There was a chest in the corner of the upstairs second bedroom, which is where the photo of the pretty woman from France was. The bedroom was a holograph of the past. Nobody slept there anymore and the same crocheted quilt with big colorful flowers on it seemed to have always decorated the bed.
Once in a while, with enough pestering from me, either my grandmother or dad would go up stairs with me where we would sit together on the bed beside the wooden chest. They would open it and let me choose an item for a story. Stories that I never tired of. Stories that connected me to them and us to our ancestors.
My grandmother had lost a daughter to cancer and the room held the memories of her in framed pictures, her jewelry and pieces of her favorite clothes hanging in open view from hooks on the old wooden walls.
One story I liked for my dad to tell me was about how I was named.
“Let me see the woman from France,” I would ask my dad. He would let me hold the picture, while he told me the story.
“She was beautiful,” he would say.
He would start with talking about being in the Army. He was a cook and sometimes I think he wanted more interesting stories than he had actually lived.
“Her name was Mechelle,” he would say, trying to make it sound French, which I loved.
“I gave you a beautiful name because you’re a beautiful girl,” he told me. I was happy he thought I was beautiful. This was back in the day before we stopped talking to girls about their looks and instead started telling them their smart, which I think is a good progression. At the same time, I don’t think I was damaged by my father’s innocent compliments.
Of course I asked him once if he loved her and if he thought she was more beautiful than my mother. He nearly cried. He cried easily. I’m a lot like him.
“Oh no,” he said with great emotion. “Your mother is the only woman I’ve ever loved and the most beautiful woman in the world.” I believed him and I still do.
“I knew her before I married your mother,” he would remind me.
“Did you ever kiss her?” I remember asking him. He would smile, as if he was a ladies man and say jokingly, “Maybe once. The women couldn’t say no to me when I was in uniform.”
I never believed he kissed her and I’m sure that’s exactly how he wanted it.
My mom recently told me that my dad made up this story about the woman in France and about naming me.
“But what about the picture?” I asked her.
“There ain’t no tellin’ where he got that from,” she said. “He could have picked that up at the dime store,” she added.
I don’t think so!
I knew, even as I believed my dad loved only my mother, that this photo was important to him.
My mother tells me that I was, “supposed to have been a boy and was already named Michael.” She had been a little too sure of herself.
She said her reason for naming me Michelle is that it was easy to change the name Michael. A very boring reason right?
I’m going to stick to my dad’s story, which also included telling me he always knew I would be a girl, which is exactly what he wanted.
And did he sing the Beatles to me? You bet he did!
In loving memory of my dad and his stories of adventure, real or imagined.