Thus began the introduction of French 101, and a whole lot more. Little did I know as I sat on the front row eager to parle some francais that the empty seat next to me was about to be filled with an amazing new friend.
The door at the back of the classroom opened with a slight creak and a striking dark haired woman with very wet hair and an armload of books tried to slip in un-noticed. It didn’t work.
“Bonjour, Mademoiselle,” chirped our lovely professor.
“Ola, Professora, “ the newcomer responded in Spanish. She switched to a delightful rendition of English without missing a beat. “And I’m pretty sure I’m a Madame since I have a husband and five kids.” The others laughed in appreciation of her enthusiasm and forthright expression.
“Ooh, French spoken with a Mexican accent. This is going to be fun.” That was the understatement of the quarter.
The tardy student laughed. “ It certainly will be different. I’m just now getting the hang of English with a southern accent.”
Clearly, she had captivated the whole room, so she continued. “I’m sorry to be late, but that swimming class is way across campus and I’m nearly forty years old and about to be a grandmother and my legs are short.” That was about the best excuse any of us had ever heard.
The teacher smiled. “Just do the best you can. What is your name?”
“ I have a mouthful of those, so just call me the first: Maria.”
I wondered if I was the only one who pictured a dancing nun singing about her
favorite things and being an unsolvable problem at the Abbey. When she found out I lived alone, she felt compelled to unofficially adopt me into her family.
Maria was born in Guadalajara, Mexico. Her father was a concert violinist who died early on. Her aunt, a well-respected physician, raised her and her siblings.
A fellow in the American Air Force fell in love with the dark eyed beauty when she was only 16. After a short and chaperoned interval, they were married. That’s when things got even more interesting.
Maria tried to learn English from television and from listening to her new husband and his friends. He did not realize how innocently she had picked up not-so-nice words until he heard her nearly blister the paint on the wall with a few unladylike expletives mixed with TV commercial dialogue. After a little editing on his part, she embraced the learning of her new language with gusto.
By age 17 she had her first baby. The others followed in close succession. Like the pink bunny with batteries, she just kept going. When her last two were teenagers, she decided to become a teacher. She had never finished high school in Mexico. The university here let her enter on a first quarter probation status. She aced it and never looked back.
She graduated and went to work, but decided she was wasting her time on sassy kids who were unruly, disrespectful, and not ready to learn, so she marched back to college to enter the nursing program, a place she should have been all along. By then I was married and we had moved away. In January 1982, our former pastor called us with sad news. Her youngest son had been killed in a car wreck in California.
She missed a couple of exams but was not allowed to make them up. The powers-that-be dictated a repeat of the whole quarter. She trudged onward and passed state board exams, then went to work in the most perfect and happy place in the hospital: obstetrics.
In spite of being blindsided with a debilitating diagnosis, she continued moving forward inch by exhausting inch until she earned a Masters degree. Eventually, she received a coveted honor from the state nursing association as Nurse of the Year.
From a sweet young girl who spoke no English, to a teacher, to a well-respected caregiver and leader, she embodies all that is strong and honorable in womankind. She never wavered in her faith that God would guide her from step to step.
It has been way too many years since our last visit. She used to remind me, “We just take up where we left off.”
I intend to put that to the test. As soon as I say, “Bonjour Madame Maria,” she’ll know who it is and start laughing.” I can hardly wait.
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