A wonderful love story by a man I greatly respect, Chris de Vinck, author of Power of the Powerless. I treasure everyone of his books.
IT IS BELIEVED that Geoffrey Chaucer, the 14th century poet, created more than 700 years ago the tradition of Valentine’s Day with his poem “In the Parliament of Fowls,” a poem about love in the king’s court. It reads in part:
“You know that on Saint Valentine’s day,
By my statute and through my governance,
You come to choose – and then fly your way
With your mates…”
This is a good time of year to remember how we chose our mates and flew off into our destinies together.
My mother, who is 94, just celebrated the 71st anniversary of her wedding to my father, who died four years ago at the age of 100. How she met my father is part of my family’s lore, and something I always think about on Feb. 14.
At the end of World War II my mother wanted to go to Paris with her father, and he emphatically said “No! I will be on a military train.” My grandfather was a general in the Belgian Army, and part of the delegation sent to France by his superiors to help reorganize war-torn Europe.
My mother, 23 at the time, spent four years under Nazi occupation, so a chance to travel to Paris was an opportunity that she relished.
“No. Impossible,” my grandfather insisted, but then my grandmother had an idea. She took one of my grandfather’s old uniforms, stitched here and there until it fit my mother.
And then he smiled
My grandfather looked at my mother as she stood in her green corporal’s uniform and tipped hat, and then he smiled. So my mother accompanied my grandfather as his military aide. Of course there were no female military aides to Belgian officers in 1945, but no one stopped my grandfather as he and my mother stepped into the train to Paris. No one stopped them as they ate at the American military canteen, where my mother had white bread for the first time in four years.
In Paris my mother and grandfather stayed in a hotel without heat, this being the winter of 1945, and my mother remembers being so cold at night that she wrapped herself in the hotel rug as she tried to keep warm under her blanket.
What does a 23-year-old Belgian girl do in Paris while her father is attending government meetings all day long? “I walked and walked just to stay warm. I visited the museums, and the cathedrals, but everything was gloomy and cold. I was miserable,” my mother said.
My grandfather, recognizing that it was a mistake to bring his daughter, asked a business associate if he knew someone who could entertain my mother. “Yes, I will send my assistant.”
The “assistant” was a 33-year-old man who lived like the Great Gatsby, waltzed every weekend, enjoyed pheasant hunting, and wanted nothing to do with entertaining the child of a Belgian officer, but the boss was insistent, so this disgruntled man who practically lived in a tuxedo the first 30 years of his life trudged to the hotel in the cold winter air.
When he met my mother he did not tell her that he was a Belgian baron. He did not tell her about the size of his summer and winter estates. He didn’t speak about the chauffeurs, the gardeners, the washerwomen, the cooks and the private tutors; all he did was invite my mother to walk along the River Seine that to this day still flows in and out of my imagination.
The general’s daughter and the baron discovered, immediately, the famous “bouquiniste,” the used-book stalls that have been there for more than 400 years. Many people still refer to the Seine as the only river in the world that runs between two bookshelves.
They also quickly discovered that they had the same interests in books and authors.
“Look at this book of poems,” the young man said. “No one knows about his work. He is so obscure. This is a book I must have,” and so he bought it.
“I love his poetry,” my mother said.
As they walked to the next book stall my mother found a novel she always wanted to read, and she bought it. The young man practically knew the book by heart.
At the third book stall my mother and her companion reached for the same book about the 14th century Italian writer and mystic Angela of Foligno. They both wanted to buy this book, and the man said, “Well, if we both want it, the only thing to do is to buy it together and get married.”
In three days my parents were engaged, and three months later they were married.
On Oct. 9, 2013, Pope Francis declared Angela a saint, and it was Saint Angela who wrote so many hundreds of years ago, “Because of love, and in it, the soul first grows tender.”
I will never forget how tenderly my mother tipped the small shovel of dirt over my father’s open grave.
Christopher de Vinck, supervisor of language arts at Clifton High School, is the author of “Moments of Grace” and lives in Pompton Plains.