The French verb manquer, meaning “to miss,” has a lesson to teach us.
For some uncertain but arguably romantic reason, this verb places special demands on students of the language. It requires an advanced level of grammatical aerobics, extra attention paid to the maddening subject-verb-direct object agreement.
Instead of Je manque mon chien, je manque ma mère, je manque le pamplemousse (I miss my dog, I miss my mom, I miss the grapefruit), the construction is unexpectedly entangled, becoming: Mon chien me manque. Ma mere me manque. Il me manque. My dog, my mom and the grapefruit? They are missing to (or, more helpfully, from) me.
They are missing. Passive voice. Worthy of a squiggly-lined scolding from Microsoft Word and a few raised eyebrows from speakers of the heathen English language.
Manquer came to my mind several times over the last week as Facebook friends from near and far shared the anniversary of a loved one’s death by writing “…and I miss him/her every day.” These statuses describe an active longing for a family member or friend, a subject-verb-object grouping that feels as familiar as “I ate apples” or “She drank scotch.”
Passivity gets a bad rap in the English language, and American culture in general. It apparently betrays a low-level attachment to whatever event has the misfortune of being described in such unenthusiastic terms.
But, as a writer and as a family member to too many lost loved ones, I come to the defense of manquer and its implications in the English translation.
My Grandma Jenkins died 2 years and 4 months ago. She was a treasured giver of hugs and baker of cookies, though I never did call her enough. Grandma Jenkins is missing from me.
In the case of remembrance, the passive voice is exactly what I need to talk to people about this important woman: She is missing. A part of who I am can be talked about but no longer introduced.
Hers is not an absence I actively consider more than a handful of times each month. But that does not mean it isn’t felt.