From Global Mom: A Memoir
(Continued from last post, “Doggy Crêpe”) :
. . .We were reminded every day in the papers that life, as the planet itself, is a fragile and tenuous place. But in the immediate cycle of our family’s life, in its rhythms and patterns, things were briskly routinized, colorfully calm. Camelot. . .
Each new day in our village en ville broke when Monsieur B. slapped open his metal shutters beneath us in his ground floor apartment. Our friend and neighbor lived the life of a well-mannered metronome. At 8:00 a.m., the ten shutters of his five windows clanked and clapped. At 9:00 p.m. a repeat of the same percussion, closing out the day’s pulsating hum of traffic, stiletto-clips on concrete and staccato street conversations. For almost fifty years he’d lived here on the corner of Jean Nicot and Colonel Combes—enough time, I imagine, to have watched things evolve a lot and to have gotten the shutter habit down to a reflex.
We, the American family of six, lived directly above him, and so he heard, no doubt, the muffled soundtrack of every detail, mundane or intimate, of the life of la famille Bradford. I begged him to forgive us for the bass pedal thumping of Parker’s electric drum set. I apologized for Luc’s night terrors and shrieking around 4:00 a.m. I’d thought of explaining why the toilet above his bedroom flushed thirty-three times during the night, but stopped short of describing the flavorful details of a whole family whopped by the flu bug. We just hoped he was a deep sleeper. I clasped his hand, pumping his arm in mortification while explaining why there had been a girl’s chorus howling, “You Ain’t Nothing’ But A Hound Dog” with a Cocker Spaniel yelping in syncopation, directly above his dining room table at what must have been aperitif time.
That was the hour when on Thursdays I always saw Monsieur B. sitting at a small square table next to his window there at street level, Monsiuer B. and three men friends sitting in their suits and ties, one always with a cigar in his lips, another always with a cigarette, all sitting at there respective (and I noted, fixed) corners of that table, lit by two old brass standing lamps pulled up just for the occasion, playing a soundless game of cards. Models for a Cézanne painting.
But Monsieur B. never once complained of the percussion and repercussions of our herd above his head. In fact, he never once hinted at irritation. When we greeted each other he was consistently radiant and gracious. At one of my fits of self-deprecation, he once smiled, saying in unmistakably elegant French, “We live in a community, Madame. We must value each other in such a community,” his sincere blue eyes reflecting the color of his trademark azure shirt.
I’d only seen him once without one of those brilliant blue shirts when, earlier than usual, I was leaving the building. He was at his door receiving a small wicker basket from Madame P., the gardienne who took in a little laundry money from this widower. That morning, he was wearing his camel robe and a bright blue ascot, which, even at 7:00 a.m., made his eyes shine and his thick shock of silky white hair glow like a million watts. My own private Maurice Chevalier.
What I knew of Monsieur B. I learned by close observation and by stitching together scraps he volunteered during our neighborly encounters. Twenty years earlier after forty years of marriage and four children (all raised on this corner in the apartment less than half the size of ours), his wife passed away. The four children went on to have their own children (totaling well over a dozen in number), and on the evening of the highly-charge U.S. presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, his long-awaited first great-grandchild came into the world a week overdue.
This man, like our family, was sleep-deprived after the string of nights awaiting what was momentous news; Monsieur B.’s new generation and what we were convinced was our nation’s new generation.
When I took him congratulatory flowers late one evening, he and I chatted briefly, comparing notes on paternity and politics and what kind of future world would greet his newest offshoot. “Capucine,” Monsieur B. confided, “will be the little cabbage’s Christian name.” (Calling an infant a cabbage and a cabbage a Christian might strike one as odd, but the French logic works well from many angels. Capucine. Very crisp. Very Catholic.)
Proud of his baby’s first snapshot, the Monsieur was all gleam and beam while I was all gloom and doom, disoriented in a stupor from an election process that had appeared to have been slippery, questionable, un-American. Maybe I might have seemed, in the face of his measured manner, too oozing of pessimism, too panicky and reactionary. And maybe he was simply pleased about Capucine, this fresh validation of life, to take my anxiety too seriously. Whatever the case, he didn’t grieve with me. Instead, he heaved a sigh and then, stretching upward his five knobby fingers, twinkled those blue eyes: “I’ve lived through this many wars, an occupation, my bride’s death, changes I could have never imagined would have happened in my lifetime. Capucine will survive, too.” And he smiled that smile.
(To be continued. . .)