My mother always wanted to live in a French Provincial house–but the house she imagined was in Fairway Manor, Kansas not in rural France. And her idea of “French Provincial” was not a southwest peasant Perigord but a Midwest suburban ranch. A shake shingle roof, wide soffits, and something called “weeping mortar” could turn a Frank Lloyd Wright Prairie House into a domesticated Mansard. Decorate the inside in late fifties chartreuse drapes and upholstery, put identical lamps on identical tables on either side of a three cushion couch (with a matching “coffee table” in front–on which you never had coffee, and in a living room in which you did not live), and you were in my mother’s Midi.
“I don’t know why you have to leave America,” my mother said when I told her I planned to settle in France. “How am I going to call you if I need you?” We are sitting (for once) at my mother’s coffee table. I have come on a surprise visit over a May weekend that has lifted the ban on the living room.
“I’ll write out all the numbers.”
“They’ll be in French,” my mother said.
“French numbers and America numbers are the same,” I said.
“You’re talking,” she said. My mother had a way of teasing me that I was never sure about.
“I’ll call you,” I said.
“I’ll be here,” my mother had said. “But write me as well. You can’t reread a phone call.”
“Do you speak French?”
“Un petit peu.”
“What does that mean?”
“ ‘A little bit,’” I said.
“You can tell me other French words when you call.”
“Five a phone call and after a year you’ll be speaking French,” I said.
“I should live so long.”
My mother was suspicious of Europe, especially of France. Not that she was ignorant of foreign countries. Because my father had worked for TWA, we traveled when I was growing up: Paris. Rome. Venice. London. And a few car trips as well. I remember a long drive from Athens to Paris along the peaceful Adriatic coast of Tito’s Yugoslavia, complete with a two-day stop in Joyce’s Trieste.
And not that my mother was the “Ugly American” of those days. She traveled with patience and modesty, and with the understanding that if she did not always appreciate the local customs that was more her problem than others. Still, it did not suit her in Paris to eat hard rolls in the mornings, nor to drink wine at lunch, nor for the stores to be closed from noon to two–nor for dinner to be served at eight in the evening.
“It is bad for the digestion,” she would say. “You’ll just get fat and lazy eating so much at night and then going to sleep on a full stomach. And the lunches they have! With wine. And corks in the bottles. No wonder they have to take a nap.” It was my mother who insisted that we book reservations at our Paris hotel restaurant for six. We ate in lonely splendor. And then took a long walk along the Seine afterwards.
“That’s better,” she had said. “Look at Notre Dame. The name means ‘Our Lady.’ The French are Catholic. Tomorrow we go home.” Home was Fairway Manor, Kansas. Weeping mortar. A privet hedge. Anne Page bread from which she made “French Toast” on Sundays. And dinner at six, with wine–my mother drank Mogen David. No corks. My father had a Jim Beam before dinner. A Coors afterwards. On Fridays two Coors while he watched the fights.
But even given her relative patience with foreign travel, my mother was still wary of it. There was the water problem. The money was difficult to figure. Venice had an odor about it. In Athens they spoke Greek. In Paris it rained. There were menus to read and misunderstand (in northern Italy she once ordered what appeared to me then–and even now in my mind’s eye–to be the stuffed intestine of a small mammal). The traffic was impossible. Especially in cities where her assignment was to be the navigator to my captain father.
“We are at via Vicenza and Polizia,” said my mother as we wound our way in and around Rome one day in desperate search of our hotel. We had just come back from a two-day trip down the Almafie drive.
“That can’t be,” said my father.
“Now we are at Via Vicenza and Gelato,” said my mother.
“’Gelato’ means ice cream,” I said from the back seat.
“’Polizia’ probably means ‘police’,” my father said from his Captain’s seat. When under pressure my father would resort to understatement.
“There’s the train station,” my mother said. “Does that help?”
“We’re looking for Piazza Navona,” my father said. “Our hotel is just off the Piazza Navona.”
“We’re at Piazza Maggiore,” said my mother, looking up from her map, then down, then up. “Take the first left.” Which my father did, going a number of blocks the wrong way up a one-way street against a full orchestra of Italian horns.
“I don’t think this right,” said my father.
“Oh dear,” said my mother. “Now we’re at Via de Serpenti and Gelato.” In Rome all roads lead to ice cream. Or to the Polizia–who stopped us just as we exited into Roman sunshine of some fountained circle–and then waved us on when they saw that my mother was an American housewife lost in her map.
“When we get to the hotel may I get an ice cream cone?”
“Just what are you going to do in France?” my mother had asked that May Sunday.
“Live,” I said. How else to explain to her what I was not sure I could explain to myself.
“Not like the French, I hope,” she said. “Promise me you won’t eat late. You’ll just get fat and lazy. Or drink wine for lunch. And tell the truth when you write me, not like those stories of yours. The things you make up.”
“I won’t promise,” I said. “But by this time next year, you can come and see for yourself. I’ll pick you up at the airport. You’ll be speaking French.”
“I should live so long,” she said. “Now where is it you are you going to be?”
“Southwestern France,” I said. “Far from Paris.”
“Do they still have those hard rolls?” she said. “And what about the water?”
“The water is fine,” I said. “And yes they still have the hard rolls. But I eat pain au chocolate for breakfasts.”
“You don’t want to know.”
“You must eat cereal for breakfast,” she said. “Even in France. And remember cheese constipates. Eat salads with dinner. Prunes will help.”
“I don’t see the sense in it,” she said. “Show me on a map exactly where you’re going to live so I know where to call when I need you.”
I got out the map of France and southern Europe I had brought along for her to see where Bordeaux was, and where St. Emilion and Castillion were, and where the tiny village of St. Michel de Montaigne was–for it was in St. Michel and on the former Montaigne estate that I had made arrangements with Armel, a friend of mine, to restore an old farm house in exchange for living there. Until the basic work was done I would be staying in Armel’s guest house in the village itself.
“Have we ever been there?” said my mother as she looked at the map, and the place on the map I had circled. “Did we go there with your father?”
“No,” I said. “I have been there, but you haven’t. However the three of us drove up through Austria from Athens, then on to Paris.” And I showed her the route we had taken.
“Where did I order the inside of the possum?” she asked. “You remember the time I ordered the inside of the possum?”
“I do,” I said. And I pointed to northern Italy.
“Do you remember the time in Rome when I kept telling your father we were at the corner of Via whatever and ice cream,” she said.
“I do indeed,” I said.
“Those were good times,” she said. “And do you remember how your father took us to Alfrado’s after we finally found the hotel, and that Alfrado served me the pasta in his own bowl with those golden spoons.”
“And when the violinist came to our table your father asked him to play Come back to Sorrento, because that was the day we came back from Sorrento and how scared I was of the road.” She is looking at the map and with her finger finding these places on it.
“I remember that as well,” I said.
“Your father was very patient with me,” said my mother. “Now tell me again, why are you going to France?”
“It is a doctor for you from American on the phone,” Armel says. It is the middle of the night. He has come over to the guesthouse to wake me.
Over the summer I had made it my habit to call my mother every Sunday. In this way I have told her of my life in France: How the water is safe to drink; that I have named the swallows nesting at the farm house I am restoring; and about Hooter, a Dame Blanche that flies out of attic each evening at dusk. I have not told her that I drink wine with corks in the bottles.
She wants to know about the weather and if I am eating my cereal. And salads. And prunes. I tell her about the trips I make with Armel in his Deux Chevaux, and that its name means “two horses,” and that the French word for ice cream is glace, and the word for street is rue. I have written her as well, but not as often as I should have. You can’t reread a phone call echoes in my head after all these years.
As summer faded and September came on, I tell my mother about the grape harvest, and how I am helping at the Montaigne estate pick the grapes that will be made into wine, and that I will have the owner sign a bottle for her that will be her present when she visits me next May. I tell her that we will use Armel’s Deux Chevaux and ride to Castillion and have lunch at the Hotel des Voyageurs and drink wine from a bottle that had a cork in it–and afterward, we will have glace from a pastry shop I know down the rue were the ice cream is rich and smooth.
I should live so long, she had said on the phone the Sunday before Armel came to the guest room to wake me.
—Memoir by Robert Day
Robert Day‘s most recent books are Where I Am Now, a collection of short stories published by the University of Missouri-Kansas City BookMark Press, Speaking French in Kansas (short stories) and The Committee to Save the World (literary non-fiction) can be obtained through Western Books. His 1977 novel The Last Cattle Drive was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and has seen multiple reprintings. Day is past president of the Associated Writing Programs and Adjunct Professor at Washington College in Maryland.