Memories of France and motherhood
Holding a heavy book in my hands, I’m turning the pages slowly, reading about my life and looking at photos of France. I can just see the corner of the beaded wreath hung on the rough stone wall of Ethel’s bedroom, next to the window that floods the tiny third floor room with light, illuminating a photo my brother gave me once and catching the shadows in the puffs of the quilt on the single bed. More than 40 years ago, I helped to remortar that wall, and I know its every stone. The remortaring story, though, is not in the book. After all, it is not my book, but Ethel’s book.
On the pages of her book I see not my children, Ethel and Oliver, but their children, my grandchildren. Oona, Oliver’s daughter, in a full page of brilliant color, sips a glass of bright red Grenadine a l’Eau, the same color as her sundress, her long dark lashes brushed in half moons against her cheeks. The photo is so good you can almost see the softness of her skin. She looks a lot like Ethel at that age, with the same eyelashes and thick, dark hair cut in bangs and tied up in two pony tails. Her thin arms and their angle, so familiar to me, are Ethel’s too, but the hands holding the glass are the long narrow hands of Oliver.
Ethel writes on the facing page, “Cafés in France are for people of all ages and all walks of life… as a child, the excitement came from a special drink. In France, it was sweet grenadine or mint syrup two inches deep, a stir stick, and my own personal pitcher of chilled water. The trick was to fill the glass with water, then refill it every time it dropped an inch, making the drink last as long as possible.” There is a recipe for Grenadine a l’Eau.
The words and the photo bring back to me both her childhood and the halcyon days of my own youth when I was a young mother in France with my family, savoring the long summers we spent there, year after year in the stone house we bought when Ethel was barely three and Oliver was a baby. The divorce and love of another man, the death of my mother and brother, the end of my family, were yet to come. My skin tanned, my body still firm, my hair still naturally black, I luxuriated in my life during those lazy days in Provence, filled with lakes and rivers, forest adventures, shopping and cooking and best of all, long dinners deep into the night with friends and my little family.
“I, however,” Ethel writes of those late nights, “unlike the younger children, stayed and was often privy to lengthy and unbelievable stories about World War II; tales of midnight escapes from trains bound for Germany, or of Nazi soldiers that supposedly lived in our house during the occupation of women who worked the fields while the men fought in the resistance. I was in awe of such vivid stories of generations past and couldn’t believe I was allowed to sit up late and under the summer night stars listening and having my questions answered.”
That summer life was so different from the other nine months of the year. Those were spent teaching high school in a northern California town rapidly undergoing social change from a farming community to bedroom commuter suburb and home to an infamous medical facility for the criminally insane. It was as far removed from Provence in those days as it was possible to be. Was I two different people? I often felt that way. In Provence, I felt like I belonged, far more so than I did in California, though through food and meals, I tried to keep my French life alive.
Ethel writes, “As children we were different because no one else in our schools or on our blocks had traveled to France in the summers and eaten exotic foods such as snail, tiny fried fish, rich cakes, and salted hams. Ours were solitary experiences not really made for sharing in the early days of September once back to school but for keeping to ourselves. Now years later we are enchanted by our own childhoods, continually folding so much of what we experienced into our contemporary lives.”
I turn more pages. Oscar and Raphael, Ethel’s twins, unfold on double pages, shirtless, captured in the joy of playing with water on a summer day. They are on the lawn in front of the house in Provence my husband and I bought with our friend Joanne when Ethel was still a baby. A blocky stone Provencal mas, with no running water, but with two separate staircases leading to separate apartments, it seemed ideal to us for manifesting our dreams of living a rural life in Provence far from the turmoil and divisiveness of an America caught in the war in Vietnam. We bought a herd of goats and I learned to make goat’s milk cheese, bringing to life a part of the dream, but not the way I had imagined it. The experiment in communal living didn’t work out and we sold our share to Joanne within the first six months, and moved across the valley.
Joanne, my friend now of nearly 50 years, kept the farmhouse, bought more land, and now is retired there with her husband. It’s fully renovated, and stylishly furnished with a mix of antiques and contemporary pieces, the walls hung with their extensive collection of art. The old hay loft is the lounge, with a grand piano and thick Oriental rugs. Ethel’s childhood bedroom is now the master bedroom. Sometimes, as I walk the halls or sit in the kitchen where I’ve shared so many meals, I check with myself. Could this have been my house, where I would spend my old age? I let myself try to feel what it might be like for me. Could I have had Joanne’s glamorous European life, secure and sure? I look deep in the corner of my soul, looking for regret.
Ethel writes of her parents, “I know their story, and even though I am not sure if the memories are mine or if they are family stories told over the years, they have become interwoven and inseparable from my own memories. However, my story begins at age three with roasted chestnuts and ultimately winds through my childhood and early teens, which I spent between Provence and northern California. I had my American life and my French life, and they seemed more often than not to collide with the subject of food.”
As she says, my story is not hers. I wrote the forward to the book, read all the rough drafts, the rewrites, the final drafts and the galleys. I spent time with Ethel and her co-author, Sara, who had a similar childhood of summer travels in France, while Sara photographed the important places of Ethel’s childhood, the places of my youth. Each river, each beach, each café and market, the twisting dirt roads, vineyards and orchards, the Eiffel Tower, the Seine – and above all, the food in the book triggers layers upon layers of my memories. And, Ethel writes, they trigger her memories, but hers are different than mine. She is still young, her children still small.
Paris to Provence, Childhood Memories of Food and France, by Ethel Brennan and Sara Remington, Andrews McMeel, April, 2013. Available at bookstores and Amazon.com.
Visit the website www.paristoprovencecookbook.com