The Factory of Facts
These villages, Fraiture and Odeigne, Malempre and Sovet, Ster and Viville, among hundreds of others, were assemblies of ten or twenty or thirty houses around a church. They were made of stone whose color varied according to the predominant geological stock of the region; driving through the Ardennes you can see the shift from gray to blue to red to yellow. The houses, which could cluster along the side of a through road, or huddle in a recess, or gather in a loop described by a stream, or straggle partway up a hillside, were backed by fields, frequently owned by the inhabitant of the nearest chateau, and which the villagers worked on a percentage basis. The system, in sum, was not far removed from the feudal era. The church was the center of communal activity, and until the beginning of this century was also the home of the only literate resident, who thus functioned as the de facto government as well. There might also be a bakery and some sort of general store, the latter often informally worked out of someone's kitchen. Routine was fixed by the agricultural calendar and enlivened by religious feasts, whose celebrations were hardly distinguishable from the pagan rituals they had begun as. Not much outside news filtered into the villages, which were often a hard journey from the nearest railway, although matters improved somewhat in the late nineteenth century with the inauguration of the trams vicinaux—rural streetcar lines, which formed a web of connections. Even so, populations were less stable than you might think. The scarcity of land drove young people, who were not about to inherit anything more than a bedstead, a coffeepot, and a crucifix, from village to village in search of work and living quarters. Many of them, of course, ended up in the cities, more and more of them as the twentieth century gathered steam. My maternal grandparents, for example, accomplished this journey—from native village to other village to rural suburbs to city—over roughly twenty years, in the space between the wars.
My grandfather had briefly dipped his toe into city life during the war, when he worked as a streetcar conductor in Liege and assumed the solemnity accruing to that office, at least in pictures. My grandmother was country in the gravest sense, absorbing all the moral certitude of life ruled by God in the guise of weather. The city must always have seemed remote and savage to her. Since she was a determined traditionalist in most spheres of life, it is interesting that she was radically modern in her naming practices, eschewing allusions to the departed. Rene, born in 1920, and Denise, three years later, were given flashy monikers that might have hung on Parisian boulevardiers. My mother is puzzled by her name to this day, commenting recently that she still can't quite imagine it belonging to an old lady. The only cultural reference any of us can ever come up with is to Denise Darcel, nee Billecard, star of Tarzan and the Slave Girl and Seven Women from Hell, but as it happens she is my mother's near-exact contemporary. In the family the choice was considered mildly scandalous, but any hard feelings were soothed by the freight train of middle names, hitching Lambertine (after her grandmother-godmother, Lambertine Eloy) to Alberte (for her godfather-uncle Albert Remade) to Marie and Ghislaine for their protective auras. My mother makes her first photographic appearance quite nude, looking very much like a kewpie doll as she supports herself with both hands on a damask-covered pout, or maybe a pile of boxes that when damask-covered could pass for a pout, and looks to the right of the lens at some truly amazing phenomenon, perhaps a talking sock. The astonishment in her eyes persisted; it's still there.
She grew up in circumstances that antedate the twentieth century, in a jot of a village where there were few neighbors, and some were her relatives, and life was determined by family, church, and crops, in that order. Nevertheless, the Francorchamps racetrack, within a short walk, retailed flash, not to mention roar, and radiated dazzle. Parties of champagne-guzzling cosmopolites descended in open cars to watch the Grand Prix events and the twenty-four-hour races. My mother and her parents and her cousins were the countryfolk they may have fleetingly noticed, the local color. In a photograph taken when she was maybe five, in her Little Lulu period, she appears in a beautiful courtyard, with moss growing between the cobblestones, the old stone wall of the house to one side and vines or hedges to the other, standing shyly among a group of adults sitting on low stools drinking glasses of milk. They are city people on a walking jaunt, as is evident from the boaters and cloches they have removed and set on their leather hiking cases on the ground, and they have stopped by the house for refreshment, as people did then in the country even when the house carried no sign. They thought she was as charming as the house and the foliage and the village and the hills—how rustic—and maybe they took her picture in turn, artistically composed, Une petite Ardennaise.
Her parents gave up on the perpetual long odds of farming around the time of the worldwide crash, moving to the out-skirts of Verviers and to the logical next phase in the urbanization process. They started a business of collecting milk from farmers and carting it into the city to sell, putting in arduous workdays that began around two or three in the morning. It is a quite different and somewhat less picturesque yard that appears around that time in the picture of my mother's dog Blackie—he was light brown, but somewhere she had picked up what she thought was a good name for a dog (it was an earlier dog, however, who ate his meals out of a German helmet, fastened to the ground by its spike). The place names then succeed each other pell-mell. My mother underwent her solemn communion in 1935 in Wegnez (with the cap of her long white veil falling over one eye she looks like a befuddled child bride). Several shots taken outside an imposing suburban apartment house in 1936 are captioned 'Tribomont' (my grandmother proudly displays her bicycle; Denise and Rene are yoked in feigned togetherness, both their hands resting on the handle of a shovel in the garden). A portrait of my grandparents identified as set in An-drimont shows them in Sunday dress, standing in a field, hunched and slack-armed and drawn-faced, like people who have never posed before and are intimidated by the box and its operator, but probably they're just exhausted. They look like subjects of an FSA picture from Alabama.
After approaching the city by degrees they succumbed to Rue Robert Centner in 1939. Both parents got jobs at the Aiglon chocolate factory, my grandfather eventually winding up in one of the textile plants. My mother, however temperamental as a tot, grew up to be a good girl, that much is clear. As time draws on in the stream of pictures she recedes from them, fulfilling a duty but swallowing her personality in the process. I recognize her in her strained formal mode, trying to oblige company by wearing a half-smile of the sort that signifies virtue rather than pleasure, not quite knowing what to do with her hands, standing meekly while attempting to guess what is required of her even as she boils inside. I can only surmise the tensions that ruled in her family, the accommodations she had to make and the drudgery she was assigned because she was the girl. Just underneath her skin I can make out the stinging intelligence and wild humor that she has spent much of her life suppressing. She is a labyrinth of serpentine hallways and false doors and hidden staircases, easy to misconceive and difficult to negotiate, and yet somewhere along the line she adopted the belief that both she and life ought to be simple, with clearly marked paths and boundaries.
She drew from her childhood a love of nature, a fear of catastrophe, a yearning for the cozy interdependency of the extended family, and an absolute submission to the laws of the Church. Those four constants have stayed with her all her life; she has, in other words, taken her village with her to an America she still experiences as utterly foreign after thirty-five years.