From my first "Polly-vous francais" moment as a child to current French friends, I've been blessed to know patient people who teach me a great deal about practical French, languages, systems and cultural codes. One mentor who had an enduring influence on me is Mamita.
I met Mamita the summer before college when I first set foot in France. Spending July and August with an extended Parisian family who were friends of friends of friends, officially I was an "au pair" in the old-fashioned sense. It was not a paid job at all; rather, I was part of an adopted host family for the summer.
The family consisted of a widowed great-grandmother, Loma, less than five feet tall and clad head to toe in black; the grandparents, Mamita and Dady, a welcoming, erudite couple retired from UNESCO and international affairs. Their three daughters, Martine, Chu, and Domino, were svelte and gorgeous twenty-something sisters, the elder two accompanied by dashing husbands and towheaded toddlers. My role was to be the "extra" youngest sister, helping out where needed, an integral part of the family in the French hierarchical sense. I arrived on July 14, an auspicious date, a turning point in my life.
Their summer house was a rustic but exquisitely renovated stone compound --a former sheep farm on Ile de Ré, off the Atlantic Coast. This was Ile de Ré before the bridge, before movie stars and le Tout Paris. Ile de Ré where summer days were spent picnicking in the shade of the pines on the beach at Trousse Chemise. Evenings dancing at boites de nuit with the young couples after the children were tucked in bed and the grandparents read by the fireplace. I spent six weeks in the heart of this family, not speaking a word of English.
Usually I spent mornings back at the house with Mamita, a bright, energetic woman in her 60s, helping her with les petites while the young mothers escaped for a game of tennis or errands. Mamita showed me how to select perfectly ripe plums and mirabelles from the fruit trees in the garden. I learned how to make jam. I observed Mamita as she trained her three cherubic granddaughters in all the proper ways of being good little French girls, bien elevées. Mamita knew how to speak perfect Oxford English, but since I was there to absorb French language and culture, she genteelly refrained from uttering a word of English all summer.
While the little ones were napping and she and I had a break, we would retreat to the shade of the garden and play French scrabble -- and oh, how gracious she was. We took Scrabble to the beach, too, and Mamita kept the tiles in an old purple velvet Seagram's drawstring bag -- such an elegant touch and yet so frugal. She never actually let me win a game, but she gave ample hints, her eyes sparkling with delight if I made a good play.
Mamita specialized in the art of hints. Since that summer I was an American teenager and it was the 1970s, I was naturally inclined to run around barefoot. Long hair and a flowing India print dress were my uniform. Island weather was hot and sunny, and the transition from house to courtyard to yard seemed seamless to me. One August day, Mamita asked me with a wise, warm smile, "Polly, tu n'as pas froid aux pieds?" ("Aren't your feet cold?") "Non," I replied merrily. "Ca va!" The next day was another scorcher. Again barefoot, I lolled around the house and terrasse. Mamita, once again, "Dis, Polly, tu n'as pas froid aux pieds?" Again I blithely replied that no, I was accustomed to the.... oh. Ohh.
Cultural light bulb popped. Mamita, in her elegant, kind manner, was letting me know that it would be better if I wore shoes. Without another word, I slipped on a pair of espadrilles and wore them daily for the rest of the summer.
My French summer was filled with subtle epiphanies like that -- not just that French people from "nice" families disapproved of grown young women going barefoot, but also that she would never have affronted me by complaining or directly instructing me to don shoes. Lessons in nuance that can't be taught, but can be gleaned if you just pay careful attention. Mamita taught me by inference, to listen, observe, to be a jeune fille bien elevée. Following Mamita's gentle lead, I learned more about being French than any textbook or etiquette class could have dreamt of drilling into me. The memories stayed with me, and have been recalled fondly with her when I've had the chance to visit Mamita over the years. She continued to be so gracious and hospitable to visitors, though frail and having difficulty finding her breath to speak.
Yesterday evening in her beloved stone house on Ile de Ré, Mamita died, just before bedtime. She would have been 95 this November.