South Derry, Vermont
“Well, just tell her we can have her entire wardrobe shipped here if she likes. We can have it stored in the new bedrooms in the barn. Do you remember Willy Reeves? He’s just putting on the finishing touches. There’s more than enough closet space.”
Yes, Marianne Papineau remembered Willy Reeves. He was one of the many wild and (in a way) exciting local boys whom she imagined would put finishing touches on restored barns within a fifteen-mile radius of his home village and then go have many beers with skiers, snowboarders and other tradesmen at the Wild Boar or, in the off-season, the Red Fox. He might even be pulled over on VT11 or VT30 or VT100 for speeding and weaving; but the trooper would know the entire Reeves family from way back and would follow Willy until the master carpenter was safely parked near where he would wish to sleep it off.
“I told her basically the same thing, mom, but she worries ‘what if I want to come back home for whatever reason like the holidays to see Abeline and Kanna or what if I hate it and drop out and crave France and none of my clothes are here or none of the clothes and jewelry and things that I didn’t have room to pack for school.’ She’s very emotional. This is all new for her.”
“You don’t have to rent out the apartments, Marianne,” Joanna said, sitting on the terrace with her cell phone and morning coffee, looking out at some of her fifty acres of mountain property off Winhall Hollow Road in South Derry. They still held on to another two hundred acres further up the mountain. “Let us help so we can keep the building in the family. There’s money we can get to from property and other things. My dad did very well once upon a time, he and his investor pals.”
“Mom …” Marianne knew all about Grampa Bill having been a shark.
“Just take it easy. I know how you feel. You’re very independent, and you don’t like handouts. I was the same way, kiddo. My impulse was to reject anything your dad and I didn’t earn for ourselves. But now that I’m … a woman of a certain age, I see that my parents – and, I suppose, most parents – crave the peace of mind that comes from knowing their kids will be operating on a level playing field after we’re gone and, more enjoyably, even while we’re still here. I didn’t make all this money; I’m just watchin’ it.“
Bill and Penelope Gourlie, Joanna Papineau’s parents, bought the land in 1948. The family moved, from Rye, New York, to Vermont full-time, nearly ten years later, when Joanna was heading for college. Bill Gourlie had left his Wall Street investment firm at the age of fifty-one, during the second Eisenhower administration, pockets stuffed with three lifetimes worth of cash and stock, to pursue the life of a country gentleman, replete with his very own Case 500 tractor.
The smallholding sat at an elevation of around 1,900 feet above sea level. The outbuildings – including the 1820s manor house and barn painted white with Essex green shutters -- lay on six manicured, hilly acres; the hay meadow, pond, and a good part of the pristine and annually-repaired stone wall covered ten acres; and the rest was second-growth woods with a tributary stream of the West River meandering throughout. Mountain views abounded around every corner and through every clearing. Joanna inherited the land in the late-eighties upon the sad death of both elderly parents. She and her husband, Roger Papineau, holidayed there every year and finally took up permanent residence eight years ago when Roger retired from teaching at the Tolbiac campus of the University of Paris.
“Mom, that’s ridiculous,” Marianne said. “The taxes keep going up. They’re twice what they were when you and dad left.”
“Have you ever heard of taxes going down?”
“We should actually look into selling it.”
“Maybe add even more money to the money we already have and lose our place to stay in Paris that we’ve owned since 1976?” Joanna asked rhetorically. “No amount of money in the world is worth giving it up.”
Their place to stay in Paris was their home, not far from the Carrefour Vavin, now known as Place Pablo Picasso, the famous junction of the Boulevards Montparnasse and Raspail. When Marianne was fourteen, she moved with her parents and her brother Danny to the mythical 14th arrondissement – the Promised Land of freedom of expression, of surrealism and existentialism. The district to which the great artists – Picasso, Modigliani and Apollinaire – fled from Montmartre before the Great War when the famous slopes became too touristy. The Montparnasse neighborhood, and its lively, historic cafes, was the haunt of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Miller; Stein, St. Vincent Millay and de Beauvoir. The Papineau apartment looked down on Square Delambre, around the corner from Paris’ second-most-famous cemetery, bursting with the capital’s intellectual and artistic elite – among them Baudelaire, Maupassant, Huysmans, Beckett and Sartre.
“Mom, that’s a sentimental and simplistic way of looking at it.”
“Don’t knock it ‘till you’ve tried it. Sentimental and simplistic have gotten me pretty far.”
“Well, anyway, Isabel is not in a good place today; just too much to think about at once.”
“You were the same way when you went away to Cologne the first time,” Joanna reminded her only daughter.
“Was I?” Marianne looked around the fridge for some of the St. Nectaire cheese – with the gray rind and flavored with hazelnut -- she’d bought this morning at the tree-lined, Boulevard Edgar-Quinet Market. “That was a five-hour drive though. And I knew where my home was, and my mom and dad were both there – for a while anyway. Dad, of course …”
Joanna broke in. “Were you in Cologne when daddy took that teaching post in Lyon for a few months? That’s when that was?”
“Do you mean when you two split up, and he was gone for two years and living with Annette Chinon?”
Joanna, after a few beats of silence, followed by nervous giggling, answered playfully, “OK, Marianne. Must we dwell on the unsightly episodes of life?”
“Mommy I love you,” Marianne was half-sorry she’d made such a gratuitous and tasteless comment about a painful time in her mother’s life. “I’m also rather fond of reality.”
“I love you too, sweetheart,” Joanna ignored her artfully -- reality, like the truth, being overrated. “We’re pinching ourselves that we’re going to all be together again and working near one another – if you’re still up for it. We’ve modified the studio. It’s all done; and it was no big deal. Daddy says we were going to make some upgrades anyway.”
“Yes, I’m up for it. That’s one of the things I’m looking most forward to, mom, putting down my rifflers and rasps and walking across the barn to see you painting. And we do see each other more than one would expect, given the ocean between us. But I know what you mean,” Marianne smiled and held the phone with her shoulder as she sliced slivers of cheese. “I can’t wait to wake up and know that you’ll both be there; and that it doesn’t have to end with the end of a holiday. I feel like a little girl again … but … I’m not, you know.”
“Well, you’re my little girl and you’re my grown-up, adult woman and my colleague and my friend; and, yes, I know we’ve seen each other a good amount under the circumstances, and we talk; and now your father has me set up in the office and made this e-mailing easier for me.”
“I must say, you’ve improved. I told you, it was getting the wireless cable. That changes everything. If we do nothing else, we just need to stay in the avant garde of technology. It makes everything easier.”
“Easy for you maybe,” Joanna said. “I’ve always fancied myself as cool and hip and natural and against the machine; now I’m old and I’m forced to bow down to Bill Gates and all the rest of them because no one writes letters anymore.”
“You are not old,” Marianne laughed. “What’s the matter with you? Sixty-nine is the new … fifteen, based on how you behave. My God. You’re beautiful and … your talent continues to evolve, mommy. I’m serious. You’re the finest woman I know. There’s not even a close second.”
“What about my Seven Sisters-bound granddaughter?”
“She’s not a woman. She’s a teenage pain-in-the-ass freak.”
“Let me talk to her.” Joanna put on her grandma hat. No one, not even Marianne, was going to disparage her favorite grandchild.
“No, mom. That’s just the excuse she needs to stop packing her room. She has Abeline and Kanna helping her; still she’s making it into a bigger thing than it is.”
“Marianne, it is a big thing ...”
“I know, I know. You’re right. I didn’t really mean that. She’s the best daughter any mom could hope for,” Marianne’s life of motherhood flashed before her. “I still think she’s making a meal of it, as her father says.”
“She’s leaving her home,” Joanna said, “and that home will be vacant because you won’t be there.”
“Won’t be there? I’m going to be ninety minutes away from her by car – with her granny and gramps in her country vacation playland -- instead of an entire day of driving to Boston and flying to Paris. What do you people want from me? I can’t be everywhere.”
“Well, don’t expect me to talk you out of moving back to Vermont or waiting to see if she likes being in America full-time before you uproot your lives completely. You get selfish in old age. Even you will, darling.”
What was that supposed to mean? Marianne wondered. “I guess it’s never too late to fall back to another option if this one proves untenable.”
“Untenable.” Joanna pondered as she began walking up the cedar path to her paint studio. “Why don’t the two of you stop what you’re doing, leave the apartment and go down the street for a café crème or a Breton crepe. But … just so we understand each other, if you change your mind now, you can find my body at Hamilton Falls.”
“Oh, there’s a pleasant picture while I drift off to sleep tonight. Thank you, mom.”
Joanna, as was her way, moved on. “Yesterday morning when I talked to Isabel she was fine and very upbeat. What happened between then and now?”
“Gee, I don’t know. Do you think it has something to do with being a high-achieving, emotional, OCD, transition-challenged, 18-year-old female whose whole family are artists … and French … and intellectuals?”
“Then take her away from the packing. Bring her friends along and let her talk your ear off. Let her whine and sniffle and worry out loud and bitch at you. Do what she wants to do tonight, as long as you get to come along. And at bedtime, bring her into your big bed and give her cocoa and massage her head and tell her stories until she falls asleep. She’s scared … so are you.”
Marianne wrinkled her lips and felt a bit foolish for having to be told what she should have already known to do. What she’d done a hundred times before for a daughter who’d never given her a stitch of the kind of misery Marianne had heard, from her friends, about their daughters heaping on them. She had been lucky, and that notion made her feel as though she’d been a good person after all. Because that was big; that was earth-shattering in her circle – having a daughter who wasn’t a basket case, a potential runaway and a constant source of impending doom.
“Well, you’ve calmed me down again, damn you.”
“I learned it from your Grandma Pips, and now I’m lucky enough to watch you be a wonderful mother to Isabel. Pretty fabulous, life.”
Mother and daughter seemed almost to sigh as one. Joanna entered the studio and looked over yesterday’s work – Hamilton Falls no less. Marianne peeked into Isabel’s rooms as the girls listened to music and laughed as they read their school’s yearbook, chatted online and spoke on the phone.
“How about our Julius?” Joanna asked. “How is he managing at the thought of his daughter and his … you moving so far away?”
“He moved further away first … out to the country, practically in Wales. We used to just be a Chunnel away – a little over two hours if he were in London. Cab or Metro to Paris Nord. He would meet us at St. Pancras, you know, or else we would just make our way over to his flat somehow. Another half-hour or so we could all be at the cottage in Essex or another hour on the train up to his rooms at Cambridge -- whatever.”
“Can you stop complaining about that man for one moment? You love him. We all love him. Is it really any different whether you catch another train to Cambridge or whether you go to Gloucestershire?”
“Julius’ words exactly. I see he’s gotten to you.”
As Marianne continued muttering, Joanna groaned loudly. “Enough, Marianne. How is he, in your opinion, handling the two of you leaving Europe?”
“ … Twice as far – his part of Gloucestershire as opposed to his part of Essex.”
“Sorry. It’s been sinking in with him all summer that it’s really happening – his baby off to college, leaving the country. Now he knows how his mother felt. I don’t believe he ever really thought about that before.”
“Things come to us eventually. How can a twenty-year old relate to what a middle-aged person feels, even if it is family?”
“Impossible. Now that I’m … I can’t even say it.”
“Forty-three next month?”
“See? Your mind is still intact – charmingly so. What I was starting to say is, nowadays I think about you at that age – my age, what your life might have been like and how you saw things and felt the experience of being a mother to me and our relationship and what sort of messes cluttered your mind.”
“Mm, that’s a basketful. Mid-80s, eh? It wasn’t perfect. I came back here for long stretches when I thought it was OK to be that far from you; when you seemed settled in what you were doing at college and after.”
“You did everything right, mom, as far as I was concerned,” Marianne assured her. “I understand the comfort of those mountains. I understood then why you needed to be there from time to time. You’re right. I was settled and very busy. And, to tell you the truth, when I was twenty-one or twenty-two, I was perfectly content to return to Square Delambre and be in an empty apartment.”
“Now you’re making me think back even further. When I was at Sarah Lawrence in the 50s, I used to go down to the apartment my parents kept in the city. Thirty-eighth Street, just off of Park.”
“I remember it.”
“I thought I’d died and gone to heaven the first time I stepped foot in the Village as a sort of adult. That was it for me – Bohemian for life.”
“And did you want Grandma Pips there to greet you when you walked in?”
“Only if I needed new Toreador pants. Bless her heart; but mostly, no! Please tell me more about Julius.”
“What do you want me to say? It’s been very nice having him around more often this summer; I’ve always encouraged him to spend as much time with us as possible. We’ve never really fought since Isabel was born, so her memories of us together have all been quite good.”
“Did he say anything about the two of you?”
“The two of who?”
“You know exactly what I mean, Marianne. I’m through with sitting back and watching and not saying what I think.”
“You’re kidding me, right? I mean, you see no irony in that statement?”
“I invented irony, young lady,” spoke Joanna, with the gravitas of a matriarch. “For the first twenty-five years, my marriage was one, long lesson in incongruity and discordance. But we set our chins, Roger and I, and got through it all. OK, we didn’t always live together; but we’re together now, and everyday I thank God that one or both of us didn’t screw it up irreparably along the way.”
“That’s a dig at me because you think I screwed it up with Julius.” Fifteen or twenty years ago, one of them would have slammed the phone down at this point.
“Project all you like; some would say it wasn’t meant to be. Your reasons for leaving him made a certain sense at the time, unfortunately; and I felt I was in no position to lecture or counsel. I blamed myself and your father for the conceptions you had about Julius and what you were going through then. But I made a terrible mistake being passive and allowing you to make every decision for yourself. You were young, and you needed me. I just said, ‘OK, honey, whatever you want’ to everything you came up with regarding how to live your life.”
“Maybe we should save this for when I get there,” Marianne suddenly sensed she’d been away from her tasks long enough. “I’m thinking, the screened porch and two bottles of wine.”
Now it was Joanna who felt her own transgression.
“Forgive me, Marianne. I love you so much. I have no right to start something so upsetting when you have too much on your mind already.”
When Marianne did not immediately reply, Joanna Gourlie-Papineau added, “On the other hand, what are mothers for?”
“Forget it, mom. I love you too, ya troublemaker. You make some valid points … and I didn’t really get pissed off.”
“Oh honey, you must be exhausted.”
Marianne let that one slide as well. At least in person she could observe her mother’s facial expressions. She thought she had learned most of Joanna’s theatrical aspects. “We’ll pick it up where we left off; I promise.”
“Mm,” Joanna doubted she were off the hook just yet.
“Let’s see,” Marianne pointed her eyes upward as if recalling something from the immediate past, wishing her mother could see her but knowing she most likely could anyway. “I think you’d just said it had been a mistake to let me make any decisions about my life when I was twenty-five. So, that’s where we’ll pick it up.”
“That’s really not … pahh … all right. Give my love to our angel.”
“I will … and mom?”
“Julius and I are fine the way we are. We would never have gotten to where you and dad have. We couldn’t have made it the normal way – or even your way for that matter. It was very sad. It’s been sad, from time to time, over the years. But, in the big picture – the grand mural of our days, staying apart was the best thing. We would definitely not have been happy together.”
“I agree with you about one thing,” Joanna said quietly.
“About it being sad.”
Joanna adjusted her workspace to catch the proper amount of morning light. “You promised we could talk about it while you’re here.”
“Yes, I did,” Marianne acknowledged, after mouthing ‘grandma’ to Isabel, who had entered the kitchen with a look of urgency.
“It’s just that there’s nothing exciting to do here,” Marianne’s mother giggled.
Back in the legendary haven of artists that was Montparnasse, Isabel put her hands on her hips, made an elegantly dissatisfied face worthy of something from the pen of Racine and anxiously tapped her foot. Marianne laughed, as she had many times before, at the garden of Papineau girls on display – herself included.
“Whatever I can do to entertain, mom, you can always count on me.”