Fluffy Towels, Part 1
by Lilly Kilvert and Véronique Vienne
A Mother's Death
It never crossed my mind to check her references either — as a future employer, I was clueless. She was a blonde bombshell, the sort of beauty a young wife nowadays would wisely keep away from her husband, but somehow I must have known that Lilly’s greatest quality would be her loyalty. I would have loved to hire her on the spot as my au-pair, but I had to ask her to come back the next day to meet my husband.
The minute she walked in, he lit a cigarette, inhaling with the sort of urgency that barely disguised an unremitting sense of inadequacy. A man with a two-pack-a-day-habit, the only way he could look at people in the eyes was through a smoke screen. Lilly did not seem the least bit disconcerted. Her father was a chain smoker as well. She wasted no time trying to figure out what my husband thought of her and has remained remarkably indifferent to his opinion of her ever since. A few days later, in September 1969, she moved into a small bedroom off the nursery in our Upper East Side brownstone. She’d just turned eighteen and I was barely twenty-seven. She has been my best friend ever since.
The unfinished conversation about her mother’s death lay dormant for half a century. Somehow, it was never the right time to talk about it. Whenever I tried to broach the topic, Lilly would get up and turn on the television or open a window. Without warning, she would be off to the bathroom or the kitchen. If I insisted, she would start fidgeting, pulling at her fine blond hair in the most alarming way, as if she was about to remove a wig. She would lift her right elbow, and, turning her right hand inward, tug at some invisible seams along her hairline.
When she was younger, Lilly had been a towhead, with the surface of her skull an electromagnetic field of sorts. Her unruly mane had been the cause of much concern for her mother. That much I knew. In fact, on the last day before sending her daughter away to Europe — during their last 24 hours together — her mother had insisted Lilly get a perm, a disastrous initiative. The ten-year-old girl came out of the beauty salon with a white afro. It took six months for it to grow out. As it turned out, those six months, from April to September 1961, would become gaps in the child’s memory. Up until recently, they were blank spaces in Lilly’s story.
Nobody tells you anything when you are ten.
Providence Rhode Island.
It is still wintery in the house: busy, noisy, kids coming and going to school, dogs, uniforms.
The regular noises of life
but there is something up.
My parents are in deep discussion in their bedroom, the door closed for hours. When they come downstairs, they both have a strange look and glance at me in a way that is unfamiliar. In our big family, a look from both parents at the same time is unusual, slightly alarming. They look away and go into the study to make more phone calls. Something is definitely up.
Some of it is about my not finishing the school year.
I am going somewhere.
My mother takes me to the hairdresser.
The Maison de Charme,
always a terrifying experience:
hair spray nail polish big hot head heaters.
I am getting a perm — tiny curlers and horrible smelly burning stuff.
Then Mum buys me a new coat.
Now I know this is getting weird as I always get my sisters’ clothes.
She packs my suitcase. My sisters and I have matching suitcases. Mummy likes things to match. She packs me a suitcase and tells me how lucky I am.
In my father black Cadillac
we drive to New York.
I sit in the back with my new hat, my new coat, my gloves and my little suitcase next to me, still no words of where we are going.
Mother and I have tea at the Plaza. Eloise’s Hotel.
She puts sugar on her toast and tells me not to tell my father (why).
My father wants her thinner I think.
We will spend the night at the Westbury hotel.
My mother and I sit on a step in the hallway, outside our rooms and she gives me a letter I am to read later.
I try to give it back as it seems dangerous and scary.
She is stern though: she will put it in my suitcase, in the netting.
Early in the morning, after breakfast in the hotel’s white tablecloth dinning room, we go to Pier 54 where the ss Rotterdam is moored.
The ship seems huge and I am still not exactly clear what the plan is but I am in my best dress and my new coat.
We climb up the ramp to the deck. It is all very huge and metal clanky.
We meet Tippy and her parents, uncle Don and Aunt Jackie (not real relatives, but best friends of my
parents). Everyone is in their best clothes and smiling a lot. Everyone is taking pictures.
Nana is there too: she is Tippy’s grandmother. There is also Nana's traveling companion.
They both have fox fur around their necks.
We have our pictures taken on the ship.
Our parents disembark and Tippy and I run around waving madly.
It is so exciting and loud the ship bells horns blaring.
We stand on the rail, calling out and waving as our parents disappear and then the ship pulls away.
I still was uncertain where we are going.
The boat ride was fun.
We shared a little room,
two bunks and a little window.
We were left to our own, mostly.
We ran wild on the ship,
turning up only for meals with Nana and the other lady — but we were totally free:
no supervision by the old ladies.
In the corridors and steps we tore around like animals.
We ran everywhere, we swam in the pool when the boat was pitching, with the water splashing upon the walls.
We met a Dutch boy named Hans Landermen —my first crush.
It was so much fun — we stayed up late, played cards in bed, stole fruit from the tables.
Neither Lilly nor I wrote anything in our diaries about our trip to the island of Noirmoutier in October 2006. Other things were on our mind. She had been dumped yet again by the Englishman who had treated her badly for almost six years (and would treat her badly for another four), and I was in the process of separating from my American husband — my second divorce after a 20-year marriage. Where-Did-We-Go-Wrong was all we talked about in the train to Nantes. From there we rented a car to drive the remaining 100 miles to Noirmoutier.
This expedition had been my idea. It was supposed to be a birthday gift to Lilly, who had turned fifty-five a few days earlier, and was in one of her crestfallen states — forlorn, disconsolate, despondent to boot. My former au-pair, buddy-for-life, my smart and funny confidante, my brilliant (twice Oscar-nominated) girlfriend was still a lost soul.
I had devised this outing as a possible distraction. There was also a slim chance that returning to Noirmoutier, where she learned that her mother had died, and dealing with the sadness of it all, might help her snap out of her depression.
She’d agreed to the trip on the condition we would stay in a four-star hotel with fluffy towels. In France, fluffy towels are a rare commodity because clothes dryers are few and far apart. Clothes lines are the norm. Ecologically-correct (dryers use five to ten times more energy than washers), air-dried cotton terrycloth towels turn stiff and scratchy after the first wash, and remain so for the rest of their existence. Ironing them does not help. The only solution is a tedious “scéance” at a public laundromat.
I had booked us at the Fleur de Sel hotel on the island of Noirmoutier. From the description on the website, it was the sort of establishment that would provide the fluffy towels with which I had bribed my friend.
Landed in Rotterdam and the "tour” began.
We had a big black car and a driver. We visited all the
Museums and saw The Night Watch, the biggest painting I ever saw in my life.
Then into Belgium and Brussels.
We stayed in a big fancy hotel, the Waldorf Astoria.
Tippy and I had our own room with a fireplace and a hug mirror above it.
We ate with Nana and her friend. Nobody talked to us.
The ladies sent us to parks to play with other kids, day after day.
The other kids had grown-ups with them, but we were on our own.
French speaking kids allowed us on their swings but we didn’t understand their games.
I don’t know what Nana and her friend were doing.
Then into the black car,
chauffeured I think.
A long drive.
I don't remember much but the drive across the sand.
We asked Nana where we were going.
“You'll see there will be kids your age”.
We arrived at a big gate and got out of the car.
It’s dusty and dry. We ran the bell and someone came to the door, a nun who opened the gate with a big key.
She talked to the old ladies for some time and invited us in.
Nana and her friend said goodbye and drove off.
The door was closed behind us, and the three of us looked at each other puzzled.
Up until the last minute, it had never registered in my mind that the convent school where Lilly spent the Spring and Summer of 1961 was located in Noirmoutier.
Could it be because Lilly’s pronunciation of French name places was somewhat mangled, in spite of the fact that she spoke French almost fluently? As for the convent, Lilly didn’t know if it still existed. She now contends that she remembered its name all along, yet I can tell you that she never shared this crucial detail with me. Otherwise, we would have googled it. As things stood, we had very little information to go by.
There were so many other unanswered questions surrounding her time in France.
All I had managed to learn was that she had been told her mother had died only after the fact — weeks after the funeral. Surprisingly, no member of her large patrician family had been dispatched to France to bring her back to America so that she could join her two sisters and two brothers at their mother’s gravesite in Providence. It was never clear why her father had waited three full weeks before informing his youngest daughter she would never see her mother again.
Come to think of it, why would the child of one of Nantucket’s most respected residents — a conservative politician and a committed Episcopalian — be sent to an obscure Catholic convent in France, rather than, let’s say, to some fancy boarding school in Switzerland?
Why, out of five siblings, had Lilly been selected to spend time abroad?
How come she had been enrolled mid-term instead of the beginning of the year?
What was the story with Tippy, the other little girl who was Lilly’s alleged playmate, who had traveled with her, and had ended up in the same French boarding school?
Who was “Aunt Jackie”, Tippy’s mother, who, Lilly kept insisting, “was not a relative.”
What was Lilly’s relationship to the two middle-aged ladies who had taken her and Tippy for a tour of Europe before dropping them with the nuns?
I had given up any hope of ever understanding what had happened, or why. However, by 2006, as I was about to sell my Brooklyn apartment and move permanently to Paris, and as Lilly was in London trying to salvage her dreadful love affair, the geography of Europe came into sharper focus. I figured out that, thanks to France’s efficient and reasonably-priced railroad system, a missing piece of my friend’s past could be retrieved for less than the cost of a couple of therapy sessions. Wildly, foolishly, absurdly, unwisely, I decided to take her there.
“Next time you are in Paris, let’s go to Noirmoutier,” I told her. “We could try to find the bench where you sat down with your dad when he finally showed up at the convent to tell you that your mother had died.”
Lilly was not particularly sanguine about the prospect of an emotionally-fraught quest. But then nothing seemed to thrill her recently. Nothing, except fluffy towels.
I have a white afro, Tippy has lovely thick brown hair.
We were never really friends.
Right away we are introduced to a young woman student whose English is pretty good.
She will be our minder.
I think her name was Marie.
She walks us through the courtyard,
the nuns’ house is on the left,
the barn with pigs and chicken in a corner of the yard,
the dorm room upstairs above the class rooms.
She takes us to our room.
There are eight maybe nine rooms on either side of the corridor,
each room has four beds and two armoires.
We are put in the very first room.
We take the beds by the window but the wall to the corridor is not solid. There is an opening about four feet square on each side.
We will discover way later why.
We unpack while Marie chats with us.
I start to undress and she slaps her hand to her face:
“No, you must dress and undress under your robe.”
I don't have one.
She returns will two heavy wool robes and shows us how to do it.
It was incredibly difficult and seemed quite silly.
School is getting out so we go down to the courtyard.
Maybe 50 girls, age 10 to 15, are in blue tunics.
They are amazed to see these foreigners (amazed by my hair),
and try to speak what English they have.
A bell sounds and it is dinner
but first chapel.
Little lace hats are handed to us.
Somehow I am selected to learn French and my first lesson is at dinner.
Each table has a sister at the head:
Sister Hélène: Bonne Mère, the mother superior.
Sister Marie-Claire (the fat cook) (very jolly).
I don't remember all their names.
There was a definite class system and the cook was the lowest.
There were also teachers who were not nuns.
Dinner was soup and bread and no milk.
After we had a little tour:
we saw the gardens where they grew their own vegetables and the barn with chickens, pigs and cows.
It seemed like it was wonderland.
But time to sleep.
The bathrooms had four closed toilets and two showers,
one bathroom at each end.
We were to use the nicer one.
We undressed under the robes, were large, heavy and itchy.
We took our towels (one a week), and brushed our teeth,
slipped into bed and the first sense of confusion settled over us.
We started talking about what we thought is happening:
how long we will be here,
etc, and then a nun glided by our room, raised a finger and shook it.
She put her finger to her month,
The nuns seemed to walk up and down the hall all night
but finally we slept.
In the 1960s, the island of Noirmoutier was connected to the mainland by a causeway: you had to wait for low tide to reach the small town by car. Though today there is a real road, it had rained so much the morning we arrived from Paris that it looked like it was underwater.
Noirmoutier was a deserted, soggy place, and the Fleur de Sel hotel felt like a cold and humid cavern. It took two seconds for Lilly to figure out it wouldn’t do. I begged her to give the room a chance. It was an exercise that turned out to be a humiliating ordeal for the girl at the reception desk who had offered to take us to see it. Lilly stomped out of the place while I trailed behind, making convoluted apologies in order to retrieve my reservation and avoid a credit card charge.
Instead of going to the Noirmoutier city hall to the land registry department to try to locate the convent on old survey maps, as was my plan, we had to find another hotel. There were none. The summer lodges were all shuttered. The inns were closed until April. The few B&Bs had no vacancy. We were advised to drive down the coast, toward the small beach community of Les Sables d’Olonne. It was getting late. The sky was pressing against the earth. The sea was bituminous. But we soldiered on and drove in the late-October rain, ignoring our fatigue, thirst, hunger — two Americans scanning the emptiness ahead in search of fluffy towels.
We ended up at the hotel des Dunes in Saint Jean de Monts. Unless it was the hotel Mercure. We have no records of it because Lilly paid for it in cash (as I recall, she was walking around with rolls of bank notes, a habit she had picked up as a production designer scouting locations in foreign countries).
Our double-occupancy room had a mezzanine bed, and I volunteered to sleep there in order to let Lilly have the king-size bed near the bathroom (don’t ask). By the middle of the night, though, she had joined me on the upstairs futon, which was considerably more comfortable than the mattress on which she had been tossing and turning for hours.
The next morning life at the convent begins.
We didn't get uniforms right away and dressed in our normal clothing.
Shorts, and shirt, and sneakers.
Breakfast was very surprising
for someone who had eaten cornflakes or oatmeal every morning:
the huge bowl of cafe au lait and a half loaf of bread with butter — amazing.
In my world kids never drank coffee.
Tippy and I went to class.
I think that there was some uncertainty what to do with us.
But I went into their English class and was asked by a very tiny French lady
with good English to read out loud
from the English language text book.
I remember so clearly stumbling in my own language, which shocked the teacher.
I was nervous I guess.
The days passed in a blur.
Classes, huge sit down lunch of stews and soups.
Bread with chocolate chunks and in the afternoon.
Everyone worked as well. In the garden, feeding chickens,
washing dishes, preparing food.
All very strange to me.
My first dish washing was not a success and Soeur Marie-Claire, the jolly fat lady, laughed as she showed me how to properly clean a spoon.
My French came quickly. As Tippy was even shyer than me
I became the front child.
We were not regular students — that was clear —
but all the girls were kind and very forgiving.
But we did get special treats:
A young woman came once a week to take me on an outing.
Mia was maybe eighteen, German, tall, blonde, graceful, and spoke perfect English and French.
She would take me into the town,
to the beach,
to buy cherries — and to give me some time in English.
Tippy had by this point started to wet her bed nearly very night.
Fortunately not great quantities, and together we could rinse the sheets
and her nightie, and get her back to bed
without discovery by the nun who checked us through the night.
One night Bonne Mère came into the room without her wimple and in a bathrobe,
with just her skull cover: she was both angelic and scary.
The mysterious life of nuns.
We got up early. We were not having fun yet, but things were looking up. I detected a sense of expectation in the air. We drove back north before breakfast, to get to the Noirmoutier land registry department at nine am sharp. While I was trying to explain to the clerk the object of my request (without much success), Lilly went searching town for a chamber of commerce, a tourist information booth, or a place to buy warm croissants.
At the boulangerie on main street, she asked if anyone knew of a convent school nearby. The baker must have overheard her (we Americans talk loudly) and he came from the back room, his friendly face dusted with flour, to inform her that, indeed, he remembered that nuns used to have a small school less than a kilometer north. He thought that two of them still lived there, hunkered down in a house tucked in the woods — right where the convent used to be.
Lilly came running out of the bakery store. I was across the street in a café-tabac, enjoying a double expresso. “Less-Orbay” she called out. “Less-Orbay! It’s up the street.”
“Les Sorbets?” I said, not comprehending what she was talking about.
“Yes, that’s the name of the convent,” she explained. She seemed genuinely excited. The kid in her was ready for an adventure.
We drove around and around on small lanes in a fancy residential part of Noirmoutier called “Le bois de la chaise.” We came upon a number of shuttered mansions and vacant summer cottages. More than once we were obliged to turn back at the end of streets leading to a deserted campground, a mildewed tennis club, or a boarded up beach restaurant. At long last, Lilly screamed “stop!” as we passed a wooden gate. I parked the car around the corner and we approached the premises cautiously.
Lilly was assessing the place the same way she must have assessed it 44 years ago, when she came out of the car and looked around. Where was she? What was this all about? And why the old ladies with whom she and Tippy had been traveling up until then seemed in a rush to take their suitcases out of the trunk of the chauffeured limousine?
Lilly had told me that they had come straight from Brussels where, the night before, a casual acquaintance at an American embassy party had given her doddering custodians the address of the convent. The old fogeys — “old” to the kids but probably only in their late 50s — had been eager to find a place where they could leave their charge. Living it up in Europe had proved difficult with children in tow. Somehow, they were under the impression that the nuns could be trusted to care for the kids while they, the merry widows, would proceed south toward the Côte d’Azur and its vaunted casinos.
One of the old ladies was “Nana”, Tippy’s grandmother, while the other one was her traveling companion. At the beginning of the trip they had dragged Lilly and Tippy to museums. Rembrandt’s Night Watch at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam had been a hit with the little girls. But the educational part of the trip was cut short when the grandmother discovered that the children were less of a burden if they were send to play by themselves in public parks. Followed a couple of days — or weeks? — of unsupervised fresh air activities. But exploring playgrounds, testing their swings and slides, and occasionally feeding pigeons left a lot to be desired.
“Where are we going?” Lilly had asked during the long ride from Brussels to Noirmoutier. “To a place where you can play with a lot of children your age,” was the only answered she got. Now, watching Lilly approach the gate, I wondered whether this reenactment was a mistake. Was I about to abandon my friend to her childhood terrors, the same way Nana had abandoned her, decades ago?
We rang a bell, but since no one responded to its tinkle, we snuck into the front yard of what looked like a modest L-shaped house with a glassed-in porch. Lilly was still hesitant: the modern porch was a disconcerting addition. She remembered the front yard of the school as a lush vegetable patch, with, at the rear, small outbuildings sheltering chickens, rabbits, a very large pig, and even a couple of cows. Today, it was a well-tended suburban garden. As gingerly as possible we followed a stone path meandering across flowerbeds. We found ourselves in front of a pale yellow front door. “Shall we ring?” I asked Lilly. Glancing at her for encouragement, I got the distinct feeling that she was at that moment as guarded as the closed door.
Up to that point, I had convinced myself that this trip was about Lilly’s story. But as I heard the chime resonate inside the hallway of the small house, I had to admit that it was my story as well — I could feel my heart in my throat. For some reason, I wanted to believe that one could step into the past, encounter ghosts, talk to them, beg for their forgiveness if need be, and, in the process, soothe an ache that has no name. I had my own ghosts, none of them resting in peace. Trying to deal with my friend’s past was a way for me to affirm my belief that one can control one’s destiny by rearranging one’s memories.
As days passed I was beginning to get a sense of what this place really was.
There were no people coming in from the outside.
The gates were closed always.
The only time anyone left
Bonne Mère came with keys.
I think she was the only one who was allowed out.
When I asked Soeur Marie-Claire
she laughed and said
that we were all locked up in a closet.
Tippy faded away from me except for the nights.
My French improved, my boldness too.
The girls where kept inside the area of the courtyards.
I don't know if there was a rule but I decided to see what was across the gardens.
I figured that there must be something out there.
It was a hot day and there were some girls weeding,
the sisters as well, in the wimple but some with straw hats.
I wandered away but before I got too far I saw a man.
First one I'd seen inside. He came out of the trees.
No, a monk.
Brown burlap sandals ropes around his waist and a big rough cross around his neck.
I'd seen a Robin Hood movie — I knew he was a monk.
He waved at me very smiley:
“Bonjour my petite,”
and marched right over to the nuns’ house, knocked, and entered.
Quick as I could I was back in the middle of the courtyard.
It was exercise time.
Something always surprising happened at recess.
We played games not familiar to me.
Heavy ball catch — I mean a really heavy ball —
and a form of stick ball with a red rubber ball the size of a tennis ball.
But today tumbling girls were there.
When had they arrived and where they came from, I had no idea,
but two of the girls were fair-haired dwarfs doing back flips.
Was I dreaming?
I thought I was
My hair was getting weirder as the permanent grew.
Only Soeur Marie-Claire could brush it.
She put olive oil in it.
brought from town by Bonne Mère on her moped.
There was a letter from my mother on thin blue par avion paper.
Her handwriting was terrible,
slanting up to the left.
She told me about home and my brothers and sisters and told me to keep writing.
The sisters were very strict about that: I had to write two letters a week plus a postcard.
I think they wanted to be sure I had family.
They marveled at the letter but were very disappointed that there was no stamp.
I was to read it out loud.
I was embarrassed that it was such a dull letter.
I think I embellished it a bit:
Talked about our four dogs — fierce dogs who fought in the kitchen.
My wild brothers throwing darts at each other.
My sisters falling out of trees.
The girls believed it but the English teacher raised her eyebrows.
It was interesting to see that I could say things that weren't true.
It was a total unknown, something I had never even imagined.
I had always been inside a well-guarded circle
But now I was whatever I said I was.
I could be anything
The little old lady who opened the door was a diminutive presence in a flowery housecoat. I explained as best I could the object of our visit. Before inviting us in, she called the other occupant of the house, a friendly-looking woman in a red knit suit, and relayed to her what she had just heard. “Yes, we are nuns,” they said after a short colloquy, as if reading our mind. Behind me I could feel Lilly’s disappointment. The sisters she had known wore a full black habit with a rope belt, and never ventured in public without their big starched round collar and their whopping white wimple.
Neither Soeur Ursule nor Soeur Marie, it turned out, were at Les Sorbets in the Spring and Summer of 1962, during Lilly’s stay, but they did remember hearing about the American visitors. The arrival of the chauffeured limousine had caused quite a stir in the religious community. The sudden appearance of the two little rich girls and their subsequent stay at the school had been a strange episode in the life of the convent.
God had provided them with a challenge.
Apparently, Nana had not called in advance to inform the nuns that she was coming. She had not asked if indeed the small boarding school was set up to receive two new students in the middle of the term. When the black Cadillac had materialized in front of the gate and two extravagant-looking American women had emerged from its back seat, Soeur Jeanne, who spoke some English, had been dispatched to deal with them.
Arriving unannounced, like Lilly had so many years ago, we were nonetheless ushered in and made to feel welcome. We sat in the sunny porch that was furnished to do double duty as a living room and as a chapel. While one of the sisters offered us coffee, the other went to get the school records, including some old photo albums and manuscript letters sent by formers students. What they told us then, speaking in turns as facts began to surface, held us spellbound.
The conversation between Soeur Jeanne and Nana had been brief. Soeur Jeanne had tried to explain to the foreign visitors that the school was not an orphanage, nor did it take boarders on short notice. But the American had been insistent. Puzzled, Soeur Jeanne had assumed that an exchange of letters had probably taken place between the visitors and Bonne Mère, the Mother Superior, who was absent that afternoon, and so she had taken delivery of the children, luggage and all, without asking too many questions. Within minutes the rich American women had gotten back into the backseat of their limousine, and she and the girls had been left by the wayside, waving goodbye as the car backed out of the lane.
“Did the nuns have our parents’ addresses?” asked Lilly, suddenly alarmed.
The nuns didn’t know for sure. Apparently there had been no signed agreement, no money exchanged, no donation offered, no assurance given. Lilly and Tippy might as well have been abandoned on the steps of a church.
To confirm their story, the nuns decided to call Soeur Jeanne and the Mother Superior who had been in charge of the small convent at the time. A couple of years ago, the two older nuns, now in their eighties, had left Les Sorbets and had gone to the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts’s retirement home. They lived their golden years in a large religious institution located in the town of La Roche sur Yvon, about 50 miles south.
I spent much time in the kitchen with Sister Marie-Claire
It was where things came in from the outside.
It was more relaxed, I could make work,
I was good at that
though I had to be taught.
The size of the pots and pans amazed me, the size of her arms amazed me,
she was as strong as anyone I had ever met.
She could throw a sack of potatoes over her shoulder one handed,
she could put her hands into boiling water
(her hands and arms were a deep purplely red — boiled?),
she talked and laughed nonstop.
She missed chapel in service of food.
I could stand behind her and was invisible —
that's where I learned to be invisible.
The kitchen was just off the courtyard, on the ground floor of the nuns’s house.
The door opened in onto a clay tile floor.
The eating table for the sisters was just to the left with two large sash windows,
then inside was the huge stove with huge burners,
a chopping block bigger than my bed,
an ice box and a wall of shelves with containers, cans, stacks of weird stuff.
Most of the vegetables came out of the garden, the eggs from the chickens,
the bread from the bread man who came to the gate every morning in a beret and rang the big bell.
The barn had chickens, cows, and a large pig.
Much excitement one day as the piglets arrived
and we all got to watch them fight for room and milk.
The smell was heavy wet soft sour all at once.
I was handed a piglet so soft and unbearably small and fragile,
more like a kitten than a pig.
Bonne Mère let me go with her to the post office.
There was some discussion between the sisters when she took her moped outside the gate and came back for me.
Did everyone get this treat?
Bonne Mère was small and pretty but not a laugher or a smiler.
She was clearly the boss.
Her hands were rough and small as she placed me behind her and pulled my arms around her middle.
She was in full habit with a rope belt.
I held onto the belt
not the waist at first,
and we were off,
me with my nose in the wool of her habit,
dust coming up around the wheels. I looked down first holding on, then slowly looked up to watch the trees over my head flying by and bits of sky,
I am holding her waist, me with my small white legs
and dirty sneakers.
Her moped is so loud and the vibrations are strong from the ground.
I am resting my head on her shoulder and I can close my eyes and
smell the human uncolored smell of her.
The black fabric floats against me and waffles in the wind.
While Soeur Ursule excused herself to go call the retirement home, Soeur Marie offered to take us on a tour of the premises. The old dorm, where Lilly and Tippy had been given a room, and where, the very first night, they had to learn to undress under a big scratchy robe and get into their nightgown without ever exposing a square inch of naked skin, was now boarded up. But the nun did confirm that modesty was a big issue back then. “We also had to sleep on our back, with our hands outside, not under the blanket,” Lilly recalled. “The nuns were checking on us all night to make sure we were not up to some private mischief ¬— I had no idea what it was all about.”
Soeur Marie shook her head. “I am not surprised,” she said, with a faint smile. “We were prude. We were deadly afraid of rumors announcing the Sexual Revolution.”
The small classrooms were no longer there. The land around Les Sorbets had been annexed by a nearby high school. Monks, who, as Lilly recalled, lived next door in a large monastery, had moved away. The wooded area in the back of the nunnery was now a soccer field. The public park and its benches, where Lilly remembered sitting with her Dad when he came with the dreadful news, was a parking lot.
What about the chapel, the refectory, the house where the nuns lived? Lilly only had a vague recollection of the entire compound because, in fact, it barely ever existed. The place was so modest, it left no imprint in her mind — nor on the ground.
Yet, the convent was hardly in the middle of nowhere. All around, in the exclusive Bois de la Chaise vicinity, Victorian villas and small manors lined up along stately alleys.
Less than a mile away, along the sandy coast, Renoir had once set his easel under mimosa trees and umbrella pines. A ten-minute bike ride way, the secluded and pristine Plage des Dames had been for more than a century a best-kept secret among upscale vacationers for whom Noirmoutier was — and still is — a chic destination. Every August, in preparation for the famous Régates du Bois de la Chaize (spelled with a “z” by people in the know), classic yachts drop anchor along a nearby beach. The traditional sailboat race brings together pilot cutters, Cornish crabbers, red-sail fifies and antique trawlers — a picturesque nautical spectacle that attracts crowds from the entire region.
Back in the 1960s, Lilly never saw any of it. The school had been a world apart. It was right there, yes, but on a different map — a map that had been kept in a chest whose key Lilly had lost. But now, as we came back from our tour of the premises and heard Soeur Ursule in the foyer talking on the phone with the former Mother Superior, the safety lock of Lilly’s memory began to rattle.
Bonne Mère takes me to the village
I haven't been there before.
With my German girl, we always go to the seaside,
or to the fortress that faces the west.
But now we are in the proper town of Noirmoutier.
Bonne Mère was in the post office,
everyone around me was busy:
housewives, merchants, occupied, exchanging things.
I was the only still person.
I moved one step away and see my refection in a large glass window
I was shocked.
There were no mirrors in the convent
at least none that I was tall enough to see myself in.
How did I missed that:
brushing my teeth without seeing myself?
I saw me now:
My perm was growing out,
no barrette could hide this unpleasant sight: white straight hair attached to a white wiry pad and my eyes were so black and my skin was so white.
I stepped back and then turned as the black figure of Bonne Mère signaled me to follow.
I followed close almost touching but not that close.
She moved quickly and neatly crossing the street down a small side street,
signaled me to wait.
Was I a dog?
Then again we are off, I can barely keep up but the bustling around me acts like an engine so I speed up.
We pop out and we are on a touristy street.
Colorful umbrellas, the smell of cotton candy, and suddenly a pack of small dogs who appear to be off to a well-organized meeting — unleashed, they pass between us.
I am so startled by their smugness I nearly fall over.
A gaggle of dogs off to a social engagement,
— to a picnic?
The smell of candy and dogs and the low tide sea and the noise make me dizzy.
Where am I?
I don't have any idea.
Bonne Mère turns, almost scolding:
she is not going to be slowed but then she smiles so slightly and we are at the ice cream cart.
Her hand disappears into the black and out comes a change purse
with such dexterity. I have suddenly an ice cream cone in my hand and she turns and
we move on.
Though it would take another five years for Lilly to be able to sit down and write what she remembered, impressions, long repressed but still highly flammable, were beginning to rise to the surface. The realization that blurry figures from her past were in fact flesh and bones individuals was suddenly unnerving.
Lilly had been calm and collected all morning, in spite of the stress she was experiencing, but the prospect of an over-emotional reunion with living ghosts gave her the jitters. A full-blown catharsis had never been part of her plans.
For Lilly, the Mother Superior had been Bonne Mère, a stern character at first who turned out to be a free spirit. She had accepted Lilly unconditionally, watched over her, instructing her without ever lecturing. She had consoled her when she was afraid or sick, and had, on a couple of occasions, taken upon herself to bend the rules in order to give the little expatriates a good time.
Once, Bonne Mère took Lilly for a ride to the post office on the back of her mobilette. Taking wing at 35 mph on country lanes while holding on to a flying nun had been one of Lilly’s happiest childhood memories. That day, Bonne Mère had dipped into the convent’s small cash box to buy her an ice cream cone from a street vendor.
As I watched Lilly rummage anxiously through the school’s photo albums, moaning privately whenever she recognized an old schoolmate or identified an old landmark, my heart sank. As long as the benevolent figure of Bonne Mère — the Good Mother — had remained a distant and fond memory, Lilly had found solace in it. She could think of Bonne Mère as someone who belonged to the world of “before” — “before” the brutal sense of grieving she had experienced upon learning that her mom had died. Confronting Bonne Mère now — today — meant bringing into the present, into her adult life, a pain she had barely managed alone, decades ago, as a child. I had no competence when it came to digging out buried traumas. I sorely felt out of my depth.
I considered briefly thanking the nuns, and, invoking some unexpected family crisis, grabbing Lilly and leaving the premises before it was too late. But already Soeur Ursule and Soeur Marie were back, announcing that Bonne Mère had been moved to tears upon learning that Lilly was in the region. She was thrilled at the thought of seeing her again, after all these years. It was all arranged. She was expecting us at the convent in La-Roche-sur-Yon after lunch. Soeur Jeanne, who had been the person welcoming the kids at the gate that first day, was also coming back to meet with us there at two o’clock.
Though my French was better all the time and I was able to translate for Tippy,
I spent a lot of time on my own.
In my large family, I had never been alone.
This was new to me.
During the classes I took —
French history, math —
I think my mind wandered most of the time.
I always sat by the window.
It was becoming warmer and the smells were changing.
In my home smells were more regulated.
Here the smell of dust and earth and chicken poop and girls growing and pencil shavings: all of it unedited.
The smell of me
(one shower a week)
though I was allowed to cheat.
The smell the sisters’ wool growing stronger.
There is parents’ weekend (maybe just parents are visiting)
I am very anxious about this.
But the parents are even smaller than the girls.
They approached the convent timidly,
dressed neatly, overdressed it seems to me for the summer.
Mothers and fathers bespectacled and clinging to each other,
kissing but not hugging,
no squeals of delight.
I am wondering now: is this a school for wayward girls?
Is that why they are not let out on their own?
The sisters are friendly but cool.
We have a cool drink at a table set up in the courtyard.
The dust has been sprinkled with water but still it grows, gathering on the fathers shoes and I watch them surreptitiously wipe it off on the back of their trousers.
I am introduced as a little prize:
our American sister,
look at her hair and wonderful sneakers.
She sings when she is doing her schoolwork.
I didn't know.
They cover their teeth as they giggle.
I am always moving,
they sit so still.
They have their hair arranged in various neat buns,
some on top, some to the back.
My hair is like a fire on my head
I touch it quickly to smooth it.
Even Tippy has her hair organized and is able to sit still.
I haven't noticed her much. In the day she is gone reading the pile of English books she has found.
I can't stay in my seat anymore.
I slip away looking maybe for a frog or a garden snake,
something to follow.
La-Roche-sur-Yon is a sleepy provincial town par excellence. We were hoping to locate a good restaurant for lunch — I wanted to give Lilly a taste of luxury, but I failed to find the gastronomical equivalent of fluffy towels. I have no recollection of where we ended up, but I remember lingering over coffee, surprised that I, a hardened atheist, would be nervous about meeting a couple of nuns. Lilly was nervous too, yet oddly subdued. I could not begin to imagine what was going on in her mind. We were both on a holding pattern. The town at lunch time was eerily quiet.
The elderly woman who opened the heavy door of the religious institution introduced herself as Mademoiselle Hélène Fruchet. We shook hands, wondering who she was. She asked us to follow her in the parlor, a small room wallpapered with faded pattern of demure floral motifs. We sat down around a small round table and smiled at each other shyly.
And then it hit me: Mademoiselle Fruchet was Bonne Mère.
Where was Audrey Hepburn when we needed her? This was not an episode from The Nun’s Story. When shedding their formal habits and white headdresses, members of religious orders divested the world of some of its former enchantment. Yet, strangely enough, Mademoiselle Fruchet was more intimidating in her navy blue pencil skirt and pale blue cotton sweater — her short white hair colored with blond streaks — than if she had been dressed like a proper saint. Nothing on her person signaled her lifelong engagement in the service of others — no badge, no medal, no ribbon, not even a gold cross. She offered us no reassurance that the sacrifices she’d made had been worth it. She stood in front of us as gauche and unsecured as we were.
At that moment I realized that all three of us were on our own. God had abandoned us the same way Nana had abandoned Tippy and Lilly on the side of the road. Helpless, I watched as Bonne Mère and Lilly began to evaluate silently the emotional journey in front of them. They had an hour together at most to say thank you — or whatever it was that needed to be said.
“Call me Hélène,” said Mademoiselle Fruchet, looking at her former pupil. Lilly had not said a word yet, neither in French nor in English. I could tell that she was anxious because she showed no emotion whatsoever. Annoying at first, her deliberate indifference was a call for help. So I began to make small talk, describing our visit to Les Sorbets, the warm reception of Soeurs Ursule and Marie, and the joy of Lilly discovering the pictures of some of her former schoolmates in the photo albums. The sound of my voice, and Bonne Mère’s polite replies, were as monotonous as white noise.
While we had been talking, Lilly had managed to marshal her courage and, like a sleepwalker, had found a small opening — a way into our conversation. “Did you know, Bonne Mère, that I had never stepped into a kitchen before?” she said, interrupting us with what sounded like a non-sequitur.
But Bonne Mère and I were not surprised. It’s as if we knew exactly what Lilly was talking about. “At home in Providence,” Lilly continued, “we, the children were not allowed past the pantry. As far as we could tell, food grew inside dishes. So, when you sent me to help Soeur Marie-Claire with her kitchen chores, I was mystified. I had never before seen anyone boil water or peel potatoes. And when the sister in charge of putting away the silver asked me to dry spoons, I had no idea what she was talking about.”
“Ah, you were brave,” said Bonne Mère. “You never complained.”
“And do you remember when Soeur Marie-Claire — I loved her, she was great, big, strong, and fat — took me outside in the courtyard and had me assist her while she killed one of the pigs?”
“I can’t believe that you forgave us,” said Bonne Mère. “We were all young women back then, you know. We were inexperienced, proud and foolish.”
It must be late June.
I am hot all the time, hot in my sleep.
My short-sleeve pajamas
are soaked in the night.
Tippy is wetting her bed less
I am wetting mine differently.
My skin is white and the dress gown (the undressing gown)
feels like it is filled with stones.
But I am going to have a day at the beach with Mia.
So I am finding my bathing suit last used on the ss Rotterdam.
It smells awful.
We go to the beach.
Mia changes right in the open
using her towel but not with great success.
She helps me do the same.
Oh the water is so cold
so wonderful. My hot skin heats the water around me as we walk a long way to water deep enough to be under it.
I am under, cold smooth safe in the salt water.
My body is water, my hair is silky, the sound of my heart beating.
I eat cherries, a whole bag.
Returning to Les Sorbets I am shivering
and the vomiting starts.
I am so embarrassed.
Bonne Mère is summoned.
Too many cherries?
I am put to bed.
So I am soaked again, sweating,
my guts squeezing, I make it to the toilet.
The smell is poisonous
I put my face under the faucet
I can just see my forehead in the mirror, it is botchy.
In my bed I am lost.
Where am I?
The light of something hits the wall above me:
the moon — no
the lantern — no.
Sister Marie-Claire is screwing her face when she looks at me,
not angry maybe
I don't know.
I drop my bread she gives me into my lap.
Everything in my mouth tastes like tin.
I am so embarrassed.
Again and again to the toilet my bowels dumping everything.
Someone touches my head,
it feels like knifes.
In the night my guts are screaming again.
In the toilet I am moaning.
The paper scratches me — then the paper is gone.
There is a bag hanging,
there a blue cotton bag
from the outside it feels like there are towels inside.
I put my hand in to pull something out the clean myself.
I am holding a white cloth black with blood.
The whole bag it filled with bloody rags,
then I am vomiting as well,
then on the floor my head against the cool floor.
When I open my eyes again
I see who is it:
Bonne Mère without any head covering. Her hair is smooth flat to her head.
Her skin above, where her wimple would be, is white and crisp.
She holds my hand.
There is someone else behind here,
the night nun.
I am lifted up,
I am put down,
someone sits by me
cooling my forehead.
A discreet knock on the door announced Soeur Jeanne.
“I am Mademoiselle Gouraud,” she said, shaking hands with us. This business of shaking hands with nuns was disconcerting to me. But her friendly demeanor eased some of the tension in the room. Lilly‘s mind was racing. “I was the English and Sciences teacher,” explained the newcomer to dispel the confusion she read on my friend’s face. “I was right there, on the side of the road, the day you arrived with your friend Tippy.”
“Tippy was not my friend!,” Lilly said quickly, under her breath.
The two nuns looked at each other. Soeur Jeanne sat down with us and I could tell that she would have liked to comfort Lilly the woman the same way she had comforted Lilly the child. But Lilly was running a nervous hand in her silky blond hair, as messy today as it had been back then. Tippy’s name had been an intrusion, and she was trying to control her unexpected feelings of hostility.
Tippy was a little younger than Lilly, and just as terrified when the two of them had been left with the nuns. She used to wet her bed, and Lilly remembers sneaking in the bathroom in the middle of the night to wash her sheets so that she would not be scolded by the nuns in the morning. But the girls were very different: Tippy was a quiet brunette, reading books whenever she could, while Lilly was always ready to explore, ask questions, get into trouble.
What did Soeur Jeanne and Bonne Mère knew about the girls? Had they detected that something was drastically wrong in their relationship? Could they tell that the children were curiously at odds?
So now I am sleeping in the sisters’ house
I am sleeping hot and my skin is red in places, my head is bad.
I am by the window.
The room is large.
It is the guest room? Something like that.
The visitors’ room.
My bed is by the window and a standing screen separates me from something.
Someone is sitting with me, a sister — cool cloth on my head.
Why am I not at home?
My grandmother was the person who cooled your head.
But my mother would hold my head while I threw up.
It always amazed me.
But where is my family?
There is some excitement,
a monk will come.
He is a doctor of sorts.
He will come to find out what is my disease. I love this word dis-ease.
I am in my short-sleeve pajamas,
they are washed and clean but I can already smell my sour smell.
But in comes the monk, white hair brown robe rope and crucifix and sandals:
He stands beside the bed,
the sisters withdraw:
a man has come!
He takes my hand and turns it over and looks at my palm.
He asks to see my tongue.
Will I lie on my back?
He will feel my stomach.
He raises my pajamas top up to look at my rash.
I know I am sinning to show my skin to a man.
No — he puts his head, his ear on my chest,
he listens to my heart.
On one side is the window. I can see the courtyard.
And the monk man and the sisters on the other.
He stands up and scowls at me,
then smiles and says
something I don't understand.
But clearly he is very pleased.
The sisters are demure: he tells them again in a large voice
I don't now,
and he goes out the door.
It is translated to me
I have needle rash.
To be continued/see Part 2
1/6 - Lilly circa 1975, when she was working as an assistant to photographer John Paul Endress
2/6 - Lilly and Véronique in New York in 1979
3/6 - An old map of Noirmoutier showing the convent of Les Sorbets
4/6 - The chapel near the boarding school where the students went for service every Sunday
5/6 - View of the beach of the Bois de la Chaise, within walking distance of the school
6/6 - Renoir's painting of a beach in Noirmoutier