How Afternoon French Lessons Turned Friends into Family

I was afraid of being judged by a neighbor who began giving free French lessons to my kids. But the worries melted away as our friendship grew deeper.

As best I can figure, Madame and Helmuth moved up here about 15 years ago upon their retirement. They promptly sought out our farm and became regular customers. Helmuth spoke very little, and Madame spoke with deliberation. They were always polite.

And then I understood. Madame didn’t disapprove of our way of life. She simply wanted the freedom to love my children.

Unlike us, they were always neat. Their house was always impeccable. Their clothing was spotless, Madame’s long white hair always in a neat twist on the back of her head. Such behavior and appearances led us to try to curtail our own invectives, to strive to spare them from the bubbling soup of emotion in which our family farm life perpetually simmers. Soon after meeting, we began carpooling together to appointments, where they’d witness our occasional outbursts of raucous laughter or, to our embarrassment, vituperation.

And yet they weren’t frightened away. They continued to make a place for us in their lives.

From a polite distance, they watched Bob and me become parents. They watched my mom and dad become grandparents. Knowing Bob and I had little money to outfit our layette, and realizing that we were keen on minimizing our ecological impact, they organized families from downstate who were looking to pass along their toys and clothes, perused the offerings at their church rummage sales, and filled our dressers and toy closet for years to come, before my first baby was even born. (Saoirse is now nine, and to this day I’ve still never had to purchase her a single pair of snow pants.) Madame and Helmuth continued to buy meat and eggs from us, and were first-hand witnesses as I moved from conventional medicine to home birthing, to the holistic care of my family, to my choice to homeschool, to my evolution as a writer with radical ideas.

And when Saoirse was five, Madame, a former French teacher, insisted on beginning lessons with my children.

I accepted, but I was resistant to the idea. My own insecurities and Madame and Helmuth’s formal demeanor led me to suspect they did not approve of our lifestyle choices. I wondered if she saw Bob and me as poor ignoramuses, targets for charity. I wondered if she felt she needed to save Saoirse from our fringe lunatic choice to keep her out of the public school system.

At the same time, I wasn’t inclined to pass up an opportunity to enrich my daughter’s education. I let my mom drive her the three miles to their house on Wednesday afternoons, where Madame and Helmuth dedicated an entire room as a salle de classe, where a pot of tea was presented with every lesson.

But I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) make Saoirse do her homework. I hadn’t taught her to write yet, and I feared that Madame disapproved of our educational tactics. I grew defensive about French lessons, perturbed whenever Madame would call to ask me questions about my plan of education. When it was my turn to drive Saoirse over, I would often forget. At the same time, in spite of her own lack of linguistic progress, Saoirse eagerly looked forward to her visits. “She’s very fancy,” she’d tell me.

Madame and Helmuth stood together picking up their chickens one afternoon when I finally burst into a spate of apologies. “I’m sorry,” I said, ready to accept that the lessons were failing.

“I can’t even get Saoirse to tell me what you do in your lessons, let alone help her with any homework.” I was ready to quit.

They both nodded in their quiet way. After a moment of awkward silence, Madame spoke slowly, softly, and carefully. “I care about your children," she said. "I care about them very much. I have never had any of my own. And I would like to be able to feel as though they are my own grandchildren. I hope you will continue to let me teach them.”

And then I understood. Madame didn’t disapprove of our way of life. She didn’t mistrust me as an educator. She simply wanted the freedom to love my children. And so we went forward, my heart lightened by the fact that she and Helmuth only wanted to have a role in Saoirse and Ula’s lives. Wednesday afternoons became one of the most important appointments on our weekly calendar.

As Ula grew into her own readiness to learn French, Madame and I learned to teach together. She worked individually with the girls teaching vocabulary and grammar, while I worked in a separate room helping them with conversation. Helmuth would periodically interrupt the teaching schedules with requests to teach the girls how to find chanterelles and wild ramps, or with the simple choice to join us for tea and conversation. After lessons, the girls would sit and color, and Madame and I would speak in French, both of us eager to keep our skills alive. I grew to love her decorum, and as I confronted my own life dramas—from family deaths to illnesses, work stress, and homeschooling travails, I found my soul soothed by her equanimity. In turn, she endured my tattered Carhartts, disheveled hair, and perpetually bare feet (but she kept a spare pair of slippers in a drawer, just in case).

I came to cherish our Wednesday afternoons together.

And while I fully understand that nothing could go on forever, I will admit to my perpetual quiet hopes that it would, that Madame and Helmuth would see Saoirse and Ula grow into adulthood.

But the call came early last week that Helmuth had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, that he was in a coma in the hospital. We drove to the hospital to be with Madame, to say our goodbyes to Helmuth. The space was cramped, filled with friends and neighbors who’d arrived to lend their love and support. We took turns with Madame as she kept her vigil over Helmuth, until family was able to arrive that night.

Saoirse and Ula drew pictures to hang up across from Helmuth’s bed. Neighbors brought in comforting music. Members of their church came and read passages from the Bible. All of us wept. And Madame received each of us with grace. She held Saoirse and Ula, and they hugged and cried together.

With the comfort of conjugations and vocabulaire, Saoirse and Ula will be reminded that their choice to learn is an expression of love.

My compulsion in such cases is to fixate on food. Habitual “doers” such as myself need activity, and I returned home to my kitchen and channeled my energy into boiling eggs, chopping onions, making broth, searing meat. Helmuth passed away before I could even finish the broth and peel the eggs.

It goes without saying that our Wednesday French lessons were cancelled last week. Instead, Saoirse and Ula joined me in the kitchen. They, too, needed to feel as though there was something they could do. As I put together the stew and deviled eggs for Madame and her family, they worked to make a batch of brownies. Determined that there should still be color in Madame’s world, they decorated them with purple frosting and pink, yellow, and green sprinkles.

We showed up at Madame’s house later that Wednesday afternoon, carried our food up to her refrigerator, then came down and sat with her and her family.

Madame’s formality melted away. She pulled Saoirse and Ula to her, her arms around one, the other piled into her frail lap.

At the end of our visit, in an impulse to cling to the familiar and grasp for normalcy, I asked Madame if she would like me to take some of the French books home, so there would be some continuity in Saoirse and Ula’s education while Madame worked through all that she faced. She packed up a bag of books, gave me a list of assignments to complete, and we went on our way.

I left the books on the floor of my office when we got home. I was determined to try my best and deeply saddened that I would be tackling the subject alone.

But my mom and dad were visiting with Madame yesterday afternoon. And as they left, Madame gave them a message for me. “Tell Shannon that I will see her and the girls this coming Wednesday afternoon, at three o’clock.”

“She needs this now,” my mom assured me. “It’s important to her to be with the girls, to have structure in her life.” I nodded in agreement. What I failed to mention was how much I needed this myself. But I suspect Madame was fully aware of this.

And so, in spite of our loss of Helmuth, our Wednesday afternoons will continue. And with the comfort of conjugations and vocabulaire, Saoirse and Ula will be reminded how their choice to learn is an expression of love, and Madame and I will find a way to continually strengthen our fragile souls through our surprising friendship.


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