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My father was born in a little village in the south of France called Le Chambon in 1944. In that village, 5,000 Christians saved 5,000 Jews, including my grandfather, my grandmother, and my father.
Last summer, I visited Le Chambon for the first time. I went alone, proud of my fluency in French, and proud of the fact that I was alone. I stayed in a little camp a mile north of the town, and everyday my cigarette-smoking French friends and I would walk to the historical village, plant ourselves in the wooden chairs of the local bar, and watch the older people walking by, smirking at us.
The days passed just as the days pass in the beginning of most short stories – slow, repetitive, pleasant. I would look at the stony buildings, noting the arcane architecture, wondering whether my grandparents had noted the same thing. I would look at the old faces of the village, imagining them 50 years younger, when they were the most simple, straightforward manifestations of goodness the world would ever forget. None of this however stirred me even enough to put a word of it in my journal.
I was then cordially invited to the house of the woman who had sheltered my father and grandparents. My father had alerted her by letter that I was in town.
When I walked into her room – and she had only a room – she was playfully mixing her own jelly. She jumped up, as much as a woman of 97 can jump up, and hugged me and kissed me until I shivered like a cynic. Skipping introductions, she hobbled over to a drawer and then over to me, carrying in her lacerated hands lost pictures of the village in the 1940s, of my father as a baby, and my grandparents as refugees.
Madame Broche then started crying, coughing out these words in French: “You are like your father. You are like your father. How I love your father!” It all seemed melodramatic to me, and I think I rather wanted to point at the jelly on the counter and laugh. Then she calmed herself by fumbling with the cross around her neck, until she said to me, “I know I scare you. But thank you for coming.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“For what?” she begged. The fact that she considered my coming to her door as deserving of a thank-you, and her saving my father as deserving of a silence, made me shake and stare into her tunneled eyes and wish and wish that she could understand the magnitude of what she had done for me. Then I smiled, then listened, as she spent the following hour telling me about her own children and how I was about as tall as her grandchild.
Madame Broche has since died. My father went to her funeral. I told him to tell her children – who of course are no longer children – that I had considered her brilliant, that she made excellent jelly, and that I was very thankful.
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