Bilinguals Have a Nimbler Mind. Really?

My unexpected summer trip to France was marked by infinite sadness. The sudden loss of my father – he didn’t show any sign of illness – is brutal, and I often wake up thinking that I have dreamed everything.

In these moments I am aware that all of my thoughts rush to my mind in French. Although much less frequently than when I was new in the States, the expression of my deepest emotions tends to come to me in French.

As soon as my children were old enough to realize that, unless most of their friends, we spoke two languages at home, they kept asking me if I thought in French or in English and if I translated in my head before I said something in English.

As for me, I knew that English was their real first language when they glared at me with big round eyes the day I told them that depending of my dreams I dreamed in either language.

Years later, after a longer stay in France, my oldest daughter bragged that she had also dreamed in French while staying at her grandparents’.  Her siblings looked up at her and would try hard to also dream in French when they visited.

Switching from French to English is my way of life, and I have regularly written about the benefits and challenges that offer such a life.

A great deal of my memoir  – still reviewed by an editor as I write – tells of this linguistic adventure. I know that I spend more time than a native speaker to write a good sentence. But I also enjoy the constant flip-flopping of my mind. Year after year, I know that I become a better bilingual, if such thing exists.

Until I became fluent in English, only a French poem could bring tears to my eyes. Now a beautifully crafted sentence in English has the exact same effect.

My four children equally loved Le Petit Prince, which I never read in English. My youngest daughter considers the book one of her very favorite. Last year, as we were reading it together, I noticed how emotionally she responded at the sound of some words and sentences. None of my children masters French like French natives. But the way they react today at the reading of the books I shared with them when they were younger is the proof that the acquisition of languages should be done as early as possible.

Accidentally, I found an article on the subject in the last Time magazine. Interestingly Le Petit Prince was also cited.

When I mentioned the article to my husband he said in a casual yet slightly awkward tone of voice, “Um, talking of being bilingual, I think you’ve misspelled a word in your last post in French.”

I felt myself blushing. After all, I’m the one who got a degree in French studies. Not my husband.

Unfortunately he was right.

Actually I had made three mistakes in a very short post. Embarrassing.

But I have two valid excuses:

1-     I wrote about the recent death of JJ Cale, a musician I adored when I was a student. So I was emotional.

2-     The article said that bilingualism starts at birth. I was much older when I moved to the States.

 

Oh the article also said that regardless of age bilinguals have a nimbler mind.

Really?

But I still like that fact.

Merci Monsieur JJ Cale

La mort de JJ Cale c’est ma jeunesse endiablée etshades mélancolique qui se rappelle à ma mémoire. J’ai gardé de mes années d’université leur gout, parfum et son si particuliers. Les disques passés et repassés en préparant un exam ou avec les copains et copines ont laissé des traces plus profondément gravées que les sillons des 33 tours de cette époque.

JJ Cale pour moi c’est l’album Shades, un des tous premiers disques que je me suis offert aux puces de Clignancourt en 1981. Je sais, ça fait un peu ringard et sentimental, mais j’ai toujours ce 33 tours que je passe chez moi lorsque la pluie de mes hivers californiens me rappellent mes après midis de cafard mais aussi de rêve d’étudiante caennaise. Bien avant que l’Amérique n’entre dans ma vie.

Merci, Monsieur JJ Cale, pour tous ces souvenirs que vous laissez derrière vous.

The Priceless Perks of a Children’s Bookstore

I like bookstores as much as I like libraries. And children’s bookstores even more. If paradise exists I want it to have a children’s bookstore.

In the US, too few are still in business. All owe their success to a good location in a supportive community but more often to the owner’s tireless hard work. In my opinion, few businesses bring more humanity to a street than a bookstore.

Yesterday afternoon, I visited The Children’s Cellar in Waterville. Waterville is home to Colby College, one of the three liberal art colleges of Maine. Waterville is also a typical American small town where residents work hard at maintaining a vibrant downtown.

It had rained all day long, and the bookstore was quiet when I entered. Two customers were browsing through the packed aisles. The wooden floor creaked just right under my pair of flats and the smell of paper made my heart beat faster.

I spotted the latest Sarah Dessen and chose it for my daughter –  a die-hard fan since the ripe age of ten years old. I saw Rick Riordan‘s books and remembered with nostalgia the time where my son read them faster than the prolific author could write them. There was a shelf dedicated to Maine authors and books about Maine. And countless picture books, lovingly arranged so young kids could dream upon them.

There was a photograph of a woman with Neil Gaiman. And it was signed by the author. The woman on the picture stood behind the counter. She could only be the owner. My heart beat even faster.

I approached her and asked if she had the latest Tommy Greenwald. I had bumped into the writer at a small local festival, but he had sold every single copy of his books. Don’t you wish it happened to you, too? I wanted his recent book because a Maine camp that my kids attended inspired the story.

“I ordered more copies,” the book owner told me.

And from there we started a lively conversation about books and authors and bookshops and Maine. She knew the owner of Hicklebee’s, one of the few children’s bookstores in California. Yes, she had met Neil Gaiman. And yes, I could leave a copy of my novel Trapped in Paris.

 

There is a war between Amazon and the traditional publishing world. There is truce between independently and traditionally published authors.

I like to think of peace between writers and booksellers.

On my way back home I passed a large Barnes and Noble. Since Borders has closed, its former rival B&N is trying hard to position itself as a ‘good guy.’ But I remember the times when small bookshops also closed when Barnes and Noble arrived in town.

The rain was now only a drizzle, yet my husband suggested buying a movie for a cozy night at the cabin. We agreed on a couple of French and American movies. But I didn’t go to the book section.

For some reason the same books stuck in their big business-looking displays didn’t strike me as inviting as their twins waiting for me on a personalized table in a crammed bookstore.

Priceless.

Bibliothèque de Plage

I’ve written more than once about librairies and how I love them and how important they are in my life, regardless of their location.

A few weeks ago, I had lunch with my family in Courseulles-sur-Mer, between Caen and Bayeux, also known as Juno Beach.

IMG_0083

It is a beach where I took long walks when I was a student at the university in Caen. That day, although the weather couldn’t have been more perfect, I only strolled along the boardwalk, leaving the sandy beach to the first tourists of the season.

When I asked my sister about a small wooden structure that stood on the beach, she told me that it was a bibliothèque de plage.

“It works like a library,” she explained. “You pick a book you like and return it when you leave the beach.”

“What if someone doesn’t return the book?” my daughter asked.

“You don’t need a library card but you leave a deposit,” my sister said. “It matches the cost of the book. You get your money back when you return the book.”

Today I read about another bibliothèque de plagelocated in Istres, a town located in the south of France, less than an hour from Marseille.

I find these beach libraries very cool and wish that my favorite beaches in the US offered the same service. But it looks like a French idea.

Anyway, it is raining in Maine and a brick and mortar library sounds more appealing.

At least for today.

How a New Story Takes Roots

Circumstances don’t determine what kind of person we become. Yet events shape our lives and some, more than others, have the power to make us switch gears.

The recent death of my father is one of these events.

In the days that followed, what moved me the most was how my father left this earth in such a rush.

He had leaned his rake, shovel and a variety of gardening tools against a tree trunk but left the pump of the small well he uses to water his vegetables unfixed. He had planted small stakes near the radishes, peas, and green beans, but a whole section of the garden was yet to be plowed.

The lawn had been mowed, but he had started a new compost pile underneath a magnificent acacia bush instead of discarding the grass cuts and twigs into the original compost in the back of the garden. Was he just tired on Saturday and had decided to delay his work until Monday?

His weekend newspaper was spread open near his favorite chair, but he had slid his reading glasses in their case.

When I searched for a fleece on a cool morning in the hallway closet, my hand met the soft fabric of a light spring jacket. Your father had just bought it, said my mother, and with tears welling in her eyes she added that he only wore it once. His wallet was still tucked in the inside pocket. My heart caught in my throat when I saw his passport. He didn’t have one before I moved to the States. In a glance I understood that he had not only renewed it but also kept it within reach.

This is merely detail to anyone. But to me these ordinary facts tell of a quiet yet purposeful life suddenly interrupted.

And they triggered some serious thinking on my part.

Do I have a purpose? What kind of details will I leave behind me if I left so abruptly?

Although I started the summer with one specific writing goal in mind, I will return home early August with more work unfinished than I had in June.

I wanted to finish the draft of a new YA novel. The beginning is satisfying and my writing group has been encouraging and supporting. They like the main character and the premise of the story. It was up to me to move on.

And I have not added a word to the story.

It only took four days for me to lose track of my goal.

Four days are nothing. And I should have been able to return to this manuscript.

But these four days spent near my father, as cruelly short as they have been, have profoundly affected me.

Not only as a daughter but also as a writer.

As I spoke to my father, although unresponsive, to my mother, my sister, my uncles, aunts, and cousins, I renewed affection for this large extended family and this land where I belong despite the physical absence.

I can be the American, but I still speak the common language of my French childhood. I can easily drive through California and New England, but my footsteps effortlessly retrieve the way to my high school.

Being in Normandy, talking about my father and remembering the stories that he left behind – all of them funny since his talent, and I think his purpose, was to make us laugh – fulfilled me despite my sadness.

A strong desire to write another kind of story took root inside me.

I have neither a chapter outline nor a title.

I don’t know how it will fit within my critique group since only one member writes for adults.

But I already started.

Last night I saw one of the two loons and the baby chick gliding across the lake.

The baby was not riding the back of his parent anymore but swimming alongside.

On his own.

But not alone.

 

One Scene at a Time

I should have known that a main character would team up with a partner. I also should have suspected that a good protagonist could only make a strong come back.

Yesterday afternoon my morning loon reappeared with baby and partner in tow.

I jumped to my feet, grabbed my binoculars, meanwhile asking everyone around for a camera or at least a phone.

“They are way too far!” my daughter said. She was lazily stretching on the bench in the gazebo, a glass of lemonade in one hand, a book opened on her lap.

“Totally agree,” her friend said. Same position on the same bench in the same gazebo.

“A picture won’t work,” my husband said. He had decided to spend the warm afternoon under the screened porch. I must say that he deserved the break after his early morning airport runs.

“I got it,” I said.

The binoculars were great to observe the loons, but based on my morning encounter I knew they could disappear without any warning.

On the other side I considered the possibility for the loons to enjoy the attention. In fact many people besides me stood on their docks, boarded their canoes and kayaks in hope to better capture the lovely scene.

How to describe, I thought with a sigh, such a perfect setting?

How to plot the gorgeous loons/characters’ next move?

The three birds, like stars oblivious to the rest of the world, glided with uncommon grace across the smooth glossy surface of the lake. The baby rode on one of the parents’ back. Since both male and female loon wear identical plumage it is impossible to distinguish them. The childless loon either swam ahead or behind, no doubt checking for the safety of the surroundings.

By then a couple of canoes had managed to approach the trio. The loons, in the manner of true protagonists, were living their own lives, unaware of the brewing trouble or deliberately ignoring it.

I, on the other hand, was getting impatient by the second. I wanted a picture! But could I trust the loons to stay while I would get my phone?

Just then a motorboat zoomed by. To the credit of the driver he had no idea that two loons had picked the exact center of the lake for an afternoon stroll with their youngster.

The water rippled behind the boat, and the loons responded to the change with their thrilling calls. The baby crouched closer to his parent’s body. The parents were now frantically calling, their heads darting from one side to the other. The driver of the motorboat must have heard or sensed that some kind of event was happening because he slowed down considerably. The loons were now furiously swimming away, no doubt to seek protection along the marshy and rocky shore. The man switched his motor off but it was too late.

I set my binoculars on the dock and sat in the exact way I had early that same day. The man on the boat wore a set of binoculars and a camera around his neck.

Darn.

But he made no attempt to snap a shot at the three loons.

I would!

When the boat was closer to my dock, I caught the man shrug to no one in particular.

Like me, he had been part of a unique scene. Unlike me, he could have taken a picture of the three loons.

This is a question of perception, I realized.

Everything is, really.

Living the same moment doesn’t make us identical in our sensitivity. Our reactions are unique, the product of our experiences.

I died for a picture to illustrate this post.

The man opted against using his camera. Trusting his memory more than a snapshot or preferring the instant to its souvenir?

Where are the loons, anyway?

They must have reached the shore and once more had vanished from my sight.

“The loons were so close,” my daughter said from her bench when she saw me on my way to the cabin. “We could see them without those.” She pointed at the binoculars.

Great setting and characters will always create a vivid scene. But how we choose to see them will also always remain personal.

I stepped in the coolness of the cabin, caught my laptop and thought of all the work I have planned to do while here in Maine.

One scene at a time. That would be a good way to end a day.

I clicked on File and on Open Recent.

The Loon’s Calling

For airport reasons my husband and my two daughters woke up shortly before 4:00 a.m. leaving me with two options.

1-     Pretending that I didn’t hear the iPhone’s repetitive ring tone

2-     Being a good team member and pulling myself up

Did I really have two options?

It was still pitch-dark when the car drove away. But while I sipped my first cup of tea, pearly light filtered through the windows. Mist, reminding me of California winter fog, rose from the lake. It was too early for any fisherman and the boats, moored at the docks, swayed gently.

Unlike sunup in California, which often takes me by surprise, here in Maine, the passage from night to day is slower and more fragile. It is almost impossible to know if it will be a sunny or a gloomy day until the last seconds of night have folded up.

I stepped to the dock and sat down. Rocked by the gentle waves lapping against the boat I waited for the first ray of sun. I was so intent that I wasn’t expecting the loon.

Its melancholic call broke through the quietness. I shivered, looking around and searching for the familiar shape of the bird.

“Have you seen the loon and its baby?” asked my neighbor last night.

I hadn’t.

“Look for them,” he said. “They are truly beautiful. The little one rides on his mom’s back.”

I heard that our lake, relatively small in comparison to so many larger bodies of waters in Maine, is probably home to only a pair of loons. Male and female build their nest together and incubate together, but the male is the one who picks the location and fights fiercely for its territory. Two eggs are laid in May and June, sometimes a little later. And yes, the chick often rides his parent’s back during the first two weeks, for protection and comfort.

The call, so unlike other birds’, once more echoed, and I scanned the silky surface of the lake, unable to spot the loon although I was under the impression that its moaning sound was meant for me.

I dipped my feet in the cool water, waking a few small fish in the process. When I got cold, I stood up, stretching to the sun, now popping behind the pine trees.

And I saw them. The loon and its baby.

loon

 

So close I could have touched them if I had been canoeing.

So still that they could have been decoys.

So silent that I wondered if another loon had been calling earlier.

I held my breath and waited for them to make the first move.

Eventually they did. The mom or dad – they both take care of their chicks – slithered away, the baby chick riding its back, like a human baby clutching his mother or father.

I followed them until my eyes ached and I blinked.

Gone.

 

It is now 8:00 a.m. A red canoe glides at the feet of our cabin. A middle-aged man paddles his way to the creek. A bass jumps out of the water, his glistening body a perfect arch.

The phone rings. My husband is on his way from the airport with a new load of passengers ready to enjoy the lake. I brew a pot of fresh coffee. A motorboat roars in the distance. The lake has woken up.

And the loon is silent.

Through my American Lens

Surrounded by so many people since my father’s stroke and death has been surreal. As my family is healing, we are trying to resume a normal pace of life. My maman is resilient, and I admire her strength and desire to go on with her life.

Yet all of us realize how hard it is on her so we have done our best to help out. We’ve cooked and eaten together in the same way I grew up and have tried – with mixed results – to raise my own children in the States.

For the first time since I left France, unlike my other trips, which have been a mix of family visits and tourist explorations, this sojourn has been fully spent in the company of my large extended French family and my parents’ friends and neighbors.

Full immersion in one’s former native land can be as challenging as starting from scratch in a foreign land. After two weeks in Normandy, I must admit that I have lost many of my French traits.

If I had been able to record and take pictures of every instant that triggers surprise, interest, curiosity, I would have been overwhelmed.

 

Over the last decade the French have added more and more English words to their vocabulary. Some of them make sense. Some make me smile. Many, if not all, have perfect French equivalent words. But for some strange reason, while the French love to bash Americans as often as possible, they just can’t live without using words such as: feeling, cool, people, hard, high, job…

They tweet, chat, e-mail, and text, although they add a little French touch, preferring mail to e-mail and texter to text.

The French love to create new French expressions based on English. Our American “Give me five” is now “Tape m’en cinq.” Until recently the French preferred the thumbs up.  But who can resist our enthusiastic American high-five?

In a country that based its reputation on fashion, it is amusing to see clothes not only mimicking the American fashion style but also sold as sweatshirts, twin-sets, T-shirts, jeans, leggings, jeggings, shorts…

 

Since we had to prepare food for larger groups of people I visited the local supermarkets.

Intermarché, Leclerc and Auchan have expanded so much that many are larger than American Safeway, Vons, and Save Mart. Some match the size of Wallmart.

But more than the size of the stores, the products are fascinating. In the food department the French excel at keeping tradition very much alive. The dairy aisles – note the plural – offer Petits Suisses packaged in the exact same way they were when I ate them with sugar and a drop of coffee in the 70s, Camembert is still wrapped in red and white checkered paper, Danette chocolate dessert comes in the same dark brown container, and La Laitiere plain yogurts are sold in identical small glass jars.

Patés made of pork, duck or goose, countless charcuterie, quiches and tomato tarts, shredded celery with mayonnaise, grated carrots, braised Belgian endives or baked with Gruyere, foie gras, and duck confits to name only a few of the traditional products abound in regular supermarkets throughout France.

Same brands of petits gateaux – cookies in English – still feed little French kids in the way they fed me after school.

Jams, honeys, and spreads such as Nutella, and chestnut purée are as delicious as when I lived there.

Water is a big deal for French people. They trust water to treat all kinds of ailment. Hépart for example is loaded with magnesium. Sparkling Badoit or Vichy helps digestion. At restaurants a carafe of water is always served for free unless you ask for mineral water. The water is fresh but not iced. Ice cubes in France are added to specific drinks such as Pastis – anise based alcohol – but never to water.

Bread remains what I miss the most in America. We do have great bread in the US, but the culture of bread has nothing to do with the French absolute love for their bakeries. When you eat out in France a breadbasket is immediately brought to your table. In the recent years, more varieties have joined the typical baguette such as bread baked with nuts or olives. Butter is also provided although not always. Few French spread it on their bread before a meal, and many parents forbid the use to their children. Mine never let me do so unless we ate radishes.

A visit to the butcher or the fishmonger exemplifies the tradition of artisan work. Young people are still learning through apprenticeship the art of slicing a beef filet or preparing a trout. Customer service is not always as friendly as it is in America, but in small shops perfection is expected and almost always met.

So, yes, France remains a traditional country with a unique relationship to food and the ritual of meals.

I forget between my trips of the importance of apéritif for example. It is not mandatory, but most French will take a small glass of a sweet wine or Champagne before ordering their appetizer when they eat out.

At home all French will offer an apéritif to their guests when they invite them over for lunch or dinner.

Although reluctant to change in almost every area, the French have embraced the organic revolution with enthusiasm.

They are in love with their Bio products, short for biologic – the French word for Organic – and entire sections of the most basic supermarket are filled with Bio cereals, yogurts, milk, cheese, but also laundry detergent and soaps.

The French have also fallen for muffins and cupcakes. Although their macaroons – yes, you can find them in regular supermarkets – beat our poppy seeds muffins and frosted cupcakes, there is something exotic to hear a French woman ordering cupcakes. Pepperidge Farms cookies and American chips elbow their way next to their French counterparts.

Now mugs sit next to their smaller French sisters ‘tasses’ in French kitchens and barbecues are all the rage throughout backyards.

Yet the French still favor short expressos to large cups of coffee and grilled beef filet to corn on the cob and chicken legs.

 

I’ve been a little uneasy to observe the French through my American lens, especially under sad circumstances, but it is perhaps the only honest way to understand one’s native land. This mix of love and dislike, of deep affection and annoyance is very much like family.

Impossible to live with. Impossible to live without.

Mon Papa

In a cruel turn of events, on the night of my wedding anniversary, I took a flight to Paris to visit my dying father.

My sister had just informed me that he had suffered a severe stroke leaving him in a coma.

I have, for a few years, shared bits of myself through regular posts in English and French. They talk of the books I like, of the stories that move me, of the cultural and linguistic differences between my native and adoptive countries, and of my attempts to improve my writing. Unlike many bloggers – I envy and admire them for that reason – I have a difficult time to share very personal experiences and feelings. All are related to my family and close friends, and I am reluctant to write anything that could reveal too much of them.

However, as I sat, alone, confused and sad, on a hard airport chair, a physical need to confide pushed me to type these words on my laptop.

Talking about my father, mon papa, is both easy and difficult.

Since I read a lot of YA novels, I am familiar with the common topic of parental issues that many writers use to write compelling stories.

My father is poor material for a YA writer.

He and I never fought.

He taught me how to bike without the training wheels while I was terrified. But Papa never made fun of me and never tricked me like some other fathers who pretended to hold the bike but in fact didn’t.

After I took my baccalauréat – the mandatory French high school exam – he drove me to the beach for a picnic. I owe my papa my weird fondness for the crunchy taste of butter blended with sand on a baguette sandwich.

At seventeen years old I fell in love for a boy who didn’t love me. My father knew before anyone – although I didn’t tell him anything – that I was madly in love and madly sad, too. One night, he looked at me straight in the eyes and said, “A boy is breaking your heart. I am so sorry.”

I read sincere concern in his eyes and knew that he was neither making fun of me nor pretending he could do more than being sorry. Years later when I introduced him to the young man I would marry, he smiled his crooked smile that lit his gorgeous sky-blue eyes. After one apéritif and a pétanque game, my future husband and father had become partners in crime.

My life has little to do with the life my father led. A ten-year-old boy during World War II, he left school at the age of fourteen. However his reading skills were far better than most high school graduates. I owe my papa my love for stories. I learned how to read, sitting on his lap, begging for him to tell me what the articles in Ouest France and L’Orne Combattante, our local newspapers, were talking about. With him I discovered that these black mysterious signs told stories. Papa loved biographies and nonfiction when I favored fiction, but we devoured books with the same passion.

Last fall, he read my first published novel – thanks to my aunt’s translation – and asked for more. I wished he could have read my memoir about my journey from France to the USA in its American-English version. He would have been happy to know that an editor is now reading it and might be interested.

Papa was grateful to have been more than a visitor to my adoptive country. He argued with a few French fellows when he insisted that American food was good, even though I knew he missed his crusty baguette and unctuous Camembert. And of course whenever he got a chance to meet an American who had fought during World War II he begged me to thank him. He had funny silent conversations with other men who like him kept beautiful gardens. Some people manage to communicate without knowing foreign languages. My papa was one of them.

On June 24, as I traveled to my homeland to be with my father, a wave rolled over me, tender and cruel.

Around me young children were driving their parents crazy, and yet I observed a few fathers who gently wiped peanut butter and chocolate off their little girls or boys’ faces. They were the kind of father I had. Poor YA material but the kind I wish every child could have.

In my parents’ village in Normandy I am away from easy Internet access, so what I am sharing with you are my feelings and emotions since my arrival.

Since I landed every hour is spent at the hospital with my papa or with family and friends talking about him.

With family it was expected. But my biggest surprise – retrospectively I should not have been surprised – is to meet so many people who knew and loved my papa.

From the young couple that lives next door to his neighbors who saw my papa every day on his way to the bakery, from his physician to the butcher, my father makes unanimity.

I’m positive I’m not as popular. Seeing so many tearful eyes when I spoke of my papa is a humble experience.

The stroke has destroyed my papa’s neurological system and he will never recover. He is kept alive, thanks to modern medicine and equipment acting like magic wands. But the moment will come when magic won’t be enough.

My family is entering a strange world that reminds me of the first year of a baby, when every day is a new step.

But unlike a baby’s progress toward autonomy my papa won’t get his life back.

Although I lost my grandparents many years ago, this is my first close encounter with death. I can’t sleep and when I finally drift away, I wake up thinking I just had a nightmare. Traumatic events, I realize, always trigger a phase of denial.

Since Tuesday morning I have met so many people that their names are a blur in my memory. But I can’t forget their words. All are talking of a man I should know better than they do.

And yet…

I left France twenty years ago. Although supportive my parents were sad. They visited me. I visited them. But I wasn’t part of their daily life anymore. My sister and her family were, as were my extended family and a tight network of friends and neighbors.

These people, I understand, have known a man I only saw once a year or even every other year either in the States or in France.

And yet…

What I know of him is so much more than memories.

My papa is my childhood. And only my sister can understand. So we talk and talk and talk…

Tonight we are facing the moment we never thought we would meet so soon and so unprepared: getting ready to say goodbye to our papa.

In comparison to many people I have been fortunate to spend four days near my papa. Although he has been unable to acknowledge my presence, I spoke to him and told him words I never had until now. Through his silence I imagined his answers, so we had this strange conversation that I was unprepared for and yet brought us closer than ever. I hoped my words soothed his pain. His companionship eased my sadness.

June 28 is a cloudy grey day in Normandy. My papa has just left our beautiful planet earth. At 8:00 p.m. when I left the hospital with my family, the sun was breaking through the sky.

I have always found solace in books. Tonight I can only write.

None of you who are reading these words knew my father, and yet this is in your company that I choose to spend the night.

It is midnight in France. Darkness fell less than an hour ago. I always forget about the long summer nights of Northern Europe. Although exhausted I can’t sleep.

My sister cannot either and she calls me on my cell. “I found a picture of you and me,” she says. “Remember that year we wore matching shorts and T-shirts?”

“The year we also had white hats?” I say.

“That one.”

“So?”

“I’ve been thinking,” my sister goes on. “I’d like to put this picture in papa’s casket.” She pauses. “I’m crazy, right?”

I shake my head no although my sister can’t see me.

“So you think I’m right,” she says.

It isn’t a question, and I smile to myself. “We should find more,” I add.

Her agreement is tacit.

This is the power of a common happy childhood.

I believed that my papa would be able to live, and I am sad beyond words. Yet my sister and I know that he will continue to accompany us.

Because there is no way we will ever forget those sunny days when our papa was able to make us believe in eternity.

Hommage à mon papa

Il aura passé sa vie à faire rire et à dire des blagues, sans jamais se mettre ni en avant ni en valeur et en prétendant qu’il allait toujours bien.

Tout ceux et celles qui l’ont connu savent que s’il y avait plus d’hommes comme lui, la terre tournerait plus rond.

Il aura donné beaucoup plus qu’il ne l’aura jamais réalisé.

Mais à moi mon papa m’a donné bien davantage.

 

Je lui dois ma passion de lire.

A quatre ans je tirais sur sa jambe de pantalon pour lire Ouest France et L’Orne Combattante avec lui. Assise sur ses genoux, je découvrais fascinée que tous ces signes noirs et mystérieux racontaient une histoire.

Je lui dois mon amour de la nature.

Petite fille, il m’avait fait mon mini potager que j’essayais de maintenir aussi bien que le sien. Plus tard aux Etats Unis combien de fois ai-je rêvé qu’il soit avec moi pour m’aider à créer un jardin aussi beau que celui qu’il avait réalisé autour de sa maison.

Je lui dois mon envie pour plus d’égalité entre les hommes.

Quand il parlait de ses activités syndicales et que je comprenais, comme le font les enfants à travers des bribes de conversations adultes, qu’il essayait d’améliorer les conditions de travail de ses collègues, je découvrais l’importance de ne pas penser qu’à soi.

Je lui dois le cadeau sans prix d’avoir su construire un couple qui ne s’est jamais disputé devant ses enfants.

Je lui dois mon enfance insouciante.

Une enfance qui a peu en commun avec la sienne, privée par quatre années de guerre. La mienne s’est déroulée dans une France et une famille en paix. Une enfance sans histoire, je l’ai compris quand j’ai eu mes enfants, est une enfance heureuse.

Je lui dois des souvenirs immortels.

Mon papa a su me montrer, à travers les plaisirs simples qu’il préférait à tout autre, que ce qui importe et ce dont on se souvient est très souvent juste sous nos yeux.

Une première belle journée de printemps normand et la table de la cuisine déménageait dehors pour le diner.

A la maison, jeux de société, parties de dominos et de pétanque passaient avant la télé.

Et pour aider ma maman à faire le ménage et amuser ses filles il avait trouvé un truc super pour faire d’une pierre deux coups: asseoir ma sœur et moi sur un vieux pullover qu’il trainait à travers la salle à manger. Moi j’étais sur une luge et je glissais sur la neige.

Tous les deux on marchait plus vite que ma maman et ma sœur. Quand elles étaient à la traine on les attendait, mais quand elles nous avaient finalement rattrapés, on repartait à toute allure en riant comme des fous alors qu’elles protestaient.

Je lui dois une semaine de ballades et de pique-niques à Granville après avoir passé mon bac.

Je lui dois mon premier verre de Bordeaux, une bouteille qu’il avait conservée pour fêter mes vingt ans.

Je lui dois aussi ses silences. J’y entendais ses mots d’amour qu’il ne disait pas par peur de mal les dire. Mais je n’ai jamais douté une seconde de son amour pour moi. Et j’espère qu’il n’a pas douté du mien non plus.

Je ne pourrais avoir reçu davantage.

J’aurais bien aimé avoir les yeux bleus de mon papa, mais il était partageur alors il les a donnés à ma sœur. Tant pis pour moi.

 

Je suis triste parce que je pensais que mon papa battrait la mort comme une partie de pétanque.

J’avais juste oublié qu’il était bon perdant.

N’empêche, la mort a quand même perdu.

Mon papa continue à m’accompagner.

Parce qu’il m’est impossible d’oublier ces jours ensoleillés de mon enfance quand il était  capable de me faire croire en l’éternité.

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