I know. You’ll judge me untrustworthy, even guilty, right from the start. But I decided to dig, so there is no way to hide the mess: my own mess, that of my brothers, my sisters–and maybe even that of my parents.
Yes, I belong to my birth family, no matter how hard I want to deny it, how far away I put down stakes, how much I make myself the black sheep. Imagine my stealing a picture, for example. You’d think I was 8, maybe 9 years old. But it was years after the 20th anniversary of the liberation of Masevaux, Alsace–the last one I attended. I was more than grown-up, already a mother. That’s when I stole an original watercolor from my parents’ guest bedroom in Masevaux. Was Maman already sick? I can’t remember.
That bedroom had a dark window on the left of the double bed. The eastern light could shimmer a bit through the leaves, but the view was blocked by an oppressive willow tree. Thank goodness, this hadn’t been my room. Across from the bed was a row of built-in closets, and on the pastel green wall on the right, the Hansi picture.
Maman loved spare closets. After the seven of us were grown-up and gone, she used them for collecting remnants from the past: old books, toys, knick-knacks she had inherited from her mother. Nothing else I would care to stuff in my suitcase. Besides, I am no kleptomaniac, and I have never stolen anything before or since.
Like most people in my family, I have an excuse: I love my history, and I don’t want to give it up. My other excuse is that I am the fourth daughter and the sixth child, and so the likelihood is slim that I will get what I want by asking for it. Anyway, that was still true in the ’70s when I was a young wife and mother. Asking for something was still rude, or on the contrary, revealed my lack of clout. In any case, the answer was often a curt “no” or an obliterating silence.
I didn’t know then that my oldest sister would crown herself with Maman’s diamonds as soon as Maman died, and that my oldest brother would inherit our two childhood homes as soon as Papa died. But I sensed grabbiness in the air.
Maybe the past was choking us. The houses stolen, abandoned or shelled, the land conquered, the language silenced, all those weeds of mental scarcity continuing to invade the blossoms of postwar abundance. Or maybe it was the belief that what held us together was primogeniture, a system whereby the older children were more entitled than the younger ones, and boys were more entitled than girls. Which–by the way–created an unsolvable conflict between Jacqueline, the first child, and Jean Louis, the first son. They were like France and Germany: both entitled to more land, more jewels, more power. We younger ones were neutral countries, just trying to prosper with the leftovers.
That’s why I sensed that if I wanted something, I’d better grab that picture then and there. Stick it into my blue Samsonite suitcase. Smuggle it to my home in America.
The picture is called Gosses d’Alsace, Alsatian kids. My parents would never have called us “kids” any more than they would have put wooden clogs on our feet. But I liked Hansi’s kids because they reminded me of the children at play in my small town, those I used to watch through the dark green gates. And they illustrated Alsace’s tormented history, a history I knew through the dinner-table stories, the military marches, the patriotic bugles, the wreaths, the minutes of silence, the monuments to the dead.
As far back as my great-grandfather Isidore, each generation had a war, and each time Alsace had to become the opposite of what it had just been. French, German and then French, back to German and then French again. Imagine your parents getting divorced and custody changing every year.
Right after I was born, Alsace became French once more. Through all this zigzagging of history, my father’s family, just like Hansi’s, had remained steadfastly French Alsatian. We were Alsatians who spoke French, were French and risked death to hide French flags in attics and to abandon German uniforms in toilets.
But Maman, who wasn’t Alsatian, was worried Alsace wasn’t French enough. Most people spoke Alsatian, a German dialect, or French with an Alsatian accent. To make sure my youngest sister and I wouldn’t catch the dreaded accent, Maman prevented us from going to school in Masevaux.
The “kids” in Hansi’s watercolor stand in front of a timbered Alsatian house punctured by a French flag and a shelled roof. The little boy has a gun and leather shoes and the little girl, a patriotic blue-white-red bouquet and wooden clogs. Anybody can tell that they belong to the village, and the village is proud of them. They are the future. And they are the past. They are eternal, ever reborn, Alsace.
Underneath the picture is a caption, On attend le Cheneral, Waiting for the General. In this caption, the written letter “g” of general turns into the spoken Alsatian “Ch,” which calls for, at the end of the word, a meandering “a” and a curly “l”, turning a single word into a dirgelike songlet that French people do not have the time, throat and tongue to produce nor the ear to listen to. The picture is dated Thann, May 1916. This watercolor probably celebrates the liberation of Thann, the town on the other side of a Vosges ridge, right behind my parents’ home in Masevaux.
My eye glides down the picture. Underneath the ink caption, I read a penciled dedication to my grandmother: “A Madame Charles Andre, Hansi.” I realize today that dedication was my true title of ownership. I was the one who most resembled my grandmother.
She died before I was born, but Maman told me Grandmere was a multilingual, intellectual-artist-political-gardener type. Maman didn’t say she was like me, but I figured it out, since Grandmere and I both didn’t fit into the female bourgeois mold into which fate had poured us.
Grandmere had even been invited to the United States to convince Americans to enter World War I. But her husband, my beloved Grandpere, forbade her to go. Too many German submarines prowling around in the Atlantic. Probably the Lusitania had just been sunk. Or he was jealous, but that I don’t know. I just know Grandpere and Grandmere had nothing in common and never took a vacation together. That they ended up living separately, he in Masevaux, she in Nyon on the banks of Lake Geneva.
I feel a remnant of bad conscience. At least three of my siblings have greater claims to Hansi’s picture than I. Jean Louis, the designated upholder of the family name, has inherited our home in Masevaux and the villa in Nyon with all of Grandmere’s treasures. Why not the Hansi as well? That’s where it really belongs.
And Jacqueline already has the diamonds, but she also stood up to a Nazi schoolmaster when she was 9. She could be the little girl in the picture one war later. And Francoise, she was Grandmere’s godchild, the official closest descendant. I’ve never seen a Nazi soldier on French territory, I’ve never seen Grandmere and I’ve even abandoned France for America. Why did I think this picture was mine?
I go back to the caption On attend le Cheneral and I discover that unlike my mother’s Alsace, which only recognizes “Frenchness,” Hansi’s picture points to the Alsatian divide. Alsatians want to be French, but they have a Germanic accent and culture. That’s why Alsatians are really like me. I want to be American, I have become American, but I’ll always have a French accent and culture. I’ll always be a hybrid.
Twenty-five years ago, I was drawn to a picture where home was never home, where accent and flag didn’t match. Stealing it fitted my sense of alienation. The picture was mine and not mine, like my two countries, like my childhood split between home where I was and school where the other kids were.
But today, being a hybrid also means having a double vision. Besides, I have moved on. So I brush off the alienation and the guilt, and I look at my Hansi’s picture with fresh eyes. The Hansi no longer takes me through life as if I were an Alsatian between wars, eternally stranded between the past and the future. There is less yearning for Grandmere, for old houses or even for family fairness. This is hard to accept. Memories cast in stone are so comforting, even when they are infuriating. If the past is no longer sacred, can it be friends with the present? I wonder. What can I drop, what can I keep, what can I discover?
Not everything is rosy. There is my feminist consciousness and my childhood affect, both twirling uneasily around each other and around the picture’s content: the little girl and her flowers, the little boy and his gun and the yearning for a general. There is a voice that says I wish these kids could both have shoes, both have flowers. I wish they weren’t waiting for any big shot. And the hell with the gun! But their story is my story, as well. I, too, have stood in an Alsatian costume, in front of my parents’ home, between General Carpentier and General Gamiez, and I can’t let the present clean out the past. Every part of it matters. Several links across time make one life.
On the radio news, I hear about the Yugoslav forces and the Kosovo rebels. And about the Kurds, so incensed by the world’s indifference to their plight. And the massacres in East Timor. A lot of people still have their homes and even their lives taken away. But France and Germany have moved on.
When I visited Masevaux last summer, it had become a tourist attraction where succulent potted plants, geraniums and all of Europe’s languages peacefully coexist. Main Street is closed to cars, and the old bakery has outside tables and deluxe halogen lamps. The great historical figures of Masevaux’s history are painted on a frieze, going back to the 1600s when Alsace was part of the Austrian-Hungarian empire. Only old people still speak Alsatian, but Alsatian is now taught in schools. Alsace has shifted from the margins of two feuding nations back to the center of a continent.
As for me, I have my own home an ocean away in Durham, North Carolina. Now and then I go by my own bright yellow guest room and look at the Hansi watercolor. More often, I garden and I write, patiently seeking meaning, as time keeps changing the shape of minds and the color of memories.
This is the first-place winner in the NCWN nonfiction writing contest.