So Long, Myrtho

I hope this song doesn’t have a hidden meaning that I don’t understand. But from what I do understand, I felt it was appropriate for a couple of reasons: it talks about thinking of someone years down the road and how you think no one has changed, and it has so many memories tied to the summer where I learned it, a summer from long ago, and the summer when I met Myrtho.

God I feel old. 2001 has become long ago. But it has. That was 19 years ago. Back then, I was in the middle of university, and was just starting to live in a place that wasn’t a residence or my mom’s house. That summer, I went to the Summer Language Bursary Program and stayed in Jonquière for five weeks. What an adventure that was.

If you don’t know, the aim of the Summer Language Bursary Program was to give the participants lots and lots of practice speaking French. I mean, the participants *had* to speak French. If they caught someone speaking English too many times, the person got sent home! They did this not to be jerkfaces. They wanted us to not be able to cheat. The more you spoke and listened to French all the time, the more it would strengthen your skills in speaking it.

I was offered the chance to live in the residence, or with a host family. I had been encouraged by everyone to choose to stay with a host family, and so I did. The woman who hosted me was a sweet, older lady named Myrtho. She told me she had done this host mother thing for many years, and I could tell she had experience helping us non-French-speaking lost souls through. When I met her, the first thing she did was walk up to me and wrap me up in a great big hug. I’m sure for most people, that was a very comforting gesture. No matter what language you speak, a hug is a hug. For me, who didn’t see it coming, it was jarring for a second, but I figured it out and it did melt my heart a little bit.

She did everything she could to make me feel at home. Throughout the time I was there, she told me stories about her family, her husband who had died, her friends. She introduced me to her daughter who lived nearby. She had little get-togethers on the weekends when she brought over more of her family. She knew when I had been exhausted by speaking French all day. I came home from the first day of class and she told me to have a nap before dinner. I said thanks, but I wasn’t tired. She responded with “Yes you are.” I lay down, and…where did that hour go? Yup, she was right.

There were two of us who stayed with her. We must have driven her crazy. She cooked us delicious meals every night, and we weren’t always on time. Oops.

She would talk about how she was trying to stay active so she would stay healthy. She would talk about her keeping moving and all the activities she got involved in. We had one particularly funny misunderstanding. I thought I heard her say she played hockey. I went to school the next day and told my classmates that my host mother was amazing! She’s 77, walks all over the place, does lots of exercise and she even plays hockey!

Then later on, we had an activity which was called “quille” which is 10-pin bowling. Quille sounds like key, which if you say it a certain way, could sound like hocky. “Je joue au quille” sounds really close to “Je joue au hocky” especially if you’re struggling with the accent. So she said, you’re going to “joue au quille, like I do.” Then the lights came on and I said “I thought you said you played hockey!” Did she ever have a good laugh at that. I told her I told all my friends that my host mother was a super woman! She’s 77 and she plays hockey! She laughed some more and then said “Go back to your friends and tell them you were wrong!” Then we laughed some more. That became a story she told all her friends and relatives who came to visit. “Carin told all her friends I play hockey!”

She worked so hard for us. She did my laundry because I was afraid I’d never understand her explanations of how to work her washing machine. That’s the weird part about being immersed in another language. There are words that you just don’t know until you need them, and then, how do you explain what they are, especially when you can’t point or mime what you’re trying to say? I remember some scary moments when it was dinner time and she would say what we were going to eat, and I hadn’t an earthly clue what it was. Thank goodness I wasn’t allergic to anything, and thank goodness it was all delicious.

She had a wacky sense of humour. Her daughter had a French Furby. Remember the Furby? Now imagine it speaking French. Imagine that thing making syllables at you in that Furby voice that you can only vaguely understand. This video might help.

Now imagine that being the first sound you hear as you wake up. Aaa! That’s how she chose to wake me up one day. I couldn’t stop a bit of English swearing from coming out of me, followed by a good laugh when I figured out what was going on.

That program was amazing. Everyone from Myrtho to our teachers to the other leaders to Véronique, the girl who guided me around because there was no way I could manage learning routes to, from and around school while learning French, were immensely patient and taught me a lot of things. I had a great room-mate too, Nadia, and I wish I could find her now.

You’re probably wondering why I’m being all nostalgic. Has all this time inside made me so bored that I’ve decided to shrink back into happier times? Not exactly. I lost touch with Myrtho a couple of years after the program. I remember getting a card from her, and I hope to heck I sent her one back. Then I lost her address and phone number in a computer failure and never thought I could find her again. This summer, I googled her name, and the name of some family members, and Google gave me the bad news. It appears she passed away. Not only that, but she passed away 7 years ago.

I could not believe it. Perhaps this was someone else. All those names are very common French names. Maybe this isn’t her. Then I looked at her age and remembered an awkward exchange I had with her and my parents when they were bringing my suitcase into the house. I was having to translate for my parents because they don’t speak more than a few words in French. She said something like “I am 77 years old. My husband has been dead for some time but today is his birthday.” If she was 77 back in 2001, she could totally have been 88 in 2013 when she passed away since her funeral was in January. I am almost completely certain I have found her.

As it settled in, I was heartbroken. I had always meant to get back in touch, but it was so intimidating, especially since my French language skills had become less strong. Then I forgot her last name and of course I had lost her address and phone number. Now, to find out that she had been gone for 7 years and I had no idea totally destroyed me.

I always say I have such fond memories of that summer, and I do. But I have forgotten the things that could help me find people and reconnect. I failed to keep in contact with Nadia, my room-mate. I can’t even remember her last name. I’m pretty sure she was from Toronto, had gone on a tree-planting expedition up north, and was interested in studying abroad. I remember how the staff weren’t sure how I’d do on an optional weekend hike, and Nadia agreed to help me. I kind of accidentally hurt Véronique’s feelings doing that, *oops*. But Nadia was endlessly patient with me, warning me about every rock and root as we went. We almost made it all the way to the top! I wish I could tell her what I’d found. But maybe she already knows. Maybe she did a better job of keeping in touch with Myrtho.

But here we are. At least, after consulting my French teacher from years gone by, I was able to write out a note of sympathy. But it all feels too little too late, and I get the feeling that despite my best efforts, this will happen again. Life really is too short.

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