My father enjoys telling the story of a journey he took through two regions of France. It was 1938, just before World War II gripped his home country. The last peaceful year of his childhood. Strangely, this sweet road trip wound up being a notable mind trip as well.
My dad was invited to join his buddy Claude on a visit to Dijon, which is about 100 miles south of his boyhood village. His friend’s dad wanted to visit folks he knew and was kind enough to invite my father along.
Take note, my dad’s pal was really named Claude — almost as cliché as Pierre or Jacques as far as French things go. I’ll change surnames here for privacy and all that.
So Claude’s pop, Mr. Dujour, drove a Morgan. This was a three-wheeled car. According to my father, the Morgan had to be started by running alongside it first and hopping in. Imagine. He remembers the whole way he sat in an open, rear-facing jump seat. He often describes how he loved the experience. “You watch everything backwards. All of the scenery seems to last much longer that way.”
His eyes were his own rear-view mirror.
I dream about how breathtaking the drive from France’s Champagne country to the Burgundy region must have been. In a three-wheeled car. During the relative peace of 1938 France.
But the Morgan adventure was one of the two reasons my dad recalls the trip. Another thing happened. It involved a mere sentence he jokingly mutters to this day. A sentence he overheard another adult blurt about him once they arrived in Dijon.
This person, The Blurter, might have inhaled too many mustard fumes at the Dijon factory. He assumed my dad was Claude’s brother and began playing the game we adults mistakenly partake in even now. It’s called, Let’s Pick Apart Kids’ Obviously Inherited Features Right in Front of Them. Monsieur Le Blurt said this:
“Claude est un Dujour, mais l’autre a la tête allongée des Clouseaus.”
Translation: Claude is a Dujour, but the other has an elongated head of the Clouseaus.’” The man was referring to my dad resembling Claude’s mother’s side. In this fellow’s mind, my dad was Claude’s brother. A brother who was apparently doomed with the Clouseau genetics. Mr. Dujour responded that my dad was not related, but too late. That one sentence began its permanent reverberation in my father’s apparently large cranium.
It amazes me how we adults say things in front of kids that can not only be misinterpreted, but really stick. This is especially true when we describe family features. It’s like we’re playing Mr. Potato Head with genetics. “She has the short legs of the Millers.” “He has that uneven Ferguson smile.”
I might add here there’s nothing wrong with shorter legs — ask any gymnast. Or an asymmetrical grin — run it by Harrison Ford. For that matter, an elongated head is useful — check with your nearest genius. But when we describe family features in front of kids, they could misinterpret what we’re trying to say.
This is why the whole trip home, as Dijon slowly disappeared into a little speck, my dad worried about his head. What did that man mean, exactly? Was there something wrong with him? He said as soon as he got to his house, he ran to a mirror and gazed at his noggin for a long time.
My father grew to 6 feet, 3 inches tall, which was atypical for a French kid of his generation. So his head, in fact, needed to be allongée. He passed along his cranial dimensions and height to his kids. Not that there’s anything wrong with our features, or any other superficial characteristics we humans inherit. Vive la différence.
Even though I snicker every time my dad repeats that one fateful sentence in his Frenchie singsong way, it serves as a reminder. What you say in front of kids might stick for decades. It can even overpower the magical view of a sweeping French countryside.
Freelancer Denise Snodell writes the second and fourth Wednesdays.