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A Very Special Surprise!

A Very Special Surprise!It takes a long time to grow an old friend.

I love that saying, and I loved the chance I had to see that saying brought to life recently. A few weeks ago, my maternal grandmother, Monique, turned 90. Here she is in an old photo – wasn’t she beautiful?

The 90th birthday was a huge deal, naturally, and so her six children flew in from all over the world (literally) to celebrate the milestone birthday. Many of us grandchildren were there, as was my grandmother’s younger sister, Jobic, who flew in from France.

And even though much of the plans for the celebration were concealed from my grandmother beforehand, perhaps the best surprise of the night was when Grandma’s oldest friend arrived. Marguerite Villaincourt has been a friend of my 90-year-old grandmother’s since the two of them were ten years old. For those of you who are as mathematically-challenged as I am, that makes 80 years of friendship.

And this was not just any ordinary friendship. The two met as girls in grammar school in Morocco, where they had both moved with their French expatriate families in the period following the First World War. My grandmother was there because her father, a doctor, had been assigned to a hospital near Rabat.

Both my grandmother and Marguerite were still in Morocco as young women when World War II broke out. There, they both happened to meet young American Officers, with whom they both happened to fall in love. My grandmother describes this time of her youth – this period of Big Band music, dances with tall American men, and they, two naive young French women, who gave their hearts away to relative strangers. “They were so handsome, and they were from the country that had given us Hollywood and Cole Porter, and they had come to deliver our country back to us from the Germans; it was impossible not to fall in love with them.” That is how my Grandmother once described it to me.

Marguerite fell in love first. My grandmother describes going down to the seaside in Rabat, Morocco, to wish Marguerite farewell as she prepared to board her ship to America. Marguerite and the rest of the war-brides were kept behind a fenced-off partition, in quarantine, as they awaited the ship that would take them to an unknown land and an even more unknown future.

My grandmother got married next. She, like Marguerite, spoke very little English and had never met her husband’s American family. She had only ever met her husband a handful of times. Marguerite, at this birthday dinner, describes how elated she was when she heard from her friend that she too would be coming to America as a young bride. “We finally heard the news that Monique and Henry were getting married, and of course I was thrilled!”

In America, the two young French women maintained a friendship that witnessed new husbands, new babies, new in-laws, a new language, and so much more. Marguerite’s new family was in Michigan, while my grandmother’s new family was in Connecticut. And though my grandmother would spend the next thirty years of her life moving around the United States, then to France, then to Korea, then back to America and again to France, she and her oldest friend, Marguerite, never lost touch.

Watching these two women embrace, listening to these two women compare stories – seeing the love between them that has spanned continents and decades and so much life – was perhaps the highlight of the night. These women were kindred spirits, fellow adventurers. They had lived out the French expression of moving forward boldly through life, “le nez au vent,” which translates to “nose into the wind.”

And for us who were watching, it was lots of admiration for these two intrepid women. Admiration. And awe. And respect. Wonder. It takes a long time to grow an old friend.

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Allison Pataki
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