by J. S. Absher
In Nanterre, France, not far from Napoleon’s château de Malmaison, my missionary companion and I used to visit a member, Soeur (Sister) Roux. Her basic color scheme was red—unkempt red hair, a deeply blushed face from (I assumed) years of wine-bibbing before she joined our church; even her upper arms were red. She was originally from Normandy and liked to cook with butter; her fried potatoes were especially delicious. She must have been in her sixties or seventies, since she had lived in the same sparsely furnished apartment on the ground floor since before the Second World War.
At some time, I believe past her middle years, she inherited a painting by Fragonard, an Eighteenth-century French painter known for his hedonism; his best-known painting in America is probably The Swing. I don’t remember how she described her painting, and it’s possible she never did: it had no aesthetic significance for her, and it came as a burden—unwanted, expensive, and frivolous, a symbol of aspirations she did not have. Her sister-in-law envied her intensely. The sister-in-law, fashionable and materialistic, was the only person about whom I ever heard Soeur Roux say anything disparaging. Her lust for the painting served only to accentuate Soeur Roux’s dislike of it.
Soeur Roux was beset by other people who wanted to buy or steal the painting. Strangers stalked her as she walked or bicycled in the street (she was still getting around by bicycle when I knew her). The chief of police assigned a policeman to guard her, but the protection detail just added to her mental burden. Disgusted by the whole experience, she sat the painting on the floor facing the wall and tried to forget about it. At last, for little or nothing, she let an American have it.
In the Second World War, she and one of her sons had served in the Resistance. She told me that her son was shot by the Nazis, and though it is hard now to believe—perhaps I misunderstood—I remember her telling me that she saw the execution. I do not recall her words, but the image I’ve always carried is of a young man standing with his back against a high stone wall.
When her other son was quite young, he drank some acid and for many days lay near death. At a nearby church, she left an offering to Mary for the blessing of taking him quickly. For some days she continued to seek this blessing, until the doctor told her that her son was recovering and that she ought to reconsider the terms of her prayer. Her faith had been answered with a grace far beyond what she dared hope for.
It was an honor to pray with her. When she went to her knees, not ashamed to bring before God an old body and a vibrant faith, it felt to me as if the whole earth attended to her words. Probably inspired by the astronauts’ photograph of earth at Christmas 1968—a gibbous orb hanging in space above a barren moonscape—an image of the jewel-like earth came to mind. It was spinning in the darkness of space, and it seemed that Soeur Roux’s prayer was helping it spin.
J. S. Absher is a poet and independent scholar. His first full-length book of poetry, Mouth Work (St. Andrews University Press) won the 2015 Lena Shull Competition of the North Carolina Poetry Society. His second full-length collection, Skating Rough Ground, is scheduled to appear next year. Chapbooks are Night Weather (Cynosura, 2010) and The Burial of Anyce Shepherd (Main Street Rag, 2006). Absher is also preparing three books focusing on North Carolina and Southern US history, two of which (Love Letters of a Mississippi Lawyer and My Own Life, or A Deserted Wife) were published this year. He lives in Raleigh, NC, with his wife, Patti. Website: www.js-absher-poetry.com