There are echoes in here. Every sound seems repeated. The limestone and concrete walls of the church, despite the colored light streaming in through stained glass windows, make me think of a large room in a cave. It’s like being inside a huge geode, sparkly, glowing, and hollow, and the words that bounce around from contacting the floor, ceiling and walls seem meaningless, but that’s because the words are French, which I have trouble understanding even when it’s spoken slowly.
During the ritual, however, the priest’s Latin words are familiar, the same ones I’ve heard many times back home in Ohio during my altar boy days. Latin might be a dead language, but it speaks to me so soothingly now, I feel at ease. With the application of oil and the cold holy water, the baby’s gurgling turns into screams, filling the church with her protests. We adults smile and watch her puckered-up features slowly relax. Then handshakes, kisses, and a stroll into a more modern reception room for snacks.
That’s where it happens. The French grandmother fussing with the baby’s hood uncovers the little head, touches the tinier nose, ears and chin, then says something at which everyone, except me, laughs. Eventually, following several toasts and swallows of champagne, a drink which is apparently appropriate at any time for any occasion deemed of consequence, I drag my son-in-law Julien aside and ask what his mother said. He repeats what she said slowly, then more and more slowly until I finally nod and quote it in my notebook the way the French do,
Okay, I had been approaching that meaning, just not expressing it that way, but now that I know it exactly, this clarification leads to another mystery. I again ponder, What does it mean? The answer comes only after another glass of wine pries open my thoughts. Then Eureka! The saying suggests that direct disclosure of what one admires might tempt Fate to ruin it. On the other hand, praising a relatively minor part might draw the Divine’s attention there instead, away from more important parts, should the child’s Future ordain the need for ugly growth or shrinkage.
No wonder everyone laughed. The French can’t actually believe such thinking. Can’t actually believe they can so easily mislead God or Fate or whatever you want to call it. They can’t think that God is so capriciously vengeful. But apparently they are aware that tragedies can and do happen. Fully aware that tragedy can suddenly strike such an innocent as this small child, my granddaughter.
So their strange saying is really not so odd. It’s like our saying, “Break a leg,” to performers backstage. Like saying, “Geronimo!” jumping out of a plane. Like tattooing a Marine’s arm “Born To Die” before he goes off to battle. Saying such things, we try to control our feelings and what will happen. Destiny. The God who controls everything.
Superstition and wishes prompt these French and American expressions. But don’t the American expressions add something else? Yes, aren’t they telling God that we don’t give a damn. We’re going to do what we want no matter what painful consequences follow. Maybe the hope behind these sayings is that God will respond positively to our bravado and defiance.
While the talk grows louder around me, while the wine pours from the bottles, while Azalea sleeps peacefully in my daughter’s arms, I gaze through a window out at the busy street in Angers, France, and smile at what seems to be the universal human knack for self-deception. Our weakness for superstitions. Our love and our fears for a baby.
Bill Vernon served in the United States Marine Corps, studied English literature, then taught it. Writing is his therapy, along with exercising outdoors and doing international folk dances. His poems, stories and nonfiction have appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies, and Five Star Mysteries published his novel Old Town in 2005.
You can read an essay about his alter boy days in 1.2 here