It's been said that the Parisian craze for thinness derives from the influence of Coco Chanel. Being thin, like being tan from the sun, so the story goes, was for years a mark of poverty. The idle rich, the nobles, the aristos, stayed inside, didn't work, ate well and grew fat. This is nonsense, since rich people kept dogs and horses and had gardens and tennis courts, but Chanel never denied having been the one who was sleek in her scandalously comfortable clothes, which hung perfectly on her slender frame and set off her golden tan as she strolled the boardwalks in Normandy and on the Riviera - the girl everyone wanted to copy.
One of my old (really old) French teachers had a different explanation, which had nothing to do with Chanel (who never lost an ounce during the Occupation). France, she said, has a history of being invaded and occupied, then recovering and moving on. War and occupation meant, among other things, scarcity of food, rationing... and thus respectable law-abiding women - patriots! - were thin. Only if there was an enemy "friend" or a black-marketeer on the scene, would a young women appear plump and blooming. After many wars, the idea that a young woman of good character should be thin just stuck.
As I wrestle to reconcile my waist with buttons and zippers, I wonder if this is so. And the wondering made me think back to Mademoiselle herself, her large hands that never made the chalk squeak, her skirts that never hung evenly, her knurly sweaters, and her passion for France and all things French.
Mademoiselle taught French for years. People's parents had been in her classes. Her tenure seemed like an eternity to us, probably seemed like centuries to her and like aeons to her sworn enemy, the principal, whom she considered a Yahoo (that we even knew this!). Her dreams for us were modest, influenced by the years she had spent studying and writing in a France that was very different from the one I came to know years after our paths crossed in her classroom. She didn't want us to save the world, because she'd been there and she didn't want to believe that the world might need saving again.
Rather, she wanted all of her students to find joy in thinking and reading and speaking in a language other than English. Doing so, she said, would stretch our minds as well as our embouchures. She led us on unauthorized "field trips" - someone's mother was dragooned into driving us to meet an old friend of Mademoiselle's who had married a diplomat now stationed in New York. We were to listen to the latest French popular music, thumb through French magazines, have a lovely dessert, and under Mademoiselle's supervision, while she and our hostess chatted away in French for our benefit, we were to help unpack, wash, dry and put away an enormous quantity of china and pottery. This would increase our vocabularies. "Limoges," we said. "Quimper, Moustiers, Gien. Haviland." It seemed that everywhere these people had been assigned in France, they must have bought plates, bowls and cups. And serving pieces and cream pitchers.
I knew my parents would be furious if they learned I'd gone out and washed dishes for a stranger - I could barely be made to do it at home. So when asked what we had done all day, I truthfully said "They've worked in a lot of different towns in France, and they showed us a lot of their souvenirs. Souvenir means to remember with thought."
The Cloisters, the Met, movies with subtitles in little theaters that served coffee in tiny cups, and a few restaurants where elderly waiters or waitresses knew her and elderly owners knew that it was good business to give us a warm welcome that we'd remember down the years...
Rumors circulated about her adventures, the possibility that she had done secret work for the government, well, for a government, that she'd had a fiancé who didn't come back from the war, which war, look how old she is, it could be any war, anywhere - nothing stopped her. She mentioned that when her father gave her older brother the sword and pistols an ancestor had carried in the Civil War, she cried so much the poor man went out and bought her her first gun (her first? were there others?)
School may not have been in session on July 14, but she saw to it that her classes paraded, chanting, through the halls on other French holidays. May, which has three, was particularly trying for self-conscious adolescents.
She was no Miss Brodie, let me be clear: she wasn't vain, she wasn't self-involved, she wasn't manipulative. She was tough, generous of spirit, intolerant of laziness and its ugly twin, conformity. "I hope that at least some of you have put aside some money from your holiday bounty. I will accompany a small group to the Museum of Modern Art and then to a restaurant for a civilized lunch on Saturday. I will be at the station at 9 Saturday morning." Inevitably, by Saturday, those who might have signed up but couldn't find the money would have won a prize for memorizing the most verbs ending in ir, or for listing the most words relating to weather... and would be at the station, holding prepaid tickets.
And ultimately, finally, she retired. The principal claimed to be shocked when it turned out she was at least fifteen years older than she'd claimed to be. A small group of us gathered, not for a reunion, but to help her clear out her classroom. We unpinned posters, unhooked framed maps, rolled up pictures and phonetic charts. She stopped to read a poem aloud, we finished it with her.
Adieu la peine et le plaisir. Adieu les roses
Adieu la vie. Adieu la lumière et le vent
Marie-toi, sois heureuse et pense à moi souvent
Toi qui vas demeurer dans la beauté des choses
Quand tout sera fini plus tard en Erevan.
A replica of the white silk banner of Joan of Arc still hung in the place of honor, to the right of the Tricolore of France. We thought it would be difficult to get the banner down, but all those years it had been fixed so that only one strategic pull would loosen it and it fell into her waiting arms. We stood, waiting for her to underline the lesson, but this time she only smiled. We were on our own.
I learned later that she had returned to her home state, a place of country music, small farms and sorrowful graveyards, and of all things, took a teaching job at a local military school. I told this to my mother, who was delighted and said to Grandma, "See? that woman is even older than you are and she doesn't sit around complaining, she went out and got herself a paying job."
Older than Grandma? was that even possible? Who could be older than Grandma?
I sent her Christmas cards, and ultimately, birth announcements, at the military academy. She sent Christmas cards in return, "hand drawn" by an artist I'd never heard of but locally considered a Fine Example For Young People. She called me after the first birth announcement, and told me that young people had less trouble learning the phonetics of foreign languages if they had become familiar with the sounds of foreign languages before they could speak or walk. "Bonjour, bébé," I murmured over the crib. "Tout va bien? C'est du gaz, ça?" I pictured my infant crawling through brush, radio wire clenched in her little gums, by her tiny example bringing hope to villagers...
I asked Mademoiselle what subject she was teaching, and she said: "French, of course, and strategic planning."
My first computer search was for her, and yes, she was way, way older than Grandma.
When she left the academy, I couldn't get a forwarding address, the academy was wrestling with the idea of co-education and noone was giving out any information about anything. Years later, on the way south, I insisted we get off the highway and find the little town and its military academy. I wanted to be sure that there was a military academy, Mademoiselle having by then become a legendary creature.
There was. There was also a cemetery, where her remaining family had buried her. I was aghast - even the 9th graders knew that she wanted to be cremated and have her ashes scattered from a cliff in Normandy. Adieu la lumière et le vent...
Of course I wasn't a teacher's pet nor even a perfect student. The reason I can recite so much French poetry is because if you talked or ate or daydreamed in her class, you Got A Poem to memorize. If you caused real trouble, you got pages of proverbs and lists of historical dates and facts. That stuff sticks, trust me. She would never send anyone to the principal's office, to her that was the equivalent of informing. But I excelled in learning to love France and my embouchure has been widely praised.
History is written by the winners, they say. A spinster schoolteacher of ordinary appearance, who drilled selfish kids in phonetics as if their lives depended on it, may have been one of those ordinary winners. Or not.
An old attorney, a cherished friend, long retired, today lies in a hospital bed, waiting for the oldest enemy of all. He's not expected to come home. He's familiar with that, he's defied it before. He learned how to defy death in France, seventy years ago today.