There is a time to search and a time to give up as lost. . . .
January 29, 1983
I am watching the evening news, alone in my house, hungry and tired from the day’s work, eating a piece of leftover pizza and wishing it were blanquette de veau. The story comes near the end of the NBC program. Jessica Savitch is standing in a town square, talking excitedly over the commotion around her.
"It appears that the infamous Butcher of Lyon, Klaus Barbie, has been located here in La Paz, Bolivia. Living under the assumed name of Klaus Altman, the former Nazi official who was responsible for thousands of assassinations and deportations during the Second World War has at last been located, after having disappeared nearly forty years ago . . ."
I scoot close to the screen, catch a glimpse of the monster, and shudder. Maybe now it can be over. Finally, it can be over. For so many of them. For us. For me.
I dial the phone number in Atlanta automatically. "Mama, turn on the news! Hurry!"
"We’re watching, Emile," she whispers.
"Maybe finally we’ll get more answers.”
"Maybe. Time will tell."
I want to remind her that time does not tell. At least in this matter, time keeps secrets, many secrets. Twenty years of secrets.
Then it is Grandma Bridgeman’s voice I hear in my mind, the voice of twenty years ago, Emile, you know there is more to life than looking for answers. Some answers you will never find--some you will. As long as the most important question is answered, the 'not knowing' of the others doesn't seem so unbearable.
Of course I am thinking about him, but at the same time, I am thinking of her, wondering if she is down in Bolivia, if she helped them locate the Butcher. You may never see me again, Emile, but I will do this one thing for you. I promise.
I cannot eat stale pizza or grade midterm papers or anything else. I sit as if in a trance while the TV screen switches to a commercial.
I did what you said, Grandma. I gave it up. Left it for years. But it is back. I cannot ignore this.
I get off the couch, grab my raincoat, and head for the door as if I can just simply drive to the airport and catch a plane from Nashville to Bolivia.
What am I thinking? But I have to do something.
I go to the bedroom and take out a thin, hardback comic book, the size of a three-ring binder. Tintin, my childhood hero. I let the book fall open to the middle, stare at the mutilated pages, cut in the shape of a knife, squeeze my eyes shut, and, as if in prayer, I say out loud, "Let it be over. Please let it be over."
But it is not over. The next night Klaus Barbie’s atrocities fill the TV news: " . . . When somebody bombed Barbie’s favorite restaurant, he had five prisoners machine-gunned and left their corpses on grisly display as a warning. When German airmen were shot nearby, Barbie opened an entire cell block as if to permit an escape. As the prisoners ran, all twenty-four were gunned down. . . ."
Somehow, having this man’s heinous crimes displayed on national TV seems wrong--as if the pain that ripped my family apart is only an image on a screen, flickering and flat. No news report can measure the depth of the wound.
"As the war progressed toward Germany’s defeat, Barbie lashed out at entire villages. Among his prime targets were Lyon’s Jews, many of whom had fled to the region for sanctuary after the fall of Paris. Barbie’s secretaries confiscated jewels and other valuables from people brought in for questioning. Many Jews never lived to see the Auschwitz train platform because Barbie packed them into cattle cars with no food or water. Since the trip took weeks, everyone died. The Germans had to wear gas masks to get rid of the bodies."
I do not want to hear any more. I turn off the TV and find the Tintin book--my escape mechanism. Perhaps I am wishing for another of my father’s spy stories. How many times over the past years have I imagined him coming into my room with the comic book in hand, the switchblade concealed inside? But there will not be another story, of that I am sure.
Unless perhaps I tell it.
I sit down at my desk, open the book, and once again trace the outline of the cut pages with my fingers. I put a piece of typing paper in my old Smith Corona, advance the roller until the pure white paper appears.
I know how to begin the story, even though I have no idea how it will end. I begin to type. Smack, smack, smack, the keys hit the paper, staining it black with these words: Searching for Eternity.
A time to plant, and a time to uproot what is planted . . .
"You will love America, Emile," my mother had always predicted. "Someday we'll go there, and you’ll love it."
My French grandmother, I called her Mamie Madeleine, was less enthusiastic. "It’s a land without history, proud and young with much to learn. Beware of America, Emile." Still, the day before I left my native France, she held her head high, the proud, harsh regard so familiar to me, and whispered through a tightening in her throat, "It will be all right, Emile. Be brave." She had kissed me twice, once on each cheek, and refused to shed one tear.
The next day my mother, Janie Bridgeman de Bonnery, and I boarded the Delta plane at the Orly airport with no one there to see us off. For the entire eight-hour flight, I did not utter one word to her, did not try to calm the fury pulsing in my temples, did not once think about how she might be feeling.
My mother was relieved, I was sure; she was escaping France, escaping an existence that had suffocated her for fifteen long years. I felt no pity for her. I felt only a gradual boiling anger that would have exploded if I had dared to open my mouth.
The way the plane landed at the Atlanta airport that late September day foreshadowed perfectly the next nine months of my life: bumpy--so bumpy, in fact, that I reached for the pocket in front of me, grabbed the paper bag, and puked right in it.
"Emile, you’re green!" my mother announced to the whole cabin of passengers.
"Gross!" offered the kid across the aisle.
I glared at my mother, no longer trying to disguise the fury I felt inside, and seethed to her in French, "It’s all your fault! Everything is your fault!"
She knew I was referring to a lot more than my throwing up on a plane, but she said nothing in her defense. She just continued to turn a white handkerchief over and over in her lap, as if she could wring out the pent-up tension from the past few days.
I wish a voice had floated out of heaven as we were wildly vibrating up there in the plane and whispered, “Everything will be different now, Emile. Everything in your whole life is going to change.”
I was two months shy of fourteen when I moved from France to America with my mother. I’d been waiting for change, hoping for it for the past year--to grow taller, to develop muscles, to find hair forming under my arms and above my upper lip. But on that particular day, as we stood in the Atlanta airport surrounded by mounds of luggage, I didn’t want change. I wanted to run back to what I had always known, what was familiar and safe.
"For goodness' sake, Emile, help the man with the bags!" my mother ordered.
I glared at her and half-heartedly began retrieving pieces of luggage from the conveyor belt with the help of a black man in a blue uniform.
Mama lifted her share. Despite her size and manner--she looked like an ad for some French perfume in her pale yellow suit and high heels--my mother was a very determined lady. She shoved the suitcases, some almost half her size, along the floor to where the baggage man was haphazardly stacking them on a long metal pull-cart. We finally made it out the door to a waiting taxi.
"Ain’t no way all this is gonna fit, ma’am," the porter offered a bit apologetically.
A round spot of deep crimson appeared on each of Mama’s cheeks, her brow creased slightly, and she said, "Well, we’ll just have to take two, then. Can you fit them into two taxis?"
"I can try, ma’am." He signaled for another taxi to pull over to the curb, and the three men began loading up the cars.
I stood on the curb, arms folded tightly across my chest, and watched.
When my mother was particularly upset, she’d bark out orders to anyone who would listen, all the while furiously tugging at one of her perfectly plucked blonde eyebrows. On this day, she was tugging for all she was worth, intermittently wringing her hands. She was wearing her sunglasses--the ones that looked just like the glasses we’d seen Mrs. Kennedy wearing in all the photos since her husband had been shot a year ago in Dallas, Texas. Mama wore those glasses so that the whole world wouldn’t know that she’d been crying--bawling her eyes out, if the truth be told--although you could still sort of tell, the way her nose was a little pinker than her cheeks and her lips trembled slightly.
I stood beside her, sweating and wondering what in the world I had come to.
I’m sorry. It looks like you will have to leave France. Those were the words Mamie Madeleine had used the day before, her voice high and agitated, her eyes fierce but filling with tears, her hands trembling as I brought suitcases into the yard of the family estate--a thirteenth-century château that had been painstakingly restored through the years and handed down from generation to generation.
My father had disappeared, and we were going to America, my mother and I. Mama tried to explain. She held me tight and said, "Emile, I can’t stay any more. It’s too hard. Your father . . . your father has found someone else, and . . ."
It had happened just like that. Two days later we were on the plane, along with thirty-three bags and boxes, my mother’s face all swollen and red from crying and me yelling at her, "I don’t want to leave! I will not leave. Papa will be back soon. He always comes back. I’m staying here!"
I didn't quit. "You don’t force people out of their country all of a sudden! I won’t go! I’ll stay with Mamie Madeleine. I will not leave."
But it was no use. Although normally archenemies, the two women who ran my life had agreed on this one thing: my mother and I had to leave Lyon immediately.
My French father, Jean-Baptiste de Bonnery, had a long history of disappearing for weeks at a time. Mama always came up with some excuse about a business trip, but I was never fooled. Papa was a spy. He supposedly worked at a government office, directing people who made important decisions. But I had read enough detective stories to see that this was merely a cover-up.
"He’s involved in counterespionage, isn’t he, Mama?" I’d confronted her six months earlier. "I’m not a little kid any more. You can tell me the truth."
She had stared at me, bewildered, then forced a laugh. "Emile, where you come up with your ideas, I’ll never know. Quit reading those books and do something sensible, will you? Your father is away on a business trip and will be back in ten days."
Up until quite recently, she had always been right.
The porter was jamming bags into the trunk and backseat.
"We should have waited on him, Mama. He always comes back. Why is this time any different? Tell me!"
I shouldn’t have spoken to her like that. If Papa had been there, he would have slapped me across the face for showing disrespect to my mother. But that was the whole point. He wasn’t with us, and this time something was different. Still, I would not accept Mama’s explanation.
All my life I’d believed her, so it seems ironic that the one time I had almost unshakeable proof that she was telling the truth, I didn’t believe it. Surely she knew a lot more than she was telling me.
But I knew more than I was telling her, too. I knew more than I could bear to tell anyone. It didn't occur to me that this was hypocritical, keeping my secret from Mama while expecting her to reveal hers to me. I was on a mission to find out about my father, and everyone knew that a noble cause justified a few inconsistencies along the way.
I traipsed obediently out to the cars while Mama handed the driver an envelope with an address scribbled on the back. "Can you find this street? It’s on the north side of town, I believe."
The black man tipped his hat and said, "Yes, ma’am. I’ll getcha there."
She’d said it nonchalantly enough, but I could tell that Mama was relieved by his answer. My grandmother had moved since my mother left for France.
“And also,” Mama added firmly, “we want to eat lunch at the Varsity on the way. Are you gonna charge me extra for sitting in the parking lot for fifteen minutes?”
He looked at Mama as if she’d asked him to pay for her plane ticket back to France, but before he could say anything she added, “I’ll pay for y’all to have a frosted orange and fries, and you can order them at the curb.”
“That’ll be fine, then, ma’am,” he answered with a smile and a shrug as he glanced at the other taxi driver.
The two taxis moved onto the freeway, and little by little the Atlanta skyline appeared outside the window. It was nothing like Lyon, with its two rivers that met in the south, shook hands, and continued together along the way. I saw no water at all near Atlanta, only four-lane highways and modern skyscrapers and cars. Lots of big, fancy cars.
My mother seemed undaunted by this big city. "We’re going to get a bite to eat first, Emile," she told me as the taxi driver pulled into the vast parking lot of a restaurant painted red and yellow, with a tall vertical sign that read The Varsity. It was midafternoon in America, but my stomach thought it was nighttime, and food was the last thing that interested me.
"Honk the horn, for heaven’s sake," she called to the driver so that the other taxi driver caught sight of her wildly signaling him to turn into the lot. Mama and I got out of the car and went inside.
"This is called the world’s largest drive-in restaurant,” Mama explained. “For years you could only order from the carhops at the curb, but now you can order inside too.”
The restaurant--if you could call it that--was loud and crammed with people and smelled of grease. I’d never been to a restaurant where I had to wait in line to order my food, but Mama directed me as if she’d been doing this all her life. Despite my lack of appetite, I was intrigued by the prospect of American food.
An enormous black woman wearing a red paper hat with <The Varsity> written on it leaned over the tall counter and said, "What’ll ya have?"
My eyes grew wide, and I thought at first she must be speaking a different language. I mumbled, "Excuse me" in English, my face turning red, and she repeated the same unintelligible phrase.
I glanced at my mother, feeling panicky, sure that she too must be baffled. Instead, she laughed for the first time in days, smiled good-naturedly at the woman, and said, "Emile, tell the lady what you want to order."
When no sound came out of my mouth, my mother pointed to a board behind the counter that advertised the menu. She whispered, "It’s not like France, Emile. But you’ll get used to it," and she ordered for me. "A hamburger, onion rings, and a Coca Cola."
She pronounced the words slowly in English--as if she could already taste the food and it was delicious--which confirmed to me that in spite of her tears and trembling lips, my mother was still relieved to be back in her hometown.
"I couldn’t understand what she was saying, Mama," I complained when we’d taken our seat at another long counter and perched ourselves on two black vinyl-cushioned stools.
"Don’t worry, Emile. It just takes getting used to."
The lunch was unlike anything I had ever tasted. My father often poked fun good-naturedly at American food, but when he was away on a business trip, my mother would fix fried chicken or something else fried, so that I’d acquired a taste for some southern food. But this was so greasy that my hands looked sweaty after I’d picked up a handful of the onion rings.
I nibbled at the hamburger and swallowed one of the rings whole, washing it down with a gulp of Coke. The same queasy feeling I’d had on the plane twittered in my stomach, so I excused myself, following the sign proclaiming Restrooms that hung at the end of the long hall. On the door in bold black letters was written Whites Only. That struck me as odd because some of the waiters were black.
When I got back to the table, I asked my mother, "Where do black people go to the bathroom?"
Mama seemed flustered for a moment, then she shrugged and said, "Things are different here, Emile. I’ll tell you about it later. Finish your lunch. I don’t want you showing up at your grandmother’s house starving."
She didn’t have to explain anything, I thought. It was obvious: in America, white people thought they were superior to black people.
"Time to go, Emile," she said, and she stood up and walked down the hall of the restaurant. The taxi drivers were standing beside their cars, munching on French fries and talking with each other. They seemed happy enough with the bargain.
As soon as we were out of the parking lot she started rummaging through her purse. She pulled out a small case of rouge and peered into the tiny mirror.
"Are you nervous, Mama?" I asked.
She gave a forced little laugh and said, "Well, Emile, I guess I am. I haven’t seen your grandmother in fifteen years."
So that was that. After fifteen years of silence, my mother appeared at her mother's door with a thirteen-year-old son, thirty-three pieces of luggage, and no warning.
My grandmother’s house sat back from the wide shaded road on a slight hill, the front yard an expanse of green grass and tall trees. The breeze made it look as if the trees were waving to me, welcoming me to their house. In fact, that is how my grandmother’s house looked--comfortable and at ease, like someone you wanted to get to know better, someone who was inviting you over to play.
The exterior was covered with gray shingles. French houses were made of cement bricks covered with stucco or of stones dating back to the Middle Ages. On the left side of the shingled house was a projection that Mama called a screened porch. It looked like a happy, airy place, a compromise between being inside and outside.
The two taxis pulled into the driveway and cut the motors. Mama didn’t budge for a minute.
Serves her right to be terrified, I thought.
Finally, when the driver looked back at her, she gave a deep sigh and said, "Well, let’s see if she’s home. Come on, Emile."
I followed her along the gray flagstone path winding from the driveway to the steps that led up to the entrance. Mama hesitated again, then pulled open a screened door, something I’d never seen in France, and knocked on the door behind it. She gave me a thin smile, wiped a finger under her sunglasses, and waited.
The woman who opened the door was pleasantly plump--one of Mama's American expressions--with gray hair pulled up off her neck. Not only was she pleasantly plump, but to me she looked just simply pleasant. She was wiping her hands on a faded apron, not really paying much attention to who was at the door, when Mama said, "Hello, Mother."
My grandmother let out a soft cry. "Janie! What in the world . . .!" Then she burst into tears and reached out to her long-lost daughter.
It looked to me like Mama wilted there by the white door, letting herself be drawn into her mother’s hug. I thought she’d be stiff and proud, the way she’d always described herself as a teenager, mad at her mother. But here she was, crying right along with the stranger in the apron and wiping a handkerchief across her eyes and paying no attention to the black smears her mascara was making on the handkerchief and on her face.
She kept saying, "I’m sorry, Mother. I’m so sorry. I wasn’t very good at answering your letters. But I read them all and kept every one. I’m so sorry. And now here we are."
My grandmother took my face in her hands. "Emile. You must be Emile. Oh, Janie. Your son," she whispered softly. "Your beautiful child."
My French grandmother was a woman whom I respected, but I had a feeling right away that my American grandmother was a woman I could love. She would have rocked me on her lap when I was little, I thought, and baked me cookies and read me storybooks. I liked her immediately, and knew that if we were going to survive this change of cultures, it would be because of her.
Mama was sniffing and wiping her eyes and folding up her sunglasses. "There’s so much to explain, Mother. . . ." she began.
"That can wait, Janie. Let's get your belongings inside."
"Then it’s okay if we stay with you for a few days? Just until we get things worked out?"
"Of course, Janie. Of course you can stay here."
Soon the hallway was filled up with our suitcases and bags, and Mama was handing the two taxi drivers a wad of green bills, which I knew were American dollars.
We walked through the hallway into a room my grandmother called the den. It was filled with worn, comfortable furniture, a fireplace, and best of all, lots of books, arranged in no particular order--paperback novels next to ancient books with leather covers. They filled the shelves on either side of the fireplace.
"Have a seat, please," this grandmother said.
I could tell she had a thousand questions in her eyes, but she didn’t ask any of them.
"Now, Emile, you must be starving. Can I get you a glass of milk and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? Just the thing for a growing boy."
I looked warily at Mama, who smiled at me and gave a wink.
"That sounds great, Mother. But you have to realize that Emile doesn’t know a thing about peanut butter and jelly."
My grandmother looked shocked, and pretended to be horrified. "Really? Imagine that!"
"We don’t have peanut butter in France. Children eat baguettes stuffed with chocolate for their snacks."
"Well, I’m afraid I’m fresh out of baguettes and chocolate, Emile." There was a twinkle in Grandmother's eyes.
I almost grinned in spite of myself and, although my stomach was still trying to recover from the onion rings, I said, "That’s okay. May I try the sandwich, please?"
I followed her into her kitchen and took a seat at a small, white rectangular table, and soon the sandwich appeared on a blue-and-white plate in front of me. I examined it, pulling apart the two squares of flat, white bread so that I could see the contents inside. The peanut butter looked like a darker colored paté, the goose liver my French grandmother bought at the market each week. It was smeared with something deep violet in color, smooth, shiny, and jiggling, that came from a jar labeled Welch’s Grape Jelly. I was suspicious. In France, grapes were used for wine. This substance certainly didn’t resemble the jellies and jams that Mamie Madeleine made with fresh fruits and berries from her garden.
American food is processed, Emile. You never know what you’re putting in your mouth. I could hear Mamie Madeleine’s warning as I placed the squares back together and hesitantly took my first bite. In France, it was a very big sin to combine something sweet like jelly with something salty like peanut butter. But the moment my taste buds were introduced to peanut butter and jelly, I decided that for this at least, I was glad to be in America.
"Well, let me show you to your rooms," my grandmother said.
Mama and I followed her up the curving wooden staircase. There were two bedrooms on either side of a long hall that overlooked the stairway.
"Here you go, Emile. This can be your room."
I was amazed that with absolutely no warning my grandmother could have a room ready in her house. In Lyon, it was always a great affair to have des invités even for a meal; it was a feat that took the better part of a week to prepare for. But here was my grandmother offering me a completely furnished room and saying, "I hope you’ll be comfortable here. I’m sorry for the wallpaper."
I wondered then, Maybe this grandmother has been waiting for fifteen years for her daughter to come back home. Maybe this room has been waiting just for this moment.
There were little yellow flowers on the wallpaper, and, hanging on the walls, framed prints by great French artists I had studied in school--Monet and Pissarro and Toulouse-Lautrec--along with some framed photos of my mother when she was young. The bed looked like it was meant for a little girl--with a yellow bedspread and a frilly white canopy above.
"You can put your clothes in the closet here," my grandmother said, motioning to the doors on either side of the bed.
As I set down one of my suitcases on the floor, she added, "There is a little attic space beside the dormer window. You can use that too."
"Thank you, madame," I said, as she turned to leave.
She turned back around, took my hands in hers, and said, "And you can call me Grandma, if you’d like."
"Thank you, Grandma," I repeated. I liked the taste of that word on my lips-- maybe even better than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
What Grandma called the dormer window turned out to be a vertical window in a projection built out from the sloping roof. The result on the inside of my room was a little alcove where a desk had been built in under the window. I stared out this window at the front yard, its tall trees, and the wide street beyond with the sidewalk where a young woman was pushing a baby carriage.
I sat down on the bed, feeling suddenly very sleepy. I’ll just lie down for a minute, I told myself, listening to my mother’s and grandmother’s voices disappearing down the hall. But my eyes closed themselves, and before I knew it I was dreaming of an old château and a different grandmother and my father, walking away in the distance, glancing over his shoulder to warn me, "Emile, watch out for those peanut butter and jelly sandwiches."
When I awoke, the late afternoon sun was coming in the dormer window and the room felt stuffy. Groggily, I opened my eyes and went out of the room and across the hall, where I found my mother in a similar position to what mine had been moments ago, lying fully clothed on the bed, sound asleep. I tiptoed back towards the stairs and went down to find my other suitcases in the pile that the taxi driver had left by the front door. Grandma was nowhere in sight, so I carried the bags upstairs and decided to start unpacking.
Carefully I removed neat stacks of clothing from my biggest suitcase until I uncovered my set of Tintin comic books in the bottom. There were nine of them, hardback, each the size of a three-ring binder. I always pretended that I was a lot like Tintin, the young hero--small and resourceful with a mind that wanted to solve mysteries. I used to think that if only I had a dog like Tintin’s trusty Milou, all would be just perfect.
I put the books on a low shelf beside the dormer window. Then, after closing the door, I began removing the clothes from the next suitcase and unwrapping what I thought of as "my collection." I placed each item on the bed. First there were the old yellowed newspapers, then the thumbtack tin, the writing pen, and the bicycle pump. Next I lifted out a small oilcan and a wooden hairbrush and one more comic book.
I studied the yellow room for a good place to hide these things. Mama could not know that I had brought them. She had never approved of them in the first place.
Mama strode into the room where Papa and I were seated on my bed, and grabbed the oilcan from me.
"I thought we agreed you wouldn’t give him any more gifts like this for his birthday! Are you crazy, Jean-Baptiste? I will not have Emile touching these things. You will not train him to be a revolutionary!"
"Janie, for heaven’s sake, calm down! He’s a boy. Boys need a little adventure."
"He’s nine. Nine years old, do you hear me? He’s a child. I will not have you influencing him with your gruesome war stories. I will not!"
I watched wide-eyed as they exchanged heated words, my father’s in French, my mother, as always, replying in tearful English, her lips trembling with rage. I was furious with her for interrupting one of the few private times I had with my father. Eventually he calmed her down, assuring her he would not corrupt her darling son, but even I could hear the condescension in his voice, and the humor too.
From then on, I kept the oilcan and the other strange birthday gifts Papa had given to me, starting when I was about five and continuing on every birthday since, hidden from Mama. I don’t think she ever saw them, and she certainly never heard the stories that Papa shared with me in hushed tones.
I went over to the dormer window, bent down, pulled on a small brass knob, and opened the little door that was part of the wall, revealing an attic-like space that apparently ran the length of the house until it reached another dormer window in the bedroom down the hall. I took each article on the bed, placed them all in one of my smaller, empty suitcases, and carefully carried the suitcase, holding it out flat in front of me, over to the window. Then I set it inside the attic space, satisfied that my greatest treasures had made it from France to America and were safely out of sight. Mama didn’t know it, but I was sure that this collection was going to lead us back to my father.
Then I reached into my pants pocket and pulled out a wristwatch, a cheap, old timepiece that nevertheless was ticking. I turned it over in my hands, gripped it hard, and then dropped it onto the bed. My throat went dry. I picked the watch up again, thinking He didn’t even have a chance to explain it.
Just three days earlier, Papa had come into my room before I went to bed, ruffled my hair, and said, "Happy Birthday, mon grand."
"But my birthday is two months away, Papa."
He stared at me for a moment, his pale blue eyes translucent, his thick black hair falling on his forehead. He looked pained. "Yes, I know," he whispered, taking a small wrapped box from his suit pocket. "This year it’s coming early."
Quickly I tore off the wrapping, excited, intrigued. The box held a watch, a very plain watch with a leather wristband.
"Thank you, Papa. Thank you."
"It still works, Emile. Still tells time as well as it did back in 1943."
"And I can keep it?"
"Of course. You can wear it if you want." He forced a smile.
I waited expectantly for the story. Every year, when Papa presented me with my "real gift," the one I dreamt about for weeks before my birthday, he would reveal to me another part of his harrowing past.
I don’t know why telling me horrific stories about the war made him feel at ease, but his manner changed on those nights. He relived his past with all the pride and joy of a teenager bragging to his friends.
But this night Papa said nothing for the longest time. He fingered the watch and then caressed my face, his lips drawn into a thin, tight line. Again he looked pained.
I turned the watch over and over in my hands, trying to summon the courage to ask him about it. Suddenly there was a knock on the door. Without thinking, I thrust the watch into my father’s hands, and he put it back into his pocket.
"Jean-Baptiste," my mother said, cracking the door open. "I’m sorry to disturb you, but you have a call. . . ."
"Just take a message, Janie, and I’ll call back."
I let out a sigh of relief. The phone call would not interrupt my special time with Papa.
But my mother didn’t go away. Instead she came over by the bed and whispered, "Dear, I think it’s important. A man named Rémi said to tell you he is very sorry to bother us at this hour, but it’s about a shipment--"
Before my mother even finished the sentence, Papa was on his feet. "Janie, tell him I’m coming."
All I could manage to say was, "But, Papa!"
He closed the door, came back to the bed, and knelt down, his face filled with remorse.
"So I won’t hear the story tonight, Papa?"
I could see his chest heaving, see the way he swallowed. "No, not tonight, son." His voice was raspy, as if he were going to sob.
I felt a mixture of alarm and pride at his emotional reaction.
Then he did something he had never done before. He grabbed me and held me in a tight hug. "Emile, I have to leave again."
"You just got home."
"Yes, I know, but I’m going to have to leave."
"Tomorrow, before you are even awake."
"It’s okay, Papa. You can tell me the story when you get back."
"Yes." But this he said as if choking. "You’re almost fourteen, Emile. Almost a man. You take good care of your mother while I’m gone, you hear?"
He held me for a moment longer, then kissed the top of my head and left the room.
It was only later that I realized he had not given me back the watch.
I must have drifted off to sleep then, because suddenly I was awakened by the sound of crying and muffled words--angry words. It was pitch black outside. I tiptoed out of bed and listened by my door. My parents’ room was down the hall.
My mother was crying, my father was talking forcefully. "Janie, you must calm down--it will be better for everyone. You mustn’t lose control. Please."
The talking and crying continued for a good while, but I could make nothing else out.
I finally crawled back into bed and fell asleep. The next morning, my father was gone.
I went to school and was thankful that we had a field trip planned to visit the Roman ruins and museum near Vieux Lyon. I had seen them several times, but I enjoyed history, and I knew it would keep my mind occupied.
We walked down one of the cobbled pedestrian streets in Vieux Lyon. The sun was bright, a perfect early autumn day, and my friends and I joked and laughed and teased the girls. People all along the streets were sitting in outdoor cafés, eating and drinking.
As we sauntered past a café, I stopped dead in my tracks, letting my friends go ahead. At a table not twenty feet from me sat my father. I could see his profile. He was wearing the same business suit as the night before, but the worried expression was completely erased. He was smiling, leaning forward, thoroughly enjoying himself as he talked to a young woman across the table, his hand on top of hers. Something in his manner was terrible and intimate.
I had not seen my father look like this in a long time--carefree, happy. I felt a falling sensation in the pit of my stomach and thought I would vomit. I stood there, unable to move. I wanted to greet him, call out at least, but my dread was too great.
For one brief second our eyes met, my father’s and mine. His showed great surprise--but only for a second--then studied indifference, as if I didn’t exist, as if he had never seen me before in his life. Through that one calculated glance, I heard him shouting in my ears Go away! Go away! and I ran to catch up with my friends.
I knew about mistresses. France’s history was peppered with spicy stories about them. All the kings of old had them. But somehow I could not fathom that my father had one, and that I had just seen her.
I felt the sharp pangs of betrayal, remembered my father’s tight hug from the night before, the look of love in his eyes--and now, the look of indifference, complete unconcern.
Still, I was sure he would come into my room that night and explain it all to me. He had not gone on the trip--he had run into an old friend, just a friend, and they had lunch together. He would explain it, I knew.
But my father did not return, and the next day my mother packed our bags, and the following day we were at the Lyon train station, headed to Paris and then America.
At the train station Mamie Madeleine, eyes red, face tight, gave me yet another round of kisses on the cheeks and handed me a small box. "This is for you, Emile."
As the train sped toward Paris, I opened it and found my father’s watch.
I fingered it now as hot tears ran down my cheeks. I was almost fourteen years old and acting as if I were five. There was no mystery to why we were in America. Anybody could figure it out. My father had a mistress; my mother found out, and she wanted to escape. Or perhaps she had known about his affairs for a long time, and she had finally had enough.
Poor Mama. I should have felt sorry for her, but all I wanted right then was to hurry back to Lyon and find my father and listen as he told me a riveting story about his days in the war and why he had given me this wristwatch two months before I turned fourteen.
by Elizabeth Musser, c2007, published by Bethany House Publishers, a division of Baker Publishing Group. Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.