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Thimble Theater

I’m always seeing my father among the gaggles of urchins who invariably garnish old pictures of Quai de la Batte or Ruelle Bodeux or the Trô Navai. It seems that every time a postcard photographer disposed his equipment in the working-class districts of Verviers, the factory town in southern Belgium in which both he and I were born, three or eight or twenty kids would materialize and stand in front of the lens, poking each other and making faces, and he would have the task of herding them into a picturesque grouping slightly to the side. Adults are infrequent, and in the bourgeois neighborhoods there are usually no visible humans at all.

My father always seems to be in those crowds of rascals, somewhere toward the middle, the smallest kid but clearly a ringleader, effortlessly exuding personality. Never mind that all the pictures I am looking at were taken fifteen or twenty years before his birth, and that Quai de la Batte and Ruelle Bodeux and the Trô Navai had all been erased by progress by the time he was old enough to run around outdoors unsupervised. The earliest pictures I have of him are in the same spirit; they are in fact mostly postcards, as are nearly all the pictures in my album between the age of the formal cabinet card and that of the snapshot, and they were taken by street photographers.

In the earliest one he is no more than a year and a half, maybe two, his blond hair in a raggedy pageboy, wearing a one-piece garment that looks like jersey but was inevitably wool, holding on to his sister Armande’s hand. She wears a flounced dress that may have been white and proclaims itself unmistakably as Sunday best, with midcalf boots, possibly buttonhooks. She’s nervous and doesn’t know how to pose: mouth screwed up, shoulders hunched forward, free hand pinned by the exposure in midcrawl along a flounce, resting all her weight on her left leg, which slants so far right it appears she will soon have to cross the other leg over so as not to topple. I recognize my father by his stare, already then skeptically alert, prepared for the worst, not declaring himself but maintaining reserve. He is a little waif, un petit bout d’chou, with the eyes of a grizzled and unflinching witness to the spectrum of human folly and deceit.

They are standing on a diamond-cobbled pavement in front of some official or at least prosperous-looking edifice with deep windowsills and, right behind Armande, a cavernous rectangle formed by the eyebrow of a basement window looking up from its underground business. It is manifestly not their house. My father grew up in a tenement on Rue de Mangombroux, a narrow thoroughfare that appears to wind endlessly, in part because for much of its length it is unencumbered by side streets. It presents a solid panorama of elderly three-story houses, cyclically unspooling like the landscape that accompanies the racing Huckleberry Hound, with the same small shop recurring at intervals, the logos of Ola ice cream and Le Jour-La Meuse timed to appear every four beats. Its distinction resides entirely in the old slaughterhouse (now a brewery depot), as solemn as a Victorian train station, that appears near its mouth at the site of the Porte de Heusy, the medieval gate whose dismantled stones were in 1863 used to enclose the final terrors of innumerable doomed cattle and swine.

That was my father’s formative atmosphere: a working-class district that in the nineteenth century must have passed for airy and enlightened in contrast to the warren of alleys and tunnels and impasses around the Canal des Usines, where his ancestors had lived. He was baptized, ten days after birth, at St. Joseph, just up the way on Rue des Carmes. The announcement is pink—blue was for girls there and then—with a swaddled infant in relief extending an arm, hand spread, the other crooked and ending in a fist, as if it were performing a soliloquy from the last act of Phèdre. His father was Lucien Louis Joseph Sante, his godfather Mathieu Lavergne, his godmother Amélie Lambrette—the name composed itself: Lucien Mathieu Amélie.

At perhaps eight years old, he is standing on a diamond-cobbled pavement outside what might be the very same self-important building that formed the backdrop for his first appearance before the lens, captured by a photographer who has, on a sunny day, chosen to frame him within the single available curtain of shade, with only the tips of his shoes taking the spotlight. He is wearing a coat and scarf and a beret pulled down to expose just the ends of his bangs, along with the short pants and high socks that gave generations of boys all-weather knees by the time they were twelve. He is even more himself in this picture, staring guardedly through hooded eyelids under arched brows, with an apparently stern and unyielding cast to his mouth that you’d know only if you knew him well is actually a studied theatrical parody.

It takes no imaginative energy on my part to hear this mouth intoning with mock gravity his favorite alexandrines from La Fontaine or Victor Hugo: “Mon père ce héros au sourire si doux…” (“My father, that hero, whose smile was so sweet…”). Looking at the picture I know that he has begun collecting the vast stock of allusions to obscure boulevard comedies and punch lines of forgotten vaudeville wheezes that will figure in his speech as reliably enigmatic punctuation, like the Latin tags in Sir Thomas Browne. “’Aha!’ s’écria l’ouvrière” (“‘Aha!’ cried the working woman”) he will say upon realizing that he has forgotten to shut the garage door. Having traced the cause of a clogged sink to a blob of soap choking the pipe elbow, he will assume the orotund vowels of a doctor in a farce to pronounce, “Voilà pourquoi votre fille est muette!” (“Here is why your daughter is mute!”)

My father’s thimble theater always came in handy in a crisis. An outrageous reversal could be parried with, for example, “tout se paie en ce bas monde” (everything has its cost in this fallen world, more or less), because chance and ritual balanced each other, and because mildewed verities revealed the footlights and prompter’s box present at any scene, and because the turn of phrase was the most elegant of life preservers. After all, my father always noted, Cyrano’s panache was more than just his literal plume.

My father’s panache was such that he could make the basketball team at the Athénée even though he was the smallest kid in the school (or maybe the second smallest, after André Blavier, who went on to become municipal librarian, poet, novelist, editor, etc.). This mettle is visible in the chronological third photo, in which he is possibly nine or ten, affectionately manhan-dling his friend Pol Dosquet, who looks sheepish in a Fauntleroyal smock featuring a lace collar, of all things. My father’s clothes are rougher, and his attitude is pure Spanky. Pol has at least two inches on him, maybe three, but you sense that the difference would be meaningless in a tussle.

My father’s nickname wasn’t Spanky, though, but Tintin, after the short blond boy reporter then making his debut in Le Petit Vingtième, the children’s supplement of Le Vingtième Siècle. This right-wing Catholic paper could find its way even into Socialist households such as my grandparents’, in the red city of Verviers. Tintin was an immediate sensation. Even in the crudely drawn and schematically written early stories it was clear that the Belgians had at last been given their hero, their metaphor, their twentieth-century heraldic emblem more convincing, not to mention unifying, than any Flemish lions or Walloon cocks rampant.

In French the adjective “petit” is extraordinarily versatile, festooning random nouns much the way “old” at least used to in American, but this is a small country whose citizens hoist smallness as a banner, calling themselves not Belges but petits Belges, so that even some overgrown galoot, challenged by truculent Parisians and perhaps fortified by a drink or two, might boast, “J’suis un p’tit Belge, moi.” The boy reporter—who did no visible reporting and was only notionally ascribed an age group—embodied every wishful reflection Belgians sought in the mirror. My father, who at the height of his height attained maybe five feet two inches, always enjoyed the gravitational power of being small and tough and smart, which can make taller parties feel weedy, insubstantial; his son, unnaturally elongated by American Grade-A milk, knew well the sensation of having one’s brains and one’s shoes separated by half a mile of slack.

My father’s communion solennelle pose is standard, resigned. The white gloves he carries in his left hand fool no one—he can’t muster a bit of the insouciance required for the gesture. His family’s financial circumstances are perhaps revealed by the announcement, which is handwritten in contrast to every other such I possess, all of them printed. Could he have written it himself? It’s a schoolboy hand that gives a bend to the upper loops like poplars in the wind, and looks nothing like the penmanship of his adult life, in which flatly ovoid capitals lead strings of corrugated furrows that might be letters in some other alphabet, maybe Sumerian or Hittite. In the last picture of his childhood, he is at least twelve, old enough to be wearing his first adult suit, featuring a broadly double-breasted jacket with lapels on which you could dispose the setting for a light lunch for two, along with plus fours that plunge to his argyle ankles. He is grinning down into his collar, gazing up impishly, pointing his left leg out as if he were beginning a dance step, partnered by his mother, who is holding his arm flat-palmed. On his other side his father sways gently. They are standing in what looks like their back court—the faded sepia is stingy with details. His parents are wearing their everyday clothes, Marie in a patterned housedress with a matter-of-fact V neckline and rolled-up sleeves, Lucien Louis Joseph in a shapeless cotton jacket, white shirt, necktie, horizontally striped sweater vest and vertically striped trousers.

It is, beyond any doubt, the picture of a happy family. My grandmother gleams with love and pride, which you know is a constant even as you know that the picture-taking represented a brief interruption of her scrubbing or peeling or stirring. My grandfather looks a bit abstracted, as if he were just then thinking of how to word a phrase. He is barely taller than his wife, only about five feet. He was a handsome man, with darkly gentle eyes and a perfect triangular mustache and deep vertical creases in his cheeks. He worked as a foreman on the weaving floor chez Voos for at least forty years, and was the only person allowed to smoke on the premises. He acted in Walloon theater companies and was known for his singing voice. He sang at home and he sang at gatherings; he sang the Walloon standard “Mame” to his wife (Mame cè-st-on grand no/Qu’a-st-on ptit gos’ di låme: “Mom is a great name that has a little taste of…”—the word means both “tears” and “honey”) and he teased his son by making up songs about the girls the teenager had crushes on. He kept a fiercely loyal flock of chickens in that back court. He was—somehow I find this hard to register; he seems so much more ancient—an exact contemporary of the first generation of modernists. I feel an obscure but stabbing hurt that I never got to know him, although he is vivid in my father’s memory and in his speech, and I grew up with a sense of him almost present in the room, and I felt especially bad when I did mean or petty things, thinking he could see them.

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