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Lessons I Learned From My French Grandmother’s Woods

How I'm striving to be more like her.

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illustration, lessons from grandmother, grandmother and grandchild walking, woods, home
Paul Gorsuch
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As a child, I loved Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and they made perfect sense. After all, my grandma lived in a little château in France.

To visit her I crossed some woods, called La Garenne, and then trekked to the ancient farmhouse where I spent weekends. From grandeur to green darkness, La Garenne was the transitional space after the light and noise of the family living room.

In the beginning, the woods seemed static. They were old and scraggly. Countless family feet had left roots and rocks exposed, making it easy to trip. My grandmother Nicole also seemed unchanging when I was little. She was very short and energetic, smelling of Chanel No. 5, Olay cream and Royale Bleue cigarettes. She wore cashmere sweaters, pearls and oversized green rain boots to garden and walk the muddy forest. The story of her life was the story of a woman who cared for others, with a warm smile and sparkling, playful eyes.

Portrait of author's grandmother` Nicole
Author's grandmother, Nicole

Like my grandmother, the woods were both wildly familiar and full of secrets. When I was a 10-year-old carrying a wicker basket, my grandmother showed me how to look for mushrooms in hollows at the foot of trees and under matted leaves — telling me to leave one mushroom behind so more could grow.

In and out of the woods, my grandmother knew all the secrets, unlatching concealed compartments in our heirloom secretary’s desk. Then she would open a hinged box full of Russian bonds issued by the czar before the revolution, one of the ways we had lost our family money.

As in any popular fairy tale, our château symbolized romance. It was a wedding gift for my great-grandmother, and as a teen, I roamed into the ivy, walking carefully around holly, until I found what I called Sleeping Beauty’s Alley. Often, I went to this natural arcade made of overarching trees with a soft ivy carpet on the ground and green light streaming in.

Grandma Nicole was playful but private. Though my grandparents were devout Catholics, as a teen I finally did the math — my father’s birth was less than nine months after the wedding. When I asked them, my grandfather said, “The Church has always understood the sins of the flesh.” I joked that everyone was amazed at her premature baby’s plump cheeks. I imagined her as an 18-year-old, forced into marriage after she got pregnant, dreaming of an independent life. Later my great-aunt told me about the party when my future grandparents had slept together. They had been pressured to marry by their proper bourgeois families.

A complicated love had developed between my playful grandma and my serious grandfather. She had stayed in the marriage, after all. I was the first of the 40-some grandchildren. We each experienced my grandmother’s kindness, restless energy and occasional sharpness. After each shouting fit, she would take to her bed. Of course, the queen could also be a witch.

Like Grandma Nicole, La Garenne was sometimes easy to experience, like in summertime, when the breeze rose late in the day. At other times, I trudged through the woods in a downpour, slipping every other step.

My life was shaped by peace. My grandmother’s youth took place during World War II. She had never looked a German soldier in the eye during the occupation. She had jumped into roadside ditches with her bicycle to evade German patrols after curfew.

Like her woods, my grandmother deserved attentive respect. I was an adult before my great-aunt Alix told me Nicole would dance on the dining room table. Who had she been then, so joyful and unfettered? She had experienced the Nazi occupation, her pilot husband’s absence overseas, her own joys and heartbreaks giving birth to 10 children. As time progressed and we discussed matters of faith, choice and morality, she agreed non-Catholics didn’t have to go to hell.

By my 30s, I knew La Garenne’s secrets, but I realized how little I truly knew about my grandmother. I discovered that when she was a child, servants were summoned by ringers on the wall. Then, during World War II, the family’s fortunes changed. Money, or lack of it, didn’t bother her much. She was unbelievably welcoming.

Like a good fairy, my grandmother loved small children. She died a few years ago, at the age of 86. Her home, Le Château de la Morinerie, is now for sale. I will never walk through La Garenne again. Now that I am middle-aged, I am uncovering the proverbial roots from which I emerged. I inherited her playfulness, her informality and her love of flowers. I strive to be as welcoming as she was.

Though in all her complexity, Nicole will remain forever partially known — the way a tourist might drive up to the grand facade of La Morinerie, never knowing about the bad plumbing. Yet, my grandma is indelible, in her oversized green gardening boots, walking among her roses.

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