1995 was already more than half over when Charlie arrived, but the whole year was softened and warmed by his arrival. From the moment Marie-Hélène deduced that she was “enceinte,” something special was in the air.
She kept a family diary throughout our years together, with vacations and day trips and children’s visits detailed most of the time. Early in 1995, one of the first entries in that year’s diary, in January, is two lists of names, one a list of boy’s names, and one a list of girl’s names.
I was not aware of these early lists, which at six or seven names each were not long, but the three names that Charles was given, and that I had the mistaken impression that I helped choose months later, were on that list of boys’ names!
* * *
The hard part was that throughout the year, our blending family was unfortunately still the subject of a fair amount of animosity from both Pierre, Daphné and Alban’s father, and Sunshine, Nick and Tom’s mother.
Sunshine expressed her not necessarily favorable opinions on our new family with some regularity to Nick and Tom. Pierre contented himself with pleading poverty in response to Marie-Hélène’s suit for modest child support, which she started when he repeatedly professed to never have enough to help. But he too expressed his anger to and through his children, if less directly and often than Sunshine. “Scandale de Pierre dans la rue devant les enfants,” wrote Marie-Hélène in the diary in March. “Pierre made a scene on the street in front of the children.” The diary entry gave more detail, but you get the idea.
More troubling for all three, Marie-Hélène, Daphné and Alban, were missed appointments when Pierre didn’t show up as scheduled, and his increasing tendency over the year to put them up at a former girlfriend’s house in St Germain rather than at the apartment he had shared with their maman in Paris.
Each other parent regularly “lost” items of the children’s clothing, typically more expensive items. Neither demonstrated much flexibility in terms of arrangements for vacations and the like. At times, we both had the strange feeling that they were acting in unison.
As we were in a contested child custody proceeding, Nick and Tom’s summer holiday time with each of their mother and me was determined by the court. They were with Sunshine in July, and at the end of the month I left La Grée where we were spending the summer to pick them up at her place in Paris. We made it back to La Grée on the afternoon of Daphné’s birthday, right before when her birthday party had been planned. Nick had spent his birthday four days earlier with his mother, at the end of their summer vacation together. Daphné was a good sport, and let us call it a joint party at La Grée.
Pierre and Marie-Hélène made their own arrangements without court interference. He took Daphné and Alban with him for their summer vacation for a couple of weeks in August. So the four children did not spend a lot of the summer together that year. Somehow, it didn’t matter.
For one thing, they all spent a lot of time at La Grée. France is blessed with frequent vacations, and we took advantage of most of them to drive out to La Grée for a week or ten days in February and April as well as for the extended stay during the summer. Grand-père had retired to this charming stone cottage in Brittany, and it became our home away from home. I even had a separate phone line installed there, to facilitate faxes, then still the principal mode of professional communication.
For another, the children were getting along well. The happy accident of their closeness in age (Daphné and Nick are a year apart and Alban and Tom only three weeks) was bearing fruit. Nick and Tom had already attended the school in Hermeray from January 1994, and so had a bit of a head start on Daphné and Alban when they arrived in August. As 1995 progressed, this head start dissipated, and all of the children were finding their own friends and inviting and being invited to parties.
From what appeared to be an early age, the centerpiece of each of our children’s lives has been their friends.
* * *
Their school where they made these first friends together, l’Ecole de Hermeray, was a quaint little village school of the old style. In the US, it would have been closed years before and the children bused to a large school in the nearest town with children from all the surrounding villages. More efficient, certainly, but lacking a certain sense of community. Community was what our children needed, and rural life in Hermeray, and then in neighboring St. Hilarion (where they remained at the same school), gave it to them.
The children were happy there. All the conflicts around them did manifest themselves in their schoolwork, at least that’s the way it seemed to me, but they were still young, with plenty of time to recover.
The children‘s athletic interest at Le Tahu was principally judo, with weekly classes and occasional competitions. This was our first taste of modern parenting, as in “spending your weekends watching young athletes at play,” not forgetting driving them to practice and tournaments in local towns.
They also enjoyed bicycling through la Forêt de Rambouillet, the national forest that surrounded us. At least we could, and did, join in on these rides. Well, some of us did. Others felt that too much physical exertion could have adverse consequences. They would meet up with us after the ride in a cafe in Rambouillet!
We did the weekly shopping about twice a week at Carrefour, the local hypermarket in Rambouillet, where for some reason we always seemed to have lots of fun. After WalMart, Carrefour is the world’s second largest retailer. Lunch on those shopping days was at Flunch, French fast food with an anglicized name.
I continued working from home during the year, as the advantages of the PC were becoming clearer. With the Delrina WinFax Pro program installed, I could even convert faxes into text using the built-in OCR application and work on them pre-typed, as it were. Now that was a labor-saving device for a two-finger typist!
1995 was a good year for work, and the first year that the possibilities of these new technologies became evident. No more being chained to a desk! I worked at home, at La Grée and even in my client’s offices, wherever they happened to be. They liked the convenience as much as I.
* * *
Grandma was less present in person during 1995, which was a bad year for her in terms of her visibly deteriorating health. She only made it to France once during the course of the year, for her birthday in January. We all stayed with her and her friend Kay on that occasion at Disneyland. She did not have the strength to visit us again, although she tried to find a way several times during the course of the year.
Nick, Tom and I paid her a visit in August, when Marie-Hélène was too far along in the pregnancy to travel that far and Daphné and Alban were with Pierre. She tried hard, but we were a bit too much for her, even after she put us up in hotels rather than her home so that we (read the children) were not all over her.
In retrospect, I’m of course delighted that we did persist in visiting, even after her health made the visits more difficult. She was not long for this world.
The annual passports that she had offered us to Disneyland offered us all joy all year long. Disneyland was where the children could always be children, whatever was happening around them, and they loved it there. Charlie‘s first visit was when he was 16 days old, just to get him juiced in it.
* * *
Back to the theme of the year, Charlie’s arrival, at La Clinique des Augustines in Malestroit. Daphné had been born there eight years before. The Augustines are a relatively small order of Catholic nuns, and their clinic was founded in 1929.
The nuns’ Mother Superior during World War 2, Mère Yvonne-Aimeé, was honored by Général de Gaulle for her services to the Resistance, in particular for sheltering British airmen. She was doing this before the American presence in the war was really felt, and thus before the Liberation of France could be realistically perceived. She was doing this at the same time as her clinic was caring for German wounded, at the request of the occupying army. The nuns were caring for English airmen and German soldiers on the same property at the same time! Their Mother Superior explained after the war that their mission was taking care of the sick, whoever they were. All the nuns risked being shot at any time an Allied airman or a member of the French Resistance was found on their property. This is the kind of courage in religion that makes it easy to have faith!
De Gaulle also honored all of Brittany for its peoples’ efforts on behalf of the Resistance, in a very practical way. He promised them that they would never have to pay to use the new turnpikes that France was building in Brittany. So now when you arrive in Brittany from the rest of France, the paying autoroute turns into a free autoroute at the border. Too few know why.
Not a bad place to be born.