Scenes from Silver Creek: Jacques and Emilie
For my entire childhood the house across the street belonged to an old French couple named Jacques and Emilie. They never seemed to get older and, to my child’s eyes, were always about 120. I think they were probably in their 70s and 80s and were something like protective godparents to everyone who lived on the block.
Jacques would spend his entire day sitting in his garage with the door open. He had a white El Camino that was a favorite hiding spot for the neighborhood kids playing hide-and-seek. I don’t know why we always hid there because it was always one of the first places anyone looked, but someone was always there. He’d sit at an old chrome kitchen table with his radio tuned to either a baseball game (when there was one) or the 24-hours news station during the off-season. He’d putter in the garden, read four or five newspapers a day, make birdhouses that he’d give to every person on the street, and watch the world walk, skate, bite, and drive by.
My dad, who spoke some French thanks to his French mother and grandparents, would go over every evening after work and before dinner. He’d come home, change out of his suit and into his jeans and a faded blue work shirt, and walk across the street. There, like two old Basque farmers, they’d drink strong red wine out of water glasses and nibble on cheese and the sourdough bread that Emilie made from scratch three days a week.
The wine came in big gallon jugs that Jacques would pour over his shoulder in a fountain that never once missed the glass. It’s a maneuver that always impressed me. When I was a child I was equal measures terrified and fascinated by him. The trick with the wine seemed like magic. But his serious expression and strange accent intimidated the hell out of me. He was a small, compact, bull of a man and had too much the look of a garden gnome about him. I was then, and still am, scared of garden gnomes.
Emile, by contrast, was the kindly grandmother out of a fairly tale. She baked bread and cookies that made the whole street smell glorious. And for a child growing up on my mother’s dreadful cookie and cakes-from-a-box, the scent of homemade ginger snaps and the warm, yeasty aroma of fresh bread was enough to bring tears to the eye. Her house was always spotless and her vegetable garden was like Eden. I’d been raised on a steady diet of canned food, with the exception of salad and, for some god unknown reason, zucchini. But Emilie had rows of fresh corn and sweet orange carrots. Sweet beans that made a satisfying, candy-like snap and the wonder of warm from the sun tomatoes.
She sang old French songs that I tried, in my head, to imitate and, like Jacques, loved baseball. Her backyard was a veritable subdivision of her husband’s birdhouses. Every bird in town seemed to have a map to her yard where she’d leave small glass dishes of sunflower seeds and fresh fruit. They had two fat, sleepy cats that glared threateningly at the invaders but never had enough energy to actually attack. These cats, Miro and Lalu, hated everyone but Emilie. Her, they loved. They’d slink between her feet and fight for lap rights when she sat down in the evenings. They would tolerate no attention from anyone else, not even Jacques, though they would hang around the garage when my dad was over, hoping one of the men would drop some cheese or bread.