Wednesday, February 10, 2010

My Friend Alphonse

This photo is in the archives in Chevy Chase, MD along with boxes of photos from the American Mars-Sur-Allier Base Hospital.  The children, including the bossu, the hunchback, are watching American soldiers being entertained as seen in the photo below.  The bossu in this photo looks like the boy in Rebecca’s class picture whom she identifies as Alphonse.

Alphonse and his friends watching the entertainment of the soldiers from the American Hospital at Mars-Sur-Allier
Photo from the National Archives in Chevy Chase, Maryland

My Friend Alphonse
On returning from school, as soon as we think we are far enough so that M. Besançon, our teacher, cannot see us with his “long-view’’, we break rank and run to our home, or, if there are no women at the washing place, we go there to sail our little paper boats.   Almost always, my friend Alfonse is with me.
Because I have rickets, I cannot run like other children.  If I try, I fall.  Alfonse cannot run either for he is a hunchback.  So, we walk together.
Alfonse has a big bump on his back, another smaller one on his chest.  He walks always as if he is carrying a bag of wheat on his shoulder.  People say that he is ugly.  Truly, if all one sees are his poor bumps, his chin almost on his chest, perhaps it is true.  But I see his beautiful dark eyes, deep and tender.  His hands are fine.  His fingers are long and clever.  In spite of his infirmities, he is joyful.  He sings.  His voice is melodious and we like to hear him.  He knows many songs and he can draw almost anything.  Besides that, he has traveled. He is a state foster child.  Because of his condition, he has been sent to the South of France, “to warm his humps’’, he says.  For us, who have seen only our village, he is a great traveler.
He tells me of the exercises that he and other hump-backs did while singing,  “Bosse du d’vant, bosse du dos, ça se guérira tantôt.’’  ....“Hump of the front, hump of the back, soon they’ll go away.’’   But the humps did not go away. Now the State had sent him to live with foster parents at Moiry, my village.
He was not very happy there, for the Henrys, his foster parents, are very miserly.  Alfonse is often hungry. I admire Alfonse, especially because, unlike most of us, he is not afraid of Mr. Besançon, our teacher. In fact, he is not afraid of anything.  Mama says, “It is because life has already given him all the blows.’’
I often think when I am with my friend that he is like the poor beast of the fairy tale.  I believe that one day he will let fall the ugly form and become a beautiful prince.
When he has some leisure, for the Henrys make him work hard, he draws.  He sees beauty everywhere.  He draws animals, trees, and flowers.  While Mr. Besançon rages at him, Alfonse draws his black beard on the map of France.  Finally, our teacher gives up.  Alfonse keeps drawing.  His drawings are so good that people of the village give him a few sous to have reproductions made of their faded photographs. 
One day the Director of the Public Assistance saw his drawing and promised to send him to L’Ecole des Beaux Arts.  Alfonse was happy.  He made great plans.  He would say to me,  “Who knows?  Perhaps I will become a great painter.  Then I will meet a great doctor.  He will remove these ugly humps. I will become straight and tall like other people.  Then, you know, Rebecca, I will marry you even if you are still a little lame.’’  I share his dream.  I see him tall and straight as the prince of my dreams, for unless that prince has a soul like Alfonse, I would not want him.
Alas, in August, 1914, the war came.  Everything was changed.  Alfonse was already 14 years old.  It was decided that he must learn a trade.  He was sent to Nevers which was about 15 kilometers from our village.  There he became an apprentice to a tailor.  He sat all day on a table, with his short legs folded under him.  He learned to make buttonholes and to take measure.
Every time Mama and I went to the market at Nevers I went to see him. Then he would stand up and walk on the long table among the cuts of cloth and sing the old refrain, “Bosse du d’vant, bosse du dos, ça se guérira tantôt.’’ “Hump of the front, hump of the back, soon they’ll go away.’’  It was like an understanding between us.  It was his way of telling me that, even so, life was good and one must have courage.
It was cold even in the summer time in the basement of the tailor.  Alfonse, whose lungs were fragile, took cold readily.  They sent him to the hospital in Nevers where he died at the beginning of winter.  My mother said, “Do not cry any more, he is beautiful now.’’
Translation: Rebecca Goethe De Vries
Editing and Copyright:  Lucy De Vries Duffy, May 12, 2001, Brewster, MA 02631, USA
Editor’s notes: I cry every time I read this vignette.   However, while most of the story is accurate, I discovered when I went to France, that Rebecca’s dear friend Alphonse did not die at 14.   He was a witness to Rebecca and Charles’ wedding.  His name on the handwritten certificate of marriage. still in the Mairie (the town hall) in St. Parize le Châtel, is further evidence of Rebecca’s skill as a writer.   Alphonse lived into his 40’s. 
In 1988 when I was living in my mother’s village Moiry for a summer and reading the Vignettes in French with people there who remembered the times in the early part of the century, I inadvertently roused some anger.  I read this Vignette with a grandson, then an older man, of the foster parents of Alphonse.   My mother’s description of the Henry’s as miserly infuriated him and I hastened to apologize.

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