“Read the room,” they say. “The first thing, close to the only thing, is to know your audience. You can only successfully deliver what they are able to hear in a languaging they are able to hear it in.”
I’ve read this in many places. I’ve even taught this to middle schoolers in writing and speaking. Needless to say, their interpretation of what the word “audience” means is very different from mine. Proving the case in point.
Some part of me chooses not to remember what I have read. There is danger in that, and I know it. I think it was Bob Dylan who said, “If you are going to live outside the law, you have to be honest.”
So, I am speaking to you from the place where I am, in the language I have been given.
I have never been good with languages, though they fascinate. My mother, who spoke French before she spoke English did not teach her children French quite deliberately. She was caught in a misbegotten understanding that it would be viewed as an invasion of the “Hoity Toity” by my father’s salt of the earth parents. Or equally likely, she wanted to keep something pristine, something she owned alone in our house. Surely, she needed to maintain some separate compartment of sanity and identity as a safe room in the child-rearing predicament of the Catholic faith she had been landed in, and an unfamiliar country that was psychologically so far from home, to boot. There were six of us to fend for. Operating instructions were not provided.
My mother spoke French daily to her mother on the phone, who was 60 miles and a world away in the fog belt of San Francisco’s Sunset District. As a result, I was frequently exposed to the sounds of the language; it steeped down somewhere deep within me. I often mouth the few words of French I do know, full of pathos when they come to mind, as if they are a syrupy mantra to pour on the bland waffles of daily life. In this moment it saddens me to think my mother felt alive in French and deadened in English.
Not that she wasn’t articulate and skilled in the usage of her second language, oh contraire. For her English was the language of utility, of business, of combat. Unafraid of combat, she did her own research to the nines when she went into battle. Her most famous case was when she fought city hall and won. She saved a riparian creek-way from being paved over with a parking lot. “Touche!”
I could speak at great length as to how she mastered the language as a power tool, navigating this American world, and especially the world of men. She had immense stamina too, as over a 40-year period well before the dawn of the internet, she stalked my father’s ancestors that lived in microfiche and photocopies of parchment. Armed with the telephone, a keen mind, and ceaseless handwritten first-class mail correspondence, she was both a soldier and a detective, marching through and peeling back the veils of mystery in churchyard gravestones, county land deed records, and the deep dives into the vast genealogical Mormon Libraries of Oakland and Salt Lake City. in that one sense you could say she was ecumenical. She succeeded in tracing our lineage to militia men of the American Revolution, and even back across the pond in the mid-seventeen hundreds. Ironic, of course, that she chose my father’s side, the patrilineal side, to research. There was some vindication: she was much more successful with the matrilineal tracings within the patrilineal line than in finding the straight path to the male surname.
My mother made us an oversized (11 x 17) hand-made, hand-written big blue booklet: six of them, one for each of us. In it, are all the family trees she so painstakingly found, a flourish of branches, and on every page a rustling of unfolding leaves of names, places, dates, marriages, births, deaths. Each subsequent page goes back further in time and zooms out in extent until one has more leaves of relatives that one has an ability to keep placed in the tree of mental construct. A Christmas tree with too many ornaments in dazzling three dimensional interrelationships. I don’t remember then; all I have read there. But I do read the effort, the dedication, the precision, the pristineness of intention she gave to it all.
And the room I am reading, my audience here? Mon mere, of course. Too late, this homage, I know, dear mother. Yes, long already remembered. But now, at last, not unread, or, unwritten.
By Susan Graim
On March 14, 2022
A delightful homage to your mother of French descent. The tree paragraph is especially visceral. My favorite line: “… the language; it steeped down somewhere deep within me.”
I was unfamiliar with the Mormon Church’s Family History Library. So thanks for that new reference.
By Paul DeLong
On March 14, 2022
Thank you for reading my writing. Because Mormons believe (I think, I am no expert) they can affect the spiritual fate of their ancestors, their motivation is, well, highly spirited. Those libraries are quite extensive, certainly the largest in the United States, well, at least prior to the “23 and me” “Ancestry.com” generation. I am guessing they have poured that massive storehouse of information into some data base of their own! God bless them for keeping track of it all!