21 November 2013
Before my dad was transferred to France, he and my mother built a custom home in Albuquerque - the gold-flecked turquoise countertops in the kitchen were a mistake and the result of a misunderstanding, but it was still a spacious and modern kitchen for the late 50's. Trendy copper-tone appliances were the rage, and we had them - in fact, the fridge followed us across the Atlantic, and then back again. The plans also called for sliding glass doors in the adjacent dining room and den, and a picture window in the living room. The south-facing over-sized window looked out on a vacant lot which eventually became a lush park, but it was tree-less until many years after we left Albuquerque. There was a bathroom for the kids' weekly bath, and a separate half bath for the master bedroom, and a wood paneled den anchored by a fireplace we never used - the fireplace being a status symbol of sorts. The laundry room was next to the den, and it was only organized and tidy when we left town. I loved the light in this house, and had never lived in a house lit by fluorescent bulbs until we moved to France. We arrived in Paris in August of 1963, and it was raining and I ended up sick - I'm sure we were all sick, but I was in a fever fog and didn't notice anyone else's misery. We stayed in temporary quarters on the base, in one of many well-used trailers, with a quonset hut around the corner that housed a laundromat. My parents searched nearby villages on week-ends for a house that would accommodate our large family, but soon realized that most houses available "on the economy" did not have indoor plumbing. Monsieur Guest's tiny property won over my parents not because of its size, but because of its charming chain-flushed WC - he also spoke English. My mother's high school French was hesitant, and when he switched to English, she looked relieved. She later said he was the only man she would have considered for an affair, but he reminded me of her father with his deep naso-labial folds and wire-rimmed glasses. I remember that kitchen in le Fresne as blue-cold because of the fluorescent light, and dirty because my mother pointed out the grime on the stove and in the corners of the triangular cupboard shelves. She was ashamed that an American family had left the property in such bad shape, but the servant's quarters were old, and I think the other wife simply left it as it had been for the last 150 years. Why not, plus my brothers loved the magazines they found stashed near the coal bin. My mother never found a proper place for her dishes and pots and pans in this cottage, and this was where I saw her shift from an energetic, obedient housewife to the laid-back one that my brothers and sisters remember - she was pregnant and disillusioned and overwhelmed and I saw her cry for the first time in this tiny house, maybe because she was pregnant, maybe because it was not the European adventure she had imagined. Only one WC for 10 bladders, and a separate room with a high-sided, square bathtub that was impossible for a pregnant woman or toddler to safely use. The kitchen sink and counter were lower than the American standard, and there was no dishwasher and very little counter space. The counter top she loved because she was 5'3'', but she missed her American washer and dryer, and handed over baskets of dirty clothes to the washerwoman in the village who took in laundry. Only later did she discover this woman, outside in front of God and everybody, scrubbing our American undies on a washboard while stooped over an old-fashioned wash tub. Eventually she acquired an old-fashioned wringer washer, which was featured in a horrific accident that did not involve loss of limbs, but that's another story for another day in another house.
My mother kept a radio in this tiny French kitchen, and I'm guessing it was left by the previous family because it wouldn't work in the US, or it was my dad's transistor radio. It sat on a shelf high above the stove, and she listened to French conversations and French music whose messages she couldn't understand, but it kept her company while we were in school, the local village school. She missed her friends in Albuquerque and phone calls, and the 360 days of sunshine that New Mexico was known for, and her double oven. This kitchen had high ceilings and a propane fueled stove that left a film on the walls and on the floors, and she tried to ignore the filthy gas range. This is the house we were living in when Kennedy was assassinated and this is the house where I decided that perhaps I could become an artist. France is 7 hours ahead of Texas time, and my dad had already returned from the base by 8:00pm local time on the 22nd. No phone, a TV with poor reception and no Walter Cronkite - we slept through the night not having been notified of the tragedy that had occurred across the Atlantic. When I came home from school that day, a Saturday and a school day in France, it was already dark, and my mother kept saying, "Listen to the radio, what are they saying? They keep saying too-aye, Kennedy too-aye. Too-aye, what does that mean, I think it means killed? What does it mean, why do they keep saying Kennedy too-aye?" I looked at her, I looked at the radio and shrugged my shoulders. "I don't know mom, I've only been in that school for 2 months" and thought, "I haven't learned that word yet; I'm still learning how to conjugate etre and aller." When my dad came home with The Stars and Stripes tucked under his arm, she found her answer on the front page he held out to her as he walked into the house.
"Before you can blame an individual for their choices, you have to make sure they have the same choices as everyone else."
Bix , the fanatic cook.