Around in the Aronde: I
Updated: Dec 10, 2019
Hermès scarf, camel hair coat , bright red lipstick and beautifully manicured nails to match; aromatic baguettes fresh from the boulangerie, charcuteries, pungent cheeses, fresh vegetables. That’s how I remember Madame Pouvreau picking us up from school every Thursday afternoon in her red and white car, a Simca Aronde. Eight-year-old Marianne in the front seat, because she was picked up first; Patrick yelling to me: <<Depêches-toi, Alexandra! D’Aste! Laisse-la. Maman nous attend.>> ("Hurry up, Alexandra! D’Aste, leave her be! Mother is waiting for us.") Then, there we were: Patrick and me in the back seat, squashed among the groceries, our book bags thrown somewhere on the car floor. And off to Fourqueux we went, through St. Germain-en-Laye, the town square with the towering church in the middle, the small cafés already teaming with boys off from school and ready to enjoy the free afternoon, waiting to flirt with the girls from the girls’ school when they could get away from their mothers’ lunch tables, over the winding village roads and finally through the gate and onto the Pouvreau estate, acres of gardens and forest, beautiful country manor.
How I loved those afternoons!
Into the house, the aroma emanating from the dining room, heralding to my gourmand palate the delicious meal to come. Madame Pouvreau’s two older daughters were often present, as was Monsieur Pouvreau. Like their mother, the two older girls, one married, were the epitome of chic in my adolescent mind. Oh! And the conversation: gossip from Paris, who was seen with whom at the theater the other night, who was the latest sensation at the Olympia - at that time in the late fifties, early sixties it was Edith Piaf; Josephine Baker was another sensation, and Aznavour was crooning his way across Paris. And, of course, lest we forget, La Callas and Onassis were the talk of the town whenever seen chez Maxim. The state dinners they had attended. Oh! Exciting times! And young as we were, Marianne, Patrick and I could only sit and listen in awe.
Madame Pouvreau made on impression on me as a young girl. She and my mother were the epitome of elegance – and those were elegant years.
Thursday afternoons, the respite French schools offered students since Saturdays were spent all day in the classroom, continued in this manner for quite some time. And then, quite suddenly, Madame Pouvreau stopped coming for us from school. Instead Annique, her second daughter, not married, was driving the Aronde. The wonderful aromas of bread, cheese, whatever, continued to fill the car. But Patrick was not his usual jovial, loud boyish self. The chair of the lady of the house was empty at the table. Conversations: limited, reserved. Monsieur Pouvreau: lost in distant, unshared thought.
Quite unexpectedly, one afternoon, Patrick took me up to his mother’s room. There she was, this elegant lady, in this large bedroom, propped up by pillows on her enormous bed, the sunlight attempting to streak through the draperies. Gone was the red lipstick, the rouge, her head was crowned by slightly unruly auburn hair. She had not lost, in my eyes, one bit of her beauty and charm. I recall being puzzled: the scene did not make sense to me. The lady I knew, always chatting away, giving orders, in total control of her home and family: her voice suddenly soft and weak. She called me over to her bedside, asked me to sit, and held my hand. I can’t recall all she said. But etched in my mind was a promise she asked me to keep, to always be Patrick’s friend. I promised, not realizing at that moment I would never see her again. Soon after that the house assumed the silence of a tomb, literally. Mother and I went with flowers only to be met by Patrick's, Annique's and Marianne’s swollen red eyes. I was at a loss, and, as much as a girl of sixteen could, felt my friend's pain. In a sorrowful voice, tears rolling down my cheek, I told them how sorry I was, that I didn’t realize how ill she was. Patrick consoled me, assuring me that she didn’t want me to know.
How many times I have relived such scenes in my life, with the memory of those nearest and dearest, sudden shadows in my life. My inability to accept death until it is too late to say my good-byes. I still want fairy-tale endings. I continue to believe in miracles.
I did keep my promise to Madame Pouvreau as long as we lived in France. Our families shared a wonderful Christmas vacation skiing in Glion, high above Montreux, Switzerland. But our visits were not as frequent, as I was off to l’Institut du Bon-Sauveur with the nuns in Châtou, a suburb between Paris and St. Germain. It was my mother who would pick me up occasionally in our dark blue Simca Aronde. And Patrick? He went down another academic path.
The last time I saw my dear friend, many years later, was when my mother and I, then living in Istanbul, vacationed one winter back to Western Europe. St. Germain-en-Laye was one of our stops. Arriving at the train station after a wonderful day of shopping in Paris, Mother saw from the window a young man tearing along the platform, scarf flying around his neck. “There’s Patrick!” I jumped from the train, called his name, we all embraced. Unfortunately,Mother and I were leaving that very night to return to Istanbul, so there was no time to spend together..
Oddly, that same evening, another young man called from the Jura, where he was doing his military service, to tell me that he would be in St. Germain the next day to see me. He, too, I would not see. He was the "d’Aste" that Patrick was yelling at at school, telling him to let me go, his mother was waiting. I did see Armel d’Aste-Surcouf many years later, we married, and had our beautiful daughter, Vittoria.
Another segment of "Around in the Aronde: II", a wonderful little car, will be taken up at another time. With a happier ending. I promise!