The new house felt like The Chronicles of Narnia, with its walk-in closets and hiding spaces. I even pretended that by pushing through the coats in the deep closet, I would be able to enter a new land of magic. But my fingers touched the wall every time.
There were three floors, plus a basement full of nooks and crannies. We had a backyard, and then what we called the “way back.” Even the “way back” had a “way back” because the fence was broken down, and we could run for a distance in a wooded area before seeing the backs of neighboring houses. There was the loft above the garage, with a ladder in the shed to climb up. And there were the cubby holes cut out of the flimsy plywood walls in the attic—the cut-out sections matching the wall perfectly, and held in place by a couple of nails. There were closets upon closets (oh, how one misses that living in France), and there were even large drawers in the hallway where we used to keep our dirty clothes to be washed, and sometimes stow away in when playing hide-and-seek.
Since the house was somewhat run-down, we renovated the rooms in a joint family effort, thoroughly gutting and re-doing one room each summer. My father and brother pounded the plaster until it fell off the lath board onto the floor. Then we all scooped it up with snow shovels, put it in boxes and carried it outside to be picked up by the garbage truck. My father redid the wiring behind the walls, and worked alongside my brother as they nailed up fresh sheetrock, applied joint compound, then sanded and painted the room.
My mother stood outside in the sun with the baseboard and window trim balanced on two sawhorses. She burned the paint with a small electric grill, and scraped it off the wood—the old, cracked paint now bubbling and pliable. Then she sanded and painted everything so that the trim was smooth and white. When everything was in place—the trim, the freshly painted walls, the new outlets—the room became a blank canvas, ready to tell the story of our family with all the things we put in it. In this way, we conquered the house, one room at a time, and put our stamp on it.
We went to “the Farm” each week, which was forty-five minutes away. There we borrowed land from a friend so we could grow vegetables and freeze them for the winter. Jeff threw green beans at Mark to tease him while we were picking and weeding until my father yelled, “Knock it off!” and we all suppressed our giggles. When the four of us were released from our duties, we ran through the tall grass, coming out of it with our pants wet from the spit bugs.
“He’s around the bend!” I yelled to Jeff as I dodged Mark’s grasping hands in our game of chase around the house—little kids against the big kids. “Stephanie’s around the corner!” my brother yelled back, laughing. These were the names we made up for specific areas of our house so that we could warn each other of where we might get caught.
Stephanie and I played dolls and pretended our bed was a boat, a safe haven from the waters surrounding it. Jeff and Mark experimented with the tape-recorder, recording funny voices and loud burps and their own laughter. The four of us played together, swinging around the six white columns on the front porch, and building lean-tos in the back with the extra planks of wood lying around. And in the winter, we all went outside after school to the “way back,” which was set on a hill. There we navigated our sleds around the trees, laughing gleefully as we zipped over the snowy moguls before skidding into a halt against the fence at the bottom.
We stayed there until it was dark, sometimes lying quietly on our sleds, looking upwards at the black branches set against the purple sky, feeling the snowflakes settle softly on our faces. Eventually it started to get too quiet, too cold and dark, and we deposited our sleds in the shed next to the garage and traipsed towards the house, my mother’s face framed by the light of the kitchen window as she prepared dinner.
At the symphony, the tuning ‘A’ caught my attention every time as the discordant sounds of all the instruments playing independently fell obediently in tune with the principal violinist. We were at the concert hall often, sometimes as much as once a week, and the space felt like a second home. When Jeff won a local competition at the age of sixteen, to appear as a guest pianist alongside my father’s symphony, I sat, breathless in excitement and anxiety, as he played Rachmaninoff’s “Third Piano Concerto.” He looked so small as he walked across the stage, but he confidently flipped the back of his suit jacket before sitting on the bench, after which he rattled the difficult piece off flawlessly.
I always felt privileged as we wound our way down the box seats after the symphony concert had concluded, taking the back stairwell with everyone else, but turning to the private door that accessed the backstage. There my father joked with the other brass players light-heartedly, showing us a side of him we rarely saw at home. Everyone called each other by their nicknames: Stevie, Brucie, Johnny, Dougie, Petey… Do you think classical musicians are serious? They are not—at least not the brass.
At seventeen, Jennie Goutet has a dream that she will one day marry a French man and sets off to Avignon in search of him. Though her dream eludes her, she lives boldly—teaching in Asia, studying in Paris, working and traveling for an advertising firm in New York.
When God calls her, she answers reluctantly, and must first come to grips with depression, crippling loss, and addiction before being restored. Serendipity takes her by the hand as she marries her French husband, works with him in a humanitarian effort in East Africa, before settling down in France and building a family.
Told with honesty and strength, A Lady in France is a brave, heart- stopping story of love, grief, faith, depression, sunshine piercing the gray clouds—and hope that stays in your heart long after it’s finished.
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Genre – Memoir
Rating – PG-13
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