Thursday, July 17, 2008

Why I Grow Lavender

1947. The war is over yet some schism separates my parents. On July 1st, her children in tow, my mother embarks on an endless train ride out of Brussels. A day later, at the train station of Saint Rémy de Provence, we are met by a horse and cart to continue the journey to a small stone cottage, "Le Mas du Diable", the House of the Devil. I am not scared because Maman is quite firm: there is neither god, nor devil. Outside the village, we are in a landscape unchanged since tormented Vincent painted it, and it is glorious.

I am utterly enchanted by the warm sun, the light on the hills, the tournesols in their brilliant golden yellows. Great swatches of violet blue flowers all around us exude an indescribable perfume. I breathe mouth open trying to keep it inside my body. Maman closes her eyes and inhales deeply, "Lavender", she murmurs. "Are we staying here?" I want to know. Maman looks at me thoughtfully, "Yes, all summer". I am 8 and all summer is forever.

All summer I run free through the pinèdes, watch out for snakes and scorpions, see gypsies in painted carts. In Les Beaux, at the edge of a cliff, a violent gust of mistral suddenly lifts me. Maman grabs me and then hugs me tightly. We buy tiny santons.

All summer wonderful food appears on my plate: olives, smooth green and wrinkled brown, goat cheeses, baguette made from corn meal (wheat is still so expensive), figs, melons, ratatouille and grilled sardines. To our syrop de cassis, Maman adds water, to hers white wine and calls it kir.
All summer there is fresh lavender on the table, and lavender inside our pillows so we'll sleep well. We wear short shorts and espadrilles, and turn as brown as baguettes.

All summer, in an irrigation basin in the midst of lavender fields, naked, I practice diving and swimming. Bees are buzzing and ciccadas singing in the heady scented heat. Eyes closed, sun on my belly, cool water on my back, I float. I am a small Ophelia in nirvana. Then one day, the fields are full of people cutting flowers. Maman explains about soaps and perfumes. I am stunned.

All summer letters have come from Papa, a few at first then more. "When is he coming?" "You'll see Papa soon, in Brussels". I am stunned again, but most of all heartbroken to be torn from paradise. Maman tells me I should love Papa more.

In gray Brussels, arm in arm, they take me to the swimming pool so I can display my new prowess. Maman said it was like the irrigation basin only bigger. Not true. Not true. It is an immense indoor echoing place, full of noisy people, smelling horribly of chlorine. "I want to go back to St Rémy!" I wail. Papa says, "C'mon, swim!". Later, so I'll sleep well, Maman puts lavender in my pillow . I cry deep into it. Then sleep.


I need orange said...

I could smell the lavender, and imagine myself floating with you, in the hot sunshine.

Jill, Joe & Foxy said...

What a great memory...May 2007 when we were in Nice I bought a bunch of Lavender at the farmers market.

Kate G. said...

Lovely. Somehow the lavender in Europe has a more intoxicating aroma (especially after a rainstorm) than the lavender in Colorado. It's yet another thing I miss.

Anonymous said...

A summer of Lavender. What a glorious memory for an eight year child. Your maman thought well in filling your pillows with lavender on your return to be with your papa.

Tomate Farcie said...

Awww. That's a great story!!!

I could almost visualize it as you wrote it... Les Beaux probably hasn't changed one bit since you were there in 1947 (more tourists, maybe?) but there is no room to build anything there or around it, so the village is just a bunch of stones on top of a mountain with nothing around it (a better road to get there maybe?)

I was there 2 years ago and didn't even remember such places existed in France. We stayed in St. Remy de Provence and just drove around the country side. It was awesome. I don't usually think that way when I'm here in the States, but at the time, I thought I could see myself easily leave the States and make a life for myself in Provence. Or course, it's easier said than done but it felt so comfortable, and it is such a cute area.