(Part 2 here)
(Part 1 here)
We lived in Los Angeles while I was in the 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades. I loved being at Holy Nativity school. I wasn't always a good student - I was inclined only to do the work I wanted! But I was then, as now, a voracious reader. It was while I was there that I learned to read music, taught myself to play the piano, learned to hear and sing harmonies to just about every hymn. (When you're a natural alto in a soprano world, you learn to adapt). I remember moments of grace. Meandering home after school, singing softly to myself in syllables of no particular meaning, feeling just so close to God and knowing that my guardian angel was nearby.
On March 1, 1964, I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church and allowed to receive their communion. I know the date because I still have the prayer book/hymnal that my mother gave me for the occasion - with the signature of Anglican Bishop Bloy. I was nine years old. My Russian/Hungarian Orthodox godmother, Vera, had hand sewed my dress. It had a taffeta slip and was made of white organdy, with pearl buttons. I loved that dress and wanted to wear it all the time and to keep it forever. I pictured my daughters also wearing it.
While we were living in Los Angeles, the family continued to grow. When we left England, there were three children. Within a few years, there were five of us kids. It wasn't always easy, it wasn't always fun, but family is family and each of them was/is a gift from God.
The summer between the 5th and the 6th grade, everything changed. My dad was assigned to go to France. My parents sold the house in Los Angeles, packed up all our belongings, shipped our station wagon to Europe, and gathered up the five children and got on an airplane and went. They took a little vacation time so that we could visit England, and by August we were in the house that was to be ours for the next year.
Our family was too large to be comfortably housed on the Air Force base, so we were in a huge old house in a little French village by the name of Prémôntre. We were the only Americans in the village. The town was notable for an old abbey (founded by St. Norbert) and a tuberculosis sanitorium. It was so small that it didn't even have a bakery (which in the France of that time, was pretty remarkable!)It was a 30 minute car drive to the American base, an hour and a half by bus to get to the base school. My French was not good enough to go to the village school.
We had an au pair who lived with us. Her name was Monique - her sister Francoise lived with another family in the village. She taught my mom how to make crepes, and I remember sitting in the kitchen on Shrove Tuesday making and eating crepes, and being sent out to the local store to buy more sparkling wine and fizzy lemonade to go with the crepes. Monique taught me to eat morels, to always put a sprig of rosemary in the roasting pan before cooking a roast, and to cross myself when an ambulance went by.
It was a major change in more than one way. That was the year that my parents stopped going to church. Everywhere else that we lived, my parents had been able to find an Episcopalian or Anglican church to go to. But in France, our choices were the generic Protestant service on base, or Catholic Mass either in the village or on base. I only remember going to church with my mom twice in one year. Once for the generic protestant service which I found confusing – no bible readings, no chanting, and an hour long sermon – once for a traveling Anglican chaplain. I tried to go to Mass in the village, because I’d been told that our Anglican communion service was basically the Mass translated into English, but this was 1965 – and the Mass was in Latin and basically whispered. I tried, and with help I probably would have become more comfortable, but the dual language barrier (French and Latin) made it too hard. I gave up on going to church.
One day I wanted to dress up and I asked my mom where my confirmation/first communion dress was. She told me that she had given it away to a little French girl for her First Communion. I was simultaneously miffed and happy - miffed that I hadn't been consulted, happy that at least some other person would have the joy of the beauty of that outfit. It also reinforced in my mind just how much a child is at the mercy of the parents, in big things and in small. I hoped that I would be able to be more considerate of my children's feelings, if and when.
Living in France taught me things that living in England hadn't. I learned that people everywhere have so much in common, but that their cultures can be very different. It knocked me out of the casual self-important isolationism that is so much a part of being a child, and to some degree of being a North American. I also learned lesson one about being ultimately home less. I was not at home in France, not in the village, not with the kids on the base (who ridiculed me for liking the French people and for trying to learn French). I had no real friends - just people who tolerated me because there wasn't any real alternative. I learned a lot about transience the year we lived there. I did some really stupid things because I did not understand how to play the games to fit in. The social conventions were so very different and I just didn't get it. I was alone, lonely, and I turned often to the books that were all around me. I can laugh about it now, but how many ten year olds read Dostoevsky and Chekhov?