Tuesday, September 20, 2011

My quilt of friends

I was twelve the second time we moved from Canada to France. It was a big move. I didn't really want to go but had no choice. At that age who really has choice?

I remember the day we flew into Marville, a Canadian Air Force base in central France. I had a window seat. Don't ask me how. I think maybe I cried enough on Canadian soil they thought if they put me by the window, I'd be quiet.

It worked. Not because I was grateful for the window seat. I mean. Seriously. I was the youngest why shouldn't I get it! But it was a bit disappointing. There really wasn't all that much to see travelling across the Atlantic in the dark of night.

It was what was inside the cabin, inside my head, right in front of me that really entranced me. I had penpals back then. Paper friendships that spanned the globe. There was a girl in South Africa. Another in Mexico and a boy in Argentina. My favourite, whose name I can't remember, lived in Australia. I couldn't hear her accent in her writing, but I could hear it in the words she wrote, the expressions she used to describe her life, down under.

We wrote as often as we could, even when my siblings made fun of me for stitching together what I liked to call, 'my friendship quilt'. Teasing, belittling, none of it could affect me when I wrapped myself up in my quilt. I was indestructible. Invincible. Their slings and arrows of mockery could not pierce my skin. With my friendship quilt to protect me, no one could harm me with their words.

"One day I'll meet all of them," I would insist when their egging on got too loud. And I would bury my head back into my letter writing, pouring out my heart to my unseen friends far away.

I'd long run out of things to write by the time our plane began its descent onto French soil. I'd written about my fears of leaving Canada. My trepidation about entering a new school two weeks after classes had started. I'd written about my brother who kept poking me in the back and tapping me on the head from the seat behind me, and my sister who sat quietly beside me reading her book.

And then, the earth appeared beneath our plane. I looked out the tiny window and saw the patchwork quilt of farmlands, green and brown and golden. Tiny villages dotted the landscape like bingo dots in a square. I remember that view so well. It was so different than the vast expanses of the prairies from which we'd started our journey. It was so foreign.

A man picked us up at the airport, drove us along plane tree lined roads where cars whizzed by in the middle suicide lane and horns honked and drivers played dare. We drove through ancient villages where horse drawn wagons laden with 'honey' moved laboriously out to the fields and women in black stood in doorways sweeping the stoops of homes that edged right up against the road.

And through it all the driver and my father talked. About the uprisings. The killings. The Algerians.

They were speaking quietly. As if we weren't supposed to hear them in the back seat. As if they thought we'd all be sleeping during the hour long drive to Metz. Everyone else slept. But I couldn't. For the same reason they always put me in the front seat with my father on long road trips. Curious. Inquisitive. I couldn't sleep when the world was passing by outside the window and no driver could ever fall asleep at the wheel with me by their side.

The driver and my father kept talking and I listened. Wide-eyed. "They walked into a cafe and opened fired," The driver said. "They killed three people. For no reason."

"Fools!" the voice of my father exploded into the warm September air. "All of them. Fools."

I didn't know if he was speaking of the Algerians or the French.

He disliked Frenchmen. Intensely. France would be a great country without Frenchmen, he said often.

And my mother would cringe and say, "Louis. Be quiet."

It was their game.

He was Irish.

She was French. Her family lived in France. We had returned to the country of her kin so she could be closer.

He may have agreed to the move. He didn't have to like it, he often said.

And then we arrived at our hotel in downtown Metz. Le Cecil. It smelled of Gitanes and stale wine. Smoky mirrors and a rickety elevator that only four of us could squeeze into at a time.

There was a bidet in the bathroom of our room. I asked my mother what it was and knew she wasn't giving me the real purpose of the shiny porcelain bowl that didn't quit look like a toilet but definitely didn't look like the footbath she said it was. But, I'd wanted to believe her so I stuck my feet into the bowl and turned on the water and it gushed straight up into my face. I leapt back, water spraying everywhere. My siblings laughed at me. Called me 'such a baby.

I knew it wasn't for washing feet, I insisted. I only asked because I wanted to hear mum stumble over the truth, I hissed at them.

Anything related to sex -- (it was always said in a whisper) caused my mother to stumble on her words and at twelve, I already knew I knew more than her. About everything. And I mean e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g.

The driver had helped carry up our bags and offered to take us to a cafe.

No! No! Not a cafe, I cried. And I began to sob. To plead with them not to go.

Then don't come, they said. Stay here. Alone.

I convinced my sister to stay with me and together, we hid under the blankets until they returned. I made up stories, as I always did, to soothe her fears, but really, it was my fears I was trying to quieten.

No one understood my terror.

But I'd been listening, even when they hadn't. People died in cafes in France. The driver had told my father so.

I had a nightmare that night. Of men with swarthy skin and black moustaches and blacker eyes. They held machine guns with the ease of Lothario holding a lover. They smiled and laughed and bullets whizzed past my head. I ducked and dove and hid out of sight. I didn't know why they were shooting. I didn't know what they wanted.

I wanted to go home. Back to Canada. Back to a land where men in dark clothing and darker intentions didn't burst into cafes and shoot guns and cry for freedom.

I pounded on the door of my parents room and cried out for solace. Take me home. Take me home. I want to go back to Canada I cried.

Be quiet, my father ordered in the night. And I was quiet. But the fear wouldn't lie quietly in the dark.

My patchwork quilt of friends came to my rescue, as they did for many years to come. I wrote and told them of the men who swept into cafes and shot people dead. I told them of my fear. Of my desire to return home, across the seas to the land of my birth.

And they reminded me of the beauty of the world. Of the adventures waiting to unfold if I would simply stand up to my fears and move into the spirit of the land.

I fell in love with France after that. Fell in love with foreign soils that called to me with their mystery and wonder. Their stories of knights and ladies and castle moats and princess brides and wizards filled with lore.

Wrapped up in my quilt of friends, I was no longer afraid to venture out into the wonders of the world around me. With my quilt to hold onto, I was no longer a stranger in foreign lands.


It's another One Word Blog Carnival Tuesday! Hosted by Peter Pollock, it's your chance to participate, or simply read, stories and poetry and prose from all over the globe based on this week's word prompt -- QUILTS

To read more posts or submit your post, please visit Peter’s site.


Maureen said...

You have such a rich background, Louise. Thanks for bringing this story out from under the covers.

Lisa notes... said...

It is a huge blessing to have a quilt of friends. So many different people we can learn from and share things with. Thanks for sharing your story.

Louise Gallagher said...

Ahhh Maureen. Thankful you are part of my quilt today!

Louise Gallagher said...

Lovely to meet you here in my quilt Lisa and to visit you at yours.

And yes, friends corm a wonderful rich quilt to keep us warm, no mater the winds.

S. Etole said...

I felt as though I were right there with you curled up in that quilt and your fear.

Anonymous said...

others really can be a comfort in this life of change.

A Joyful Noise said...

Such a scary beginning, but later you came to love France. Your quilt of friends helped to quiet your fears. Your story is so well done and I loved every minute of it.

Peter P said...


I LOVE this story.

It is true... right?

If not, you've made up an awesome one!

Fi said...

Wow what a story, too much for a child to experience.

I continue to be amazed by some of our similarities (INFJ) and the True Colours site you refer to - which I love - is the first comment you ever left on my blog (a long long time ago)and we were both blue.

Louise Gallagher said...

Hi Peter. Thanks. And yes, it is true -- though I'm sure if you ask my siblings they'll tell you I cried because I was a cry baby and they never ever bugged me about my penpals and... :)

Memory is always remembered from the POV of the rememberer!

Chuck Allen said...

What a story you have! I'm glad you finally fell in love with France.

I really like that phrase "a quilt of friends".