Saturday, February 28, 2009

A Tribute to Mme Buchanan

In the fall of 1973, I signed up for French I at Harris High School in Spruce Pine, North Carolina. My aunt Sandi, 11 years older than me, had studied French and I pretty much worshiped her and wanted to be just like her. I was also a big fan of Pepe Le Pew, to be perfectly honest, of Looney Tunes fame. That smooth-talking bumbling French skunk. He never really got the female cat (he thought she was a skunk...). I even dressed up like him one Halloween. French was not particularly easy for me at first. And to be honest, I probably did not quite see the value in learning to conjugate verbs. However, by Christmas of that year, I had fallen in love. I was head over heels in love with a country that was 4212.9 miles or 6780 kilometers from my home in the Appalachian Mountains. I had never been on an airplane and the farthest I had ever been from home was to the Gulf Coast of Florida with my grandfather. By my junior year of high school, I was determined to go to France. I remember asking Mme Buchanan if any of her students had ever studied in France. She named one person and then and there I vowed I would be the next.
With Mme Buchanan's help, I went to Appalachian State University to study French. She actually took me to campus one day (only about an hour's drive from Spruce Pine) and marched me into the office of the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences to introduce me. We also visited the language lab where she managed to get me an on-campus job. I was a full scholarship student and needed the work-study job so that I would have some spending money.
I worked hard and saved my money, determined to go to France after my sophomore year at ASU. I went with two friends who were also French majors. We were accepted as foreign students at the Université de Dijon. However, when we arrived we couldn't find a place to live. Diana, one of my friends, found a family to live with and be the family's au pair. Melody and I headed to the south of France, to Cannes, to enroll at an international school and find a place to live. I lived with the dad of a friend we had made. The dad worked at the Hôtel Martinez and took me under his wing, teaching me to cook and to play squash. He made me watch game shows so that my French would improve.
At one point, before heading back to the States, Melody and I decided to visit the city of Soissons, hometown of Mme Buchanan. We had dinner with her sister's family and stayed with her niece, Claudie and her husband. Claudie had spent time with Mme Buchanan during my senior year in high school so I already knew her.
Mme Buchanan told me that she would be ready to retire when I graduated from ASU. I, however, had other plans. I was briefly tempted to become a flight attendant and filled out forms for Pan Am. My senior year, I heard about Durham Academy and decided to apply for a teaching job. Lo and behold, I got the job even before graduating and never looked back. My former chemistry teacher told me that he would give me one year in the "big city" and then I'd be ready to come home to Spruce Pine. While I do miss the mountains, I love living in Durham and am still at DA, 29 years later.
I stayed in touch with Mme Buchanan over the years, sporadically sending Christmas cards and postcards from Paris. I regret that I did not get to know her as an adult. I am sure that she had amazing stories to tell about France during WWII. She did as General Charles de Gaulle told the French young women to do at the end of the war. She married her American soldier and moved to the mountains of North Carolina. Her mother, Mme Roze, moved in with them at some point. Mme Roze would come to French class once in a while and we would practice our French on her. The poor woman. I imagine we all said the same thing... "Bonjour, madame. Comment allez-vous?" She was very patient, as I remember. Mme Buchanan told us that her husband spoke no French and her mom spoke no English. Hmmm... maybe that's the secret to getting along with your belle-mère.
Every time I go to Notre Dame cathedral in Paris I light a candle for Mme Buchanan. I am not Catholic. She, however, was very devout. I light a candle, as a small token of my gratitude for the woman who took such a strong interest in me and my future. In November 2008, I was in Paris with Steve, my soon to be un-ex husband. On Sunday, November 16 we went to Notre Dame. Steve was uncomfortable since there was an evening service going on, but tourists were walking around the cathedral. I assured him that it was okay to do this, just be quiet and respectful. The cathedral is a pilgrimage place for Catholics, with hundreds, if not thousands, of visitors every day. As usual, I paused at one of the altars to light a candle and say a quick prayer of gratitude for my French teacher.
The following Tuesday my sister called me on my cell phone to let me know that Mme Buchanan had passed away. She knew that I would want to know. As tears came to my eyes, I thought to ask Marsha when Madame had died. She said she thought it was Sunday, but she wasn't sure. She later called me back to let me know that it was indeed Sunday, November 16. I only hope that my little candle, lit in the magnificent Gothic cathedral of Notre Dame, Our Lady, helped light Christiane Roze Buchanan's way to heaven. I am sure she is there and I will want her to visit my heaven when I get there so that we can get caught up!

Note: The top photo is of my students lighting a candle for Mme Buchanan in Notre Dame during our spring break trip to Paris. I told them the story of my annual candle-lighting before we left Durham. I came down with the flu the second day of our trip, the day they went with Chappell, my co-chaperon, and Béatrice, our Parisian guide, to Notre Dame. They kept up my tradition. I was able to light at candle at the church of La Madeleine later in the week.

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