Mother Tongue
by Joni Dufour

My grandmother's house was all kitchen and her kitchen was all table. I suspect she figured that if there were enough chairs for everyone, we wouldn't get under her feet.

"Will ya sit down, for Chrissake! You're in my road."

The stained and faded oilcloth that covered the kitchen table represented a complete disregard for healthy eating, with yellow dots of mustard and rings of grape Kool-Aid and strong tea. Curled and blackened o's made by lit and forgotten cigarettes dotted the tablecloth, marring the once charming red check pattern. The talk that went on around that table was reserved for the women: my mother, my grandmother and various aunts by blood and marriage—mothers all.

We kids usually played outside, running around my grandmother's peonies and rose bushes that grew fat, pink blooms the size of my face. But one day, distracted by my grandmother's tangled collection of costume jewellery, I found myself sitting in the kitchen, either unnoticed or allowed, I'm not sure. And I listened.

Around the table, the women produced bags of white bread, cold cuts and jars of condiments. They volleyed stories with speed and humour. Tea was poured and dishes were washed while peels of laughter evolved into hysteric silences, marked only by shoulder shrugs and small tears that perched in flooded eyes. Then the silence erupted with laughter and just when the joke was almost at an end, a naughty comment would flare it up again. This time the women reached for chairs, knowing they would be unable to continue the task of assembling sandwiches for a short while, preferring to feed off of the joke for now.

There were other silences too, when the conversation came to a complete stop while an aunt recounted a confrontation she had had with a neighbor. It was the bilingual aunts who told the best stories, having two languages from which to fish out the mot juste.

A frozen hush fell as all eyes rested on the storyteller. Some cigarettes went unlit while others grew long, bending ashes. The storyteller paused at the most effective spot.

"J'ai dis, 'La, la. Whoa.'"

Then, pressing on, she theatrically quoted herself, telling the absent victim where he could go. She raised her eyebrows, pointed her finger at a stand-in (usually a sister sitting across the table), and she started.

"I told him, 'Listen. If you think for a minute that I'm going to…'". Calling on her stockpile of hand gestures and articulating her strength with every word, she chastised someone known simply as "Mister". At the end of her story she paused again, allowing the silence to punctuate her authority and then, "Can you believe it?"

"Good for you!"

"The bloody cheek!"

"Oh no, you've got to set them straight right away… give 'em an inch…"

She resumed cutting the bologna sandwiches and I watched her softness return.

They gossiped sympathetically and told adult jokes that I didn't understand. They shared secrets and asked each other about their lives. I began an education on the body, birthing, common operations, family histories of neighbors and relatives present and missing. I would learn the acceptable cost of seasonal vegetables like corn. I would learn about beef cuts and the difference between a shank and a flank. But it was on this day that I realized for the first time they were women with lives of their own.

Eventually lunch was presented to the table. Outstretched towels caught wet, shivering children, all freckled and cow-licked. They accepted crayon-coloured cups of Kool-Aid and fought a hovering wasp for slices of my grandmother's gargantuan tomatoes while outside, the toys bobbed and huddled in the corner of the pool.

"I don't like grape!" my brother whined.

"Yes you do." The words came out of my mouth as I cut his halved sandwich into quarters. It's the only way he'll eat it.

Joni Dufour comes from a long line of women who like to talk at the kitchen table. She currently lives in Montreal and works at CBC Radio. Her work has appeared in Geist and on CBC Radio One's Q.