Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Pain du ciel

My father-in-law was born on this day in 1943, in France. He lived his adult life in authoritarian civil service, as a gendarme—that Gallic cross between the police and the military. Three and a half years ago, at the age of sixty-two, he lost his life to advanced lung cancer. He was a difficult man in many ways—a stubborn man who was responsible for the rupture of my husband's childhood family, divorcing acrimoniously when my husband was at the beginning of his adolescent years. These facts, personal opinion aside, are a matter of public record, documented by the notorious French bureaucracy. What does not belong in the public record, but what rests with me as the sum impression of my own memories of the man, is the following: my father-in-law was a man who loved his children, quite deeply I think, but who did not know how to show it in any of the expected ways. I first met him in October 1998, the first time I traveled to southwest France to join my (future) husband on vacation and to meet his family. It was a trip that took all day: driving from the Toulouse suburbs into the department of Gers, finding the boondock site of his house; staying long enough for a drawn-out French meal and a card party (I think it was Rummy); reversing the drive back as night fell. There were a few more meetings, our wedding (the first time my parents-in-law had been in the same room together since last meeting in court) . . . then, not long after, the diagnosis; the treatments and surgeries that left him bereft of the power of speech. My husband would call and keep up a patter, a monologue of daily-life news; he would hear tongue-clicking in response. We knew it was a matter of when, not if. At this time, travel for my husband was severely restricted, otherwise he'd have wasted no time booking airline tickets. Blame the post-9/11 restructuring of the INS, the creation of Homeland Security and revamped immigration policies, the daunting red tape of the "green card" process, which moved in this period of history at worse than a snail's pace. (Did I dare to mention French bureaucracy?) It was horrible to witness my husband's frustration and despair mounting, and to be pretty much powerless to do anything about it, aside from phone calls, letters, lawyers, congressmen. In the autumn of 2004, a year before my father-in-law passed away, we began to worry that the only way our 18-month-old son would meet his grandfather was if I took him to France myself, in my husband's place. This I could do. To help with the journey, my own father came along. How do I remember the last time I saw my father-in-law? What do I remember? I remember being shocked by the gaunt appearance of a once robust man. I remember being tightly embraced, welcomed affectionately in his weakening arms. I remember the pride radiating from his face, a spark shining in his dark eyes the minute he saw my son, his grandson, the only living descendant to carry his patronymic name. I remember that a profoundly tired man nonetheless rallied the energy to take a toddler by the hand, show him how to feed the chickens in the yard, and pushed him on a toy tractor. I remember the sad version of charades and note-writing that replaced verbal communication—but also, I recall that sometimes it was the easiest thing in the world to not talk, to just reach a hand across a table. I remember that my father-in-law (and his partner) made all three of us feel at home, special and loved . . . and I remember feeling guilty that I was not his flesh-and-blood daughter receiving the benefit of such open displays of the healthier emotions: joy, vulnerability, fear. (I suspect that unhindered emotions, other than anger, were not shown easily by this man to his own children; my presence was ironic in this way: I was the wrong person, at a terrible time, but my status as "intimate other" probably contributed greatly to his ability to let down his guard.) I remember looking endlessly at photo albums we had brought with us from New York, my son sitting on his grandfather's lap, a smile on the not-so-old man's face; I also remember the puffed-up look of a proud father when I related details about my husband, about his personal life and his professional successes in America. Finally, I remember humor. Without words, or rather with words on one side only, a running mealtime joke emerged. My father and my father-in-law sat across the table from one another at each meal. Naturally enough, a bread basket rested between them. I don't know who can eschew the temptation to over-indulge when it comes to the best baguettes, but we don't count ourselves among them. My father's efforts to resist were complicated by a light-hearted complicity that developed between him and my father-in-law. At a moment of our inattention, my father-in-law's hand would reach into the bread basket, grab a thick crusty slice, and drop it down with a mock-secret flourish next to my father's plate. When my father appeared startled, my father-in-law would feign innocence and point skyward. Manna from heaven it was, and we started to call it "pain du ciel" (bread from the sky). We laughed about it often. Now, I think about that bread. I remember how good it tasted and how communal our experience was, and I wish nothing so much for my father-in-law as the best meals his own heaven might serve—with double helpings of the "mousse au chocolat" he loved and that we enjoy every year in his memory . . . plus a perpetually full basket of "pain du ciel." Rest peacefully.

1 comment:

  1. These words let me with wet eyes, and tight heart ! Thinking to my "tonton Guy", and the Andre's feelings.........
    Thank you for them Allison, and thank you to your father Don too !