Women Speaks French and Saves Son: Or What Do You Have Hiding In Your Back Pocket?

By Rhéa Côté Robbins

              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 share.) 
              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 yourself. 
              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 glad.
              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 pockets. 

Le F.A.R.O.G FORUM,  "Woman Speak French and Saves Son or What Do You Have Hiding in You Back Pocket," Vol. 17, No. 4, 1990.

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Photo/Graphique by Rhea Côté Robbins