Friday, December 14, 2012

Christmas in Combleux

When I was a boy, my family lived in France.  Dad was an officer in the Army, stationed at a base in Orleans, a mid-sized city in the Loire Valley about fifty miles southwest of Paris.  This was in the early 1950s when American troops were still welcomed in France after the war to assist with the rebuilding efforts and to provide rear-area security against any possible Soviet aggression.

As a nine-year old, I had very little idea of the impact of the war to the people of France, other than noticing the bombed-out buildings in certain areas of Orleans.  But since we lived in Combleux, a little village on a canal outside of Orleans, we didn't see the rubble of war on a regular basis.  Our lives were confined primarily to making ourselves as comfortable as possible in a rundown old villa we rented, and trying to stay warm in the damp chill of winter.  At one time, the villa had been someone's country home, designed only for summer visits by its owners from Paris.  It was never meant to be occupied in cold weather, and consequently had no central heat.  There was a fireplace in the drawing room, but someone had bricked it up, making it useless.  So my dad got a local man named Couchard to build a new fireplace in an attached room once used as a stable, but he did such a poor job that the fireplace never drew properly.  Instead of going up the chimney, smoke poured into the room whenever we had a fire, and Couchard couldn't seem to fix it.  So it ended up another room without heat.  Finally, Dad got the Army to provide us with some old unvented kerosene space heaters.  We had to place them by cracked-open windows so we wouldn't asphyxiate ourselves.  Because these heaters were smelly to operate, we normally used them just long enough to heat up our bedrooms before turning-in each night.  Then we'd shut them off, close the windows, and go to sleep under a pile of blankets.  The only really warm room in the house was the kitchen, which became our family gathering place.  We would cook and eat there, play games, listen to Armed Forces Radio, do homework, et cetera.

Christmas of 1953 was very special to us.  Not only were we in France, we also had a new baby in the family, my little sister Jane, born earlier in the year in May.  She was round and happy, and lighted-up our lives.  When we first moved to the house, because of my mom's pregnancy, a local woman from the village was hired to help do the cleaning and cooking.  Her name was Andrea, and we liked her right away.  She in turn liked us, but when little Jane came along, she fell hopelessly in love.  Andrea became a second mother and more-or-less took over, which ended up leaving my mom more time for other things.  Needless to say, baby Jane grew very attached, and as she got older, would often spend the night with Andrea and her family when my folks got the chance to get away to Paris.     

That first Christmas with Andrea, she made a special potato-vegetable soup for us.  I remember watching in the kitchen as she boiled all the vegetables together - potatoes, carrots, onions, lettuce and celery.  After that was done, they went through a vegetable mill, or moulin as the French called it.  Andrea would pile them in, then crank the handle to mash them up over a large pot.  The result became a thick, nourishing soup called potage.  It was good on its own, of course, but was often accompanied by great chunks of crispy baggettes, buttered, along with swiss cheese and thinly-sliced ham.  Andrea pointed out that the soup's flavor was enhanced by washing it down with a good Bordeaux.  Mom provided her a glass, and she happily demonstrated.  The whole family ended-up loving potage.  It was the only thing we ate that Christmas eve, and it became our traditional Christmas eve meal from that time on.

After we finished dinner, and mom and dad had their requisite coffee and cognac - and baby Jane got passed around for goodnight kisses - we all bundled up to go to the local village church for midnight mass.  Andrea stayed behind with Jane.  The church was an old, stone structure that had probably been there a century or more.  It was located next to a canal that ran behind the village and emptied into the Loire River a few miles away.  The church's stone walls seemed to soak up all the moisture from the nearby water, and like most old churches and cathedrals of the period, body heat was all there was.  The sanctuary was like a refrigerator.  By the time we arrived, all the pews were filled, and we were forced to stand at the back.  I remember spending that long service stomping on the hard floor to keep my feet warm.  As the priest droned on in French and Latin, my mom and dad would take turns hugging me into the lining of their coats.  My older sister was just as uncomfortable, I'm sure, but she didn't complain, and stood miserably silent next to us.

When mass ended, we shook hands with a number of the villagers we recognized.  For the most part, they were friendly people, pleased to have Americans attend their church.  I noticed a few who appeared sullen, however, and in retrospect wonder if they resented our intruding on their services.  One of them, however, was Couchard, the fireplace builder.  He had his own reasons for being sullen, still angry with my dad because he never got paid the last installment of his fee.  He claimed he had been cheated, and this after witnessing for himself the malfunctioning fireplace.  I guess his view was my dad was expected to pay in full for shoddy work.  We greeted him in a yuletide spirit, but he turned away from us with an arrogant scowl on his face.  Les Americains vilains!

After church, we walked back home in a stiff wind, went into the stable room and sat around our Army-issued kerosene heater to open one present each before going to bed.  Months before, I had picked out several items from the Sears-Roebuck catalogue, as had my older sister, and hoped they would be delivered in time for Christmas.  As they were mailed directly through the Army post office, I wasn't aware when they arrived.  My dad had probably snuck them into the house one day when I wasn't looking.  Anyway, I watched patiently as my sister opened up a package containing a new cashmere sweater.  She tried it on, and paraded around in silly fashion to receive the obligatory compliments all teenage girls expect from their folks.  Then it was my turn.  I tore open a wrapped box about eight inches square, and found inside what I'd been wanting for a long time - and I hadn't seen it at Sears-Roebuck.  It was a ViewMaster, with about a dozen wheels of films.  Ecstasy!  I was overjoyed, and immediately began looking at 3D pictures of faraway places - jungles and mountains, full of color and drama, up close, like I was there - all the wonders of the world.  It was new entertainment.  It was escape.  And I was happy.

Mom and Dad smiled as my sister kept looking at herself in the mirror and I stayed glued to my ViewMaster.  Peace was at hand.  All was well in the family.  Christmas was a success.  And then - as was inevitable - came the smoke, this time not from the fireplace but from the kerosene heater.  A smelly cloud began covering the room.  My dad uttered a favorite four-letter word and threw back another cognac.  Damned Army, he muttered.  Mom laughed, and shook her head.  At least this time, she pointed out, he couldn't blame Couchard! 

We gave up on the stable room, turned off the heater, and rushed through the frigid house to our beds.  For awhile, I looked at more 3D pictures under the covers, then fell asleep thinking of Christmas and jungles and mountains ...and smoky old kerosene heaters.

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