president is making your grandfather sick!" my great-aunt Jacqueline once
yelled at me. Two years into Pepe's dementia,
he was still living on his own, as he had for the ten years since Meme's death,
but not without great effort on his part. And my aunt's. Though it was her
sister who had committed herself to Pepe in 1944, Jacqueline was the one fated
to fulfill the ‘till death do us part' end of the contract. I doubt it was
something this single, childless, and proud feminist had planned for.
marked my first visit to France independent of my parents. I was twenty, old
enough to know nothing. W was in the White House. The French were not pleased,
least of all the fierce socialist, now matriarch of the family. I showed up at '54',
the two hundred year old family home in Chantilly, with a dozen tubes of oil
paint, a roll of canvas and all the enthusiasm of a college art sophomore. Pepe
found an old piece of plywood for me to staple my canvas to. I lugged this
cumbersome easel around the property looking for inspiration and settled on a
large clay flowerpot brimming with red geraniums. The entire yard was like
that, thriving and well cared for, with a huge vegetable garden, raspberry
bushes, cherry trees, an apple tree grafted with six different flavors de
pomme. Tante Jacqueline's garden at her
home in the nearby village of Veniuil was no less bountiful, though she tended
more to flowers than Pepe- a difference I imagined was cultivated as much by
history as personal preference. Poor rural farm boy from the southern region of
Lot versus upper middle-class daughter from a family of masonry artisans with
ties to Paris.
first strokes of the painting, I chose a large brush, bristles laid flat but
formed to a curve at the end. Not that I knew what I was doing with that
particular tool. Round, flat, bright, filbert; all brush types were the same to
me. They moved liquid color in a most delicious way. That afternoon, partial
shade covered the courtyard, creating a lovely diagonal of light across stone
tiles. I mixed creamy peach and somber
slate, squirted cadmium red straight from the tube, and filled the blank
surface with color. Between trips to the kitchen and garden, Pepe paused to
check on progress.
"Oh, que c'est
beaux!" he said with the same tone of enthusiasm used to compliment my
hodge-podge, effervescent French.
"Ca qui est
la plus importante, c'est de parler." That
which is most important, he always said,
is to speak. He admonished that my
older sister's emphasis on perfect conjugations and tenses limited her ability
to communicate in the moment. A classroom teacher of forty years, I believed
him and imagined the same applied to art.
argue? There I was, painting in France like Monet and Van Gogh. An artist. As
colors stuck their skin to canvas, my subjects found form- a pot, flowers,
corner, ground. The blade of my palette knife scraped paint to mark the curving
edge of a petal and tile patterns when other techniques failed to articulate
boundaries. Every now and then, I stood back to assess progress as instructed
by my teachers. Without the anchor of a darker value beneath, the pot levitated
like a magician's model from the ground, but I didn't mind. I was lost in a
magical forest of beauty where what I saw and how I responded was enough.
Jacqueline arrived several hours later with a straw basket full of fresh
produce. It was hard to imagine her without baskets or bags in her arms full of
ingredients. Almost everything I adored about French food was a product of her
culinary hand. This visit, I hoped to spend time in the kitchen observing and
learning from her. Tante Jacqueline busied herself in the kitchen while I set
about cleaning brushes with paint thinner and linseed oil. The diagonal of
light had disappeared, the long, warm twilight of July setting in. I looked
upward at a rectangle of sky framed by the narrow, u-shaped complex. A flock of
pigeons passing overhead created quick, dark silhouettes against waning blue. Tante Jacqueline stepped outside and lit a
cigarette. She stared at the painting propped against the wall.
n'ai pas utilizes plus nuance?" she asked. Why
didn't you use more value?
"Je. . . . je.
. ." I stumbled as my words took flight. "Je ne sais pas." I mumbled. I don't
plat," Tante Jacqueline said with a shrug. It's
flat. She ground her cigarette in the ashtray and turned back inside. I
slid my brushes back into the holder sewn from an old hand towel then placed
the paints in the rectangular wooden box gifted by my dad. Curved metal hooks
slipped into metal loops to secure the lid. The painting smelled too much of
solvents to bring inside. Rain looked unlikely. I turned the bright red
blossoms around to face the wall, then climbed the creaking, curving staircase
to my room. It was slow going, dragging all that discouragement and embarrassment
to the third floor. Aside from teachers
paid to engage in my artistic development for a semester at-a-time, Tante
Jacqueline was the closest thing I had to an artistic role model. How often I
opened the family album to admire the simple colored pencil sketch she drew of
my parents, sisters and I holding old-fashioned square suitcases from a visit I
was too little to remember. "Famille
Pechuzal a la aeroport" the caption said. Pechuzal
family at the airport. I stared at neat figures that diminished in size
from Dad to toddler Caroline. Loose,
graceful lines belied forms like those depicted on sewing pattern packets. A
real drawing, in our house, with people I knew.
Jacqueline spoke more of her opinions and projects than of herself, my father
told me that in younger days she sketched fashion at Paris runway shows. Designers
afraid of pirating had banned cameras, so large scale manufacturers hired
artists to copy the latest trends for mass reproduction. I pictured her riding
the train from Chantilly to Paris, fashionable hat and purse, threading her way
through the crowded metro, and finding a seat in a large tent. As lithe models
sauntered down the runway, her hand moved with quick assurance across the page.
At the end of the day, she handed her sheath of drawings to an editor in
exchange for a check. A paid artist documenting the latest of another art form.
In her home, magazines, books, and posters about art filled the many nooks and
crannies. Literature, history, and politics garnered equal attention. When we
were children, Jacqueline worked as head librarian. Though less glamorous than
fashion illustration in the eyes of a young girl, her librarianship still
incurred respect. During biannual trips across the Atlantic, our family was privy
to behind the scenes tours of exhibits she had designed about historical
events, children's book illustrators, or manuscripts. On weekends, she took us
to churches and castles of architectural splendor. I marveled at marble skinned
kings and queens resting beneath St. Dennis, the Bible stories carved in stone
on the column capitals of monastic cloisters. I fell in love with art history.
years, Tante Jacqueline came to America to visit us. Cliff dwellings and
complexes of the indigenous Southwest people replaced castles and cathedrals.
Jacqueline admired the craftsmanship and geometric design of Navajo ceramics,
the sculpture of their jewelry, the adventure of the natural scenery. Her
approval stopped at food. "C'est trop sucre"
she said of the pizza sauce, it's too
sugary and went through half a dozen napkins to blot grease off the cheese.
I couldn't believe it. Sammy B's stood
at the apex of my culinary experiences. Tante Jacqueline expressed concern that
her grandnieces lacked in French culture though I, on the other hand, felt as
French as they came. Just listen to my name: Justine Therese Pechuzal. Unpronounceable
to every first-day-of-school teacher, kindergarten through high school.
and Pepe visited us in America, everything was beautiful, wonderful, delicious.
Meme smothered me in her bountiful
bosom with hugs. In addition to sightseeing, they visited our schools and
attended band recitals. For the Junior National Honor Society Induction Pepe
wore a tie, Meme twisted her long hair into a bun, and paired a strand of beads
with a printed dress. They showed interest in Barbies and amusement at
halloween costumes. Everywhere we went, Pepe proudly introduced others to "My
American grandchildren." Their love was safe.
was gone, and Pepe was slowly making his way to rejoin her. Tante Jacqueline
showed the effects of time as well. Though she still walked to the market and
drove herself to appointments, things like hosting the three hour, six course
meals for which she had a reputation had begun to show their strain. The straw
that broke the camel's back was named Paul. A college dorm friend from Texas,
he was on a soccer tour of Europe during my visit, so I invited him for a day
trip to Chantilly. It was our family home, and I was family. That morning, we
walked to the 18th century castle down the street, the race track,
the palatial horse stables built by a duke convinced of equine reincarnation. "Weird,"
Paul said, or "That's cool," or "What's next?" I had thought the sacred nature
of these places would be more obvious to a person from my world, failing to
recognize Chantilly as city number eight on the business major-cum-jock's
fourteen destination agenda. What Paul did whole heartedly embrace were baguettes,
sausage, and cheese. As customary, Tante Jacqueline came to 54 for lunch. She
and Pepe arranged a simple assortment of foods, bowed for grace, then passed
the plates around the wooden table. Pepe tried out a few simple phrases in
like France?" he asked Paul.
not bad," Paul responded between mouthfuls of food. "Lots of castles."
you from?" Pepe asked, emphasizing a unique choice of syllables.
Texas, but after my parents divorced, I split time in Chicago too. You ever
been there?" "Eh?" Pepe asked.
savoir si tu connaissait Chicago," I translated. He asks if you have been to Chicago.
She-ca-go!" Pepe said. "Non."
Tante Jacqueline understood most spoken English and possessed a broader
vocabulary than Pepe, she remained silent. After a few more parlays, Paul
lapsed into English conversation about his soccer games and news of friends at
home. I cringed as he ate a lot, fast, and talked a lot, fast.
is great!" he said, tearing off another piece baguette. I looked at Tante
Jacqueline in hopes the compliment had caught her ear.
comprend pas qu'il est dans une payasage qui parle francaise?" she grumbled. He doesn't comprehend that he is in French
comprehended the language difference all right, and assumed that because he
spoke not a word of it, he may as well express himself as he felt comfortable. Classic.
What Paul didn't know was that at Pechuzal meals, one took a modest helping of
a dish, passed the rest, and waited until served again. Once the food was on
the plate, eaters were expected to savor the full flavor of each bite, and
allow conversation to fill the space between taste. If one did not know the
language at the table, according to Tante Jacqueline anyhow, one should sit and
imbibe as much as possible. Particularly if the foreign language was one spoken
by a country practicing global dominance.
"So what do
you think about those freedom fries?" Paul asked, and reached across the table
for the plate of saucisson.
assez pour Malika!" Tante Jacqueline demanded. "Elle arriverai sur le train de
Paris apres midis!"
the last pink and white speckled sausage rounds onto his plate then looked at
up?" he asked.
wants to make sure we leave enough for my cousin." I said. "She's coming later
okay," Paul said, and scraped the offending piglets back to the serving plate. Lunch
was over. I shooed Paul and Pepe to the
living room to watch the World Cup match on TV, then carried dishes to the sink.
Tante Jacqueline smoked by the door. When the kitchen was clean, I brought her
bags outside. She was clearly ready to
le repas," I said. Thank you for the meal.
finished her cigarette and paused for a long minute.
comprehend pas," she said, You don't
understand. Her voice sounded. . . weary?
understand. Before that summer, I hadn't
comprehended the Atlantic's true width. Nor had I seen the myriad of invisible
strings pulled by parents and family that made previous experiences abroad a
success. I believed that family trumped politics, aging meant wrinkles, dreams
were things to be chased and seized. I didn't know adulthood meant relieving
others of responsibilities carried so long for me.
my shoe against the courtyard grass. Once upon a time, my sisters and I had
stood in the same spot showing off new dresses hand-sewn by Tante Jacqueline. Caroline
in blue and white stripes, me in pink flowers, Emilie in a red and yellow
floral pattern, each smocked with intricate stitching across the chest. We
curtsied for the camera.
belles filles!" Tante Jacqueline said. What beautiful girls! She laughed and clapped her hands, as if
we were models on a runway.
Jacqueline possessed a laugh like her claps, full of joy, life and fun. She did
nonsensical things, like erect a white fabric tent in her backyard that housed
a wrought iron chaise lounge and plush pillows. When my cousins and I came
over, she unearthed the croquet set from the shed and encouraged us to play. She
wrote a story about the dusty piano in the garage, its strings cut by German
soldiers during WWII. She sent Christmas gifts wrapped in fabric, stuffed cats
with stitched green eyes, or whimsical cartoons framed in glass and electrical
wire tape. She did what she wanted, and shared generously from that trove. We
were lucky to have her.
they put my great-aunt's body in the ground. Nicotine had run its course
through her circulatory system beyond repair. She asked for a priest, and
passed with family nearby.
"She was at
peace," my dad said.
"Je suis a
paix," she told them. I am at peace.
Of her many
words and opinions, these are the ones I am most grateful to hear.