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The French Lesson

ISSUE:  Winter 1977

It was decided, by their mother of course, that Catharine and Emily would take French lessons that summer, since the opportunity of having an actual Frenchwoman teach them might not come again, even when they got to college, where Catharine was bound in two more years, and Emily a year later, if she would go.

Emily was to have painting lessons, as well. Catharine did not want them, had never shown the slightest talent or interest. Emily was the pretty and artistic one, Catharine was the bright one. She had heard her mother say that to a neighbor once, and had gone to the mirror to stare at her brown face and light hair, to see wherein she was not as pretty as Emily.

What had decided them was the small advertisement in the Runnels County Weekly:

French lessons by native Parisienne. Also lessons in piano, violin, watercolors, and oil painting. Discussions in philosophy included at no extra cost. $1 a lesson for each subject. Telephone Mrs. George Loomis.

Mrs. George Loomis was the Frenchwoman that George had brought back after the first World War, ten years before. The girls barely remembered the excitement when she first came, a dark, dumpy young woman in a white blouse and black skirt, with bright brown eyes and one dark tooth in the middle of her smile.

“She sounds funny,” Catharine had told her mother, after they saw her at the drugstore one day.”She says ‘hoad’ instead of “road.”

“That’s her French accent,” Mrs. Farnham said. “She really speaks very good English. Better than any of those Loomises she has married into, unless it’s George himself.”

The Loomises were honest farming people, but ignorant and sloppy, with old, broken-down hay wagons and rusted farm machinery about their farmhouse, and mongrel dogs slinking about the yard. But George Loomis had managed to go to the state teacher’s college and had become the principal of a small country school before he was drafted and sent to France.

At first the French war bride was an object of great curiosity. And people liked her, because she was obviously eager to please and to be liked,

But soon there were complaints. Her sisters-in-law said she was stuck-up and lazy, with her nose in a book instead of helping with the ironing, And she ruined her cooking with garlic so it wasn’t fit to eat, and then complained that they cooked the vegetables too long and floated them in grease.

She was critical, too, of the town. New Atlantis, Mississippi, was just a wide place in the road then, but it was the county seat, with three churches, Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian, and the big yellow brick courthouse in its own park of live oaks and pecan trees and crape myrtle, and a row of stores, two of them drugstores. Alien’s Drugstore was strictly for business, but at Charlie Bowen’s the social life of New Atlantis was centered, along with the post office, where everybody gathered when the mail came in, by truck, after the Bonhomie and Southern had hauled the last load of pine logs to Hattiesburg, and the tracks became rusty from disuse.

Mrs. George Loomis could not understand why there was no Catholic church, although she was the first Catholic ever seen in New Atlantis, except a lecturer in a nun’s habit who claimed to have escaped the perils of a nunnery, who stood on the high school stage and delighted the audience with hints of lechery and other evils among the nuns and priests.

Also, the French woman complained that there was no public library. Catharine would have liked that. She had visited a cousin in a town where you could go to the public library and get beautiful picture books and take them home for two weeks. But nobody ever hoped for a library in New Atlantis. Where would it come from? The board of supervisors of the county had all it could do just to keep the roads passable and some kind of schools going for six or seven months a year, You had to take a special examination to get into one of the state colleges because the schools were not accredited.

Mrs. George Loomis got so she rarely came to town any longer but wandered about the woods and fields at their farm and read.”She reads deep books,” the ladies would say at the Methodist Ladies Aid, and Catharine, sitting and precociously listening to the women talk, although the other children ran off to play when they were told, understood that there was something very wrong in reading deep books, especially if a woman did it.

The summer of the French lessons, when Catharine was 15, was a summer of despair to the farmers, who each had his little cotton patch, a money crop and the only one, unless he had timber to sell. The boll weevils ruined it all. Catharine’s father would tell at the supper table about the men who came into the bank trying to borrow, and how he had to turn nearly all of them down, because they had no collateral. “Just no collateral, already mortgaged to the hilt, what on earth can a man do?”

“You could just lend them some anyway,” Emily said pertly. She was her father’s favorite, very pretty with her brown curls and her fair skin. Catharine watched Emily gazing coquettishly at her father, but she did not mind as much as she once had, because she sensed her mother’s approval of herself. And she had begun to feel that being smart in school was not such a drawback as some of the other children had always said.”Catharine, Catharine, don’t sweat, Catharine’s the teacher’s pet.”

Mr. Farnham gazed fondly at Emily. “Yes, it would be nice if I could lend them money. Especially somebody like George Loomis. George has really tried to make something of himself, and with that French wife and those three children and all. You know, she’s taught them French. They were with him in the bank, nice little boys chattering like monkeys in French.”

“I want the girls to take lessons from her,” Mrs, Farnham said, pushing back her soft hair from her round soft face, “She put that ad in the paper and all, She needs the money, and it will give the girls, well, advantages. If it’s all right with you, Ed.”

Mr. Farnham smiled. “It’s all right with me.” He ate a few bites of ham and grits and sliced tomato and then said, “It better be, umm?”

Mrs, Farnham smiled placidly. She always got her own way, and without arguing or screaming. Catharine recognized it as a talent in her mother, and tried to see how it was done, but it seemed that Emily was born with the same talent, had inherited if from her mother, so maybe you could not learn it.

The June morning they began the lessons they wore their pastel linens and their broad leghorn hats, because, although their mother drove them to the Loomises in the Buick, they would have to walk back, fully two miles. Mrs. Farnham had a meeting, and besides, it was wrong to coddle young people and be nothing but a chauffeur for them. A lot of people didn’t have a car and had to walk everywhere they went or ride some broken down old horse, she told Catharine very often.

The Loomis house, a big, weathered, dogtrot house, sat in a grove of magnificent pecan trees. The dogs lying around in the dusty front yard did not bark but slunk away.

Mrs. George Loomis, surrounded by her children, greeted them at the screened door to the front porch.”Bonjour, Mesdemoiselles,” she said.”Entrez, s’ il vous plait. Entrez.”

As they hesitated, speechless, she made an impatient little gesture with her head, which, they noticed, already had a few gray hairs. She meant that she could not stand holding the screen door open; there were flies about. There was already at least one fly inside, too, buzzing about the head of the smallest boy.

Comment allez-vous, aujourd’hui, Mesdemoiselles?” Mrs. Loomis went on, motioning toward the slatted swing and some big rocking chairs covered with cowhide, the hairy side out.”Voulez-vous vous asseoir Id?”

Catharine, blushing, decided to speak up. “Mrs. Loomis, Emily and I are just begin. . . .”

“Non, non!” said Mrs. Loomis. “Appelez-moi Madame. Dites: “Bonjour, madame, comment allez-vous?” “

As the girls sat confused and wishing they had never gotten themselves into this mess, Madame repeated, “Bonjour, Mesdemoiselles!” She smiled broadly, showing a discolored tooth, and pointed to herself. Then she pointed first to Catharine, then to Emily.”Bonjour, Madame.”

They looked at each other and said, more or less in unison, “Bonjour, Madame.”

“Tres bien! Tres bienl. Maintenant, je dis, “Comment allez-vous?” “

“Comment allez-vous?”ventured Catharine.

“Non, non, non! Je dis: “Comment-allez vous?” Vous disez: “Tres bien, Madame, et vous?” “

At last she had the thing going; the girls realized that first she would speak, then cue them to their reply. They had only to listen, and repeat. Once Madame stopped to shout at the oldest boy in French, something that sent the three children scampering away upon their bare feet, the youngest one whimpering.

Then old lady Loomis came out. She was as wrinkled as a forgotten apple, but she spoke pleasantly to them and asked if maybe their mama needed some fresh crowder peas.”Real nice we’ve got, and only two bits a peck.”

“Really, Belle-mare,” said Mrs. George Loomis angrily. “We’re in the middle of a lesson. Please!”

“You hear what she calls me?” said old Mrs. Loomis, lifting her long dark skirt away from her thin body a little, as if to let a little cooling air under.”Belle-mare.Ain’t that the limit? Still, it’s better than calling me Mrs. Loomis, like Irene does. I keep saying I would rather be called something more friendly, but you know Irene.”

They did not, but gathered that Irene was another daughter-in-law.

“Now tell your mama about my peas,” said the old woman, going out the screened door. Then, after a few moments, while Madame was still scowling and trying to conquer her annoyance, old Mrs. Loomis called out, “Francie, I think your baby has done messed hisself.”

Mrs. Loomis blushed dark and angry.

“Allons, continuez,” she said. “Catharine, void un livre. Je vous donne le livre. Ouvrez le livre,” as Catharine took the book. Madame made an opening-up gesture, and Catharine opened the book. Madame took it back again, pointed to the beginning of a passage, and said, “Lisez cette phrase.”

Somehow Catharine stumbled through the brief passage, Madame correcting almost every word, and then it was Emily’s turn.

Emily, surprisingly, did a little better, perhaps because it did not matter as much to her.

The oldest little boy came in the screened door, leading the youngest, who smelled and was followed by flies. Madame’s face reddened again, and she got up abruptly, took the child in her arms, and said, “Excusez-moi un moment, s’il vous plaît, Mesdemoiselles.” Then she disappeared. Catharine and Emily stared at each other, and the older little boy stared at them both.

“Can you speak French?” Catharine said for something to say. He answered by rattling off some words she could not understand.

“Next year I am in the second grade,” he said then. He was an engaging little boy, with a few freckles and hair burned light in the August sun.”I have got me a tree house,” he said, “Sometimes Mama comes in it, too.” He pronounced “Mama” with the accent on the last syllable.

“Where is your tree house?”

He pointed toward the trees across the yard.

When Madame came back with her youngest child, he was smiling and she was too. She bent over to nuzzle him in the neck before she set him on his feet, and he laughed aloud.

“Vat’en!” she said then, and he ran away willingly enough.

Madame seemed to have softened a little, the girls said afterward, through having taken care of her child. It seemed to Catharine, when she thought of it long afterward, that Madame lived high in the air, and resented all earthly contact, except the touch of her children. It must have been very lonely for her, alone with her books and music, high in the air above all the people she had to live with. But her children helped her come down out of the sky and touch the earth again.

Catharine dared to bring up, in English as she must, the philosophic discussions, blushing as she spoke, for she felt very forward to think that she might be able to understand philosophy, at 15,

Madame seemed delighted. “Oh,” she said, “that is very good. In this country the young do not have any thoughts. Only greedy appetites and how to make money. Yes, we shall discuss great thoughts, the three of us, and I shall lend you books.”

“Not me,” Emily said. “I want to study painting. Oil painting, Mrs. Loomis.”

“Please call me Madame,” she said. She nodded toward the vegetable garden where the old lady seemed to be standing on her head.”She is Mrs. Loomis.”

“Madame,” said Emily.

“Oil painting, yes. But you must have paints. Brushes. Canvas. All this, you know, costs. Is it agreeable with your mother?”

“Well,” Emily glanced at Catharine, not sure that their mother had thought of these expenses, “I’ll have to speak to Mother, but she said I could.”

“I shall lend you my water colors until we get the other things,” said Madame.”Wait.” She hurried into the house.

“Don’t take them,” Catharine mouthed to Emily. “Mama might not want you to be beholden.”

Emily’s eyes widened, but she nodded her head.

Madame came back with a folder in one hand, and a small box of water colors in the other.”Only a brush I cannot let you have. My brushes, no. I cannot lend them,” she said firmly, as though Emily had begged.

“I’d better not take any of it, Mrs. Loo . . . Madame,” Emily said.”I’ll ask Mama. Maybe I could just start with drawing, a pencil you know, until. . .”

“Oh, no, no, no. That is not the way. First the brush and then later the pencil, or you will only make stiff lines. Look, I can show you.” She hesitated, glanced out toward the sound of her children’s voices.”No, next time, when you come back. You will be back the same day next week, next Monday?” She spoke matter-of-factly, but her eyes were pleading, saying silently, “Please like me, girls; please take lessons from me, for I am starving, and not just for food.”

“Oh, yes,” Emily said quickly; Catharine could see that though Emily might be bored with the French, she was delighted with the thought of her painting lessons.

It was almost noon as they trudged along the hot dusty road toward town. At first they had little to say to each other. Emily stopped to pick up a good pecan that lay, as it had lain since last fall, on the grass under a big pecan tree.

“These are paper shells,” she said. “Wasn’t old Mr. Loomis smart to plant the good kind, instead of those little old hard things most people planted back then?”

“I feel sorry for her,” Catharine said suddenly.

“Me too. That awful place and that awful old woman and

“But old Mrs. Loomis isn’t awful. She’s just like about everybody else around here. But. . . .” “She’s not like us.We’re not like that.”

“No, no. We’re different, I guess, but Madame . . . she’s real different. I feel sorry for her.”

Fortunately, just as the perspiration was breaking out on Catharine’s forehead at the band of her hat, and Emily’s upper lip was bedewed, Mr. George Loomis came along and picked them up.

“Get in, girls,” he said. “You all been to the house having your lesson, I bet.”

“Yes.” Catharine wanted to say something else, but nothing came.

“Been to Richton myself; got to get up to the courthouse before dinner time. So you had your lesson.” He waited.

“It was nice,” Emily said. “Mrs. Loo . . . Madame is just real nice.”

George Loomis, red-faced and gaunt, looked extremely pleased. Then, “Madame, huh? That what Francoise want you to call her, huh?”

“Well, you know, your mother’s Mrs. Loomis, so it. . . so to avoid confusion.” Catharine thought she was sounding flustered, gauche, but did not know how to stop.

“That’s right. Well, here you are, and yonder’s your daddy just driving in himself. It’s dinner time already. Say, by the way, we got some nice crowder peas to sell if you-all need any.” He looked a little embarrassed.

“I’ll tell Mama,” said Catharine. “Thank you for the lift, Mr. Loomis.”

“Not at all. Good-bye, girls.”

At the supper table Emily gave a somewhat exaggerated account of the French lesson, making it amusing enough to win a smile from her father, but for the most part Catharine was quiet. She was dismayed by Madame’s approach to French: no grammar to study and learn perfectly, no chance to ask questions and know the reasons for things, and, more than that, she found Madame rather forbidding, even repelling. Only the picture in her mind of Madame nuzzling her baby’s plump neck and making him laugh reassured her.

The lessons went on, week after lazy week. Sometimes they got very little done, what with the interruptions of old Mrs. Loomis and the children. One day the oldest boy cut his foot rather badly, and Madame was in a panic; there was no car to drive him to the doctor, and no telephone to summon the doctor to him. They ended with having the little boy lie down and hold his foot high, with Catharine holding together the two inch gash and Madame running back and forth to the door every two minutes to see if her husband had come. At length he did come, and Catharine and Emily rode with them to the doctor’s, with Catharine in the back still holding together the gash, and rather proudly letting him bleed upon her cotton dress.

Madame sat in the front beside her husband, her lips tight, now and then uttering French prayers or curses. It could have been curses, for George looked at her curiously and said, “But Fran9oise, I wasn’t even there. It’s your job to watch the kids.”

Then she really lashed out at him but still in French. The girls lifted their eyebrows, and the little boy opened his eyes and looked frightened. The girls watched old Dr. Davis sew up the wound, then the Loomises drove them home.

Emily came along very well with her painting. Her parents had compromised and got her a few oil paints, but the brushes were very cheap, Madame complained.”If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing well,” she muttered, and Emily flushed at the criticism of her mother. And she had no canvas; she used pieces of cardboard cartons that she carefully covered with her paints so that no original board showed through.

The philosophy discussions did not develop because Madame fully expected to conduct them in French, and at this Catharine gave up hope. Then, too, she began to suspect that philosophy had not done a great deal for Madame. But most important, she had met Ralph Henry from Biloxi and gone to her first dance with him.”Just a small private dance in a lovely home in Hattiesburg,” Mrs. Farnham explained to any who asked.”My girls don’t go to public dances.”

In September, when school opened, the girls went on Saturday mornings for their French lesson. This was not at their wish, but at their mother’s insistence. The reason was that George Loomis’s school had been unable to open in September, and so he had no job.

“It’s the least you girls can do,” Mrs. Farnham told them, “to help out. The two dollars will help a little bit, and think of how polished your French will be. Now just buckle down and get all you can out of it and think how fortunate you are, to learn French from a real Parisienne. And we’ll buy things from them. Pecans and garden stuff. Turnips . . .”

“Not turnips,” moaned Emily.

The painting lessons had stopped; Mrs. Farnham thought that would be too much, with school and all, and also, she had no intention of buying the expensive paints and canvases that Madame kept urging. The French lessons were enough.

Then, one Saturday, Madame told them that this would be the last lesson. She was going back to France. To Avignon, where she had grown up.

They were open-mouthed. “But the children,” Emily said.

“They go, too, My brother has sent me enough, Oh, how he hates me for it, but he sent it. If I had not been so poor; if he had been able to give me even a small dot, I should never have left Paris. Never, never! But he has us all, all orphans to support; he was the oldest. Oh girls, Avignon! If you could see! When I am established there, and have my own little school of English and painting and music, you must come and visit chez mot.” Then she began to dance heavily; she had become a little heavier anyway and had always walked with a rather heavy step. She twirled about the room in her inevitable black skirt humming and then singing:

“Sur le pont d’Avignon
L’on y danse, I’on y danse
Sur le pont d’Avignon
L’on y danse tout en rond.”

The children came running, and finally Catharine and Emily joined in, and what was really a sad parting seemed for the moment merry and right, with everybody dancing and old Mrs. Loomis clapping her hands.

They did not see Madame again before she left. They saw George Loomis now and then after his wife and children were gone. He was shabby and thinner, They grew up suddenly, and then it was time for college for Catharine. And Emily surprised her father and mother by following Catharine the next year and doing really very well in college. Times got a little better; George Loomis got another job. He still looked sad and never went anywhere but church.

“He can’t even get married again,” people whispered, “because you know she’s a Catholic, and they don’t believe in divorce.”

“He could though, anyway. For desertion. How long’s she been gone now? Three or four years. Poor old George. He never should have taken up with a foreigner.”

Catharine was a junior and Emily a sophomore when they heard that George Loomis’s wife was coming back to him. He went around telling everybody, and although Mr. Farnham would not reveal anything, it was generally believed that George had borrowed the money to send for her.

Then she was back, looking, people said, “darker and sourer than ever.”

“Yes,” Mrs. Farnham said, “but look at George. He looks so happy it could make you cry.”

The Farnham girls were very busy that summer, dating on the front porch, with the record player going, and iced tea in tall pitchers and every now and then a little white lightning slipped into the pitcher, with screams of excitement from the girls, all but Angela White, who was very angry when she realized and told her mother about it. That ended the parties. Catharine and Emily were punished by being forbidden to have any parties or dates for a while.

“Why don’t you girls take up your French again. Do something educational,” their mother said.”I feel sorry for you, sitting around here moping.”

As if she were not the cause of their moping, Catharine thought.

“I feel sorry for you, but I can’t have my girls talked about. When you learn how to act, you can have parties and dates again. You want me to get in touch with Mrs. Loomis?”

They decided that they might as well, and the lessons started again, but now Madame came to their house. Her children were old enough to be left alone, she said, and it was so quiet and peaceful in the Farnham’s nice screened side porch.

The French went better; both girls had had some grounding at college, and now they knew enough to recognize that Madame did indeed have a better accent than the Iowa girl who taught French to Catharine, and the nice Brooklyn young man who was Emily’s teacher at college.

But then Emily was invited down to the Coast, and Mrs. Farnham decided to let her go, to Catharine’s amazement. Everybody knew that Coast crowd was wild, and especially the friend that Emily was visiting. But she said nothing.

Her own French lessons continued, but Madame seemed to grow less and less energetic in forcing the French conversation and glad enough to listen to Catharine talk about her college life. One day Catharine confided her dream of going to New York and becoming a writer.

“A writer, yes,” said Madame. “Oh, that was my dream, too, Catharine. Do it.Do it.Don’t let them stop you, no matter how they try.”

She stared through the screen into the rose garden, where most of the roses had faded and gone, and her dark tired face seemed infinitely sad to Catharine, who shuddered as if somebody were walking over her grave.

“I know it isn’t easy,” said Catharine, secretly sure that to her it would not be too hard.

“Nothing is easy, Catharine,” said Madame. “Nothing. And some things are after all not possible. Not possible, but you do not know that when you dream and hope.”

It was almost noon, and the church bells began a slow tolling for old Mr. Kevin Casey, who had died at 90.

“Hear the church bells?” said Catharine. “They’re tolling for . . .”

“Church bells, Church bells,” Madame said scornfully. “Do you call that a church? How can I let my children grow up thinking these little wooden boxes are churches? Oh Catharine, in France, in Avignon . . .”

And to Catharine’s horror, Madame began crying. Not gently weeping but bawling loudly like a baby, with her dark face contorted and her eyes swamping in tears,

“Oh, Mrs, Loomis. Oh Madame!” said Catharine, “please! Let me get you something; I’ll bring you a glass of water.”

She ran, panicking, to find her mother, but Mrs. Farnham was nowhere to be found.

Catharine decided bravely, went to the cupboard, and poured out a big glass of scuppernong wine. Then she poured another, but not so much, for herself.

She saw herself in the hall mirror, hurrying with the two glasses, a tall, slim girl, young and yes, lovely.”Yes, I am young and lovely and not jealous of Emily anymore, and so why do I feel like lying down and crying and never getting up again?” The tears came to her eyes and she was weeping for Madame and for poor Mr. George Loomis and for those little half-French children, and for Mama and Daddy and Emily and herself and the whole wide world.

She hurried out, handing the full glass of wine blindly to Madame, bending over to let a tear drop into her own small glass of wine.

“Thank you, Catharine,” said Madame, trying to smile with her ravaged face.”Tu es une tres bonne fille, une amie, vraiment, and I love you for it, Catharine Farnham.”

She drank off the wine very fast, and Catharine drove her home in the small car, and then she came back to her room and tried to read poetry.

“She’s so tiresome,” Catharine said fretfully to herself, “I’ll be glad when it’s time to go back to college.” She kept wiping her tears away, but they kept coming, until at last she lay back on her bed and wept for she knew not what, for five minutes, until her mother called her to come set the table and make a salad for supper.


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