I was born at Toul Air Force base beside the village of Rosieres-en-Haye. My mother told stories of the pre-dawn trek to the hospital in a VW bug with my father, a military chaplain, speeding down farm roads as steam rose from the freshly fertilized fields. I was born just as the sun was coming up.
My father went to the Rosieres-en-Haye mayor’s office to register my birth. There were 11 major U.S. bases in France then, including Chambley with my father’s chapel and metal trailers for officer’s quarters, and Toul-Rosieres with the hospital.
When I was in my 30s, my mother, sister, and one of my brothers went back to France to revisit my parents’ lives when they were young. My father had died, and we wanted to see the places that had been important to him. But when we went to Chambley, we found the base in ruins and abandoned. The chapel was a hollow shell and weeds grew where my father’s office had been. My mother cried. We all cried. The officers’ club had been set afire in places. The street where the trailers had stood was overgrown. We left in shock.
With some sense of desperation, we drove to Rosieres-en-Haye. The mayor’s office was closed. A few people were about the streets. We asked, begged, anyone to help us open the mayor’s office. With our very limited French, we understood that one person in town spoke English and were pointed to a house up the street. Raymond stood outside the gate and took us in to his wife. I can still see Rosemarie with a phone in her hand. Just one moment please, she said. She was on the phone with her sister and had just received wonderful news.
Rosemarie’s doctor had called her about the time we pulled into town. Her cancer was in remission, so she wanted to celebrate. Could we please come back soon and she would prepare a picnic lunch. In that moment, our fortunes changed and her happiness took us over. We wandered through the village a bit. Rosemarie led us back to the mayor’s office, now opened, and there were the birth records and my father’s signature. Then we sat in the garden, and with Rosemarie and Raymond, ate bread and cheese and potato salad. We talked of everything and became friends.
In the years that came and went, their son married and had two children. Rosemarie and my family found each other on Facebook and we watched each other’s lives unfold. My sister and I adopted daughters. My brother went to law school. While I was living in Washington, Rosemarie and Raymond came to the states and we had a fortuitous picnic on a sunny day. We posted pictures. Time marched forward. I moved to Kentucky, then my mother was diagnosed with cancer. Raymond developed leukemia. He died six months later, and my mother died a year after that.
My family has always coped with tragedy with movement and intensity. My siblings and I posted pictures of our lives and our children, using Facebook as our scrapbook and history. Rosemarie needed a reason to get up in the morning. So, unbeknownst to us, our story helped her face the day. She would push herself to the computer and say, “Let’s see what the Whitehouses are doing today.”
She watched my daughters grow up: our move to Kentucky, the cheerleading tournaments, archery tournaments, the lost teeth, awards days, and family vacations. So, when I got the Fulbright to teach in Bulgaria, Rosemarie asked me to come back to France and to stay, once again, in the village. Of course we went. How could we not?
When we drove into Rosieres-en-Haye, I did not need GPS to find her house. Rosemarie and the house looked just the same after 20 years. I brought bread from Paris. She explained to my daughters that friends, compagnons in French, means to break bread. We ate and once again walked through the village together.
There is the monument to soldiers who died in World War I. There is the church, now 500 years old. The priest rotates through for mass one Sunday a month. There is where Raymond is buried. And there is the washhouse where Rosemarie’s grandmother knelt on straw plats, scrubbing clothes, and gossiping with her neighbors. There is where her parents’ had a café and grocery.
We looked for morel mushrooms in the woods nearby, but found none in the damp early spring. We found wild violets by the score. Children ran from house to house freely. One decided that I looked like I was Argentinian rather than American. They practiced their English and laughed with me at my French. When night fell, we drove over to Nancy to see the magical Place Stanislas. The 18th Century square, believed to be the most beautiful in Europe, contrasts with the earthen houses and rock walls of the surrounding villages. We drank sodas; my daughters laughed trying to find themselves on the square’s web cameras, and then we took the winding roads back to Rosieres-en-Haye.
Sunday morning came quickly and Rosemarie and I tried to avoid saying goodbye. I realized that I am older than she was when we appeared at her garden gate the first time. She kissed my daughters, hugged me tightly, and whispered, “You know the way back.”
Again we drove over the hills and through the same fields that my parents rode past on the morning I was born. Past the tree-lined paths and the Toul base, now a solar farm. We wound through village after village, until we heard church bells ringing. Leaving the girls in the car, I wanted to at least see a country church. It was Orthodox Easter after all. The bells were still ringing as I entered, but no one was there. It was as though the mass had just ended and the priest stepped out. The architecture indicated it perhaps dated to Medieval times, making it even older than the church in Rosieres-en-Haye. Children’s drawings were mixed in between statues of saints and the stained glass windows. But on the front pillars were modern paintings that made me gasp. A similar one, an abstract of Jesus’ face, had hung in my parent’s house my whole life. The fervent brush strokes were so distinctive, precious, and intense. I knew that these images had been made by the same painter, and somehow I knew my parents had once been here, too. I sat down in awe. The bells stopped ringing, but still no one came. I needed to go. And, I knew my way back.