—by Jesse Burkhardt
Hedvige was a real Hun of a woman. Yes, a lumbering, bosomy, pink and blond Hun of a woman. My mother’s half sister, Hedvige was definitely a glamour kitten, often wearing a kerchief, Grace Kelly style, over her peroxide hair, sunglasses lazily balanced half way down her nose, cleavage abundantly displayed, an unlit cigarette pasted to her lower lip.
Upon being disgorged by an Air France Boeing 707 at Paris-Orly Airport I was greeted by this half sister of my mother’s—half sister, all Hun. Then, as always, she was in the company of her high-strung mini fox terrier, ironically named Liberté, who spent most of his life at the end of a chain. Apparently, along with Égalité and Fraternité, Liberté was a casualty of the Napoleonic Restoration succeeding the French Revolution, which was, after all, the Enlightenment gone crazy. Anyway Hedvige peppered my face with kisses and drew me deep into her cleavage, smothering me with estrogen, not a bad way to suffocate for a young male experiencing incipient puberty. Aunt Hedvige spoke in the breathy manner of Marilyn Monroe, her French accent and broken English making her sound less childlike and more sophisticated than the actress. I, with my pathetic satchel, and she, with her pathetic fox terrier, wedged ourselves into a taxi and wound our way to the family apartment, luxurious suite in a part of Paris near the Eiffel Tower.
The year of 1969 was a very turbulent one, both personally and for society at large. College campuses were grinding to a collective administrative halt, under a raw, somewhat reckless occupation by an anti-war, ideology-driven student body politic—a zeitgeist inflamed first by the violent pursuit of civil rights and equal rights and justice, and then further inflamed by the violent prosecution of the capitalist fueled war machine, the protesters’ war for peace, as it were. The student body politic was roiling on both sides of the Atlantic. Heads had been bashed at the Democratic convention in 1968. Paris was burning from student unrest. And even the recently assassinated Marin Luther King, often compared to Gandhi for his relentless pacifism, had said sometime after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize to Ralph Abernathy, “Maybe we just have to admit that the day of violence is here, and maybe we have to just give up and let violence take its course. The nation won’t listen to our voice. Maybe it will heed to voice of violence.1”
Mirroring the unrest of these times was unrest within my own family. In a Jungain way the psychosis of the times was manifest in the psychosis of the individual and my father’s demons in particular were raging. His manic depression, what is now called bi-polar disorder, caused him behaviorally to lurch like an unbalanced and overloaded washing machine spinning out of control. More than once I had received the telephone call telling me not to go home because, having had fled the Veterans Administration mental hospital, he was dangerously at large. Other times, upon hearing of one of his many escapes from the VA Hospital, I was directed to remove or hide all the household knives, axes, fire pokers or any other implements that could be used as weapons. Worse yet, he possessed guns, the whereabouts of which nobody knew. Part of his problem was no doubt due his having become a drug-addled guinea pig of the Veterans Administration. The government used him as test dummy to find out how poorly understood anti-psychotic substances interacted with the aching psyche. From time to time he lapsed into such a stupor from these substances it was as if he had some kind of pharmacological lobotomy. When he would come out of it he would manically rebound forcefully in the opposite direction, seemingly more manic during each episode. These experimental drugs seemed to exacerbate rather than ameliorate his condition. It is hard to say whether or not my father’s embrace of self-annihilation was in part motivated by this irresponsibly administered regimen of poorly understood mind-altering drugs.
As my father charged toward his morbid crescendo my mother thought that I, being the eldest of three children, was most cognizant of the situation at hand and that, therefore, I was the most at risk of becoming psychologically traumatized by him. I add (parenthetically) that my mother was the usual recipient of his violence, though occasionally I was too, no doubt partially due to his Oedipal fears. He never forgave me for the fact that my mother loved me more than him, something that was beyond my control, but not an unnatural result of the bond formed between mother and child hormonally by the secretion of oxytocin during and immediately after childbirth.
So I was to be sequestered to another continent, that of my mother’s birth, to spend the summer 1969 in the rustic charm of the Loire Valley. I was soon to discover that I was being transported from one crazy situation to another crazy situation equally intense in its own way. I had abundant empirical evidence of the insanity on my father’s side of the family. I was unaware of the extent to which insanity permeated my mother’s side of the family as well. I wondered how I managed to avoid psychic injury from the threatening twin Damoclean swords of mental illness that hovered over my childhood.
About a week into my summer vacation of 1969 I had packed a meager wardrobe and thirteen books into a pathetic little suitcase. An avid read by the age of thirteen, I knew that, as my favorite source of entertainment, books would provide me some sanctuary from potential cultural alienation and homesickness. I was summarily brought to Boston’s Logan Airport, tearfully kissed my mother and sisters good bye and was promptly herded down the jetway cattle chute and onto the Boeing 707 cattle car, the Air France redeye to Paris.
Hedvige herself, it turns out, was a casualty of mental illness or at least a bout of mental illness, the conflagration of which had now burned itself out. She had once been married to a rising physicist with star quality who ended up defrauding the family of millions for the supposed construction of a laboratory. His larceny not only encompassed the family money stolen but also the last morsel of Hedvige’s connubial optimism, leaving her in a desperately suicidal place. The slash marks on her wrists were obscured by many gold bracelets.
Comfortably ensconced in luxury of the family apartment, apart from the madness of frenetic Parisian traffic, Hedvige had the disarming habit of lounging about the apartment wearing only her bra and panties, sometimes accompanied by stockings and a garter belt. She was even topless much of the time—just what a boy on the cusp of puberty needed. It verged on inappropriate behavior and struck me as being possibly more than a typical European lack of modesty. I rationalized that the taboo of incest was oblique, dilute, since she was, after all, only my mother’s half sister, but she remained, nevertheless, all Hun.
During my stay in Paris my sixteen-year-old cousin Renée-Christine took me to the cinema a few times. One time while taking the elevator up to the apartment I started tickling her. She did not put up much resistance, which surprised me very much because it had the unintended consequence of causing a profuse emanation of urine to run down her stocking-clad legs. She acted like nothing was happening and out of embarrassment for her I followed her cue and pretended that nothing out of the ordinary was happening. It was something I never forgot, something we never discussed over the years. I came later to understand from her brother, Patrick, that she always had a problem with urinary incontinence throughout her life.
After several days in Paris my step-grandmother, who went by the nickname Mutti, German slang for mother, sent for me. Mutti was the mother of my mother’s half-sisters. Mutti was an even bustier version of her daughter Hedvige. Like Hedvige Mutti was also often seen with an unlit cigarette pasted to her bottom lip for hours at a time. She was most devoted to her Airedale, Luba. When she was not in Paris Mutti spent her time in the town of Bléré, a couple hours heading southwest from Paris, in the Loire Valley, next to Amboise where da Vinci spent the last chapter of his life. Mutti had an ample, gracious country house in which she hosted many family friends and occasionally boarded people in its apartments during the summer. She was a very generous person, though she was not ashamed to curse Jews as well as other victims of French colonialism, namely Arabs and Africans. One time when I was with her in Amboise she nearly ran over a Black woman pushing a baby carriage. She yelled at the innocent pedestrian that she should get the hell out of the street and go back to Africa. This was especially ironic as one could easily discern that she had pronounced Negroid features in her face. In a century prior Haitian plantation genes had seeped into her side of the family bloodline.
Mutti had dispatched her gigolo, André, to fetch me in the classic, early 60’s Jaguar XKE that she had generously given to him as stud retainer. André was gaunt, of average height and bore the perfume of mediocre whisky and reeked like an ashtray stuffed with Gauloises stubs. He kept what he had left of his hair shinily slicked back in an attempt to emulate dictatorial machismo, which was accented by the scar on his cheek—surely not a dueling remnant, but, nevertheless, the likely result of pissing off the wrong person in some unsavory bar. His teeth were black as the wooden dentures of Washington. He wore slightly tinted wire rim glasses and always sported jodhpurs stuffed into a pair of shiny black riding boots. He was completely unaware of the ridiculous caricature he painted. He never wanted anyone to forget that he had attended the prestigious military academy of Saint-Cyr, the French equivalent of West Point. That this prattling lush ever completed his training at Saint-Cyr was a matter of suspicion among the more rational members of the greater family.
Many was the time I heard André announce at noon prior to Sunday dinner at Mutti’s that it was now time for “Operation Whisky!”
Appearing in the front hallway of the Paris apartment Hedvige introduced me to Uncle Gigolo, whereupon he embraced me with his Gauloises scented lips, abrading my cheeks with whisky soaked whiskers. The three of us, with Liberté in chains, descended the building and uncomfortably stuffed ourselves into André’s sports car. Folded into the back seat of the Jaguar XKE, a token back seat in name only, I felt as though I had been crammed into one of those sweat boxes punitively used to torture dissidents at the penal colony of Devil’s Island. It was not until we were on a highway that I realized we were in for a two and a half hour white-knuckle ride to the Loire Valley. Predictably, in addition to his self image as an accomplished equestrian, part of André’s macho obsessed persona included imagining himself to be an accomplished racecar driver. What he lacked in agility he made up for with speed and poor judgment. Years later this was evidenced by a fantastic crash he caused resulting in the death of one person and the amputation of one of his own legs. This would, inevitably, add to his repertoire of dubious war stories. Once out of Paris and on the open road André suggested that we may “ring our belts.” My attempt to apprise him of the correct idiom was futile.
“Perhaps you are confusing the phrase ‘ring your bell’ with the phrase ‘fasten your seatbelt’—you could even say ‘rig your belt,’” I gently suggested. He would not let himself be corrected. The inability for him to admit an error seemed to be a corollary to his other pathological delusions.
As we left the highway and made our way onto country roads we death-defyingly whizzed by many vineyards in our approached to Mutti’s walled-in estate. A honk of the horn and the front gate swung open. I felt like we were riding over a moat on a drawbridge. “Unringing our belts,” we exploded out of the Jaguar like a three-headed jack-in-the-box. The nervous fox terrier, Liberté, released a prodigious amount of urine for such a small dog in the dangerous proximity of my feet. Mutti received us in a cooking apron spouting high-pitched, staccato endearments as she transferred much of her makeup to my face, enveloping me with her perfumed aura, again my face disappeared into the cleavage of a Hun. We followed her into the house, directly into the salon. In the midst of dog-barking confusion barely a moment elapsed before we were regaled with a profusion of cookies, savories, sparkling and frothy Loire Valley wine and coke for the children. Meanwhile “Operation Whisky” was precisely executed by André. And although the atmosphere whirred with the conviviality of a Dickensian punch party, there was also the unmistakably pungent odor of tension hanging in the air, as if to precede the strike of lightening. My half aunt, Nicole, who was to be my guardian for that summer, was yet to arrive. She lived at the almost defunct family estate of Monthou, a large manse estate on a large tract of land surrounded by forests, vineyards and orchards for the manufacture of kirsch and other agricultural products. It was once inhabited by my mother’s father and mother. There was also a farm attached to it, the only presently functioning portion of the estate. It was in the farmhouse which my aunt Nicole lived. She was living the life of a farmerette, playing the role with much more sincerity than Marie Antoinette at her mock rustic installation of Le Petit Trianon near Versailles.
Like Hedvige, Nicole was another busty, lumbering Hun, though a brunette rather than a peroxide blond as both Hedvige and Mutti were. Built like a Michelangelo sibyl with the hands and arms of a blacksmith, Nicole was the tallest of three sisters—the third was Micheline, whose hair was also brunette. Also, Nicole did not smoke at all and only drank wine with meals. Not a touch of glamour, she always wore button-down shirts, not blouses, denim pants tucked into farmer’s boots. She was a powerful woman who felt more at ease with animals than humans. In that sense her self-styled role as a farmerette was appropriate. She was an accomplished equestrian. She once won a jumping competition in England and was awarded a longhaired dachshund by the queen of England and named the little beast Nelson in an appreciative tilt of her riding hat to English queen. At the estate farm attached to Monthou she husbanded seven horses, nine dogs, twenty-five chickens, twenty-five rabbits, fifty goats and two children—one born in wedlock and one out of wedlock. Attention to her creatures had a definite hierarchy: horses first, dogs second and her children third. She was not unjust, but was subject to a furious temper at times. She had formerly been married to André, her mother’s gigolo. Hence the mounting air of imminent tension building in Mutti’s salon of confusion the afternoon of my arrival to Bléré.
Nicole was a sucker for all things equestrian, especially an older man claiming to have an equestrian background. A man in uniform, a graduate from Saint-Cyr, irresistible. Very convenient for André, who could smell family money the instant of their first meeting. It was love of money at first sight. He quickly consummated his plan and the woman, impregnating her and breaching the family treasury. The transaction was effected by the delivery of their only child together, Beatrice, the older of her two children.
Needless to say the transparent lack of romantic sincerity did not provide sufficient emotional fuel to feed the conjugal flame. Before Beatrice was one year old André informed Nicole that she could buy her freedom with a bit of financial incentive provided by her mother’s fortune. Meetings between André, Nicole and Mutti ensued, meetings which gore the uncomfortable air of family counseling. Boycotted by Nicole, these meetings would soon become less formal—convivial, flirtatious in fact. A new courtship emerged, a courtship, with a bigger purse, to an older woman, an older woman with no romantic prospects, by a man in uniform, irresistible. A Jaguar XKE was tendered an enlistment bonus.
A disconsolate Nicole was driven into the arms, and bed, of another equestrian, resulting not in marriage, but an out-of-wedlock little brother for Beatrice, née Richard.
In spite of her being horribly dependent on Mutti, Nicole sincerely loved her mother very much. So strong was her love for her mother that, in spite of her resentment toward André and the implied betrayal of her mother, she nevertheless indulged her mother in her folly. She wanted her acceptance, wanted to keep coming to the gracious Sunday afternoon diners at Bléré. Nicole agreed to be civilized in André’s company, a rather monumental feat of continence considering the volatile mix of both her hard feelings and notorious temper. Nevertheless, her monumental continence was not able to mask the extreme, palpable tension whenever they were in the same room. Such was the atmosphere of tension building in Mutti’s salon the afternoon of my arrival at Bléré. Nicole was coming to fetch me back to her farm.
Dog-confusion came to a momentary halt, yelps arrested mid-syllable as ears perked up like antennae. Humans heard nothing, but the dogs knew that a rider of the Apocalypse was approaching the property. André and Mutti exchanged nervous glances while Hedvige smirked like a mischievous child. The high pitch whirr of Nicole’s Peugeot wagon burst through the property gate like tenor thunder. Stilled dogs started yelping and pirouetting in unison. I heard the thud of a car door slam and spied through a gauzy curtain what appeared to be a masculine figure marching to the house with a dog and two children in tow. Excepting the dogs, the room was silent. I knew from my own mother that Nicole could be a “tough number,” but at that time I was unaware of the precarious dynamic between her, her mother and her ex-husband, Uncle Gigolo. An inverted Oedipal construct: was the husband now the father?
Nicole stomped through the doorway into the salon wearing a cowboy trench coat, her jeans stuffed into mud splattered Wellington boots, her startling English bulldog, Igor, slobberingly twitching at her side. Dog-confusion fortified. Igor seemed to be an appropriate name for a mottled beast with the face of a gargoyle, not yelping but brutally grunting, tremendous tremulous ropes of saliva dancing off the primitive muzzle like raw egg white. Nicole bent over me, embraced and deposited two sloppy kisses on either of my cheeks thundering, “Hello, Nephew,” as she patted my head like a dog.
Half cousins Beatrice and Richard ran to Mutti and André, hugging their thighs, buffering them from Nicole’s toxic animosity. “Give Coca Cola, Mutti.” They were demonstrative. André was always quick to present himself into the role of interested and loving father to Nicole’s children. Legitimizing the illegitimate, Richard was brought up to think that he was Beatrice’s full brother. Therefore, André was deputized as his father. Richard was a very tough five year old. He had to be in order to compete for maternal attentions that served seven horses and nine dogs before himself. He never cried when he hurt himself in the way that would have raised blood-curdling shrieks from most children. He merely would whisper the word “ouch.” Beatrice, on the other hand, bawled inconsolably, as when for example Mutti’s Airedale, Luba, caused her to spill Coke onto her dress.
Nicole took a lap around the room kissing hello to various extended family members and house guests. She kissed her mother warmly on both cheeks and cast a glance at André betraying more than the hint of instability in her eyes. A blood vessel on her forehead throbbed tellingly and her nostrils flared as she exhaled like a bull ready to charge a matador. She was in no mood to humor her ex-husband gigolo, quite literally a real motherfucker. Rather than risk an outburst she rapidly turned away from him—out of sight and a little out of her mind.
This air of tense conviviality went on for close to half an hour. Then abruptly Nicole looked at her children and commanded, “Quickly, to the toilet, make your little pee. Quickly now, hop like bunnies. We have to go.” Beatrice whined about wanting more cake and Coke and Nicole gave her that mad bull look and Beatrice nearly peed in her panties right there in the salon. Nicole confabulated some tale about an emerging animal husbandry emergency to excuse ourselves from Mutti’s hospitality after such a short visit.
When her children returned from the toilet with one hand she again patted me on the head like a dog, pointing to my pathetic suitcase with her other hand, and said, “Nephew, come, we must go now.” I quickly kissed Hedvige and Mutti and André, grabbed my suitcase and bolted the room like a thief.
Nicole pitched my valise over the back seat of her Peugeot wagon one-handed like it was a sweater. Igor, Beatrice and Richard followed into the back seat. I strapped into the front passenger seat as we were already speeding through a vineyard. Her ill contained rage vented through her white-knuckled steering grip. We recklessly careened down country roads. What was it with these people and their driving? After an uncomfortable silence she finally spouted, “Damned nonsense, damned nonsense,” swearing in English for my benefit. What she really meant was “Motherfucking asshole!” It rained and the car smelled like a wet dog.
At the time my French was as remedial as Nicole’s English. During the somewhat terrifying ride we were able to do little more than exchange pleasantries in pidgin. The full realization that I was now in a language immersion situation suddenly sank in. During the week that followed I experienced headaches as I tried to absorb French as rapidly as possible. The constant assimilation of vocabulary, constructions and idioms was both mentally and physically exhausting, but I refused to be a tourist in my own family.
We rolled through the main arch in the wall of the family estate of Monthou. The farm part of the estate was attached immediately within, whereas the manse was further into the grounds with beautiful gardens and lawns intervening. The farm consisted of a house with stables attached which abutted a large yard surrounded by various animal enclosures. Agricultural aspects of the farm were uncontiguously dispersed throughout the estate in the form of orchards, vineyards, fields of hay, corn and sugar beets. Saluted with much dog-barking we disembarked the car. Nicole, with Igor’s leash in one hand, carried Richard like a bag of groceries. Beatrice opened the door to the living room and I followed her inside. We were thronged by dogs. Often Nicole would board other people’s dogs at her farm, as she would take in Hedvige’s nervous fox terrier, Liberté, intermittently for much of the summer, adding to her canine population. I could smell an abrupt change of lifestyle overtaking me, the smell of the kennel, the stables and the barnyard.
After nominally attending to her dogs Nicole gave me a brief tour of the house, followed by a more detailed one of the barnyard itself. She informed me that I would be spending that night on the living room couch while a “room” would be prepared for me.
Once it became dark Nicole turned on a grainy black and white television and disappeared. About ten minutes later she reappeared, dispensing a tray full of ham and butter baguette sandwiches and a gas charged seltzer canister with a bottle of cassis syrup. She poured a little of the cassis into each of four glasses and topped them off generously with carbonated water. As I watched a French dubbed version of the Rifleman I ate two of the sandwiches and contemplated the berry fruit taste of the carbonated cassis water. After some incomprehensible discussion Nicole bedded down her children. I slipped one of my thirteen books out of my valise, a book of Iraquois Indian tales. Nicole returned with a pillow and some blankets. She looked at me with raised eyebrows.
“You read?” she expressed disapprovingly.
“Of course, doesn’t everybody?”
“Well, don’t read too much,” she pidgined. “It’s bad for the eyes. Reading is for old people.” To her youth was only about physical culture. Reading was for dotage.
Nicole sloppily improvised a bed of dubious cleanliness for me on the couch, which typically accommodated a dog or two once the lights went out. I read for a bit and the soporific embrace Morpheus descended upon me quickly. A few growlings and yelpings punctuated the fabric my dream-laden sleep. As the night progressed I would vie with her dogs for space on the couch. I was to awake the next morning with a rash of flea bites. Around 4:30 AM the cocks were crowing. By 5:30 there was sustained human activity both in the house and the barnyard. There was no going back to sleep. I needed to piss.
In the kitchen I was given café-au-lait, buttered baguette with plum preserves made from the family orchards and some cheese. After I had my fill Nicole took me out into the barnyard and showed me how to water and feed the animals. This was followed by a demonstration of how to groom a horse. Then she introduced my to Jacquie, a twenty-something, muscle bound, barely literate live-in farm hand of peasant stock who usually disappeared on weekends to hunt for female pelt. I failed to realize at the time just how happy Jacquie was to see me. He would soon deputize me into performing his most boring tasks. A bit later I also met Jeanine, whose tasks were mostly house oriented: cleaning, cooking, laundry and occasional nannying. She had a sun-chiseled face, jet-black hair graying around the edges, missing a few front teeth. She was also an illiterate peasant. She came to work in the morning on an old battle-taxi of a bicycle, which I was allowed to ride from time to time, only to run an errand, but never for pleasure.
A bit later on that first morning of mine at Monthou a school transport came to fetch Beatrice, after which Nicole and Jacquie set about to preparing my “room,” which, in fact, was actually a stable. I had my own apartment in a block of apartments for horses. Abundantly laden with horse-musk, at least I had a sink in my “room” and I did not have to share my immediate space with some horse or my bed with a pack of dogs.
Living among horses, I learned much about them that summer. My mother had grown up riding horses and I had ridden with her on several occasions. I was not particularly afraid of horses, but did have trouble asserting authority over them. (I was not about employ the cowboy method of making “friends” with your horse, which means “to treat her like your woman,” which means massaging the horse’s pussy.) Nicole imparted to me the importance of using a commanding voice, keeping a tight grip on the bridle and not being afraid of putting one’s weight into pushing the beast forcefully when grooming it, cleaning its hooves, or otherwise maneuvering it. Most of the time I had no problem. The exception was a stallion named Porthos, as in the eponymous character from the Three Musketeers. The beast was enormous, very powerful and prone to disobedience. Even the muscle-bound farmhand Jacquie could not control him. Only Nicole knew how to exert total influence over Porthos. Once she taught me how to ride him bareback. I could not fit my legs around his massive, pot-bellied ribcage and had to clinging to his mane I pinched my knees around the shoulder hump behind his neck. Within an exhausting half hour I noticed that the horse was sweating through my pants.
“I think Porthos is tired,” I gasped pantingly to Nicole.
“I think Jesse is tired,” she said back to me with a chuckle. She let me dismount.
“Auntie, how do you control Porthos so easily?”
“I become the horse and the horse cannot disobey himself.”
I pondered her Zen-like horse sense. She knew the mind of the horse so well, always anticipating the horse’s next move and always deployed a disciplinary countermeasure in advance. This seemed to be a mode of thinking occurring beneath the conscious and somewhat rational top layer of human thought, rising only to that dim layer of intuition lying beneath the layers of language, abstraction and social protocols, that subdermal flesh of the mind where communication is pheremonal, purely emotional. Unlike her sisters, Nicole was far from intellectual, but one had to admire her horse sense, her dog sense, her kid sense, so effortlessly shedding off human mental convention and going purely animal.
Naturally I leaned about other barnyard animals that summer: the comedy of Gallus domesticus, the chicken; the rag-doll docility of rabbits, most of which were raised for laboratory testing; and the frustrating confusion of goat herding. In spite of the fact that goats always did the opposite of what you were trying to get them to do, goat herding was my favorite chore. One had to be a bit careful that they did not strip grape leaves from the vineyards abutting their pastures. They enthusiastically preferred grape leaves to grass. Goat herding was daydreaming. Goat herding was an escape into one’s imagination, where the mind projected vignettes onto the shapes of clouds and drifted into rustic idylls.
Typically I had to water and feed all the animals of the farm before I was allowed to have breakfast. I was thankfully spared the task of feeding the dogs. Once when I was feeding the rabbits Igor plucked one out of its cage before I could intervene. I found it curious that Nicole always gave the dogs human food, boiled noodles and vegetables, stale bread and protein formulas. She seemed to be the only one who could impose a modicum of order over their unruly behavior when it was time for the canine mess.
Then after my breakfast of café-au-lait and heavily buttered and jammed baguette slices, I would groom the horses, a task which usually took me until lunchtime. After lunch I would have an hour or so, my Gallic siesta, during which I would usually read books or write letters. The afternoon chores were less structured: planting, pruning, watering plots of vegetables and other gardens or vegetable plots, exercising the horses and, of course, my favorite, goat herding. Despite my heavy workload I managed to read thirteen books that summer.
Sunday afternoons were always spent leisurely at Mutti’s.
One particularly horrifying aberration to the routine happened while I was grooming the horses. Porthos pushed unexpectedly past me and slipped out of his stall when I came to groom him. He ran several laps around the barnyard wildly braying. Unknown to me, one of the mares, whose offspring stallion was in the stall adjacent to her, was in heat. Porthos snapped the chain on the mare’s stall and proceeded to ravish her violently in its limited confines. As Porthos tried to accomplish his mission, the mare’s son went wild, bucking the wall separating himself from her. Several times I went into this maelstrom trying to get hold of Porthos’ bridal so as to lead him out of the mare’s stall. Very dangerous—not a task for a thirteen-year-old boy. The muscle-bound Jacquie grabbed me and extracted me out of the stable, perhaps saving me from great injury or worse. My heart pounding so hard that I thought it blow through my ribcage like a grenade. In spite of his strength Jacquie was powerless too. He yelled for me to fetch Nicole. I collided with her in the house. Before I could even open my mouth she bolted into the stable with Jacquie. The two of them were able to extricate and isolate Porthos. The mare in heat suffered a large divot flesh knocked from her foreleg near he knee, not an insignificant wound. Nicole’s anger flared and quickly settled into resignation. I was briefly castigated, but forgiven for being ignorant of the fact that one of the mares was in heat and that it was basically her oversight for not making me aware of the precautions to take in such cases. The incident was never brought up again.
André would appear randomly on certain afternoons. His appearances were always calculated to foster the image of his being an involved and loving father to Beatrice and Richard. His visits were no doubt encouraged by Mutti, who was wise not to take part in these visits herself. The presence of Mutti always seemed to escalate the volatility of the vehemence Nicole had for André. I was, in fact, surprised that I never saw any scenes between the two them when he came to the farm on his own. He brought gifts for the kids. Sometimes his visits were simply to fetch the kids to Mutti’s place for a day or two once school was out for Beatrice. I always dreaded being kissed by him, but it was customarily unavoidable. His face was like sandpaper, his breath a whisky-sodden ashtray.
One time after one of these sporadic visits, Richard, wise beyond his five years of age, queried me, “Do you know why my father is always tired?”
To humor him I returned, “Is it because he gets up early and works so much? Is that the reason?”
“No, it is because he drinks too much and stays up late playing cards.”
Truth flowing from the mouth of this babe astonished me. Richard was a bright boy, brighter than his sister Beatrice, and not actually being a child of André himself, perhaps his intelligence was encouraged by the feral genetic stock associated with his illegitimate lineage.
In mid July, the midpoint of the summer, André made one of his visits to the farm. He had been deputized to deliver some news to me. It was a bit of news that my mother had conveyed to Mutti by telephone. André no doubt relished this moment since the standard military tradition associated with this task enhanced his self-image as an officer. Nicole directed me to the estate courtyard where the boot and jodhpur-clad André, as always a true caricature of himself, was standing beside his Jaguar. He insisted speaking with me in his broken English, though by this time my French well exceeded his pidgin. By the gravity of his behavior I knew exactly the nature of the news he was to deliver to me—my father’s death by suicide. My father had attempted several suicides in the past, almost succeeding on at least one occasion. It was news I half-expected to receive during the course of the summer anyway, and though saddened I was not shocked by this eventuation. I preferred not betray myself by second-guessing André, but rather wanted to let him muddle his way through breaking the news to me. I nodded expressionlessly as he handed me a letter, which I noticed to be returned to sender (me) from the VA Hospital in Northampton, Massachusetts, my father‘s last residence. The missive happened to be the last letter I had written to my father. André was under the foolish misapprehension that this was my father’s last letter to me. André uttered, “Your father is dead. Today you are a man.” He kissed me with the pomp of military ceremony. Then, thinking he was somehow protecting me, he grabbed the letter, which he had just handed to me, out my hands—a letter, the contents of which, by the way, I was already quite aware, having written the same a couple of weeks prior—and tore it into little pieces stuffing them into his pocket. “It is better not to know some things,” he fumbled. Had I not already been marinating in the somberness of this news, I would have laughed in his face for the cumbersome way he botched his delivery. The melodramatic theater of André’s “field promotion” was wholly inappropriate.
I was given the afternoon off and wandered into the estate woods for a catharsis. The other shoe had finally dropped. I spent the afternoon contemplatively walking, alternatingly feeling relief and sadness. I was frustrated that I would not be able to attend his funeral. For the next several days I found everyone’s deferential behavior toward me to be more awkward rather than soothing.
It was not long after this time that I found myself being awoken in the middle of the night to watch the televised broadcast of man’s first steps onto the moon’s surface. It was odd how this event crept up on me, almost by surprise. Earlier in my youth I never missed a Project Gemini launch or landing, I had been a young scholar on the US space program. I was curiously indifferent to this momentous event. I wondered if this indifference presaged some kind of mental maturity into young adulthood.
As the summer progressed I found myself forming ideas in French, counting to myself in French and even dreaming in French, no longer merely translating my thoughts into French. Another transformation was physical rather than mental. I became rather strong for my age due to the demands of farm labors. This change had not dawned on me until the end of the summer when we were bringing in the hay, whereupon I realized that I was able to toss a fifty pound bale of wet hay from the end of a pitchfork onto the top of a hay wain as easily as catapulting a lacrosse ball. And I no longer was squeamish about germs, quite the opposite. I was inured to all manner of animal scents, so much so that I little noticed the stench of goat musk which so permeated my wardrobe that my mother almost vomited upon hugging me upon my return to Boston’s Logan Airport. Every stitch was disposed of. I must have carried that odor to Mutti’s Sunday dinners as well, but then again the French embrace such feral odors.
Gracious was the last Sunday that I would sup with my French relatives. Monday following I was to be ferried back to Paris with Hedvige by André so that I could catch my flight back to America. It was a beautiful late August day, hot but breezy, the air laden with the perfume of ripening vineyards. Nicole’s children were gamboling in the front yard while I had the great pleasure to converse with my cousin Patrick, the son of my mother’s full-, not half-brother. Patrick, half a generation my senior, the brother of Renée-Christine. He was gentle and kindly disposed, and he lacked the lunacy sporadically displayed by many of the other relatives on my mother’s side of the family.
“Patrick, Operation Whisky,” hissed André, loathe to be seen as the only one drinking at noon, dropping a scotch on the rocks into Patrick’s hand.
Patrick nodded to André in thanks and then raised one eyebrow at me noting André’s diminishing noontime sobriety. Frightened that I might burst out laughing inappropriately, I nodded knowingly back to him with a half-smile.
As one o’clock approached we were all summoned to the dining room. As it was my departing dinner, Mutti’s level of cooksmanship was higher than usual. My anticipation was accordingly higher too. A rich and creamy vicheyssoises, thankfully chilled, was the first course dispensed around the table. Shortly thereafter a second course was served around the table, individual open-faced mushroom tartlets. Refined pastry, delicious.
While savoring my savory pastry I was surprised to hear André loutishly bellow out, “What is this? Dog shit in a pie shell!” I was incredulous.
“This is dog shit! Which of your dogs shat on my tartlet? Was it Luba?” he carried on outrageously, demonstrably pointing at the offending pastry in disgust. The whole room went silent, slack-jawed.
Now that he had the attention of the entire room, he let out another ridiculous indignation, “I am the patron of this household! And I will not be served dog shit!”
Wrong on two counts.
After the shock of his outburst wore off the ridiculousness of it settled in. After all, not only was this sot rejecting a fine bit of gastronomy, but he, a gigolo twice over, was claiming to be the financial protector of the family. It was all I could do to keep from laughing at his ridiculous, delusional behavior. I expected cousin Patrick to diplomatically intervene, but before that was to happen Nicole provided her own challenge to André. In her volcanic rage she enveloped his delicate neck with her blacksmith’s hands, a death grip. Several dogs started barking in all the excitement. Nicole’s gargoyle, the brutish bulldog Igor, was particularly threatening, ready to wrap his primitive mandibles around any part of him. Patrick was the only person in the room who could referee the mêlée. He quickly grabbed Nicole from behind, pinning both of her arms to her side.
Loosening his collar André desperately gasped for air, his bloodshot eyes bulging wildly. Being the gentleman that he was, André seized his only opportunity to retaliate, walloping Nicole in the face. Thankfully he was half the man that she was. All of the strength his puny, drunken form could muster was not overly damaging, but nevertheless, she would suffer a black eye. Patrick felt both sorry and embarrassed that he had facilitated this most unchivalrous act. André, out of abject fear of both Nicole and Igor, ran out of the house and locked himself in his Jaguar. Soon he was sleeping off a nap.
After a reasonable delay, the meal resumed without André. In attempt to siphon off an excess of adrenaline Nicole consumed much more wine that she otherwise would have. She was uncharacteristically silent throughout. The pièce de résistance eventually appeared, a Beef Wellington, another savory pastry, the likes of which I have never had since. There were many awkward silences as we ate our way to the mousse au chocolat. Not terribly long after the cheese course I embraced a fatigued Nicole and her children. As I walked with them to their car Igor barked fervidly at the sight of André passed out in the Jaguar.
The next morning, following a delightful breakfast and more embraces, Hedvige, Liberté and I screwed ourselves into the Jaguar for our ride to Paris. André’s eyes were so bloodshot that I thought I saw tears of blood streaming down his jaundiced cheeks. It was the first time I had ever known him to drive like a human being rather than an aspiring racecar driver.
Upon our arrival to the family apartment in Paris André gave me one of his signature double sandpaper ashtray embraces, military style. Within minutes of his departure Hedvige was prancing around the apartment in her bra and panties. Liberté, chained to the kitchen table, trembled so nervously that I though his hind legs would snap. I trembled nervously too, but for a different reason.
For the first time in thirteen weeks I felt homesick.
1. Mark Kurlansky, 1968, Random House, London 2004, p. 115.