La langue means the tongue, which tongue, in this context, means the French one. And that’s exactly the part of me that was tied in a sailor’s knot when I sat staring into the large liquid brown eyes of Madame M.
She had called a special conference with me after school hours. I’d spruced up, throwing on pearls, ironing a seam down the front of my pantyhose and brandishing killer heels. I came quickly, mincingly.
“Your son, Madame,” said Madame M., “Il crache aux enfants.”
Although the heat between us told me right off this was serious, I had no idea what “crache” meant. So I took a stab (which you should never do in French unless you’re fencing), and guessed it meant the obvious: my child was crashing into the other children. Head butting. My three-year-old, toe-headed fullback.
“Il. . . crache?” I asked in falsetto.
“Oui, Madame,” she dropped her eyes, pain wrinkling her forehead. It was very touching.
“Aux enfants?” I winced, burying my chin in my chest, my shoulders drawing up to my ear lobes.
“Oui, Madame.” She exhaled audibly. “Aux enfants.”
We sat for ten seconds in silence. She stared into her lap. I stared at the part down the middle of her hair.
“Vraiment?” I said, double-checking if this was true, since Dalton really wasn’t a violent boy at all. “Il—”, and I made a head-butting, fullback movement. Crashing. Into imaginary other children. “Il crache?”
Madame M. looked up at me, perplexed. Then like floodlights flipping on over a soccer pitch, she said, “Oh, non, non, non. Madame Bradford!” Then she laughed.I laughed, too, relieved. Thank heavens my son wasn’t doing something as coarse and crude as head-butting.
“Non, Madame, non, non!” She then cleared her throat and straightened her skirt. “Il. . . crache!” said lovely Madame M., as she drew herself together to demonstrate what was meant with the words.
And with that she spat.
She spat left, right, and right at me, her eyes widening, nostrils flared, bottom lip glazed with spit. “Il “ (spit, spit, spit) “crache aux enfants!”
“Oh. Voilà,” I said, as a slight tide of nausea swept over my torso.
“When the children try to speak to him, he backs into a corner,” this kind pedagogue said, “And when he backs into the corner, the children try to coax him out. It is all meant in fun, I am sure. But the closer they get, the more he refuses, and when they get close enough, Madame—“
I interrupted here by spitting, my brows drawn up, questioning if I got it right.
Dalton, my crach-ing son.
What I needed to do, I decided, was expose my little boy to more French environments besides just his preschool. Take him out with me on errands, let him meet people who don’t corner him or poke colored pencils into his tummy when he can’t respond with the right verb conjugation. We were in Versailles, after all, which means every corner was a mini culture capsule manned by authentic locals with whom I could certainly try to speak my baby French. And my baby would of course follow suit. Ease in. Quit the spit. I had a great plan.
So I started next day at the grocery store.
It was noontime on a day other than Monday, when Dalton otherwise would have stayed all day at maternelle to dine in the cafeteria, and so my husky three-year-old was with me at a mid-sized alimentation, helping me stock up on essentials, which now included a flotilla of bottled water, endives, fennel, radishes, only two cans of ravioli, eight types of cheese, and an artillery of yogurts in parfums that for some reason made me think of Christian Dior working a butter churn.
With my back turned on him for a split second, Dalton tried to scale the outside of the full cart, and it flipped over on him right in the middle of the frozen hors d’oeuvres aisle. The echoing crash drew a crowd of women, all in their sixties and seventies. They flocked near us, encircling the momentarily winded, saucer-eyed boy clobbered by an impressive heap of Evian and produce. Dalton lay motionless on the tiles. The Roquefort and Gruyère lay smushed quite definitively under his splayed arms.
Heads bobbing, the ladies discussed this évenément between themselves, then offered me their conseil. Madame should not move il pauvre (the poor guy) because the blow might have damaged his spine. Madame should knock him a sound one on his derriere for having smashed such fine endives as Madame had selected. Madame should rescue her Roquefort from underneath the tins of petit pois and, by all means, get the dairy products home before they spoil. Madame should take a taxi to an emergency room because Madame cannot drive with the invalid in her arms and as it was noon, none of the eight doctors’ offices surrounding the market would be open for three more hours. Ah, oui. The inevitable and interminable lunch break.
Mumbling whatever few French responses I could muster, I gathered the bruised bundle of child (not radishes) in my arms, and left my monument to la gastronomie in an indecent sprawl, the women shoppers gawking and pecking at it, at each other, at the mother and child genuflecting their way out the sliding glass doors. My handbag shoulder strap creeping down my arm, and sweat dripping down my front, I headed straight for the closest hospital, Hôpital Mignot, Dalton’s human siren accompanying us all the way.
The doctors at the emergency room, after searching for internal injuries with an ultrasound, found none. (Then I told them to check my son.) They discovered that the grocery avalanche had broken my boy’s foot. My Viking, they told me, was finally going to get his armor: a knee-high cast. The kid was going to be cobbled. And Madame la maman? She was instructed to keep her invalid completely sedentary. For the next month.
Could Monsieur le docteur write a prescription for traction? Tee-hee-hee?
Not even a smile.
After one week, Dalton was wielding that cast like a judo instructor, and by the end of the month-long chrysalis, we had it chiseled off with butter knives because it was so battered, it and his leg were decomposing. During that whole time, of course, he couldn’t attend maternelle since according to Madame M., his cast would give the other children even more reason to cajole, and Dalton more reason to crache.
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.