Write It Poetry
Critic's Picks: MEMOIR

I wrote this personal essay in the beginning of the year, when I had just
arrived from France. Because the thoughts about the move were the freshest in my mind, I chose to write about them in an assignment for English class. I ended up putting more effort into it than any other piece I have written.

Editor's Comments:
I love the way Madeleine develops her relationship with her father in this essay. It's subtle, not over-stated. Her use of the gnome as a symbol is brilliant, especially in tying together the theme in the last sentence. I could read this paper dozens of times - It's a fun read with a lot to say.

J'ai Deux Amours

By Madeleine Schwartz
age: 14
Teacher: Sarah Morgan

I'm only half here.

My other half lives in Paris, 314 rue St. Jacques, in a pale yellow room facing a small street. Next door is baby sister Jeanne's room, and on the other side, Leon and Jules. Upstairs sleep Papa and his wife Laurence. Continual movement surrounds me and I am part of it. "J'en ai assez!!" "I've had enough!!" Papa exclaims at least five times a meal, pulling one boy by the ear and telling the other to eat. Laurence feeds Jeanne and calms Papa down. At some point there are tears. I am far away from the quiet rooms in New York, where my mother reads the newspaper silently over the breakfast table.

School in Paris is public. The teachers don't always come, and there are no substitutes. Twice I had no school at all because of absences. Mme. Rannou, the math teacher, handing back a test, tells the class that they should all consider vocational careers. Mme. Maillot, who teaches French, tends to get overexcited when she is mad. Once, when she decided that a student had been too rowdy, she moved the class armoire and placed him behind it. In English class I am half star, half trained monkey. The teacher uses me as her tape player, reading out texts to the class. Sometimes the status is too much and when English class comes at the end of the day, I don't always go.

After school, I explore the city. I surf the metro to get to some of my favorite places. In the Marais, where the old Jewish quarter abuts hip new shops, I buy kosher sausages and admire all the clothes that I would buy if I won the lottery. I search for French stars in St. Germain des Pres. One sunny spring afternoon when classes were done, I walked down to the modern Institute Cartier, a glass building that looks out-of-place among stone ones. Jean-Paul has created a show to celebrate his completion f the Atkins diet; He has fabricated replicas of the most famous dresses in bread. Women wearing breadbaskets walked around selling black and white striped croissants and baguettes.

Sometimes, when I don't want to go far, I walk to the Luxembourg Gardens. Regulations determine by rotation which lawns are open for sitting and Tai Chi. I find the day's lawn and read. I exchange my books at the English language bookshop Shakespeare and Co. and pretend that I am following Hemingway, who came here often.

This comfort has cost me my ease in New York. I long for noisy dinner and cringe at the taste of a rubbery American baguette. French spurts out of my mouth when I talk with friends and I struggle to find words in English that should come easily.

It wasn't always that way. The first time I visited my father in Paris I was five years old. I had met him before, but I think we both felt too out-of-place to really learn about each other. My mother accompanied me and together we went to his apartment, a modern building in a dreary neighborhood, where what surprised me was how many shades of gray could exist side by side. My father asked me questions in accented English about school and the rest of the conversation was probably about the weather.

The next few visits, my father and I adopted the habit of taking walks in the countryside. He would tell me different names of plants, speaking to me slowly in English. My most intense memories don't involve words. Once, we stopped in a field of wildflowers on the side of the road. I was enchanted. For me, flowers had always been fancy bouquets that my mother received as gifts for hosting a dinner party. We picked a few and brought them back to the car, where we found them a few days later, a red, sweet-smelling mush.

One day, as we were ambling across a village, Papa exclaimed, "Aha!" In the garden in front of us was a little gnome. He was smiling, frozen in the act of pushing a wheelbarrow. Before I could say anything, the gnome was under Papa's jacket. He walked a little more briskly, leaving me standing in front of the house, yelling. Finally, seeing that he was getting into the car, I rushed after him. I was flustered and mortified. My father, stealing? Adults weren't supposed to steal. Would he be caught? What would the kids at school say? Why was he doing this?

I got neither answer nor explanation from Papa. The gnome moved to a shelf where other ones were already standing. I noted the size of the collection each time I came to visit. The gnomes crowded the shelf after periods when Papa had made trips to the countryside, and the population dwindled when friends each received their own gnomes as gifts.

The number of gnomes on the shelf isn't the only thing that has changed. Since the day when I first say Papa steal a gnome, there have been other additions to the family. When I was seven, my father met Laurence, and since I have two brothers and a sister. I no longer converse in English with Papa. I don't know when I started to speak French fluently, but I am told that when Leon was born 6 years ago, I started speaking as if I had been doing so all my life.

Years have passed, and yet Papa still shrugs off my questions about garden gnomes with the same smile on his face as when I ask him about his relationship with my mother. I've abandoned the prospect of ever knowing why, and have come to my own conclusions about garden gnomes. There is something incredibly delicious about doing wrong, a wrong that does no harm. In daily life, one gets so caught up in obligations that stealing garden gnomes is a way to escape, because it makes no sense.

Gnomes were omnipresent in my daily life in Paris. They migrated around the house when Jules was bored. Some days, when I came home from school, I found a gnome standing in a corner of my room or lying on my bed. One Christmas, I took a gnome back to New York. It now sits on the windowsill, and although it is smiling, it looks out-of-place.

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