Nick was my first born. For Sunshine and me, his arrival in Manhattan marked that bright line between living for ourselves and living for another.
I had lived a rich (in experience, not cash!) and prolonged youth, and had been wanting a baby for years, ever since discovering the pleasures of looking after Antony and Laura, my sister Sue’s children. Of course, there’s no way to prepare for when it actually happens. But that was fine with me: I knew what I wanted, and the rest was simple adaptation.
Through Nick I first learned how to mix and warm baby formula, and how to sterilize baby bottles and everything that they touched. I learned to hold him and comfort him when he cried, and to catch catnaps between bouts of his crying and still wake up in time for work. Through him, I first knew the meaning of an exploding diaper! Life with Nick has always been and continues to be a collection of firsts.
Not the least of which was this poignant moment when Marie-Hélène first moved in with me in Le Tahu.
Sunshine had already moved out of the house, where we had spent a few months under the same roof in an attempt at reconciliation in early 2004. We’d been living apart for over two years before that, and needless to say the attempt had failed.
It had only been a few months since she had left after the failed reconciliation, and I thought that it would still be a good idea if she was not in the local area when Marie-Hélène and her children moved in with me and the boys. Sunshine and I shared custody of Nick and Tom, with the boys living half the week with each parent.
Sunshine took them to visit her family in California in August of that year, and Marie-Hélène moved herself and Daphné and Alban in with me while they were gone.
I told Nick and Tom about the move over the phone during a call with them in California, so that they would be prepared for changes at my home when they returned. The four children knew each other, but not well, and it was going to be a big change for all. Nick and Tom were excited and enthusiastic over the phone: this was going to be an adventure! Most new things can be for young children. Having watched them together with Marie-Hélène, Daphné and Alban, I thought that they would be okay, and was relieved by their initial reactions.
During a later call during their vacation with their mom, Nick confided that although he was looking forward to coming home, he wondered where was everybody going to sleep. There were not a lot of bedrooms in Le Tahu, and I used one as my home office! I explained that we would have two sets of bunk beds in the large family room upstairs where he and Tom had had one before. That was a satisfactory answer: it was big room.
In a worried tone, he then added that his mom was not too happy with the new arrangements. Sounding a little disappointed, he continued, hoping that I wouldn’t be bothered, “you understand that, dad, right?” My heart went out to him. “Yes sweetheart, I do. That was to be expected. Don’t worry.”
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As Charlie says, Nicholas is the “plus grand enfant,” the biggest child. He was always the oldest, and that little vacation telephone call gives you a flavor of the additional responsibility that role entails. He’s been doing that sort of intermediary work between his parents and other members of the family for most of his life.
But this blended family never had a clear “ainé” (older child). Daphné was only a year younger than Nick, give or take a few days, and had been the older in her initial family with Alban. Which was not a role that she was inclined to give up just because Nick was a year older: that was a technical point, basically irrelevant!
And there were three other “ainés” in this blended family: both Marie-Hélène and I were the older in the Berhaut and Stock families of our respective childhoods, and Charles is the older relative to Alex in the Stock-Berhaut family.
You may find all this complicated (although we do try to explain on this page), but the children have no trouble with it at all. Each has the simple rule that he or she is the boss no matter what anyone else may say! Much of the time, it’s a barely restrained anarchy.
On ne s’appel pas des zinzins pour rien !! (Free translation: there’s a reason we call ourselves goofballs!),
But it was the battle for dominance which came to characterize Nick and Daphné’s relationship, the simple desire to continue to be the older after years of being accustomed to it, that had the most powerful effects in our little group.
Well, with the possible exception of that inevitable struggle between the parents! All over the world, women ask themselves why their other halves don’t simply see the light and give up. It was the same in our house! Daphné’s incomprehension of why Nick persisted in believing that he should be the older (because he was, maybe!) was a junior version of her mother’s incomprehension of my attempts to have some say in a few joint decisions. “Because I live here.” “We’ll fix that!”
The struggle for the prerogatives of the older were just a background buzz most of the time. Another first for Nick was a desire to act independently, expressed at what was for me a reassuringly young age.
Before leaving France, we started going on bike rides through la Forêt de Rambouillet, the national park where we lived in Le Tahu and La Bellanderie. When there were still kings, it used to be stocked with deer and wild boar for them to hunt. It’s still beautiful, and relatively flat (it wouldn’t do for royalty to be obliged to work for its kills!), perfect for bike rides for beginners (children) and the chronically unfit (parents!). We once disturbed a wild boar exploring an intriguing, abandoned stone cottage just off the path: “what was that when it was used?” The boar shot out from somewhere inside: we barely saw it as it flashed by. Fortunately, it was able to get away without running through us or over us.
Nick was very enthusiastic about these bike rides. Before we left France, he convinced us to allow him to bike alone in the evening to visit his friend David. David’s family lived maybe a mile away from La Bellanderie, most of the route along a quiet country lane, and so we acceded to the request. His desire for independent action at the age of nine was gratifying.
The same independent instincts saw him finding a job programming for a local company while he was still at high school, and spending six months at a time touring around Europe after he graduated. That’s what being young is for!
I don’t really remember when it became clear that computers were going to play more of a role in his life than as a tool or a toy.
I do remember him dismantling my first little PC, a Compaq notebook with a black and white screen and a 64MB hard drive that I brought back to Paris from a vacation in Palo Alto in 1992. It cost about $3,500, including Windows 3.1, and I was rather attached to it and planned on hanging on to it. I’m hooked on nostalgia! Didn’t work in this case: Nick never could put it back together! I don’t know what he learned from taking it apart, but did ask myself if this demonstrated an interest in gadgets or a potential for vandalism!
We gave him a PC for his 13th birthday, in the summer of 1999. It cost us very little, and came with a little inkjet printer. eMachines and AOL put that very smart deal together. If you bought an eMachines computer, for $399, and subscribed to an AOL ISP service (and everyone needed an Internet Service Provider to get on-line) for two years at $21.99 per month, then you received a $400 rebate. Even if you didn’t buy the eMachines PC, you would still end up paying $19.99 or something like that for your ISP. In short, this was a great deal for us and for AOL, which was essentially purchasing subscribers.
Nick loved that modest little eMachines PC, from day one. No ifs, ands or buts; he just loved it. He experimented with it, and added bits on to it, and fiddled with it, and that was it. He was the first of our children to figure out his passion, the passion which would become career.
As our first teenager and adolescent, he was also first to reach some less happy milestones. However much you try as parents, things can and do go wrong. They did for Nick in 2004. The state of his car after the crash was the least of his problems, the least of our problems. It took us years to work through them. It took him years to work through them, harder years for him than for us, but work through them he did.
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After high school graduation in 2004, he started traveling and exploring a fair bit, mostly in Europe. He spent the six months from July 2004 to January 2005 based with his mother in Paris, wandering around from country to country and job to job. He spent a second six months in Paris from January to June 2007. One of the great advantages shared by all of our children is the legal right to work anywhere in Europe. Nick and Tom both took full advantage.
At the same time, he started at Cabrillo, the local junior college, in January 2005, and found jobs with what seemed to me, remembering my own difficulty finding work at his age, to be relative ease. His home life when he was in Santa Cruz was a mixture of rooms in shared houses or apartments, with occasional stays with us when things went wrong somehow in one of them.
That’s his final first in the family. Logically enough, he was overall the first to find his footing outside of our family home, the first to travel extensively under his own steam, and the first to start a career track. None of which will do him any harm moving forward.
Finally, here are a few earlier pictures of Nicholas, when he was a small boy in Paris.