings often, but you knew she had a slug of them
up there in her head. I would try to keep just one of the sayings,
but I could never hold onto one. They are all gone. For me
anyway. Because I only want the ones my mother had. I don't
want someone else's sayings like I would gladly take someone's recipes.
It's not the same. You have to live it in order to make it real for
So the natural question here, of course, is: Why is it necessary
to suppress certain knowledge? Why the repression? Nature abhors
a vacuum so, therefore, why do we, those who keep knowledge in our back
pockets, insist on filling the void by creating another vacuum? Are
we afraid of Babel occurring again?
Why does everyone push the panic button when they hear foreign (to their
ears) words? One example to illustrate the panic is how people reacted
to a message on our home telephone answering machine that our daughter
did in Spanish. People did things like call the operator to see if
that indeed was our answering machine. Or have the operator call
us directly. Or, in the case of my brother, who has been an engineer
for Western Electric, when he called us and heard the Spanish he called
the repair services to tell them in very technical language (technical
language----another foreign tongue? ----no one understands him when we
ask him "How's work?") the wires of some very strange name were crossed
or short--circuited in some manner and that our home phone was being re--routed
or crossed with some Spanish restaurant's phone system.
When he'd told me what he'd done, I asked him if he didn't recognize his
own niece's voice? He said I made him look like a fool and he knew
there was always some dark side to my personality. Sadistic or something.
HA! I love getting the last laugh on those guys! It may take
me a lifetime, but I am dedicated to confusing and confounding my three
brothers. There is an Allah and justice after all.
I want to tell you that because of my back pocket knowledge of the French
language I was able to get medical attention for the youngest while we
vacationed in Québec this summer. While playing in some tall
grass, which we had told him not to do, he was stung by a bee. After
we drove all the next day, his ankle was very swollen. In Baie--Comeau
we stopped at the hospital and the health personnel, except the doctor,
did not have the command of English to match my French. The nurses
and others thought I did just fine. Gold star for you, Rhéa.
The doctor was a little amazed. He asked why I spoke French.
Well, my ancestors were Québécois, you see. I did not
tell him they left over 100 years ago. He may of thought my knowledge
were less real. One--hundred years and you've still got it?
Well, sort of. So I felt very good about my being able to communicate
with the hospital people about the bee stung foot. And my son was
So why the suppression of knowledge. And not only language, but rituals
or traditions as well. Suppression very much in the same spirit as
adolescent peer pressure. Conformity is the devil's ally. You
sound funny and you look funny so you must come from the dark side.
Maybe even the dark side of the moon, who knows? This is supposed
to be an enlightened age----modern times and all that brouhaha----but it
is amazing how much we align ourselves along the lines of primitive fears.
Anything strange or foreign is looked upon as life threatening. We
tend to be lazy. It's tough work speaking a new tongue. Our
brain gets fatigué. Nous sommes peureuses or peureux.
We call the operator, mediator, Allah to bail us out. Instead of
dealing with the fishes ourselves. We leave what we know in our back
FORUM, "Woman Speak French and Saves Son or What Do You Have
Hiding in You Back Pocket," Vol. 17, No. 4, 1990.