Now that the summer is coming to a close, we are back in the world of trains, planes and automobiles…of business meetings…taxicabs…security checks…deadlines…speeches…blah, blah, blah.
That is, we’re back in the real world…
But we pause to reminisce about the world we leave behind. We took the month of August off – like the rest of France. We did not stop working, but our work was done from home, among friends and family…and preceded at a very different pace.
Instead of rushing to the office, we walked across the yard to a pavilion that we have turned into a library. There, beginning about 7:30 AM we did our reading and writing, until the lunch bell rang at 1PM. Thence, we sat down with Elizabeth and our mother and whoever was visiting or passing through. Sometimes, we were just three. Often, we were 20 or more…
Lunches were served outside. The weather was cool… so we had to wear sweaters and scarves. But it was summertime, and even though it didn’t feel much like summer weather, we stuck to our summer routine, no matter how uncomfortable it became.
Almost everything we ate came from our own garden – which is to say, we ate enough greenbeans to choke a mule. Then, the tomatoes and squash ripened, and our diet broadened. Meat was supplied by a local butcher… or by our gardener…who sometimes cooked it over an open wood fire.
“Mmmm..this steak is great,” we asked him. “Where did you get it?”
“I have my ways…old fashioned ways…and they’re better,” he replied.
“I don’t want to say…but in today’s world, you have to know how to do things unofficially. Because the authorities are always trying to stop you or tax you. You know, you couldn’t get a company to paint your shutters…not the way you have done it. You just reach out of the windows and take the shutters off. That would be illegal for a licensed contractor. They’d have to put up a regulation scaffolding…and have workers with qualifications and hardhats do the work. And of course, if they went over 35 hours per week, you could be fined or put out of business. That’s why you have to go around all that stuff…”
We never found out what his ways were. But it’s illegal to butcher animals yourself – outside of a licensed abattoir. We presume that our beef was prepared in the old fashioned way.
Lunch took time. At the office, we usually don’t bother to eat lunch at all. It slows us down. But for the last month, lunch often took two hours… There was the entrée, the main course, the salad, the cheese, the dessert, and finally, coffee.
These long lunches proved very useful, helping us catch up on family matters. Lingering over coffee, we discovered that we had six children. We learned their names and found out what they had been doing. We found that Elizabeth studied history at the Sorbonne last year, and passed her tests with flying colors.
We also had time to listen to our mother, cousins, nieces, nephews, brothers, sisters…and many people who seemed to just show up at lunch with no obvious connection to anyone.
“What are you doing here?” we wanted to ask. But it would have been rude; instead, we simply enjoyed their company.
“I got a letter today from Margaret’s son,” began our mother one day. “I knew exactly what it was.”
“Well, when you get to be my age you’ll know. I had sent Margaret a couple of letters and got no reply. We’ve been friends since World War II when we were both in the army together…in the WACs.”
“Why did you sign up for the army?” asked a granddaughter.
“It was the war. Everyone wanted to do whatever they could. I had been at home taking care of my mother, who was very sick. She had had, well…I guess you’d call it a nervous breakdown, today. But it was very serious, and we couldn’t leave her alone.
“Every family house has some dark rooms…and every family story has some dark chapters. I feel like I need to tell you what I know, because I’m the last one. I’m the last one of my generation that you’re likely to know…at least in the family.
“But my father retired…this must have been 1942…so I was able to sign up for the army. And they sent me to Texas, where I had a job showing movies to the young soldiers. The idea of the WACs was that we were doing work that men did before; we did it so the men could go and fight. I ran the projector to show films of the Germans and what they were doing and how they fought. I can’t remember, but I think the gist of it was that if you didn’t kill them, they would kill you. I spoke a little German that I had learned in school…very little. So, later, they had me working a little with German prisoners of war too… and they were actually very nice. But I guess they didn’t want our soldiers going off to war thinking that they were going to fight nice people.
“I met your father right after I began. It was Christmas Eve. And there was something about him. I didn’t know what it was. But I had a feeling. And then we wanted to get married immediately. I don’t know why. That’s just what people did then. He had been at Pearl Harbor when it was bombed…and he was just being sent out to the Pacific. We didn’t know where…or when…or if…he’d come back. Anyway, we wanted to get married right away.
“And Margaret was my best friend. And I was so naïve…I didn’t know anything. You wouldn’t believe it today. I mean, today, everything is on television. But my family was extremely modest…and extremely discreet. So, Margaret had to explain the facts of life to me just before I got married.
“Anyway, we were very close…and we visited each other over the years. But then, I didn’t hear anything from her. And when I got this letter today, I saw that it came from Oregon, you know, that’s where she moved with her husband before he died…and it came from her son, not from her. So I knew…
“And that’s the way it is when you get old. Your friends and relatives…the people you grew up with…the people you love…one by one…they disappear. And then, you’re the only one left…and you tell yourself, well, I believe we’ll meet again…like that song…don’t know where, don’t know when…”
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