My mother is pushing my newborn sister in her carriage and I’m walking along beside her. She sees the helmets of the German column over a wall, tosses me into the carriage and runs home by the little paths that run behind all the houses.
My mother, my father and I look toward the west where a glow is lighting the night sky. “It’s Oradour—they’re burning Oradour!” the next day, a woman from that town will have dragged her broken leg 17 kilometers to tell us that the Germans have killed nearly everybody in Oradour—machine-gunned the men and set the church, filled with women and children, on fire. She’d jumped out the window and escaped, one of four who made it out of there.
I hear that the Maquis has been on the radio with England, and a squadron of Mosquito fighter-bombers has knocked the hell out of Das Reich, the German unit that killed Oradour.
We’re on the sidewalk in front of my grandparents’ house when two cars, FFI painted on their sides, pull up. Armed men, one of them my uncle Maurice, pick me up and take me to Paul Clavaux’s bar. I stand on a table, holding a small automatic weapon, and I sing the Marseilleise as loud as a 3 year-old can sing it. It’s the end of the war. I meet an African-American soldier. “It’s the man on the Banana can, Maman!”
We all liked the Americans just fine, I recall. They had candy and chocolate.
Things are black and white and gray, except for the blue and red Cinzano sign painted on the side of a building in Limoges, where we are going to live. It’s one room, partitioned by blankets. Mother cooks on Sterno and there isn’t much food. Father is a policeman, and drinks a lot. There’s a great deal of screaming and fighting, and I like to go outside in the black dirt courtyard behind the building. It stinks, but there are slugs to play with.
Then father becomes a butler and the countess teaches mother how to cook. It is a castle where we live. There’s a moat, secret passages, oubliettes, and a huge mastiff named Medor who loves me. Sleeps at my feet when I nap, and growls at any stranger that approaches. I read a lot and live out the plots in the woods that surround the castle.
But that ends, and when Mother and Father go to work for the Biddles in Fontainebleau, Marie-Jose and I go live with my father’s mother in Paris.
Augustine Morel had been a beauty in her day, as is evidenced by the picture of her and her two sons. The better-looking son died early, and she held on to her other one with everything she had. Needless to say, this didn’t do a whole lot for the marriage of Jean and Germaine. But my sister and I lived with her. Paris, to me, was a damp basement apartment, slippery cobblestones outside, going to the Jardin de Luxembourg and lusting for the toy sailboats that I could never have, and odd dealings with Mme. Orsini. I don’t know, but she and my grandmother seemed to hate/love each other. But of course I was in my own little world, again reading a lot. My mother said that I’d learned to read when I was three years old. Seems funny to me, but it’s true that I don’t remember when I wasn’t reading. The Three Musketeers, Sans Famille (a heart-breaking story of really poor orphans, of which I primarily remember the descriptions of food), the entire works of the Comtesse de Segur (nee Rostopchine): Les Deux nigauds, Le General Dourakine, L’Auberge de l’Ange Guardien, Les Petites filles modeles, and others in the Bibliotheque Rose. These books were filled with noble aristocrats who instilled good manners in their children, sturdy upstanding commoners who respected their betters but without cringing, and constant lessons for children about honor and right behavior.
I ate those up, and ingested their ideology. I was convinced that I was the lost child of some marquis or another, and I picked up a chivalric code that I’ve never been able to shake, even as I began to know it as the mystification (bullshit) that it is.
Then the green books with the gold-lettered titles of the Librairie Hachette—Jules Verne, Jack London translations, and biographies of French heroes and generals, and one particular book that sticks in my mind, L’Aigle de mer, a sea story by Jack London in which the captain had been terribly disfigured in a fire—my nightmares often featured him, very grisly, since the Hachette books weren’t illustrated.
And comics. There weren’t many in France, and most seemed to be only in black, white, and red. Sometimes they’d have to do with the American west, with cowboys and horses. I loved those. I got a checked shirt once that was a cowboy shirt, doggone it, blue, green, and red. I felt so American.