When I was growing up in the early 50’s in the Gulf Coastal town of Mobile, Alabama it was a little shabby and run-down at the heels. There wasn’t a lot of money floating about due to the poverty that had been entrenched in the south for a long time so my childhood still retained some of the flavor of the Depression and the sacrifices of WWII. One of our favorite things to do as children was go to the big public library downtown to check out books and then proceed in a restrained manner out the back doors into the old Church Street Cemetery behind the library to burst into a run and play in and around the graves.
I know it sounds weird but stories of the past and exploits of many of those buried in the cemetery were a part of our present lives. The huge live oaks with spanish moss hanging down like gray ghosts provided coolness from the heat and it seemed the perfect place to play and imagine the past. Perhaps that, along with the necessity to be able to reel off one’s ancestors like a proverbial recitation of Navajo clans in answer to the ever present question, “Now, who is your mothah?” gave me a natural inclination to want to know about the past.
I loved sitting with my Granddaddy Pickens on the porch swing in the early evening and listening to him tell stories about his childhood in Louisiana and stories that he heard as a child about his family. It gave me a sense of who I was and where I belonged. I have heard Native Elders refer to this as “weaving the rope.” Since I missed that experience with my paternal grandfather, “the Major” I suppose it is no surprise that I have been inspired to search for those stories.
One of the more exotic tales about my grandparents, Nick and Elsa involved them living in a chateau in France. Although I sort of took this information in, I didn’t quite accept it as there is a family tendency that goes along with very creative people to build those proverbial castles in the air. I’ve moved into one or two and landed on my derriere. So one of the things that I really wanted to do in May and June of this year while I was in Europe was track down the elusive chateau shimmering in the mirage of the minds of my family and see it for myself.
The European trip was due to a family gathering of some 100 people who came to celebrate the 40th anniversary of one of our Swedish cousins, Finn and his wife Eva. Finn Andreen, whose mother was my grandmother Elsa’s sister is the keeper of the family history and generously shares photos and wonderful stories. He knew Nick as a young teenager after his own father had died and Nick came to Sweden to help settle Elsa and her sister Clary’s mother’s estate. Finn, who is erudite in the extreme, speaks at least 4-5 languages fluently and has been a wonderful source of information. He helps keep me straight about the family history as he prefers his castles old and made of native stone.
Finn knew that I really wanted to go to the chateau so in the midst of hosting this huge family group including elderly relatives, his own children and grandchildren he graciously offered to drive me to the little village of Vic-sur-Aisnes one of the days while I was in Paris. Vic-sur-Aisnes is about 3 hours or so northeast of Paris on the edge of Champagne country. We set off on a rainy drizzly morning with Finn driving. As French lorries whoosed past us Finn recounted family tales clutching the wheel between his knees while rolling his own cigarettes and then proceeding to envelope us in clouds of tobacco. Perhaps it was the rain or the smoky atmosphere or the cadence of ancient tales but I knew for sure I was in for an adventure of one sort or the other.
After being lost in the time tunnels of family lore and driving around Paris at least twice–hey, there’s Charles DeGaulle airport, again–we finally made it onto the road towards Vic-sur-Aisnes. It dawned on me that I would need to put my not-so-recent college French into action in order to pay attention to road signs and the map. Luckily, with Eva’s excellent directions, which should have been the tip off, we finally arrived near the little village hours later than we should have. I saw a medieval looking castle in the distance but being American and used to the Walt Disneyish landscape of our country I didn’t quite take it in. We were diverted through narrow lanes due to road construction and as we went in circles around the village the castle turrets appeared and disappeared in the misty rain and finally we arrived on the main street of Vic-sur-Aisnes. And there was the ancient stone castle looming up against a gray sky. Finn declared, “Ah, we are here.”
To be continued–what happened at the chateau.