Scenes from Silver Creek: French for a Day
Mrs. Clemence Chabot was quite possibly the sweetest woman ever born. She came to Silver Creek as a war bride. The first war. Jean Chabot was born and raised in Silver Creek to French parents and grew up speaking the language. When WWI started he enlisted and, due to his fluency, ended up in Paris working for the war office.
He told the story over and over. One day he was enjoying the sunshine in Parc Monceau when suddenly his life appeared. She was wearing a lavender dress and he said at first he mistook her for one of the flowers. He fell in love before they’d even spoken.
It was the luckiest day of his life, he said, and she felt the same. Within two months they were married and six months later she came back with him to Silver Creek, knowing no one and leaving all she knew behind.
I remember asking her once if she weren’t scared to leave her county and come to a strange place. She replied that of course she was scared, but with her beloved Jean holding her hand she knew everything would be fine.
Jean always promised that one day he’d take her back to Paris but he never did. Life and time took over. The chances slipped away until one day they were facing their 60th anniversary and Clemence was too fragile for the trip.
She was a lovely woman. Ladylike and petite with that enviable quality of beauty only French women can achieve. And she loved life. I’m told that from her first day in town she was enchanted with Silver Creek. I have no idea why. After a lifetime in the City of Lights, Silver Creek must have been boring as hell. And yet she was charmed. And the city was charmed right back.
In her adorable broken English, that never seemed to get any better, she chatted to everyone and embraced the world. The Chabot house was always sparkling and warm and her garden was the envy of the town. Every spring it burst out in color and scent and every winter it became a Christmas card.
Clemence and Jean never had any children and yet they never seemed to feel as if it were just the two of them. Children naturally flocked to Clemence and she reciprocated with homemade lemonade that she called “Citron Presse,” which made it seem very cosmopolitan. And she was generous with hugs to anyone who stood still long enough.
Jean and Clemence were good friends with Jacques and Emile, who lived across the street from us. They would gather once a week to play piquet and gossip in French. It was from Emile that we learned how bad Jean felt about not being able to take his war bride back to Paris for a visit. And so Jean, the most besotted man I’ve ever known, decided to bring Paris to her.
It’s a rare thing for an entire town to come together for something other than a disaster but for one beautiful day Silver Creek united in the call of romance.
The 60th anniversary celebration took two months and a great deal of whispering to plan. The amazing thing about it was that Clemence never caught on and was well and truly surprised.
Jean enlisted all of his friends, who enlisted friends, and the idea was so completely enchanting that the whole town wanted in on the scheme. It was Christmas, Halloween, and Valentine’s Day all in one.
Anyone in town who could speak French gave secret lessons in the language so that everyone could say a little something. Even just a bon jour. Men got out their father’s or grandfather’s doughboy uniforms and women worked for weeks to create as authentic an 1918 dress as possible. Tricolors were ordered and Grover Park was transformed into as Parisian a space as possible.
On the morning of the day everyone was ready. As planned, Jean took Clemence for a walk downtown, saying nothing to her about what was happening. From the first moment it was magic. People who had known the for years, but had only spoken in English, stopped to say bon jour or wish them a joyeux anniversaire. Men in WWI uniforms or dapper suites walked arm-in-arm with silk clad women with hats and gloves. Mr. Martin, who taught French at Silver Creek High and had a warm tenor, sang bal musette tunes at the entrance to the park.
Slowly Clemence caught on and her smile could have lit up the city of lights itself. Everyone from the most hard-boiled plumber to the most romantic of matrons got into the spirit of things and slowly joined the procession to Grover Park.
Jean lead Clemence to the center of the park which was brilliant with daffodils and tulips, planted specially for the occasion and all done overnight by an army of love-struck volunteers. Eventually nearly a hundred people gathered around the couple, Jean beaming like the cat with the cream and Clemence a beautiful mixture of laughter and tears.
Father Sheehy, not the sweetest of men, surprised everyone by spending weeks perfecting the Our Father in French and once the town had gathered he raised his hands and blessed the couple. He then said, “you may now kiss the bride.”
And then, as arranged, the town slipped away. Nobody said anything to indicate that it was at all unusual that we were all French for an hour. That was part of the charm, the unacknowledged whimsy of it all. As the two kissed people went on their way, as if it were any other morning in Paris, 1918.