For me, my early childhood didn’t exist before the book Rosalie the Bird Market Turtle was a part of it. The drawings were sketched out in improv jazz riffs of the early sixties. The palette was simple. Shades of sienna and black line sketches were smudged with charcoal from a Montmartre street artist’s tray and stained with strawberry details, the old-fashioned kind that are red all the way through and smell like jam. The illustrator included all the classic Parisian scenes. The gendarme pointed with authority on a street corner. A waiter in a long, white apron and thin moustache served patrons at a busy sidewalk café. Lovers gazed at each other as they passed a green grocer in a cobbled market street. Vendors sold old books and artists painted along the Seine. And gargoyles perched on the towers of Notre Dame watching the street life below. I was fascinated by all of the exotic images, but it was my father’s voice that made the story come alive and made me want to visit Paris.
We were living in a sturdy brick house too small for the six of us kids still living at home; across from a scrubby expanse of grass they called a golf course. It was the year my father had his first heart attack. He was a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army and I was in pre-school. I had no idea that my father wanted to make the rank of full colonel before he retired, that he felt like he’d been paid for 24 years for a job he was never actually called to do. I had no idea that while he read to me he was thinking of flying off to Vietnam in pursuit of his silver eagles. I didn’t understand what my parents were fighting about in those days; they were yelling and I got out of earshot by hiding in the closet of the bedroom I shared with my oldest sister. I never heard my mother challenge his ambition; “This family won’t survive if you go to Vietnam.” It was 1971.
My clearest memories of my father in that time were of me sitting with him in the green, La-Z-Boy recliner as he read to me. It had been a gift from my mother to help him rest and recuperate after his heart attack. Those were the days before we understood that a treadmill would have been a healthier choice. Sitting together in that chair was the closest he came to hugging or cuddling me. He loved to read and digging through bookstores was one of his favorite pastimes. He never just read the text of the story. He spoke in the characters’ voices, especially Gaston, the crow. My father croaked out “Ro-sa-lie, Ro-sa-lie” as if he were Gaston himself flying over Paris in search of his lost friend. Gaston was the ultimate protector. He would never give up until Rosalie was found and safe. My father portrayed him perfectly as he sat stiffly but let me snuggle closer to him.
Instead of deploying to Vietnam to earn his eagles, he retired from the Army. He sacrificed himself on the battlefield of civilian life to save us, as he would have done for his troops in a literal war zone. But once he left the military he wasn’t ever the same. He moved us to the Seattle area from Maryland to complete his MBA at the University of Washington. Then he got a job in banking, though he never quite adjusted to how things were done in the corporate world. Within a few years he’d fallen into a depression that lasted until his death twenty years later.
Going through adolescence as the only child still living at home in a family of seven children was made even lonelier by my father’s depressed withdrawal. He had not been raised in an affectionate household and didn’t come by it naturally either. I on the other hand came out of the womb craving touch. My mother’s attempts to bring us together only made things worse. “Ray, your daughter needs a hug. Give your daughter a hug, Ray.” She never said my name, just my position in the family. Her prompt elicited a stiff, awkward embrace from my father that made me feel like an untouchable from the lowest caste whom he was begrudgingly offering charity. He was even less adept at verbal expressions of affection. In my entire life I heard him say the words “I love you” only once. It was over the phone while I was 5000 miles away studying as an exchange student in Germany. I was 16. Feeling so completely unloved by the most important man in my life had a disastrous influence on my earliest choices of male companionship.
By my mid-twenties I’d gained a little self confidence and was an accomplished pastry chef living an independent, creative life. During the winter before my 25th birthday my brother John came from out of state for a visit. I joined him and my parents for dinner at home. As usual we retold stories of when we were kids. That night we wove through reminiscences of favorite toys and books. They’d all been donated to St. Vincent de Paul years before; Mom was not a woman to hold onto things, sentimental or not. I remembered Rosalie and wished aloud that I still had it. My mother then blamed the book as the cause of the serious case of Francophilia that had flared up after I moved away from home. It had lain dormant for years before breaking out aggressively. It’s mostly under control now, but at its peek the virus caused me to intensely study irregular French verbs, learn how to make soufflés, wear berets, listen to Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel, read all of Anaïs Nin and Colette, and even to buy a house that had a view of the Pyrenees. The house is gone and I can’t remember the last time I conjugated the subjonctif présent, but when the weather cools in the fall, I still pull my berets out of the closet.
A few months after that dinner my parents had me over again, this time to celebrate my birthday. I had studied for years and spoke French and three different German dialects, but I learned a new language that night. After a pleasant dinner of comfort food and marble cake with ice cream, a few presents were set in front of me. The first box contained a couple of blouses from my mother and another was full of fancy bath toiletries, both appreciated, but nothing special. Then Dad handed me a present that was not as neatly wrapped as the others and had no ribbon or bow. When I tore the paper off, there was Rosalie on the cover, looking exactly as she had twenty years before. “Did you save this? Was this mine?” I asked as I turned to my mother. She assured me she had no idea where it had come from. He never did tell me how he found it. It must have taken him dozens of phone calls and letters to used bookstores to find a copy of the out of print book. This was years before the internet and Amazon made the entire world searchable with a single request. My eyes filled with tears and when I hugged him he hugged me back. Then without me even asking, he opened the front cover and began to read aloud. When he got to the part where Gaston was searching for his friend and croaked out “Ro-sa-lie, Ro-sa-lie. Wherrre’s Ro-sa-lie?” I felt more loved than I ever had in my life. I smiled as I finally learned how my father said, “I love you.”
Illustration by Winifred Lubell, © 1962, Rosalie the Bird Market Turtle.