by Mary Scobey
Thirty years ago I stood before the imposing gates of a beautiful French chateau with tears streaming down my face, and whispered, "Dad, I'm here," and somehow I think he knew. It was Chateau de la Vrillaye, the chateau Dad had spoken of so often as I grew up - the chateau where he had guarded German prisoners in 1918 during World War I. Unfortunately, the huge, ornamental gates were locked and the chateau was obviously unoccupied. It was like a dream come true to actually be there with my little family but disappointing not to be able to go inside.
I had grown up hearing Dad describe this imposing chateau and the beautiful grounds near the town of Richelieu, France, and before he died he had spent many hours chronicling his experiences in the "Great War." He wrote of participating in the Second Battle of the Marne, being injured, and after a period of recuperation being sent to Richelieu to guard German officers at Chateau de la Vrillaye. An impressive section of his memoir was devoted to describing this beautiful chateau. For years I had yearned to be able to fly to France and make my way south of the Loire Valley to see this chateau, but I never thought it would be possible.
We were a family of modest means. After marriage and the birth of our two children, I returned to teaching school but with day to day expenses, a vacation to the Gulf Coast or to the Ozarks was, indeed, a rare treat. However, with the bi-centennial approaching and a surge of interest in all the pioneer crafts, I became fascinated with the making of Applehead Dolls and hit upon the idea of making a bit of spending money by selling them. I bought several Golden Delicious apples and began experimenting with carving and drying the faces until they began to look realistic. After demonstrating my dolls at the Ozark Craft Center in Arkansas, the invitations to participate in craft fairs all over the mid-South began pouring in. I would set up my booth, demonstrate the making of these little grandma and grandpa dolls and must have sold hundreds of them over a period of several years. Finally it occurred to me that I had put back enough money to purchase airline tickets to France - not only for myself but for my husband, son and daughter. We held a family conference and the decision was wholeheartedly met with approval. The year was 1979. We flew to Paris and after seeing the sights there, rented a car and our son drove us to Richelieu.
Only a few years ago, however, I came across several old tablets filled with my dad's faded handwriting, telling of his experiences in France during World War I. I decided to sort through the notes and compile his memoirs into a book. Surely this would be something interesting for the grandchildren to read as well as all of our relatives. Several months of work were required to get the story in sequence and typed, but after getting the little books printed, I was thrilled that book stores were interested in putting copies on their shelves. The books rapidly sold out. This peaked my interest in writing stories of my life such as my teaching in a one-room schoolhouse in Kansas and getting caught in a blizzard, living on a plantation where William Faulkner hung out and other such stories. With the encouragement of a family friend, I began submitting my stories to various journals, magazines and newspapers and to my surprise, I got them published. At last - in my senior years I had found my true passion as well as something to keep my mind active and occupied - writing!
One of the e-zine publications, "USA Deep South," published a short story I had written about how Applehead Dolls financed our trip to France and on down to Richelieu in my quest to find the chateau my father was so impressed with, Chateau de la Vrillaye. A few weeks later the editor forwarded an E-mail to me which she had received from Madame Sylvianne Constant, the present owner of the chateau, regarding my story. I couldn't believe Madame Constant had access to my story all the way across the Atlantic in Richelieu, France, but such is the miracle of the Internet. She wanted to purchase the book I had written about Dad's experiences in World War I in which the chateau she and her husband now owned was highlighted. Of course I responded that I would gladly send her a copy free gratis. Madame Constant replied:
Madame Constant and I continued to correspond by E-mail and she sent old photographs of American soldiers standing outside the chateau during the time it was occupied. Then she invited me to visit. "The gates will be open," she promised. An amazing invitation, indeed!
To say I was excited by this turn of events is putting it mildly. Not only was my father's book displayed inside the chateau he loved so much, but I was invited to visit. How proud Dad would be! And who knows...health permitting, I may soon be renewing that old passport and winging my way to France.
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