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Authors: Nicholas Kilmer

A Place in Normandy

BOOK: A Place in Normandy
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Title Page

Copyright Notice




Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One

Chapter Thirty-Two

Chapter Thirty-Three

Chapter Thirty-Four

Chapter Thirty-Five

Also by Nicholas Kilmer



For my mother, Frances Frieseke Kilmer.

For Kenton Kilmer, my father, and

Sarah O'Bryan Frieseke, my grandmother,

both of dear and blessed memory.


For their encouragement and warning while I worked on this, I thank Ann Fay, Joann Green, Bill Davis, Harriet Yarmolinsky, Dave Sohn, and Beth Chapin. For aid and assistance, for permission to quote, or for invaluable suggestions and assistance, I thank Jacqueline Block, Freeman Foote, Andrew Heiskell, Ben Martinez, Lowry Burgess, Woody Openo, and Bunny Woodard. For permission to use their photographs, my thanks to Walter Chapin, Harriet Griesinger, Susie Holstrom, Bette Noble, Tom and Dana Perrone. A number of the reproduced photographs that were taken in the 1920s are the work of the Russian emigré whom I can identify only by his first name, Georges; I cannot, therefore, give him the credit that is his due. My unyielding thanks to Bill McGurn for his close reading of the text, and for sage advice which I only occasionally defied.

Special thanks to Mary Norris, my mother-in-law. As her daughter knows all too well, I prefer a
fait accompli.
I hope that now that it is too late for her to protest, she will forgive my quoting from her letters without asking her permission. My only excuse is that I was sure she would refuse. I wish there were more of her letters. Her enthusiasm and the unfailing pleasure she takes in life have been and are among my family's greatest treasures.

Much of this book is the work of my wife, Julia.



“[The last time I saw the Friesekes they had moved to Normandy. There my wife and I lunched with them in their]
damp, moldy, and wholly colorful farmhouse, still reminiscent of an era of tranquility.

—Homer Saint-Gaudens,
The American Artist and His Times


“We're asking for trouble, aren't we?” I admitted. I'd just hung up the phone after a long talk with our daughter, Maizie, who was holding down the West Coast at the moment and who'd exclaimed, “Dad, I hear you're buying me a farm in Normandy. Great. I'll quit college and take some people over and become one with the land. Lots of my friends are thinking about farming.”

It was raining, it was too late in the evening for coherence anyway, and it was also February. Julia and I, at our temporary home of thirty years in Cambridge, Massachusetts, were working on the fight that we had begun in around 1968, which Maizie's call had interrupted. Someone had leaked the status of the fight to Maizie, and, she was making what could be the terminal mistake of taking my side in it—as any sensible person would.

“Asking for trouble? Maybe you are,” Julia said. Among the failings of mine she has pointed out over the years is my tendency to bite off more than I can see. “An attractive nuisance is what they call it in the law,” Julia continued, seizing the opening. She huffed into the Science section of the morning's
New York Times.
I had taken a yellow Hi-liter and marked a paragraph in an article about female circadian rhythms. The author, whom I saw as being on my side of the larger argument, claimed that as the days lengthened into spring, the female, prompted by secretions of melatonin, yearned to fly thousands of miles and then mate. Julia hadn't mentioned the article.

“Wherever you are, there's always an awful lot of extra that nobody knows how to put away,” Julia said. “And now we're going to start cleaning up after your ancestors? Supposing we buy this farm in France—where are we going to put it all?” It was not bad for a rhetorical question—but neither of us could answer its obverse, either:
If we don't take it on, then what?

My mother's mother had always lived with us in America. When she died, she'd surprised everyone with her request that her body be buried in Normandy, near the house in Mesnil, next to the husband she had lost more than a generation before. Aside from some German officers during the war, and refugees as the war ended, and the tenant farmer, the place had been essentially vacant for thirty years. My mother and father, though married in Mesnil, had raised their large family in Virginia, and none of us had set foot on the Normandy property between 1939 and 1966, when my grandmother died. With the disposition of her body according to her instructions, a link was renewed that led the family to begin to use again the house, which my mother had inherited. A number of us began working to make the place habitable—particularly my wife, Julia, and I, with our children. Over the ensuing years we had come to depend on maintaining a foothold in Normandy, and our children had also. Because of its state of ruin and our schedules, we had been able to get to it only during occasional summers. But by the February evening of this discussion, a generation after we'd started working on it, my parents were aging, their children were scattering, and nature was taking its course in Normandy, with less to oppose it every year. Something more definitive had to happen than the status quo, and my solution was to take the place over myself—that is, ourselves—by buying it outright from my mother. This would mean not only that the house would be ours, but also that it would become solely our fault, which had previously been shared among family and humanity, like original sin—which we sometimes referred to as the spirit of the place. Whenever we discussed it, we got closer to acknowledging what it seemed to me we had to do, and that in itself made it progressively harder to get the subject on the table.

Now, on this particular evening of cold February rain, the subject lay (unetherized) upon the kitchen table as Julia kept me company and pointedly ignored the article I'd marked. Jacob, our last child at home, was cornering
Issues of the Twentieth Century
elsewhere in the house by thumping at it on his bull fiddle, imparting fear and trembling to the rest of the building as well; and I, meanwhile, was bottling the apple cider I'd been meaning to transfer from its fermenting carboy since shortly before Christmas. I was up to my ears in froth and empty bottles cadged from friends and brought in earlier this evening from storage in the backyard. Our kitchen smelled like certain aspects of Normandy.

We'd been discussing and avoiding the Normandy undertaking for so many years now that I'd begun to feel I might lose this fight, which I wanted to win if only to resolve the question of whether or not to invest in the new roof we needed for the house in Cambridge. (
Obviously not—we've got the farm in Normandy to pay for.
) We were talking about it but still not getting very far. Julia, like the cat in Shakespeare's adage, can seldom bring herself to the point of “I will” or “I do” unless there's a churchful of witnesses behind her, a monsignor flanked by priests in front, and no side exits. I pointed this out.

“I normally get by just fine on ‘We'll see.' And if your aim is to break bottles, wouldn't it be faster with a hammer?” she volunteered. She shuddered. “I keep thinking of all those empty bottles stacked up behind M. Braye's. How many empty bottles do we need?”

“The time is coming when we'll have to shift from ‘we'll see' into either yes or no,” I insisted, foiling this attempt at a diversion and tasting the cider. It was thin and sour. My version of the Normans' national drink would still have to sit, its residual colony of yeasts devouring the bottling sugar and exchanging it for gas, for three months in the basement before it might be drinkable (or
as the French would say;
is a term used by some in France to characterize persons whom no one can stand to be around).

“Just when I'm thinking that this rain might stop, and let me out into my garden, you want us to head for Normandy again,” Julia pleaded. We had long since come to realize that we could not argue sensibly about the issue of the place in Normandy, any more than the Pompeians could about Vesuvius. There it smoked, outside the window: a pleasure to the senses, fertile, and threatening to blow. Maybe. But maybe not for hundreds of years more. And meanwhile there was so much to be said for living in Pompeii.…

It would have been one thing to start fresh with an old house. But the task we would face if we bought the Normandy property was worse than that. The old house was hardly new to us. Here, as we knew from long experience, the moment you glanced away from a chimney that needed fixing, something else unexpected would occupy your full attention—a broken crock in the downstairs kitchen, maybe, whose other part you'd seen the day before, in the attic; or an old letter; or Great-aunt Janet's prize for stocking darning. Was that gas you smelled, leaking from the downstairs kitchen, or merely a stopped-up septic tank? Perhaps the worst part was the weight of familial baggage the place contained, even worse than the amount of general decay already completed and the additional ruin well under way. The line of demarcation between septic tank and precious family history was not always easy to distinguish in the shadows.

The thing was, I loved this property, and I therefore wanted to make decisions regarding it that I could not if it remained in its present limbo. Even apart from the question of whether we could afford it (we could not), my project was beset by enemies, some of them, like Maizie, disguised as friends. Julia and I were not people with a large or often even
disposable income. If our Cambridge house could use a new roof, perhaps nothing about the structure of the house in Normandy
the roof was dependable. (But a roof was, I kept reassuring myself, the most important element of a house. As long as your roof was sound, you were all right.) Our normal life (our
life, Julia called it) was in Massachusetts. France, therefore, was the wrong country. The language over there was someone else's. Furthermore, Normandy was dour, as well known within France for its variety of damp as for its apples, cheeses, calvados, or cream. It was cold much of the time, and it rained even more of the time. We did not have to say any of these things aloud, since they'd already been said. So the fight brooded awhile on a plateau of silence.

In the meantime,
But I'm in love,
I could not plead, because I knew Julia was also. If I won this fight, she would lose, in spite of the fact that she had her own real affection for the place. That fondness got confused with her versions of the scars that come from loving any old thing—such as, for example, me—for a long time. We had been married even longer than we had been maintaining our long-distance affair with the house. If we bought into it, I would be expected to take the blame. Both of us knew that was part of the deal.

BOOK: A Place in Normandy
13.11Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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