Authors: Nicholas Kilmer
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Also by Nicholas Kilmer
For my mother, Frances Frieseke Kilmer.
For Kenton Kilmer, my father, and
Sarah O'Bryan Frieseke, my grandmother,
both of dear and blessed memory.
For their encouragement and warning while I worked on this, I thank Ann Fay, Joann Green, Bill Davis, Harriet Yarmolinsky, Dave Sohn, and Beth Chapin. For aid and assistance, for permission to quote, or for invaluable suggestions and assistance, I thank Jacqueline Block, Freeman Foote, Andrew Heiskell, Ben Martinez, Lowry Burgess, Woody Openo, and Bunny Woodard. For permission to use their photographs, my thanks to Walter Chapin, Harriet Griesinger, Susie Holstrom, Bette Noble, Tom and Dana Perrone. A number of the reproduced photographs that were taken in the 1920s are the work of the Russian emigrÃ© whom I can identify only by his first name, Georges; I cannot, therefore, give him the credit that is his due. My unyielding thanks to Bill McGurn for his close reading of the text, and for sage advice which I only occasionally defied.
Special thanks to Mary Norris, my mother-in-law. As her daughter knows all too well, I prefer a
I hope that now that it is too late for her to protest, she will forgive my quoting from her letters without asking her permission. My only excuse is that I was sure she would refuse. I wish there were more of her letters. Her enthusiasm and the unfailing pleasure she takes in life have been and are among my family's greatest treasures.
Much of this book is the work of my wife, Julia.
“[The last time I saw the Friesekes they had moved to Normandy. There my wife and I lunched with them in their]
damp, moldy, and wholly colorful farmhouse, still reminiscent of an era of tranquility.
The American Artist and His Times
“We're asking for trouble, aren't we?” I admitted. I'd just hung up the phone after a long talk with our daughter, Maizie, who was holding down the West Coast at the moment and who'd exclaimed, “Dad, I hear you're buying me a farm in Normandy. Great. I'll quit college and take some people over and become one with the land. Lots of my friends are thinking about farming.”
It was raining, it was too late in the evening for coherence anyway, and it was also February. Julia and I, at our temporary home of thirty years in Cambridge, Massachusetts, were working on the fight that we had begun in around 1968, which Maizie's call had interrupted. Someone had leaked the status of the fight to Maizie, and, she was making what could be the terminal mistake of taking my side in itâas any sensible person would.
“Asking for trouble? Maybe you are,” Julia said. Among the failings of mine she has pointed out over the years is my tendency to bite off more than I can see. “An attractive nuisance is what they call it in the law,” Julia continued, seizing the opening. She huffed into the Science section of the morning's
New York Times.
I had taken a yellow Hi-liter and marked a paragraph in an article about female circadian rhythms. The author, whom I saw as being on my side of the larger argument, claimed that as the days lengthened into spring, the female, prompted by secretions of melatonin, yearned to fly thousands of miles and then mate. Julia hadn't mentioned the article.
“Wherever you are, there's always an awful lot of extra that nobody knows how to put away,” Julia said. “And now we're going to start cleaning up after your ancestors? Supposing we buy this farm in Franceâwhere are we going to put it all?” It was not bad for a rhetorical questionâbut neither of us could answer its obverse, either:
If we don't take it on, then what?
My mother's mother had always lived with us in America. When she died, she'd surprised everyone with her request that her body be buried in Normandy, near the house in Mesnil, next to the husband she had lost more than a generation before. Aside from some German officers during the war, and refugees as the war ended, and the tenant farmer, the place had been essentially vacant for thirty years. My mother and father, though married in Mesnil, had raised their large family in Virginia, and none of us had set foot on the Normandy property between 1939 and 1966, when my grandmother died. With the disposition of her body according to her instructions, a link was renewed that led the family to begin to use again the house, which my mother had inherited. A number of us began working to make the place habitableâparticularly my wife, Julia, and I, with our children. Over the ensuing years we had come to depend on maintaining a foothold in Normandy, and our children had also. Because of its state of ruin and our schedules, we had been able to get to it only during occasional summers. But by the February evening of this discussion, a generation after we'd started working on it, my parents were aging, their children were scattering, and nature was taking its course in Normandy, with less to oppose it every year. Something more definitive had to happen than the status quo, and my solution was to take the place over myselfâthat is, ourselvesâby buying it outright from my mother. This would mean not only that the house would be ours, but also that it would become solely our fault, which had previously been shared among family and humanity, like original sinâwhich we sometimes referred to as the spirit of the place. Whenever we discussed it, we got closer to acknowledging what it seemed to me we had to do, and that in itself made it progressively harder to get the subject on the table.
Now, on this particular evening of cold February rain, the subject lay (unetherized) upon the kitchen table as Julia kept me company and pointedly ignored the article I'd marked. Jacob, our last child at home, was cornering
Issues of the Twentieth Century
elsewhere in the house by thumping at it on his bull fiddle, imparting fear and trembling to the rest of the building as well; and I, meanwhile, was bottling the apple cider I'd been meaning to transfer from its fermenting carboy since shortly before Christmas. I was up to my ears in froth and empty bottles cadged from friends and brought in earlier this evening from storage in the backyard. Our kitchen smelled like certain aspects of Normandy.
We'd been discussing and avoiding the Normandy undertaking for so many years now that I'd begun to feel I might lose this fight, which I wanted to win if only to resolve the question of whether or not to invest in the new roof we needed for the house in Cambridge. (
Obviously notâwe've got the farm in Normandy to pay for.
) We were talking about it but still not getting very far. Julia, like the cat in Shakespeare's adage, can seldom bring herself to the point of “I will” or “I do” unless there's a churchful of witnesses behind her, a monsignor flanked by priests in front, and no side exits. I pointed this out.
“I normally get by just fine on âWe'll see.' And if your aim is to break bottles, wouldn't it be faster with a hammer?” she volunteered. She shuddered. “I keep thinking of all those empty bottles stacked up behind M. Braye's. How many empty bottles do we need?”
“The time is coming when we'll have to shift from âwe'll see' into either yes or no,” I insisted, foiling this attempt at a diversion and tasting the cider. It was thin and sour. My version of the Normans' national drink would still have to sit, its residual colony of yeasts devouring the bottling sugar and exchanging it for gas, for three months in the basement before it might be drinkable (or
as the French would say;
is a term used by some in France to characterize persons whom no one can stand to be around).
“Just when I'm thinking that this rain might stop, and let me out into my garden, you want us to head for Normandy again,” Julia pleaded. We had long since come to realize that we could not argue sensibly about the issue of the place in Normandy, any more than the Pompeians could about Vesuvius. There it smoked, outside the window: a pleasure to the senses, fertile, and threatening to blow. Maybe. But maybe not for hundreds of years more. And meanwhile there was so much to be said for living in Pompeii.â¦
It would have been one thing to start fresh with an old house. But the task we would face if we bought the Normandy property was worse than that. The old house was hardly new to us. Here, as we knew from long experience, the moment you glanced away from a chimney that needed fixing, something else unexpected would occupy your full attentionâa broken crock in the downstairs kitchen, maybe, whose other part you'd seen the day before, in the attic; or an old letter; or Great-aunt Janet's prize for stocking darning. Was that gas you smelled, leaking from the downstairs kitchen, or merely a stopped-up septic tank? Perhaps the worst part was the weight of familial baggage the place contained, even worse than the amount of general decay already completed and the additional ruin well under way. The line of demarcation between septic tank and precious family history was not always easy to distinguish in the shadows.
The thing was, I loved this property, and I therefore wanted to make decisions regarding it that I could not if it remained in its present limbo. Even apart from the question of whether we could afford it (we could not), my project was beset by enemies, some of them, like Maizie, disguised as friends. Julia and I were not people with a large or often even
disposable income. If our Cambridge house could use a new roof, perhaps nothing about the structure of the house in Normandy
the roof was dependable. (But a roof was, I kept reassuring myself, the most important element of a house. As long as your roof was sound, you were all right.) Our normal life (our
life, Julia called it) was in Massachusetts. France, therefore, was the wrong country. The language over there was someone else's. Furthermore, Normandy was dour, as well known within France for its variety of damp as for its apples, cheeses, calvados, or cream. It was cold much of the time, and it rained even more of the time. We did not have to say any of these things aloud, since they'd already been said. So the fight brooded awhile on a plateau of silence.
In the meantime,
But I'm in love,
I could not plead, because I knew Julia was also. If I won this fight, she would lose, in spite of the fact that she had her own real affection for the place. That fondness got confused with her versions of the scars that come from loving any old thingâsuch as, for example, meâfor a long time. We had been married even longer than we had been maintaining our long-distance affair with the house. If we bought into it, I would be expected to take the blame. Both of us knew that was part of the deal.
I filled bottles with cider and set them on the drainboard. We'd been married long enough that our silences and diversionary actions could not help but be part of the discussion. I plinked bottles, and Julia turned the pages of the newspaper. We listened to the rain and did not mention either the circadian rhythms or the roof.
“And every time you used to add on to
house to give us elbow room,” Julia continued, picking up a line of argument offered to her by the rain, or the article, and building on it, “in case you've forgotten, I'd immediately get pregnant! Every time!”
I checked the boiling bottle caps.
“If we're going to be forever fated with that equation,” Julia persisted, “and I have to carry enough infants to fill up all those roomsâwell, I'm going to need help. I'll kill you if you even look at me like I'm some youngster with high breasts! Are you ready for the cooperative-nursery-school routine again?”
“It's just an old damned farm,” I said, “not midlife off-track sex.”
“That place in Normandy is full of ghosts,” Julia said. “I don't want to go on about it, but all of them are your relatives. And nice as they may be, not one of them picks up after himself.”
Our heads, when we lay in our usual bed in the Normandy house, whether listening for the phone or (when they were younger) for the children, or just hearing the night moving, were used to resting in the corner of my grandparents' library, at the southwest end of the house, on the first floor. Six feet from our bed, outdoors, on the shallow brick staircase running alongside the house between the driveway and what had been the formal garden, was the spot where my mother and my father, who had established a friendship by correspondence, had first met in the flesh. Beyond that spot lay declining orchard pastures, the ruins of the stable, and the drive, heading precipitously downhill until it disappeared into an unkempt arch of lindens and chestnuts, after which it crossed the brick bridge spanning the stream or
(sometimes called the Douet Margot, and sometimes the Virebec) and met the road linking Mesnil and Fierville. Along this road were people who had been friends and acquaintances and second family of my family for three generations. It wasn't just ghosts; these people were as alive as Julia and I, and we had a place among them if we wanted it.
Walkway outside the library window, 1995. Photo by author
Suppose, for the sake of argument, that adding our money to our (or at least my) spiritual yearning was not unlike willfully becoming a compulsive gambler, another way to toss time, energy, and treasureâhope and regretâinto the welcoming pit of an illusion. Might we not in fairness claim that we could always save ourselvesâstop anytime we likedâsince all the bewilderment, beauty, and fury we needed to offset the seduction of romance were amply available within these fifty acres of old Norman farm?
“We'll make it practical,” I promised. I started capping bottles, looking practical.
“The damn thing's falling apart,” Julia said.
Like an old whore who doesn't know when to get in off the street,
she did not say,
but keeps on flagging johns, because she's good at it and there's always a new one coming along. Like you,
she did not say.
I did not mention the allure that lay in maintaining this portion of my family's history. Given that I had nine siblings, who, with their progeny, were all potential visitors to the old place, this was an argument pointed in forty-some directions and all too ready to backfire. I could argue that the past would lose its value if it had no present physical manifestation, and that neither of us would be able to bear to refer to the place only in the past tense. Or I could argueÂ â¦
“I hate to fly,” Julia said.
Three holes in the tender place between the tendons on the inside of my right wrist, drilled in by her nails during flights I had taken with her, kept me from forgetting this fact.
By now it was after ten o'clock at night. Jacob's bull fiddle had stopped; the other three children, long out of the house, were now fending for themselves elsewhere. Meanwhile, in the darkness under our library-bedroom window in Normandy, the cows were at this very moment chewing grass soaked with night dew. In another hour, dawn would visit the sky over the hill with cold light, and the birds would stir outdoors and make much of themselves in the hawthorns near the house or in the cover of the apple trees. We'd hear the donkey bray from the next hill to waken Mme. Vera's rooster, and later, as we began our day, the bell for the morning Angelus, rung from the church in Mesnil. Once it was rung by an old friend, now buried within the sound of its voice.
“The problem with you is that you're in love,” Julia said. “Suppose it's too much? Suppose this breaks your heart? Hell, who cares if it breaks
heart; what if it breaks
Neverthelessâand I truly do not know how this happenedâwe agreed that I'd go over for several days starting at the end of May, to get a realistic idea of how the land lay. The place had been rented to friends for the end of the summer, and I might as well take this opportunity, so I said, to be sure things would be reasonably safe for our tenants. Since Jacob was in high school still, Julia would stay home with him. That would also keep her honest, she pointed out: she would be tied to the mast while I flirted with the sirens, their subtle bodies glinting through diaphanous garments made of nothing more substantial than windblown sheets of mist, their seductive songs tempting us all onto the rocks of ruin with their promises of green pastures, rushing clouds, and cuckoos.
“You take a look,” Julia said. “See what those girls have to say. Meanwhile, maybe I'll steer this boat.”
All the east foreshadows night. Day now belongs only to the western sky, still red with sunset. What more I see of France, before I land, will be in this long twilight of late spring. I nose the
Spirit of St. Louis
lower, while I study the farms and villagesâthe signs I can't read, the narrow, shop-lined streets, the walled-in barnyards. Fields are well groomed, fertile and peaceful.â¦
Â Â Â Â People come running out as I skim low over their housesâblue-jeaned peasants, white-aproned wives, children scrambling between them, all bareheaded and looking as though they'd jumped up from the supper table to search for the noise above their roofs.
The Spirit of St. Louis
On May 21, 1927, at about nine-thirty in the evening, Charles Lindbergh, thirty hours out of New York, after turning southwest at Deauville on the last leg of his flight to Paris, gazed down out of his plane's cockpit. Playing in the pasture below her house in Mesnil, my mother, Frances Frieseke, looked up briefly before continuing her game, which, since she was all of thirteen years old, was as important to her as anything Lindbergh was doing. Now, more than three generations later, my train from Paris followed, but in reverse, the last stretch of Lindbergh's route. At first we crossed, frequently, the stately blue meanders of the Seine. Seeing the barges pondering along the river reminded me of a plan hatched by my godson Gabriel, with whose family I had stayed the previous night: he proposed plotting a beeline from Paris to Le Havre, at the Seine's mouth, and using kayaks to traverse the sewer systems of the towns lying in the river's embracing loops, a scheme that would cut the length of the trip by two thirds. Gabriel has inherited something of his father's approach to complex problems, itself modeled on Alexander's solution to the Gordian knot: it was his father who, at the age of eleven, showed Art Buchwald how to
the Louvre in five minutes.
The organization of the countryside out the train window was the same as it had been for hundreds of yearsâjust as Lindbergh had seen it in the gloaming from his plane, and as Julia and I had first gazed on it in 1968, both surprised and delighted to find colors and patterns of landscape that we had seen described in paintings dating from as far back as the fifteenth century. In the flatlands the fields were broad and separated by pollarded hedges. This was wheat-growing country, only recently planted with American corn, or maize. Occasionally I spotted the startling scarlet flash of a pioneer poppy, or yellow fields of mustardlike rape (colza, raised for canola oil); and sometimes the brilliant low blue flickering pondscape of a field of flax.
The train wanted two hours to reach Pont l'EvÃªque from Paris. Failing a strike or some other act of God, French trains are efficient, comfortable, and precisely on time. I could rely on the fact that a train scheduled to arrive at Evreux at 10:17 would indeed arrive at 10:17. Passengers were informed by loudspeaker that the train would stop for one minute; at 10:18 we would depart as promised.
After Evreux, when the hills started, so did the orchards, in which were frequently pastured the black-and-white native Norman cows. Suzette, a friend of Julia's and mine, an old playmate of my mother's, and a member of our extended almost family in France, had recently moved from Mesnil to the Loiret and now lamented about the white long-horned cattle that looked into the windows of her rented presbytery. “They are strangers,” she said. “I am lonesome for the Norman cows as if they were my sisters.”
Whenever I was in Cambridge, I myself always felt lonesome for the scale of the French landscape, which now offered me a reassuring physical comfort as the train raced through it. This being the end of May, spring was well over. The apple orchards had surrendered their blossoms and settled down to reap the consequences of their profligate display. Only a few fruit trees stood out here and there, still in bloom. The farmhouses were surrounded by fences that protected their flowers and kitchen gardens from the cattle. I saw roses, though in less profusion than in Paris; Paris had been awash in roses. The countryside paid more attention to what might be eaten.
The land we were heading into was steep and wet and, once deprived of its woods, good for no large-scale agriculture or husbandry other than apple trees, cows, and hay. Although Normandy is slowly changing along with most other parts of the world where farming is in serious decline, many Norman towns and villages are still lapped at their edges by fields and orchards. The landscape out my window remained as it had been (minus the devastations of war) when the allied troops moved through it toward Paris in the late summer following D day, the allied Normandy action that made the name of the province a household word.
My train reached Pont l'EvÃªque shortly before noon. I had planned my arrival for midday, but not too lateâthat is, before that phenomenon of provincial paralysis called
(lunch) began to slam the shutters on all commercial activity. I wanted to shop for essentials before finding out what had happened to the house in my absence. The place in Normandy alone might be responsible for the survival of the future perfect tense in the conditional mood, since I knew from long experience that when I arrived, something might always have gone wrong. The previous year, for example, I had arranged that while I was away, an impossible little bathtub was to be removed from the second-floor
(bathroom). Resembling the front end of an old VW sedan turned upside down, the tub had to be entered from the narrow end, a feat best attempted by persons with long legs. Once in, however, one had nowhere to put those legs, except around the ears. I had left directions for this fixture to be replaced by a shower.
When I got to the house that year, I found that the tub indeed had been removed from the bathroom, but rather than having vanished entirely, as I had wished, it now sat forlornly in a bedroom, a cast iron memorial to
Where I had expected a shower cabinet, there was instead a low, square china basin set onto the floor, in the place where the tub had been, with bare plaster walls next to it on two sides, and the passage door with its glass pane (which connected to a closet also entered from the billiard room) forming the third side. The project required further elaboration. As Julia might have pointed out, the best directions are not always those administered from afar. As to the offending tub, it remained in the bedroom until one afternoon when I was entertaining a prospective client over tea in the garden, during which collation it was carried away by a small parade of jocular apprentice plumbers.
I was prepared for cold and wet, but when I arrived in Pont l'EvÃªque, I found that the day was hot and offered a mild, dry windâunusual for Normandy, especially this early in the season. Fresh from the train, I left my bags with the
chef de gare,
promising to pick them up once I had my car, and walked through the town.
School would be in session for another two months, and the summer's tourism had not yet begun to swell the population, which in winter was between three and four thousand souls. A sort of expanded version of a small French country town, Pont l'EvÃªque is arrayed principally along a main street that points between Rouen and Caen, with outriding elements springing up along two perpendicular cross streets both descended from Roman roads, one on each side of the River Touques. Under its bunting of flagsâall the European Union countries' banners, stretched repeatedly across the main street, as if this were a used-car lotâa few men were fishing from the town's bridges.
My walk through Pont l'EvÃªque was really more of a skulk, since I did not want the CitroÃ«n
to see me patronizing the rival Renault dealer (the French word for rival is
), where, if he had received my fax, M. Fruchon had already arranged to let me have the smallest, cheapest, reddest, and most battered rental available. My parents still kept a car in Normandy, but I wanted no part of driving it. An ancient spherical CitroÃ«n
purchased used in 1968, it evoked hoots of appreciation whenever it was seen floundering between the hedgerows. The CitroÃ«n had problems with both brakes and power, especially while driving (and/or suddenly coasting) downhill, when the ignition cable would occasionally part company with the battery. In spite of its habits, Julia and my mother, up till our last joint stay, ten years before, had never hesitated to drive the carâperhaps because its behavior coincided so well with their worldviews. I myself was scared to death of driving it, probably for the same reason. (My father had no opinion; he did not drive at all, on account of a solemn oath my mother had made to his mother in 1937.)
I had to be quick. Small groups of clean children were already being herded across the streets of the town on their way home for lunch; had I been twenty minutes later, M. Fruchon, too, would have left for his midday meal, and his office would have remained smug for the next hour while I cooled my heels. But I was
twenty minutes later, because I had been riding a French train.
I signed for my car and committed another act of treachery against the old hearth gods by disregarding the purists' approved manner of shopping, which requires fifteen stops, and negotiations with thirty people, to secure eleven items at the small, specialized shops in town. Instead I bought what I needed all in one lump, at the IntermarchÃ© in the
tacked on to the Rouen end of Pont l'EvÃªque. The IntermarchÃ© is a large hangar in which one can buy almost anything, using a metal cart rented with a ten-franc piece. I sailed with confidence along the aisles, past fish and fruits and canned goods, hardware and bottles, dodging out-of-breath housewives in need of a last ingredient, and feeling like Art Buchwald in the Louvre. I had my shopping done in the fifteen minutes available before they locked their doors, on which leftover placards from the D-day fiftieth-anniversary celebration proclaimed
Welcome Our Liberators.
The Pays d'Auge is best known for its fat green pastureland, apples, cattle, and cheese, as well as its hamlets and its isolated farms. “Mesnil? I know it,” a taxi driver told me once. “A place almost completely
dans la nature.
Between Pont l'EvÃªque and Mesnil, the land was indeed fat and green, though the day itself was unusually warm and dry. I opened the Renault's window as I drove to let the warm wind blow in lungfuls of deep grassy air. The hills rose abruptly on either side of the Touques Valley in soft, weathered humps. Almost nobody else was on the road, and all those I did encounter were in a hurry to get home to lunch. The countryside was defined by ancient hedgerows, between which the smaller roads and trails used by the Celts before the Romans came were worn down to a level five feet lower than that of the adjoining fields. The pastures on the hills, despite the day's warmth and unaccustomed sunshine, were wet and luscious; the cows grazed placidly in their orchards. This mixed use, a hallmark of the Norman style, keeps the grass under the apple trees from going to waste while the apples mature. Cider above and milk below.
I passed through the center of the
of Mesnil, population 100: the church and graveyard, the cafÃ©, and the vicarage, abandoned by the church (which no longer had a pastor) and now inhabited by English civilians. Mesnil's chÃ¢teau was invisible at the end of its long, wide alley of carefully pruned trees, behind a well-kempt park. Apart from the church, Mesnil itself was no more than a corner spread of little houses in brick, flint, and half-timber, some thatched, some roofed in slate, most of them built right against the street. Turning at the cafÃ©, I was held up by a roadful of cows, changing pasture at a pace that would not excite anyone's milk. Behind them ambled a broad woman in working blue who encouraged them by calling out their names and waving a wand of hazel still tipped with leaves. The smell of the herd embraced me. I shifted down and followed the cows until their road veered into the Bouquerels' field.
The town of Mesnil, 1988. Photo Walter Chapin
Then it was downhill along the narrow road, five feet wide at best, worn pink between the hedgerows. It kept to the broad trough cut by the
next to the marshy banks hidden behind pollarded trees and thickets of brambles. Before long I came to a particularly overgrown hedge that ran along the foot of the hillside on which the farm was situated. Behind these hedges, out of sight, was what was left of the farm. I slowed and pulled in at the drive, climbed out of the car to open the gate, and stood transfixed by the rich shock of the smell of cuttings tossed over the gate into the drive from the grass trimmed for our nearest neighbors, the de LongprÃ©s, Parisians whose grouping of half-timbered cottages was shuttered. Having houses on both sides, the de LongprÃ©s control the road at the foot of my hill and could, if they wanted, stretch a chain across it and collect tolls from travelersâperhaps as many as three a day. Their properties blossomed for all that the owners were not in residence, and their gardens were in trim and coyly disciplined. I stood at the bottom of the driveway, the steep orchard behind me, on the far side of the road, rising to the woods that crowned the hill opposite the farm. I heard the
chattering along under the bridgeâthat was all rightâand smelled cows I could not see, looked in my mailbox (new last year and, I congratulated myself, still existing) and pulled from it a damp flier for an electronics shop in Lisieux. I noticed how thick and tall the nettles and brambles already were behind the gate and along the driveway as it started uphill. I glanced toward the spot where the shade of the tall trees meeting over it formed a cool bank. The house I wanted was still out of sight.
Even the foot of the driveway offered the comfortable fit of an old shoe. The hot air stirred and made me dizzy with rich scents. I smelled familiar mud and turned left to face the marshy stretch of pasture between the
and the road, across which lay some of the poplars that were supposed to line the stream. This was Julia's favorite part of the farm, since it was level and she was from the Midwest. She sometimes said she would like to build a house there, in what she called, out of nostalgia for Illinois, “the flat.” Everything in view was either dead or overgrown or a mixture of the two, since even downed poplars that anyone would have been obliged to acknowledge had died now thrust up green branches and refused to give in. The genius of the Norman climate normally does not allow, except in dense shade, a square inch of empty dirt. Something grew everywhere. The hair and draperies of the sirens were so unkempt that I could almost hear Julia saying,
Oh, God, it's such a mess
It's so beautiful. If teenagers are going to be so absurdly lovely, why do they have to do this to their bedrooms?
I drove my car in and closed the gate behind me. The drive rose at an angle that varied between ten and fifteen degrees after crossing the beckoning
is the Norman variant of the French
or “finger.”) The ascent began in a splurge of crushed mint under the car's tires. Offering something like a kilometer of uphill going that started in the primordial damp under the alley of lindens and chestnuts, the drive was sometimes more a streambed than a proper road. As my Renault undertook the steepest and most rutted part of the climb, I tried to calculate the number of truckloads of gravel that, if all this were to become my fault, I would need to order to fill the crevasses. The car struggled out of the rocky tunnel of wet shade, and we were in the open, on an old cart track overgrown with grass and a low, blooming member of the daisy family that was or was not chamomile, depending on whom one asked. It would take several days of my using the driveway for the plants to wear down to something like a gravel surface. Since the weather was unnaturally dry, it was no problem: the leaves provided traction.
The top of the drive, ca. 1930, M. Braye's house on right.
I passed between the arthritic apple orchards that we rented out as pasture and saw the house for the first time, two thirds of the way up the hill, its slate-covered southwest end all black, gapped, and dusted with lichen. Even with its shutters closed, it was a sight that never failed to delight me and fill me with the adolescent yearning that makes more sensible men of mature years run after starlets. The house I wanted stood as it always had and always should, a lady between her two half-timbered handmaids, outriding cottages, adrift in orchard pasture and haunted by woodland.
Although there was less in the way of buildings now than there had once been, this was essentially the same scene that my grandparents had first looked over in 1919, when they came by horse cart from the other end of the long loop of driveway, fording the
rather than crossing the bridge. That slope was easier on the horses. They entered the property through a gate between a pair of poplars pollarded by storms, which my grandfather and old M. Lafontaine, who owned the next field (and much else in the area) used to converse under, congratulating each other on the fact that their boundary marker was destined to outlive them. Those poplars embraced in their ancient coupling at the far end of the plateau cut by the roadway in the hill's face, along which most of the farm's buildings (many of them now long gone) had been clustered. The track passed directly through the busy courtyard in front of Mme. Vera's
whose thatch (
) we had renewed in 1968. What had moved my grandparents, in 1919, to take on so much? Frederick Frieseke was a town boy from Owosso, Michigan, where his family made bricks. His ambition to control the physical world encompassed canvas and paint, books, trout, and billiards. Something of a dandy, he was neither a farmer nor a manager by temperament. My grandmother, by contrast, was familiar with farms on account of her family's having had a place in Radnor, Pennsylvania (and through additional time spent in New Mexico, on horseback), and nobody who knew her could ever have accused her of not being a manager. I imagine the bargain they struck was that Fred would paint and fish and read, and Sadie would oversee the property, make sure the paintings were sold, and supervise the extensive gardens that she immediately began to lay out, of which now only hints of the boundaries remained.
Frederick Frieseke had arrived in Paris in 1897, when he was twenty-three. Sarah O'Bryan, whom he would marry, came from Philadelphia to Paris at about the same time in the company of a sister and her parents, her father having chosen Paris for his retirement. Counted a painter of some significance during his own lifetime, my grandfather had been forgotten by the time my grandmother died, and it was only within the past twenty years that his reputation had been revived, as a member of the group referred to by current art historians as the American Impressionists. The study of art, and the career that followed, took Frieseke to Paris and kept him there, but it was another pursuit that led the Friesekes to settle in Normandy. The River Epte, in the environs of Giverny, where he, like many American painters had summered, was overfished, and Guillaume Pinchon, a fellow painter and fisherman, recommended as an alternative the Normandy rivers the Calonne, the Touques, and the Risle. Pinchon found a place for his own family in Les Authieux, near Pont l'EvÃªque, at the end of 1918, after the end of the First World War. Not far away, in Mesnil, the Friesekes, following his lead, purchased a dilapidated farm in 1919 and began to make it theirs, gradually adding such modern frivolities as plumbing and a kitchen. Later, after the stock-market crash, and when they had reached a certain age, they would give up their Paris apartment, and the place in Normandy would become their sole residence. Frieseke had started to enjoy some critical success in the world before the war, and his pictures had begun to sell. In 1919, he was forty-five, and his only daughter five years old; the family of three was apparently in an expanding mode that must have been enhanced by the euphoria of the war's end. It was not that they were going back to the land, exactly, since they had every intention of keeping the Paris apartment on the Rue du Cherche Midi for the months from November through March. And besides, the actual farming of the property would continue to be done by a local family that rented the acreage and lived nearby.