It has taken just under three years, and the fact that we have arrived here surprises me. In place of the formal “vous” in French, I have been invited to use the “tu” form – and by an older woman.
Now this “vous” versus “tu” issue may seem insignificant if you haven’t lived in a culture in which language reflects attitudes that insist on respect for elders. But here’s the kicker: In more than 35 years of speaking French – with the French – I can’t recall an incident in which I was expressly asked to transition from the formal “vous” to “tu” by the generation above me.
And these circumstances touch my heart; the woman who asked is the mother of the man I love.
Tu Versus Vous: Language as a Sign of Respect
I began learning French as a child, and studied in earnest from junior high school forward, including a summer en famille when I was 15 and a year abroad in college. There were other periods when I lived, worked, or traveled through France, but the bottom (linguistic) line was this – use “vous” with those you don’t know (except children), and always, always, always, use “vous” with your elders as a sign of respect.
By way of comparison, in more than a dozen years of knowing my father-in-law, with whom I generally spoke in French, I used the polite or formal “vous” to address him. Despite genuine affection between us, and as a man who was trilingual, he was well-versed in the subtleties of language, yet not once do I recall him suggesting that I switch to the familial or familiar “tu.”
That the Belgians and the Canadians are not sticklers for this rule has caused me to fumble over the years, as I’ve been told repeatedly to cease using “vous” in place of “tu” – which has generally required time for me to get used to.
Using “Tu” with an Older Person
When this invitation came about two weeks back, I was even more pleased to receive it because my own parents are deceased, my relationship with my mother was difficult, and this lovely woman is generous of spirit, laughs easily, and on her good days – is capable of mischief and mirth.
In recent months, her Alzheimer’s has been aggravated by the requirement to change residences not once, but twice. I know how disorienting it is to relocate, how long it took for me to adjust to the home where I live now, and I can’t imagine how unsettling and even terrifying it must be when you’re grasping for information stored in short-term memory.
As the situation settles down, I’m happy to say, the request to no longer use vous – and in its place to use tu – feels like the welcome hand of family. This tells me not only that there is trust and a sense of safety with me, but also, love.
Good Days are a Gift
If I’ve written with less focus and consistency recently – here, where I allow myself some latitude – in part that has been to carve out more time to see this woman I love, who is now located only minutes away.
These past ten days have been largely good – and her good days are an inexpressibly precious gift to anyone who knows her – she is filled with stories and cheer, comic commentary and a playful nature, which I am told has always been hers. I feel graced by her presence in my life, balanced by the perspective she brings me, warmed by our shared laughter, and loved without agenda.
From a mother figure, this is a new experience for me, my own mother being the source of my most critical inner voice. And consequently, I am cherishing this relationship even more. That she bent her head and looked at me with a gentle smile, and said “il faut me tutoyer, ma fille” – asking that I use “tu” – is a moment that I hope never to forget.
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