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My Other Mothers, With Thanks!

May 8, 2021

            Mother’s Day is celebrated each year, with nary enough fanfare for all the truly wonderful work that women who bring life, raise and educate us, and show us the path towards being good citizens do in our personal lives and in our communities.  Hillary Rodham Clinton’s book famously stated, based on a bit of ancient African wisdom, that “It takes a village” to raise a child.  I grew up in a small agricultural town in Central Maine, and I can tell you with no element of hesitation in my voice that this is indeed true.  I was lucky to grow up under the watchful eye of so many caring women—and this in a time when mothers felt no shame in disciplining other mother’s children who stepped out of line.  No one said that the village’s number one priority should be giving the child a false sense of self-esteem.  Indeed, any action one of the other mothers felt compelled to take to bring one back into line was just the start; one’s own mother ‘finished the job’ when one got home.  Lesson learned.

This Friday night, all is calm, and thanks to the technology in which we have all become so proficient during the Covid-19 pandemic, I was able to ‘attend’ the funeral for my grandmother’s best friend, Helen True, today.  From almost one thousand four hundred miles away from ‘home’, I grieved and mourned a woman who offered my Mom’s Mom kindness and friendship for more than seventy years right along side the rest of my small town.  Helen had a hand in raising all of us, my Mom, me, and all the kids my friends from school have had in the years since I left that small town.  If you attended a wedding or celebrated any other major life event in that town, you likely ate a meal prepared by Helen.  But she wasn’t alone in her good works and deeds. 

            Much of my early life was spent at the United Methodist Church.  It was one of two churches in town, the one not always willing to communicate with the other.  (Not that the summer Vacation Bible School classes that I had with Janet Libby (Jen’s mom) at the Baptist Church weren’t valuable, but we didn’t attend that church so we had less contact with Janet outside of her post-mistress duties in town.  Janet spoke eloquently in those years, though, about what it meant to be ‘saved’ in the eyes of her church and how that should inform the decisions we make in our daily lives.)   My ‘church family’ which I miss (not having been to the Methodist church much since it as an organization decided to join the ‘culture wars’ in the 1990s and preach bigotry from the pulpit and make the lives of LGBT people just a little bit harder to endure) was diverse and talented.

Polly Thompson (Melissa and Tricia’s mom), and Shirley Grant led our Sunday School in song, teaching us all sorts of Bible stories through music.  Shirley (Sarah and Amy’s mom) was a magnificent piano player who, despite the lack of maintenance on the church’s piano, could transpose by sight the music she was playing so as to avoid that C# which was wonky, or just to bring the song in to range for those who couldn’t quite manage the key in which it was written.  Polly must have spent days writing the lyrics to the songs for us kids on giant poster board in those dark days before overhead projectors and powerpoint slide shows.  Helen Sullivan (Shelly and Gail’s mom) and Linda Hatch (Laura’s mom) led a small group of us kids in a vocal ensemble we called “The Blessings”—each week, we would ride the Number 2 Bus that either Ruth Wright or Greta Grant (Stacy’s mom) drove for the Tate bus company from the Morison School down to the church where we would have an after school snack, work on a craft, and share in fellowship through music.  We worked hard to learn songs that we would sing at the Hibbard Nursing Home where Grace Clark, a “Town Mother” resided, among other places.  Bethel Dearborn (Kathy’s mom) would come to the school in Kenduskeag to teach us to sing, while Ellie Beckwith (Lisa and Renee’s mom) taught in the High School then, leading a band, and keeping the church supplied in Organ music for years and years.  (Ellie would save all the money she earned for her talents, playing for weddings and funerals, and later donate that money back to the church so as to buy a new organ, one that sounded a bit less like the electrodrone that had been purchased in the post war years.)  Alberta Greatorex (Helen True’s sister in law, and mother of  ten!), my childhood piano teacher, was none too tall.  I don’t know how she managed to see from the organ bench at the back of the congregation to know when to start and stop her hymns.  We had loving and caring Sunday School teachers like Lorraine Elliott, Nita (Albert’s daughter and Beth’s mom) Stefanik, Joyce Boone, Beryl Dow, Nola Burleigh (Cindy’s mom), Anne Weisleder (Vanessa’s mom), and Eloise Hannington who instructed us in the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer, with special emphasis on the Golden Rule.  And Dode Burleigh (Wendy’s mom), who served the church as its secretary for many years, inspired any number of young women in our town to seek out their best selves.  Dode, with her wonderful wit and sense of humor, had been one of Bangor’s first woman business leaders with her print shop.

            In our school system, Sharon Eaton and her dad kept the school clean, but were also wonderfully supportive friends.  Sharon would always stop and sit right down on the floor with me if she found me in some remote corner, crying, having spent an afternoon trying to avoid bullies.  She offered me a lovely gift when I left the school, and promised to always be my friend—I was deeply saddened when I learned her dad, Hoop had passed.  A more hardworking and honest man you could never find.  Paula Speed and the others kept us all fed each midday, making the most wonderful cinnamon rolls from time to time.  Mrs. Wiggins, Lucille Koncinsky (Lauren and Karen’s mom) and Eunice Felt (Vicki, Diana and Donna’s mom) kept the trains running on time as the faithful secretaries.  Eunice was a fantastic cook and had raised her family at the farm next to where my Mother grew up, her husband held legand-status in our schools.  Lucille, of course, has been the subject of one of my posts previously, but she and Mrs. Wiggins deserve a large measure of credit for recognizing that the day Nancy Campbell (Joyce Boone’s sister) ‘excused’ me from study hall that perhaps I needed to have more classes and less time to cause poor Nancy grief with my smart mouth.  (I think they also sensed that I might be an instigator of trouble if left with too much free time, say the length of a study hall, and that Nancy didn’t deserve that!)

            I worked in our local grocery stores for a while in high school too.  Lynn Bradbury, and Virginia Elliott kept the Yankee Grocer running smoothly, while Elise Roberts (Melonie and Heather’s mom) staffed the Newco.  Elise, a native French speaker, used to joke that “I only speak French to swear at people when out in public!”  Elise was a lot of fun to talk to about her experiences growing up, and was a no-nonsense kind of gal who commanded respect.

Lorraine Ronco (Dawn and Cindy’s mom) lived across the road from my family for most of my childhood.  Her husband, former Superintendent of our schools, was always interested in helping me learn new and exciting things, and also distracting me from the ill-treatment I often received.  Joanie Tilton Clark (Teina and Stacey’s mom) cut my hair when I stopped going to Dave’s barber shop in the center of town.  Bea Lowden (Elizabeth and Robin’s mom) taught evening enrichment classes that Mom and I attended together; Dot Marsh was a lifelong neighbor of my great grandmother, Marion, and a teacher in our schools.  Helen Conners lived down by the bend in the river and would assist me in making mittens in July to send to a pen pal that I had in South Africa at the time.  She loved Slim Whitman and had me purchase some of his tapes once.  She lived quite alone, and was not able to get out to the church as often as she once had.

            And then there are the other mothers of kids we played with at the time, from Bonnie Bailey Waters (Sandra, Karen and Christine’s mom) to Anne Landes Hannan (Carrie and Angela’s Mom).  Bonnie raised her family on a dairy farm, which was hard work, but one which she took immense pride.  She really knew how to knit and sew and be handy.  What a wonderful spirit of giving she had.  Anne Landes, a single mom (perhaps not technically, but the same as) unknowingly had ‘adopted’ my sister and me, and our bicycles which Grammy had bought us at the Western Auto that Polly Thompson (mentioned earlier) and her husband Raymond bought from Dode Burleigh’s ex-husband, Bill.  We would pedal our way out to town, two miles from home on the Hudson Road, to Anne’s house to play with Carrie on a warm summer day.  There were lots of those days.  Anne never complained, though I am certain it had to have been irritating to suddenly have four kids instead of two.  And most of all, Chris Murch McCorrison (Jenny’s mom) who has been a family friend, and neighbor to my grandparents, since the late 1970s when she and her husband first moved in to town.  Chris nurtured my sister and me as though we were one of her own three kids, and included us in everything that her children were doing.  In later years, when my grandmother’s health was failing, she provided meals to gram and her husband, Sherwood, who is still as far as I know on the meal plan!  If there is a saint in Corinth, Chris is one of them.

            And for many of these women, I have mentioned their daughters (though they had a number of sons also) who have in their own right become wonderful mothers as well.  That village which raised me is still working hard as grandmothers and great grandmothers.  I am grateful for all of them, and the countless others who I have neglected to mention here.

            This Mother’s Day, I salute them all.

Sounds of Voices

February 12, 2021

“Silence is imaginary, because the world never stops making noise.  A sound is a disruption of the air, and it doesn’t so much die as recede until it subsides beneath the level of the world’s random noise and can no longer be recovered, like a face that is lost in a crowd.  In past times, people sometimes thought that all sounds that ever existed were still present, hovering like ghosts.  Guglielmo Marconi, who sent the first radio message, in 1902, believed that with a microphone that was sufficiently sensitive he could hear Jesus delivering the Sermon on the Mount, and in 1925 a writer for the Washington Post speculated that a radio was capable of broadcasting the voices of the dead.  A radio transmits vibrations, he wrote, and the voices of the dead ‘simply vibrate at a lower rate.’”

–Alec Wilkinson, A Voice from the Past, The New Yorker, May 12, 2014.

Years ago, in my omnipresent past, I was a student in Paris where I enjoyed by the grace of happenstance one of the greatest friendships of my adult life.  My friend, my love, Andrée, passed away last summer at the age of eighty-three, and I felt sincerely that her voice had been permanently silenced.  I was wrong, very mistaken in fact, and I heard today for the first time in a long time her voice, albeit vibrating at a lower rate, a phantom accompaniment to my daily life, and it was resoundingly joyous.

Last July, the Internet brought me the terrible news that my friend was now gone, having suffered with inexplicable pains the previous number of months, if not years.  With no word from family or friends who were close enough to have detail, I have wondered if the global pandemic which has kept us from interacting with others in the ways in which we had become accustomed had played a part in her demise.  I still have no confirmation on that, her nephew in charge of her estate opting to remain silent in the face of those who would inquire.  The Internet, though, in its power to create ties between people far and near, even if they have never had the occasion to meet in person, brought me a new friend, Soraya, who had long been a friend of Andrée’s, shortly after I had eulogized my friend, sharing some of my memories of our time together with others, thanks to my blog, who I may never have met, and likely never will.  Soraya, in an attempt to bring back the sound of Andrée’s warmth and vitality had set out on an Internet search for her friend, and found my tribute, the only information she had at that time that her friend had died.  She reached out to me, and we have corresponded several times since.

Today, for the first time, from her flat in London where she is in lockdown like the rest of the island nation, Soraya and I spoke with the assistance of a video chat, meeting each other for the first time ‘in person’.  It was quite wonderful.  To see her face, to witness the tears which escaped her as she recalled in fondness our friend, to watch her hands, and to listen to her stories, it was as though we had gotten together at the Parisian salon de thé, Angelina, on the Rivoli, a hot chocolate for me and a shot of espresso for her.  We spoke for more than an hour, and it felt as though Andrée had just slipped out of the room for that moment, and that she was surely to return with a sampling of patisseries from the store’s counter or perhaps a half bottle of wine for us all to share, to toast, to enjoy in friendship.

Soraya and Andrée’s amitié predates the one that I shared with ‘Dédée’.  Their mutual fondness began when they were work companions; Soraya was twenty-one as Andrée entered her forties.  Even as one or the other was transferred from one office locale to another they remained in contact, the one with the other.  Soraya had the pleasure that I did not in meeting Andrée’s beloved mother, who had assisted in finding the little house in Courseulles where I lived that one summer with my friend.  Over the years, Andrée had visited Soraya in London and Andrée, I would learn, had hosted Soraya and her then teenaged daughter at her home, the bigger house that Andrée had bought but rented out for years before renovating and living there herself.  All throughout that time, the two kept in touch and shared stories and the little joys of life.

Andrée and I met, of course, later, when I was twenty or so years old, and she was then fifty-six.  I’ve told this story before, but today I heard it from Andrée’s perspective for the first time.  I was living in the Quatorzième Arrondissement of Paris, and was on my way to an evening with friends, a bottle of red wine under my arm as I exited the Paris metro at Place Denfert Rochereau.  Andrée was on her way home after a long day of travel back from Germany, where work had taken her.  Soraya, as she told me today, “I knew all about you.  Andrée had told me about how as she got out of the subway car, there you were, insistent in grabbing her suitcase and ‘helping’.  Andrée was a bit frightened, but you showed such patient determination that you were going to help her with that bag whether she wanted the help or not, telling her that you weren’t a thief, that you were just an American!”  Andrée was in the end grateful for the help and had told Soraya that we were going to be friends.  And we were.

Andrée had told Soraya over the years about how I would go to her apartment to work on her English pronunciation and share in a good meal.  Soraya, like me, keeps close to her heart so many fond memories of learning under the tutelage of our friend about the joys of fine wine, foie gras, a good coffee (or in my case, elegant tisanes and tilleuls, infusions sipped over good conversation, a nighttime elixir), a lovely porcelain place setting, and most of all about slowing down to enjoy the time spent among friends.  Soraya, like me, feels very much like Andrée had given us a roadmap toward a different kind of peace, to happiness.  Listening to Soraya, it felt very much as though we had been leading parallel lives, and that Andrée was where the intersection occurred, far off on that horizon, even though the two lines meet only in perception.

Andrée was a child when the Second World War broke out.  Her family, I learned today, not only suffered the privations of the war and the rationing of goods, but at many points in those early years, didn’t have running water, let alone hot running water like she had after she renovated her little house on the coast of Normandy with a shower stall, equipped with heat sensing technology so that her favorite temperature was guaranteed to flow from the showerhead.  It was a traumatic time, so much so that her sister, Jeanine, who was by all accounts very bright as a child suffered some break, something that led her to be not quite like other children, silencing her inner beauty in some respects.  Jeanine, who was a wonderfully caring and loving person also, worked hard all of her life, despite her cognitive challenges, and merited the full respect of everyone who knew her.  But that war had robbed her of so much.  Andrée’s sister, Thérèse, who has also written in recent weeks, is also a munificently unselfish person who with her late-husband, Michel, welcomed me openly in to their family as Andrée had.  While they may not have had the luxury that we enjoy today when they were children, they all knew something valuable:  to have friends is to be one.

Andrée remained forever in the gratitude of that American soldier who at the close of the war in 1944/1945 rolled into her town on a tank, similar to the tank known as “One Charlie” which sits on the coastal dune of Graye-sur-Mer, a site she and I visited often on our walks.  That soldier lifted Andrée up on to the top of his metal beast, taking her little outstretched hands and whisking her atop his char, and handing her the very first chocolate bar she had ever tasted.  “It tasted like freedom” she used to say of that Hershey’s bar.  Her gratitude for that soldier’s kind smile and insistent demeanor, her desire to pay forward the kindness he had shown her which she was in no position to reciprocate, was to my direct benefit.  While she never knew his name, and neither shall I, I too am grateful for his act of selflessness and generosity.  I am keenly aware of the liberation that he represented to young Andrée.  He will never know how much he touched her life, or mine.  That young soldier must have been about the age that I was when I first met Andrée, that is to say, hardly in his twenties.  I wonder if Andrée saw in me the man that he had been almost fifty years earlier.  Andrée, as Soraya explained to me today, very much felt as though I was her one special American boy.  Andrée, with the same patient determination, heaped on me all of the thanks that she had never been able to give that young man a half century earlier.

Andrée, who we both agreed was not gifted in letter writing, and often felt that she could not afford the overseas phone calls with us both that she likely would have wanted to make, somehow never closed shut that little spot she held in her heart for us.  Andrée had told Soraya over the years of our adventures together, and the trips that she had made to New York, and Boston, Philadelphia and Washington when she came to visit me at my first apartment in New Jersey.  She had told of the visit with my family in Maine for Christmas that one year.  She loved the majesty of the full-house decorations my Mother displayed, and quietly wished for a set of china with the holiday theme like Mom used in her kitchen that time of year.  We took many wonderful photos during her visit with us, one of which was a funny cliché of the two of us, each dressed in a Victorian winter pajama, the striped dressing gown that one thinks of as ‘Ma in her kerchief and Pa in his cap’ ready to tell the tale of the Night Before Christmas.  What I didn’t know was that Andrée had framed that silly snapshot and had it hanging on her wall in her Norman home all the rest of her years.

Just a few years ago, Soraya told me this morning as we spoke, she had invited Andrée to come and visit her in Australia where she was stationed for work at the time.  “Ah, Soso”, she said, “I have to go visit my James again too!”  She didn’t make it here, but I sure wish with all of my heart that she had.  To have had that opportunity to sit, and talk, and share in the fellowship, that eternal friendship, and to hear her again tell me about that American soldier who lifted her by her tiny, outstretched arms toward the light of Liberty, I would have given all that I have to do that.  While I haven’t heard Andrée’s voice in a very long time, today, my new friend Soraya brought that voice back to me, albeit vibrating quietly beneath the surface of the technology that allowed us to meet in the first place.  It was, indeed, a wonderfully faint conversation between two hearts.  I hope that Andrée’s, like mine, was filtering out the world’s random noise and was listening.  Thank you, Soraya, for being her messenger.

Traditional Holiday at an Un-traditional Time

November 26, 2020

Covid-19 has consumed the entirety of 2020.  At this house, at least, we started a good solid quarantine in early March.  We had our last dinner out at the Cheesecake Factory (but did not order dessert, how stupid were we!?) in late February.  We did a good pantry shop in mid-March, which was a typical thing for us to do since my New England roots run deep and we always have apocalyptic pantry planning in case a snow storm comes in and blocks everything for any length of time, and filled up on everything that we might need for an extended stay at home.  We started figuring out how to order groceries online and have them placed in our car trunk so as to avoid contact with people.  I am convinced that the untrained store clerks who make ‘reasonable substitutions’ to my orders are not just being passive aggressive by sending ‘something green’ (often unidentifiable) when a squash was ordered, but that they want me to hone my skills for the tv sensation, Chopped, and its mystery basket of ingredients!

We have had friendly visits with friends who sat at the picnic table in our yard as we greeted them warmly from the balcony above.  We have increased the amount of time that we spend on the phone talking with people, but we have not joined the facetime craze, trusting instead that we still have an adult-sized dose of object permanence.  We are ok with having to associate a person’s voice with an image we have stored in our memory of what the person looked like.  I do all of my work remotely with the help of several great assistants.  In short, we haven’t had contact with ‘real people’ in nearly nine months.  And we are tired of it to some extent, but grateful for an ample book collection and Netflix in three languages.

            In the past nine months, though, we have also witnessed from the inside of the house, or from the car radio, an entire Presidential campaign season.  In this case, there is a pandemic raging out of control in Wisconsin, with very little political will to effect any real change; our alt-right-leaning legislature is opting instead to protect ‘free-dumb’, just like their cult leader at the White House has been demanding.  If one suggests to some from ‘that side of the aisle’ that we need to celebrate our nations’ holidays differently this year to keep each other safe, one is greeted with calls not to be condescending and elitist, to respect opposing opinions even if we don’t agree, and most of all, not to infringe upon the God-given right to celebrate en masse without ‘living in fear’.  Don’t make the mistake of pointing out that we lost some three thousand souls on 9-11 and that forever changed our country, and that we have already lost over a quarter of a million people to this virus.  That mistake might just get you ‘unfriended’ from social media sites!  Covid-19 is not just another flu, even if we wish it so.  (I also point out that my hometown has about 2800 residents at present, and the calculate risk that some 2% of them might die of the disease is 56 people—no one at home is willing to tell me which 56 should die due to poor choices at the holiday, especially when I remind people that while they would never put themselves on that self-imagined list, they may be on someone else’s!)  All of these arguments about acceptable level of threat sound nice and logical, except for the fact that they are not based in science or reality.  Those contentions reflect also a level of selfishness that is rather unparalleled.  Nothing says I love you and you matter to me at the Holidays more than demonstrating that you don’t care if they live or die, as long as the turkey wasn’t dry and there was plenty of pie to go around!  To be honest, I do not understand how people have become so callous and uncaring for even the people they profess to love the most.

            That said, I am here to tell you that if you choose to host a very socially distanced holiday this year, inviting to the table only those who live in your immediate household, you will indeed survive the experience.  One can not hide behind ‘tradition’ as way to shortcut cogent thinking!  Stay home.  Call your loved ones and eat the whole damned pie yourself.  You will survive.  Traditions (sometimes known as peer pressure from dead people) change and evolve over time; they can even be put on hold.

            I was away in France when I was a Junior in college.  Swept up in the strong desire to host a typical Thanksgiving, while at the same time seeking to blend my new friends in to the traditions we hold dear in the United States, I organized a bit of a party with two of the other kids from the States and we invited a number of our friends from the French fac to join us.  We went big on it.  We found a turkey to roast at a Breton butcher shop.  I made a pumpkin pie from an American-style pumpkin that I found being sold at an American ‘fair’ being held for ‘Halloween’ out by the Eiffel Tower.  Another friend brought ingredients to make our own homemade hand-churned butter to go on the yeast rolls she had made.  We even served a fresh cranberry jelly (from cranberries we way over paid for at an import American shop, since cranberries are almost unattainable in France) to complement the yams (bought from a vendor I knew near Les Halles who said he could get them for me if I ordered them well in advance—he found a farmer near Reims, where Champagne comes from, who grew them in small numbers), the potatoes, the peas and other side dishes we made.  What we had not anticipated was the clash between the two cultures that would ensue!

            The French have very strict (read: pathological) rules about what food items go with what food items.  Pumpkin is a savory item, like all squashes.  It is never eaten as a sweet dessert.  Sacré Bleu!  Everything on one plate, after being served family style?  Mon Dieu!  Cranberries, those are ‘sweet’ and should never be eaten with anything savory.  They are a ‘fruit’ after all.  Ce n’est pas possible!  Well, we made progress, my American friends and I, in convincing our French friends that pumpkin could in fact be a sweet, and no one turned down the whipped cream (crème Chantilly, as the French call it actually has more sugar in it than our version, which is weird given the size of your typical American eater!).  Our French friends insisted however that they would not eat the cranberries, and stated that jellied berries were meant only to be smeared on one’s morning toast and dunked in to coffee.  Unwilling to relent, one friend asked that I make small doggie bags (also not a French concept) of cranberry jelly so that they could do just that.  Friday morning, I got some seriously hilarious phone calls:  “Oh my god, are you trying to kill us?  Do you know how sour those berries are?  Do you know that they do not at all go with coffee!?  I had to throw my breakfast in to the trash!”  Well, ummm, yeah.  You were warned, but you knew better!

            I was so terribly sad that I could not be at home with my family for a traditional Thanksgiving holiday that my only partially successful attempt to host a ‘real Thanksgiving’ for my French friends left me quite depressed about the whole idea.  I spent the following day baking cookies and drinking a healthy amount of vodka to get over the pain.  I suspect the vodka was more helpful than the cookies.  In any case, that Thanksgiving was the first major holiday for which I was unable to be with family.  I cried a bit.  I had several times invited others to join our family for the holiday, taking friends home from college because otherwise they might have spent the day alone on campus without even cafeteria service.  Even then, it was a very standard American holiday, and everyone appeared to enjoy the experience.  My first holiday in France though?  That was an emotional bust.

            What I learned from the experience was that it wasn’t my friends in France who needed to change to help me get through the next holiday.  It was me who had to adapt.  That following month, I went to spend part of my Christmas holiday with my friend Uli and her family, in Germany.  We shared a Christmas dinner and went to visit with some neighbors of her folks.  I bought an extra bottle of the sour-cherry wine that she had served in aperitif to send back to the States for my parents.  (I saved the bottle after we drank it, and I put it out with my other holiday decorations each year to remind me of that first time I missed being at home for Christmas).  From there, I went via train back to France, but skipped Paris, to go to Brittany to a small town, Quimperlé, where a pen pal I had written to for several years lived.  On Christmas night, I sang O Holy Night, in French, at the local parish church, but only after having been told, “You don’t need to tell the priest that you are Methodist.”  We got a drink at the local tavern after the service, and the village clock struck midnight.  There was no tree, no presents, no holiday lights and decorations.  It wasn’t the Christmas I recalled, but I did feel quite loved, just the same.

            In France, people often give a box of chocolates to people that they care about but who they don’t know very well.  I came home from my holiday travels to my Paris room that year with seven kilos of chocolate (that is 15.4 pounds!).  I like chocolate, don’t get me wrong, but I had to give that stuff away by the bagful to anyone who would take some.  I made plenty of friends with my generosity when I made my way back to classes at the university in Nanterre.

            The following holiday season, I was in Spain studying and decided to head up to France for Thanksgiving.  But, by then, I had worked out in my mind the parts of the American holiday season that I valued most.  That boiled down to the feeling of being surrounded by loved ones, a good meal, and taking a day off from the regular chores of life and spending that time in reflection instead.  What really mattered was not the hours and hours of food prep, the number of pies, or even the decorations and other trappings of the holiday.  While I really enjoy all of those things, having to do without is not what upset me the most about being away.  What upset me, in the long run, was that I hadn’t resolved myself that first year to the parts of the holiday that did matter.

A new friend of mine, Soraya Winter, and I met a few months ago over the internet.  She was a very good friend with Andrée Harivel, the Norman woman of whom I have often written on this blog.  Soraya found me because of the eulogy I wrote for my friend, “Dédée” as we called her, upon learning of her passing.  I have been so pleased to make Soraya’s acquaintance because one of the lonely parts of being a student living and working abroad was the fact that when you come home, you are the only one to have had those experiences, to have made those friends, to have loved and been loved by those people.  While Dédée met my family at D-Day, when the world celebrated fifty years since the end of the war, none knew my friend Dédée as I had.  None had fallen so madly in love with this Norman woman who revered America ever since a GI handed her five-year old self a chocolate bar from atop his Sherman tank in the way that I had loved her.  That is, until I met Soraya, who had met Dédée through work years before.  Dédée had largely adopted “Soso” as she had me and was truly a wonderful friend to both of us.  Soraya wrote recently, “I am slowly getting used to the idea that Andrée isn’t anymore with us but regularly I find myself talking to her or crying. I am not crazy but it is like she is not far and sometime depending the situation I can hear her telling me “Allez, Soso, vas-y!  Profites-en, la vie passe vite…” (Go on, Soso, go for it!  Take advantage of the opportunity, life is too short…)  This is something that Dédée told me often also.  I too can hear her voice still; it is a liberating sound.

Knowing that Thanksgiving was an important holiday for me, and for all Americans, Dédée did her best that second year to make a special day of it for me.  While we couldn’t go to her Normandy home for a Thursday because of her work and my need to travel on an overnight train leaving the Atocha station in Madrid, we did make it out for a weekend visit, and invited her two sisters, Thérèse and Jeanine, as well as Thérèse’s husband Michel and their little dog, Mumuse, to join us.  Dédée and I got up early that Saturday morning and went to speak with her fish monger on the docks of Courseulles-sur-Mer, where we were handed a beautiful and fresh turbot fish that had just come in on the boat.  It has been gleefully swimming around the English Channel only hours earlier.  Thérèse must have brought the special turbot-shaped poaching pan to cook it in because I don’t recall Dédée owning one.  A turbot is a strange flat fish that looks like a sting-ray of sorts, and to poach it, one needs a shallow diamond shaped pan.  We also stopped by to get some belon oysters (which they all enjoyed; I had pâté de fois gras instead) at the oyster growers, as well as a nice bottle of wine from the vinter.  Thérèse brought the rest of the meal.  We sat for lunch at two o’clock and didn’t get up until it was time for bed.  The following day, Dédée and I walked to Banville to spend the day with my friend Marie Chirot, who said upon seeing me come in to the yard, “Oh, if I had known you were coming, I would have slaughtered a rabbit for lunch!”  No need to kill Thumper on my behalf, I thought.  It wasn’t a holiday like the others I had known.  No turkey, no pie, but lots of love.  Dédée had captured nicely the holiday I had been missing.

The following year, when Dédée and I got together for Thanksgiving, it was just the two of us and we enjoyed a nice bavette à l’échalotte together.  While it wasn’t the big holiday, it was just lovely.  We went for a long walk that evening on the Juno Landing Beach (which is how Courseulles is known today) and went for a ‘bain de minuit’ (a midnight swim, otherwise known as a skinny dip) in the English Channel before putting our sandy shorts back on and retiring for the evening to a warm shower to rinse off and a candlelit mug of tisane (a hot herbal tea made of linden flowers and mint) in the new chairs Dédée had commissioned be built earlier that fall, before heading upstairs to bed.  I lay awake that night staring out the skylight window in the room she gave me while I stayed in her house, thinking about my family back home.  While Mom was sad that I couldn’t be there with everyone, she was glad to know that I had gotten what really mattered out of the day, a bit of love.

Since my time living alone in Europe ended, I haven’t always been able to afford to travel to Maine to be with family for Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Easter.  (We’ll talk later about why teachers are so poorly paid in this country!)  This year, regrettably, won’t be much different in that respect.  Owing to the pandemic, I will instead, since Gregory and I had Thanksgiving on Sunday due to a bit of a miscalculation (I had bought one too many turkeys for the freezer so the one that thawed too early for the holiday was made when it needed to be cooked!), have a nice Spanish Paella with seafood, shrimp and turkey chunks and chorizo (Spanish sausage, not the Mexican ground meat version) instead.  We will be here, just the two of us.  In quarantine, just as we have been since early March.  We won’t be traveling to be with his aunts and uncles in a Madison suburb.  We won’t be seeing Gregory’s cousins.  We will just be here, and then perhaps go for a drive to see the holiday lights people have put up around the city.  It will be different because it needs to be.  Thanksgiving REALLY needs to be different this year so that next year, when the holiday rolls around again, everyone will still be here with us.  It isn’t about risk, or freedom to choose or any of that.  Skipping out on the family gathering is a necessary evil this year.

But just like when I couldn’t recreate America while living in France, or when Dédée and I shared a steak in peaceful quiet, we can still share in the love we have for others.  I will begin my day with phone calls to my Dad and siblings in Maine and Tennessee; and Gregory and I will eat waffles with blueberries and maple syrup for breakfast and have paella for lunch/dinner with leftover turkey bits in soup with salad for dinner.  There won’t be a huge table set and lots of people, but the essential will be there.  It is just the way it has to be.

Be safe.  Celebrate in person with those who live with you, and give everyone else a nice call, or zoom them.  And if you have to go out of your house for anything, wear your mask.  I for one will be thankful that friends like Soraya continue to remind me of the happy times I had with Dédée, and will think of my late Mom who undoubtedly has already started making her mince pie, her cranberry raising pie, her pumpkin pie, wherever she is tonight, with her Mom’s help, as they celebrate with us from the other side of that rainbow bridge.  I hope Dédée is able to join them.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!