Four small pages of stationery with my mother’s initials at the top are filled with her distinctive British handwriting on all eight sides. A prolific writer, she gathered these snapshot recollections from years when my parents and then pre-schooler sister lived in post-war France and Germany. God bless her. We think about doing such things so often. Now I’m a real beneficiary because she actually did.
“I decided then that you’d probably grow up to be a tactful, diplomatic person,” she describes of the time when, on her very first airplane flight (from London to Bordeaux, France), my sister, then 4, made polite conversation with the two travelers seated across from her and my mother. My mother describes them as “dressed in the full regalia of those who live in Arab countries.”
Among many vocations, my sister was eventually a staff member for three Congressmen and a U.S. Senator, which afforded numberless opportunities to practice both tact and diplomacy. Our mother had a knack for being prophetic that way.
She recalls “Tu et You,” my parents’ nickname for the rustic French farmhouse where they were billeted as a young couple. “Toilet was directly off — almost still within — the kitchen,” she writes. “The septic tank, it turns out, was directly under the toilet,” as she had occasion to discover when said toilet malfunctioned and the horse-drawn “Vidange Rapide” (“quick drain”) cart came to the rescue. The operator, she records, consumed a sandwich during the repair, all while periodically jiggling the leaky hose he was wielding. His verdict: “Too much tissue.” Apparently none was the preferred quantity.
Each weekday, from the time my sister turned 5, two military police would arrive at the house shortly before dawn to escort her to school via military staff car, a ride of an hour each way. I cannot imagine what this meant for my mother’s peace of mind. It explains a lot about why my sister’s probably one of the most unflappable travelers I know.
On some of those schooldays, my mother and a very-pregnant neighbor, also a military spouse, went to the nearby market town to do laundry. My mother handled the French-speaking, at which she was quite adept, and the neighbor provided the transportation. My mother was tasked with planning their route, which she did very carefully, as the neighbor’s Studebaker had no reverse gear.
On one of those days, Henri the gardener decided to “repair” the coal stove and inadvertently dislodged the stove pipe, which collapsed and blanketed everything in sight, including Henri, in soot. My mother notes that he did not stick around to help clean it up.
On New Year’s Eve at the luxurious Grand Hotel in Bordeaux, the elegant doors to the rooms for “hommes” (men) and “femmes” (women) opened into the same restroom. “And the very fancy chicken entrée still had most of its insides,” my mother notes. As she so often did, she came home afterward and sat on my sister’s bed and shared the evening’s details, including descriptions of the most fashionably dressed women.
Next stop in their tour of duty was Frankfurt, Germany, where most military families had maids, in part because so many postwar Germans needed the work. Ria, the first, asserted her influence with furniture: “Every weekend, your father would rearrange the gigantic German furniture, including piano, and every Monday, Ria would put it all back. ‘Nein, nein — das ist besser’.”
Harriette favored “snail and Crisco sandwiches,” and Olga, who had been a Russian prisoner of war (and suffered who knows what atrocities) hadn’t seen a flush toilet before and thought it a fine device for cleaning vegetables, my mother was horrified to discover one day.
My mother’s dry summaries, rendered with British wit, certainly did too. Yet there’s something that speaks volumes between their terse lines. My father, more often than not, came home to hear about these experiences, while my mother, with a battlefront whose local dialect kept changing, actually lived them.
Humor was obviously a very big part of how she managed that. And while she may have had to dig deep, some days, to find that humor, the effort itself is still a kind of healing balm, even all these years later.
Adapted from Life at First Sight: Finding the Divine in the Details.