When I was six years old, my family moved to Dallas, GA. We lived in backwoods — on a gravel road surrounded by dirt roads, across the creek and two acres down from my best friend, Polly.
Polly had short blonde curls and a deep Southern accent. We liked to ride horses bareback to 7-11 for Slurpees and then — because she was always in trouble for something — hide in the hay of a neighbor's abandoned barn.
I can still hear the sound of her mother’s voice, hollering.
Last fall, Polly and I saw each other for the first time in 20+ years. I rented a car and drove down south, to the same house where we had our first sleepover. We sat around her family's kitchen table and told each other everything. How her oldest son wants ripped jeans just like his father’s. How her youngest, Scheylla, nearly drowned at 2 years old.
Scheylla insists it’s Tinker Bell who saved her; she was telling me so much when her grandfather walked in and greeted me with his characteristic, stoic nod.
“You done got yourself an accent, girl,” he said. “And it sure ain’t country.”
It was late afternoon by the time, Eliza, Polly’s eldest, came home. She paused for a second in the doorway, took me in from across the screen door.
“Are you the one who knows French?” she asked.
Eliza's so much prettier than I was at 13 — tall and slender, with cut-off jeans and doe-eyes. Still, I recognized something of myself in her. Restlessness, curiosity. The same spark that sent me escaping, thanks to a generous grandfather, to the vineyards of Champagne to figure myself out before college. That sent Polly escaping, on her 17th birthday, to the Florida-Georgia line.
“I am,” I said. “I could teach you, if you’d like.”
“Mama, can I?” she asked.
This week, I went to fix up my MacBook Pro which, though it’s working just fine, needed a keyboard replacement after a bottle of Bourgogne was spilled on it last year. (Note: when speaking with the Apple Genius bar, describe all events in the passive voice. Who spilled the wine? No one knows. All we know is that wine was spilled.)
When it’s back from repair, I’ll drive it down to Eliza for her Freshman year, along with a newly installed copy of Rosetta Stone, a bottle of Nuxe Huile Prodigieuse, a CD of Barbara’s greatest hits, some grammar exercises, Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan and a collection of existential French films for good measure.
And then a card that reads, “Dear Eliza.”
I’m still figuring out what to write. I want to tell her everything. How if she’s not careful, French might consume her. That once she’s fluent, she might start carrying on like she’s got a split personality — speaking in hyperbole in one language, scoffing at it in another. That one day, when she’s freshly returned from Paris, her friends might set up a jar for every time she says or does something obnoxiously European and she’ll go broke, giving up a dollar every time she insists on putting eggs atop her pizza or looks, skeptically, at mayonnaise that’s not homemade.
But I also want her to know that French can be a place of comfort — somewhere she can take words and reclaim them as her own. That when she writes with accent aigus and c circonflexes in a diary, no one will care to read it; she won’t find her innermost thoughts in her brother’s room, xeroxed, or hear them repeated verbatim over the phone.
I want to tell her that Southern girls make the best French girls. Because we know all the rules and when to break them, too.
I want to teach her the joke my grandfather used to tell me — the one about Napoléon and Joséphine — and how to use it at a dinner party in just the right way. Un miroir réfléchit sans parler, Monsieur, mais vous, vous parlez sans réfléchir.
To warn her not to fall in love with a Frenchman (but that’s a story for another day.)
And here I am, projecting.
I cross it all out,
keep it simple.
A lot of things have happened since I first wrote this piece in 2017. Eliza texted me pictures of hard-earned “A”s in French class. I tuned into her high school graduation via Zoom. This fall, she moved into her first apartment with her high-school sweetheart, Josh, in a move that felt, to me, both hopeful and bittersweet.
On Friday morning, Josh was involved in a tragic motorcycle accident at the corner of Yorktown Highway and 278. In addition to a minor brain bleed, broken nose and two broken arms, he sustained significant injuries to his bladder, pelvis, and backside. He was airlifted to Atlanta’s Grady Hospital, where he is currently undergoing multiple reconstructive surgeries.
I’ve organized a GoFundMe to help the young couple . If you are so moved to donate, you may do so here.
Goodness, quite a story of love, French, that Frenchman (we all want that story!) and accidents, let alone the Mac and wine, but poor Josh. Heart goes out to the family and you. xo Mary