Where To Get Your Best Tattoos and 
How To Buy Fresh, Parisian French Accents In A Can

By Rhea Côté Robbins

  It is always a mystery to me what I will find to write about for this column.  I agonized what this article would be about.  Particularly since a group of us are going to France.  And this issue is going along.  What profound thoughts could I carry with me back to the deep roots?  La grandmère.  Editing, Le Forum since 1986, I usually manage to find something to say.  Often I am handed the subject through the wear and tear of every day living.  I find possibilities of subject matter endless since a variety of circumstances continue to present themselves.
 This article's subject came to me from a typo in an article which appeared in the university's campus newspaper.  I took part in an interview with a journalism student for a class assignment.  He had to write an article on culture.  This student and I are from the same town.  We have a camaraderie.  I trust this young man and I was very open with him.  Initially, the material in the interview was meant only to meet the assignment.  A few days later, he called me and asked if it could be published in the campus newspaper.  "Let me take a look at what you've got and then I will decide," I told him.  He faxed it over.  I told him he could print it. 
 I had spoken to the student, whom I trust, in an article dealing with "culture" about my two bouts with breast cancer, mastectomy and the tattoo I recently had put on the mastectomy scar.  I showed the article to someone and they remarked that it is very revealing.  Someone else saw it and said the same thing.  They had a tension of fear at the depth of my openness.  The photographer came.  The article was printed.  Someone had changed the "mastectomy" to "hysterectomy" in the article.  A curious typo.
 I became caught up in the one, crucial-to-the-meaning-of-the-article, missing word and it revealed to me fears, taboos, jinxes, the power of ridicule, and more.  Others believing themselves scarless.  Accidental typo or not, (there should be insurance you can purchase against such things as "Typos"...), there is a big difference between mastectomy and hysterectomy.
 In the article, I speak about the power of breast cancer and its effects on the woman's life who makes a bargain with it.  Since the "cause" of cancer is unknown, I cannot say I contradicted it.
 Cancer, like many things, is not something which I chose.  I did choose the mastectomy and, after my third anniversary date after surgery, February 14th, I chose to have a tattoo put on my mastectomy scar.  By a woman tattooist.  I have had cancer twice, either time I did not choose to have the cancer.  Next year is my tenth anniversary since my first cure.  I heard about one woman who sent out announcement cards to all of her friends on her fifth anniversary of cure.  Another woman celebrated her first anniversary by having dinner and a visit with her daughter.  Clever women.
 I am a staunch believer in being public about such a private disease.  (Disease?  Now there is a curious word.  Dis-ease.  Connoting not at ease.)  Compared to some, I often think how my physical challenges are so hidden.  I am told by a woman who has reason to know, without giving away her professional prosthesis fitter's confidentiality at the Hillary Clinton presentation on health care reform:  "If we knew how many women present in the audience (a full house in a 6,000+ seating arena) were breast cancer patients, we'd be shocked."
 I don't believe in keeping silent on such issues.  It's spelt M-A-S-T-E-C-T-O-M-Y, not hysterectomy.  And I've got a tattoo on my left side of my chest wall instead of the breast that used to be there.  Have I scared you with my sense of freedom of speech, yet?  I'll say it again.  I have had a mastectomy and on the scar is a tattoo.  Both my choice.  "I'm celebrating "making it this far"--my way.
 Deformities are self revealing.  I have learned many things about myself since I have lost my breast.  I have pages and pages of revelations in my journals.  My life as a woman according to single-breastedness.  In relation to breast cancer, there is quite a bit of euphemism around or many super-humans.  And there are others who have had breast cancer, who just take it all in stride.  A seventy year old woman calls me and asks for pointers.  Which surgeon?  How long is the recuperation?  Who should she see to be fitted for a prosthesis?  After surgery, in the church choir and the local grocery store, we smile and wave--cancer displaces the generation gap and creates closeness.  We have served in the battle, we are scarred and none too worse for the wear.  Three or four women I know, one right after the other, go in for biopsies.  We are all looking for some calm in the storm.  We talk.  Often in whispers.  In one of my low moments, I fight back by designing a pin to raise awareness.  Pink ribbons speak for the pin in the future I'm told.
 The addition of a tattoo to my mastectomy scar was done by a woman tattooist from Seabrook, NH.  Her mother had had a bi-lateral mastectomy.  She showed no emotion at the sight of my scar and proceeded to draw pressed flowers--and old-fashioned rose, an anemone, violets, ivy and vines on my scar tissue.  Then she tattooed on my skin as if she drew on a page, like this pen which I write with on this paper.   I wondered at the time if the surface of the paper feels its sacrifice to the pen's tip as I felt the sacrifice of my paper thin skin to the point of the needle?
 I'm not afraid or as reticent of mirrors as I have been since the surgery.  My inspiration for getting a tattoo was the poster by Deena Metzger who is outdoors, has her arms spread out wide, head bent back, chest bare, single-breasted with her scar tattooed.  Through the framed copy of this poster, this woman's voice in stance, photograph, and poetry imprinted on the poster, I make peace with myself everyday.  I know two single-breasted, painted ladies, as I am now called in the tattoo culture.  I defy anyone to misspell mastectomy again.
 Being a member of the culture such as Franco-American, has several similarities to being a single-breasted, tattooed woman.  There are many hidden challenges and taboos about belonging to this cultural group in the state of Maine.  Scars, too.  Celebration.  Public and secret.  The sacrifices on the surface-of-living a bilingual existence--a dual way of being, in a culture place which does not welcome duality, is written on the lives of the Franco-Americans.  Etched on their skin.  Laced in their speech.  Their gestures give them away.
 Often, in Maine, you hear said, "You must be French; you talk with your hands."  I ask:  Would you say that to someone who is hearing impaired and uses sign language to speak?  Some prejudices are so subtle.  I was shocked to read in the book entitled, In This Sign, and to find out that people were prejudiced (afraid of) people speaking in public with their hands in sign.  Yet, in relation to people's remarks about how I, as a French woman, talk with my hands, made me self-conscious, and my body language has all but disappeared.  Along with my French accent, which used to be evident in my English speech because French was my first language.  Because of people's (rude) comments about how I spoke when I was a girl, I worked hard to change my speech patterns.  Ethnic people have several ways of expressing themselves--including the body language method. 
 I did not teach my children my French because I did not want to give them my accent.  I was told I spoke the "bad" French.  (There isn't any bad French.  There are regional dialects.)  I was told this about my French by monolinguals and elitist teachers in grade school.  I chose to reject the teachers of French in my high school recognizing their ignorance about my French at the age of fourteen.  I would not take their courses.  Those who did and were Franco-American often left class crying because of the things the teacher would say to them about their French.  But I still did not teach my children my French.  I believed the lies about my accent.  Too late, I learned it was others' fears of my freedom of expression in French which was being denounced.  As if each and every continent does not have regional dialects of ANY language.  As if a diversity of accents is any real threat to any other accent.  Unless, of course, it is a false, contorted, fantastically, mythical French accent imported from Paris, France in a can.  Some adhere to these fallacies of pure accent still.  If I hear "Parisian French" as if it means something, one more time, I think I'll be sick.  All over the one who says it.  Ça m'échoeur.
 It should be high time to cut out the cancer of the false supremacy based on a premise like the ignorance paradigm as truth in the classrooms at my high school making people feel low about their origins.  Telling such lies, and to continue the lying to this day, about language and its accent is a disease.  With a loud voice:  C'EST MOÉ QUI PARLE, C'EST PAS TOI.  Instead of a typo, it's a misplaced identity.
 It is futile to say to a French speaking people, Franco-Americans-at-large, you must be proud of your heritage (physical challenges every day) until each one devises for him/herself a personal iconography on which to base their being able to face their mirrors--wherever they encounter them without flinching.  For starters, they could send out cards to all their friends acknowledging their Franco-American identity--their rebirth into the culture.  Or, they can hold a dinner party, carpet picnic, corn roast in recognition of a deserved heritage/existence.  Or, they can choose to get a brand new, never thought of before tattoo to beautify being born into the Franco-American heritage, which is all theirs to boot!  The once depleted, or taken away, can be replenished.

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First published in Le Forum, Printemps/Spring 1994, Vol. 22, No. 2