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My mother died on May 21, 2008. She was a formidable act to follow. She made a difference in the lives of so many people not to mention in the city of Washington, D.C. Without reciting her resume, I can assure you she was a remarkable woman.
Jeanne Viner Bell began her professional life as an actress when she was 15 years old. She had the glamour then and kept it until the end. She used to say, “I feel naked without my pearls.” She had style that went hand-in-hand with the glamour. When she came to my school, people would immediately say, “You must be Karen’s mother.” I didn’t have the glamour, but we had the same facial bones—not such a bad inheritance, not to mention a taste for pearls.
Mother, consciously or not, was grooming me to love France from the time I was born. When I came home from the hospital, I was placed in the arms of my French governess, Tauntine. She sang French lullabies and spoke to me exclusively in French. If only I’d listened or, better yet, absorbed the language or developed an ear. My gurgles must have had a French accent, but that’s where my success with the accent started and ended. To this day, when I say “Bonjour,” French natives respond in English.
But Tauntine tried. I vividly remember her tying bows in my hair and making certain I was properly dressed à la française. I suspect I wore exclusively dresses with smocking. Play clothes were anything but the rough and tumble variety, better suited for the Luxembourg Garden than the neighborhood playground in Washington.
Each night before going to bed, I was escorted to the living room to give bises to Mummy and Daddy and curtsy before turning in. Tauntine promised she’d take me to Paris. “When you see the Eiffel Tower, you’ll have to look up and up. We’ll walk along the Champs Élysées since that’s where the elegant people go.” We never went because Tauntine died and even though I was very young, she was my anchor.
Tauntine taught me how to eat properly; I was expected to eat everything. None of this if-it’s-ketchup-it’s-a-vegetable nonsense for her. Les plats were in the plural, after all, and some of them always contained vegetables. I confess to giving up when it came to raising our very picky eater of a son.
Tauntine died before my fourth birthday, but I remember looking at books with her. They were of course in French as it was the language of nobility. My shelves also housed a collection of Madeline dolls and for years I’d pretend Tauntine and I were having adventures with the dolls as we went about our explorations. Each doll had a French name, bien sûr.
I grieved over Tauntine’s death since she loved me unconditionally. She was a heartily built woman who always wore a white uniform, white nurse’s shoes, and a white hairnet over her permed white hair.
Mother didn’t believe in nursery schools, so as an alternative, I attended Evelyn de la Tour’s dancing school three afternoons a week. All us learned the five positions that are critical for any dancer—does anyone remember them? Mlle. de la Tour shouted the instructions in French as we performed a rendition of some kind of dance. I couldn’t wait for my first pair of pink Capezio’s. They signified I was so grown up but I’d never be allowed to wear a pair of toe-shoes since they did terrible things to little feet.
Later, I attended a French camp where my most used words were Est-ce que je peux parler anglais, s’il vous plaît?—May I speak English, please? There was a reason for this. I was trying to learn to ride horses and sail boats with French instructors and not understanding what I was hearing was getting dangerous. Yet while Mother was trying to turn me into an elegant française—now that I think of it the only absolute defeat of her entire life and career—she did not want me to go to the American College of Paris.
It was too far away. But over the years I began to understand that it was not the American College that would be too far away. No, it would be that I would be too far away, and I don’t think she could have borne that.
When as a grown woman I moved to France, she loved to visit. And it was there that she pulled off what you may agree was the greatest feat of her life. It was not any of her accomplishments that might appear in her résumé or obituary. Those accomplishments grow pale next to her crowning glory.
She smuggled a 25-pound Butterball turkey through French customs for a genuine Thanksgiving celebration. If you have any (unfortunate) familiarity with French customs and, worse, French agricultural policy, you will be as awestruck as I am by this maneuver. Twenty-five pounds of defrosting turkey—which, if I remember, she swore she hid in her shoe. And she only wore a size 7. Mother never believed in packing light. But this time, she outdid herself as cans of Ocean Spray cranberries and Pepperidge Farm stuffing mix appeared from her suitcases. Remember, this was 20 years ago and before the advent of all of the “American” stores.
On the streets and in the cafés of Paris, her accent was better than mine and she always liked to say that “the French spoke with their eyes,” which may be why her French was better. My revenge was to make her ride the Métro, which, as it turns out, she enjoyed.
Occasionally, she’d comment that is wouldn’t be so bad to see Paris above ground. I was always magnanimous and let her spring for a taxi.
I’d buy a baguette on our way back from our day of exploring and shopping. Invariably, I’d dropped it on the sidewalk as we juggled more than a few packages. Mother was a passionate shopper and couldn’t believe the bargains she was able to score. The dollar was strong, and this ever-so-elegant woman preferred French designer clothes to others. I was the one who had to be sure her purchases qualified for the detaxe. The task hardly presented a challenge.
Each trip included numerous visits to the Musée D’Orsay. Mother knew Impressionist painters and really loved (most) of them. The Phillips Collection was a couple of blocks from our home in D.C.
When I was young, we made frequent visits to it and the National Gallery. When I was older, I’d stop at the Phillips and sit for hours and gaze at Renoir’s “Boating Party.”
I’ll remember so many things about my mother, but there’s one that’s indelibly ingrained in my brain. French woman are known for their posture, and the seductive ones smile.
Here’s to you Mother. You gave me France without knowing it.
© Paris New Media, LLC