PJ and I will travel to France again this fall to shoot another batch of the churches, and my parents will join us for their fifth “last trip to France.” They say this every year – as they age, the travel gets more difficult and they pronounce each journey their last. We are hoping that this is just one more in the long series of “last visits” to come.
We love the time that we spend with Lucille and Don – three or four weeks of late afternoon Pernod and long dinners filled with conversation. We talk about everything, especially about the family growing up. On the last trip, my father brought up something that had been puzzling him for almost six decades. When I was about four years old, we lived in a French house owned by the Perdoux family in the Orleans suburb of Saint Jean-de-la-Ruelle. The house was perfect for our family, as there was a large yard for my brother David and me to play in and a glassed-in greenhouse attached to the house where we could shelter in the rain. One afternoon we were playing baseball and I looked at the greenhouse. One of the windows was open and for some reason my four-year old mind resolved to throw the bat through the window. I missed, of course, and shattered one of the windows. My parents were mortified and had to replace the glass.
My father asked me if I remembered throwing the bat through the window at the Perdoux’s? Of course I did, so he asked why. Without hesitation I told him exactly my state of mind in 1953. “I had no concept of failure – it never dawned on me that I would miss.” My father snorted, “Rien ne change”.
It has always been my path to find my own way through life. I don’t remember viewing myself in relationship to the world as a whole until I was in kindergarten, shortly after we moved to California from France. I joined the class after the beginning of the school year (something that happened quite often in my youth), so everyone seemed to know each other and the routine except for me. On my first day at lunch recess, a bunch of kids were standing around in the playroom talking about what to do. For some reason, some of them wanted to be dead and some of them wanted to be alive. That seemed, to my five year old brain, a poor choice. If we were dead, we would just lie there, and if we were alive – well, what would be different? So I said, “Why don’t we be dead and alive.” Mind you, this was pre-Zombie USA. The kids looked at me like I was crazy, so I started walking around, staring vacantly with my arms out to my side. That was all it took. Within 30 seconds every kid in the class was walking around dead/alive. Who knows what the teacher thought.
About three years later we moved to North Carolina, where my parents bought a home in Fayetteville. North Carolina was different than California – they spoke English, but it was different. Not that it mattered, of course, because like children everywhere, I could adopt the accent in the company of the locals without changing anything at home.
We lived in a new housing development and in a nearby lot there was a huge stack of discarded construction materials – wood, boards, and the like. For some reason, I decided to build a church of my own. I was very pious and wanted to do something to show that devotion. Some other kids were recruited and we spent days on end stacking the materials and building our sanctuary. It was small – one couldn’t stand up and the space itself was a warren of compartments, but I was proud. Here was proof of my zeal. There was a dusting of snow that winter and I remember sitting huddled in that church, illuminated with candles, shivering and praying with all the fervor I could muster.
A couple of years later my father was again transferred to France, this time to the town of Poitiers. I noticed the churches immediately as we walked through that amazing town. From the hill above town where Abbeville Caserne was located (the local military base), we could look down across the Clain River and see Sainte Radegonde, the Cathedral Saint Pierre, and Notre Dame la Grande. In my previous experience, Army churches were built like barracks and even the civilian churches in North Carolina were like most other buildings. But these great monuments to worship soared high into the air and were something altogether new and different.
They were so tall – a twelve year old boy might strain his neck looking up at them. And they were made of stone! My extensive church-building experience in North Carolina was enough that it was possible to recognize something extraordinary in that fact alone. And the carvings, the decorations, the sculpture! Astonishing. It was easy to see the divine in these churches, but then it dawned on me that there was a human dimension as well. People built these churches, and they built them by hand, without machines. What a labor this must have been. These great buildings and the enormous effort expended in their construction awed me. Now a single thought dominated my mind – boy, they must have really loved their God to build churches like this.
Now, years later, having studied and photographed these churches for so long, a second dim realization has penetrated my mind; I have no more sophisticated understanding now than at the age of twelve. I can only echo that same thought – boy, they must have really loved their God to build churches like this.