What We Said In English

`LET'S be quiet for a moment," said my six-year-old grandson Paul. "We've talked a lot."

I'd been listening to his careful voice for more than an hour as I followed the small caravan of cars over the Jura Mountains on the border between Switzerland and France.

Paul and his family were returning from six months in Washington, D. C. We had picked them up at the Geneva airport and were on our way to their home in France. Paul and I were keeping one another company, along with most of the family's luggage piled up on the back seat behind us.

"What did you do during a school day?" I had asked.

"That'll take a long time to answer, Grandmommy." His blond hair reflected the morning rays of sunshine. He was dressed in a maroon and white track suit, with clean white sneakers.

"Well, how did you start your school day?"

"We said the Pledge of Allegiance: `I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands "

The words resurfaced from my childhood in the United States, skipping over an entire generation. This was now my French grandson. When his father, the oldest of our children, had married a fellow French student from medical school, I was far from thinking that one day their son would be speaking to me in English.

"Then I went to my special teacher to learn English. She was a very good teacher."

"Maybe you were a very good pupil."

In six short months, Paul was speaking English fluently, with only a slight accent, hardly noticeable to my ears that were adjusted to 30 years of living in French-speaking countries with my French husband.

"After my special English class," he continued, "I went back to my regular class."

He folded his legs up under him, American Indian style, settling in for a long conversation.

"There we learned about our country. In first grade, we learned about Christopher Columbus."

I listened. What had he learned about Christopher Columbus during this 500th anniversary year?

"He was a very brave man to travel across the ocean and discover a new country."

I wanted to tell the little French boy, sitting next to me in the car on his way home, that it wasn't that simple. But I hesitated - as his one American relative - to nip his budding patriotism.

"Our teacher read us stories about him. He made many trips back and forth across the ocean. Each trip to America was long and dangerous."

America. What was this new country for Paul?

"And then," he continued, still answering my question, "and then we learned about Martin Luther King." He said this long name easily and distinctly, as if he had grown up with it.

"Martin Luther King came from a large family and wanted everyone to get along. He wanted his brothers and sisters to get along together."

I didn't interrupt. This was my grandson's history lesson.

"He had many friends, but some people didn't like him and they shot him."

I glanced at Paul. His open, blue-eyed face showed disbelief.

"This is like war," he said. "I don't want war. I don't want to ever see war."

Maybe it was about now that he suggested we be quiet a minute.

I drove on in silence. We were nearing the top of the Jura. A light snow had fallen during the night, enough to cover the trees that stood still in the morning sunlight.

`LOOK, Paul. It is beautiful. The trees are painted with snow."

"Yes, the trees are painted with snow." To hear my grandson repeat my words made them sound alive.

"Grandmommy, why are there wars?"

I could feel Paul's intent gaze upon me. He rested his head against the seat, waiting patiently for an answer. I thought back over our conversation.

"Wars happen," I replied, "because people forget that they are brothers and sisters."

"But I don't forget. I don't want to fight my younger brother and sister. People should live together in one big family."

He sat up straight and looked out the windows. He was a small child and had to stretch to see outside.

The snow-frosted trees had disappeared. We were now on the other side of the mountains, driving through hills and meadows turning green and waking up to an early spring. There were no cars around us; we were all alone.

"Grandmommy, did you know that I went to the parade for President Clinton?"

"No. I didn't."

"I never saw so many people," he said, still looking outside at the quiet countryside. Then he added, "I like President Clinton. I don't think he wants war either."

Christopher Columbus, Martin Luther King, Bill Clinton. They were no longer foreigners to him.

We were arriving near the village where his French grandmother lived. The houses were old and built in stone, tinted yellow. The wooden shutters were a faded green. Lace curtains hung at the small paned-glass windows. We followed the narrow lane that led up the hill. The family was out front, waiting for us.

"Now we will speak French, Grandmommy," Paul said, as he undid his seat belt. "But we won't forget what we said in English."

I watched him hurry to catch up with his French family, knowing that the part of him that was American would open again, like a lace-curtained window in a house.

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