[Excerpt from travel log, an account of my summer of meeting the in-law’s from Lyon to Buffalo]
We took the TGV from Paris to Lyon. For two hours I looked out the window at rolling fields of golden wheat and barley, at green patches of corn leaves, and at the intensely white and fluffy clouds floating against an azure sky.
When Uncle Paul finally emerged from the crowd at the train station, he wasn’t quite “a dude who looked like Sue” (my mother-in-law), as Geoff had foretold. There was some Prozeller family resemblance in the face and he shared Sue’s coloring, but mostly I was just surprised to see a man who had chosen to make his life in France dressed exactly like a summering American tourist. Tevas, a t-shirt with some kind of cowboy logo, jean shorts, and a hat advertising his favorite sports team. I had expected him to be more assimilated to France’s style of dress, as he had married a French woman and settled down in a small rural town.
In the car, Paul and Geoff talked like a pair of business associates about jobs, property prices, and tax regimes. I shared the backseat with the smiling and lanky Matt, Paul’s middle child. Matt was at first shy, hiding behind his dad’s broad frame at the train station. But in the car he soon opened up. He offered me sour candies and we chatted in French about subjects that I hoped were of interest to eleven-year-olds. When I was at a loss for French teenage words I would throw in some English, which he mostly understood but couldn’t speak as well.
It was a half hour drive, past Lyon and into an area of interconnected villages. We drove through a village called Frontonas in a matter of minutes and I remarked at its small size. Matt informed me that Veysillieu, where they lived, was even more cozy. And true enough, it was.
Once in Veyssillieu, we first stopped at the town square where Paul ran an errand. There, I took photos of the mayor’s office (a two-storey house), the town’s WWII memorial (honoring its ten or so sons who had gone off to the war), and the modest schoolhouse (where Matt sits in a 24-student class that covers all the primary school levels). In front of the church I snapped a photo of Geoff with his little cousin. Neither of the boys took to each other immediately and in the viewfinder of the camera I saw two people behaving like strangers awkwardly shoved together. When I pressed the button, Matt was still standing shyly off to the side and Geoff was making little effort to bring him closer with a hug or gesture.
The mile of road from “downtown” to the Prozeller home was lined with quite a few sunflower fields. The family lives in a typical old French stone house. Paul had lovingly restored and expanded their home over the years. Now, it sports spring green shutters, a sprawling yard filled with boys’ toys and gadgets, a swing fashioned to hang from a tree branch, and a work shed where Paul once brewed his own beer. The house faces a neighbor’s large sunflower field in the front and the back yard opens up to a sloping hilltop. It was a beautiful home, made more beautiful by the bright Provencal sun and the fields of yellow all around.
Once we stepped out of the car and into the home, a frenzy of domestic activity burst forth. Paul was in and out, driving off again with a carload of things he had to drop off somewhere. Matt, in a flash, had shimmied into his swimming trunks and invited me to the blow-up pool. While we were splashing around, Brian, the eldest boy, arrived home and immediately started stomping around the yard doing maintenance work like a real man of the house. Though only two years older than Matt, Brian was a full-fledged teenager, looking and acting like a grown-up. Around the house he adopted a serious, occupied manner and ordered his little brothers around to their chores rather authoritatively. (Here he called Matt out of the pool to hose off some floating toys that had rolled out onto the grass). Soon, Paul’s wife Nadia also arrived home with their youngest boy, Maury. Nadia had been out all day painting their new apartment, which was to be rented the following week. As she walked into the yard she still had a spot of white paint on her nose. Maury wore only his usual sweet smile on his small face.
After a bit, I got used to the household bustle and began to notice the subtle gestures and warm sentiments being exchanged around me. What struck me most was how very in love Paul and Nadia looked, even as they cooked, cleaned, and scolded their three children. As soon as Nadia had come home bearing an armload of apartment paperwork Paul set down his beer and rose up to relieve her of this small burden. He pulled up a chair in the yard for her and asked if he could make her a drink. Later, during dinner, Nadia congratulated me on my marriage and in very simple English toasted, “I hope you will be as happy as me.” Over the course of the long dinner I saw more and more of Nadia and Paul’s care for each other: a Valentine’s Day t-shirt with “I love you” written in fifteen different languages with colorful pens, which Paul proudly wears; the pet names they use on each other (“chou chou”); and how they each claim the other was responsible for the good genes that gave the boys their handsome looks.
Much later, as we got into a heavy discussion about the long Prozeller family history, Nadia tells me that at one point she and Paul were on the verge of breaking up because of Paul’s reluctance to have children. I couldn’t believe that from those days they had moved on to build this incredible familial atmosphere.
We had a jovial dinner. Paul had marinated Jamaican jerk chicken the night before and while he prepared drinks, Geoff and I tried to barbeque. We were such city slickers and when the chicken began to burn we had to ask for help from Brian. He wielded the pitchfork expertly and with somber attention. Everyone pitched in to set the table, cut the bread, lay out the excessively generous spread of desserts and cheese. Even little Maury, with childish concentration on his face, contributed by bringing out the plates.
After much eating and drinking, Paul began to tell me the Prozeller family history. Like Sue and Grandpa Paul, whom I’ll meet later in the summer, Paul junior is fond of storytelling. The story began in 1949…
Paul was a detailed narrator and by the time he arrived at the 1970’s the sleepy bug had hit me. Even the après-repas tea couldn’t make me stay up any longer. We called it a night and promised to take up the family story again the next time we meet.
Early the next day, Geoff and I left to catch the train for Avignon where our friends would soon arrive from Singapore. With the hurried goodbyes I felt a real sense of regret, as if I were leaving my own family. In the short time we had spent together, I had grown attached to the happy clan. I loved the children for their easy manners and for behaving like little French gentlemen. I adored Nadia for making her home so warm, often without the help her traveling husband, and for doing it uncomplainingly. And I admired Paul, this man who looks and acts so much like my husband, for overcoming the confusion of his early childhood years and growing up to build a beautiful family of his own.
After we left Veyssilieu, we would eventually make our way to Grand Island in West New York where I would meet Uncle Dave and his wife Anne. We would stay in their stylish home, enjoy their tremendous hospitality, and have similarly long and elucidating conversations about the Prozeller history…Even later, I would meet the family patriarch, Grandpa Paul, and sit in his old living room going over ancient family portraits…
I felt an incredible sense of comfort meeting each of the Prozeller men this summer…I took delight in identifying the family traits, which were as evident in the 1900’s sepia-toned photographs in Grandpa Paul’s sitting room as on the aging faces of Sue and Paul, and in the still youthful face of Geoff. The slightly protruding nose, mouth, and chin area that gives Geoff the look of an affectionate small animal comes from this line of German blood. I was glad to know that Geoff’s tendency to scratch his head and start looking for displaced items just as he is headed out the door is also a source of amused annoyance for Nadia. I had a chuckle at learning that the men also shared a stubborn preference for sleeping with the shutters open, forcing their wives to wear eye shades…
It was a wonderful summer as we trailed from Europe to the US and back to Asia. Along the way we got to know ourselves and we also got to know our now shared family much, much better.