It’s 1963 and we’ve started acquiring stuff, antiques mostly, because my father is newly infatuated and obsessed. A Pennsylvania boy by birth, he has unexpectedly made a French girl into a war bride and adopted a new country, replete with mind-blowing food, rich history and beautiful objects (which have now become objects of a great and burning desire).
A lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, dad has secured a last tour of duty in Orléans, France. There are seven of us, including my paternal grandmother, living in a tiny (1,100-square-foot) stone hunting chalet on the banks of the Loiret, a lazy tributary of the Loire that comes equipped with swans, ramshackle rowboats and willow branches idly skimming the water’s surface.
Aside from the fact that my mom does all the wash by hand, the four kids (6, 14, 16 and 17) sleep in bunks in the attic, and my grandma Beatrice does not much care for my mother, never has and never will, it’s a dream. We have a billiard house in the back, fruit trees and farmers with kids as neighbors. I have little boys as best friends, a blue bike and lots of time to be outside.
For two reasons in particular, we are nicknamed the crazy Americans. One is that we shop at the army commissary and spend many American dollars at a time, stocking the house like survivalists, something no French person in his right mind would ever dream of doing. The hordes of paper bags unloaded from our pink Buick are part of a strange rite they know nothing about.
The other thing is, we have a prize-winningly large pet rabbit, who not only runs freely in the house, has a full agenda of shenanigans and scratches at the door to get in and out, but has an actual name. Mr. K. This is not a bunny in a hutch, but a bunny who sleeps on the couch no matter how many times my mother tells him not to. A member of the family. A bunny the French neighbor brings home if he runs too far afield.
The value of being viewed as exotic is in the people you perchance to meet. One of our special friends is an antique dealer called Lartigue, a guy with an allegedly shady history and a warehouse full of old and fascinating stuff, all of it decadently piled high in a sort of bonfire-of-the-vanities-type heap.
Lartigue not only loves my dad’s American accent and his unique way of expressing himself in French (hilarious constructions and undaunted), but also his enthusiasm for antiques and their history. Lartigue makes it his mission to get dad to as many auctions as possible and since dad can’t go anywhere without a regiment of people around him to command, we are all dragged off on furniture-buying missions, to auctions mostly, with Lartigue and his dog, Micki, in tow. (Micki, for one, loves the notion of a clever rabbit, and were it not for the sheer difference in size and speed, might have met his match in their notorious backyard chase scenes).
Long before other Americans have caught on, dad goes nuts at the auctions. Chairs and settees, beds, clocks, paintings, chandeliers, tables, porcelain, books, just lots and lots of stuff, most of it pretty beat up. The kids, under direct orders from their commanding officer, are given the task of refurbishing it using steel wool and rags and oils and Q-tips, and the pieces come back to life, one by one, sometimes bearing a distinguishing mark — one time an actual royal seal. Dad is possessed. The notion that weekends are for relaxation is no more (maybe it never really was).
Lartigue then hooks us up with the artisans who will repair and re-upholster and cane and tend to the furniture in the proper way, and by the time we are ready to return to the States in 1965 after three years, we’ve got a container full of antiques to ship home to Seattle. Not a single clock dome makes it back unbroken, but pretty much everything else does.
Dad, of course, has already drawn a scaled floor plan of the house, his blueprint for where each piece of furniture, each clock, and each chandelier will go, a location that is destined not to change in the 30 years we are there.
As I think back on this story of acquiring stuff, I am surprisingly most grateful that my father gave us the opportunities he did to connect with the pieces — fetch them, touch them, labor over them, live with them. Because, really, isn’t this what separates the good stuff from the bad in the end? It’s nice to think so, anyway.