The Cherry-Red Bicycle I

The Impact of Blissful Memories

by Nicolette Francey Asselin, M.D.

I have long wondered which elements created the base of my personal strength throughout my challenging life. A life that included war, uprooting, resettlement, and tumultuous river crossings, yet I stayed afloat and succeeded in a demanding field, defying all odds. Back home, my old uncle Jean-Pierre often asked, “Nicolette, how did you do it?” He continued, “I grew up and lived in the same town all my life and can’t imagine how you adapted so easily to another language and continent.” The notable nature of my resilience had never occurred to me until his remark, and as I began writing life stories, I devoted particular attention to finding the core of my strength and buoyancy. Needless to say, there were also oodles angels along this road as well. In this story, I examine strength born of joyful moments and their lasting influence.

Specific moments in our home during my tender age are imprinted in my memory with vivid colors and unalloyed elation. The first is Christmas, and the second is the day I received wheels, yet the intentions behind them were more complex than they appeared at the time.

Christmases were an act of grace from my parents. Each year, the month preceding the big day was filled with a flurry of preparations. It always began with a disappearance and a visit next door. On one early morning in December, both my father and mother would disappear for a day for their anniversary. On that day, my sister, Isabelle — I called Bébelle — and I would stay with our neighbor, Madam Gauchi, and her children while my parents rode punctual Swiss trains all the way to Zurich or our capital, Berne. My sibling embodied wellness, with generous pink toddler cheeks, delicate freckles, and a fringed russet-red hair, and I exuded fashion, with navy-blue stockings knit by Grand-Maman, a plaid skirt, wavy light-blond strands of hair, and a petite stature.

My parents’ reappearance would be tiptoed, watchful, and prudent as they brought numerous, quickly disappearing packages. Following that return, I can still hear my father’s steps, initial warning steps leading to our vast attic that housed many functions, a wood workshop, winter laundry drying, and various other secret corners. Next, we heard footsteps through the ceiling. I was left to wonder what might be forbidden, in addition to the off-limits tools and his fascinating and complex childhood “Meccano,” commonly known also as erector set.

During that month, my mother spent abundant hours in the kitchen, and the fragrances of cinnamon, ginger, chocolate, and anisette wafted through our home. I was assigned the role of blending the taupe dough made of flours, spices, and brown sugar. The most significant part of the job is that it came with entitlement: “Thoroughly lick the wooden yellow spoon used to execute the mixing,” my mother instructed with a gleam in her eye. Meanwhile, Bébelle preferred playing with dolls and kept busy conversing with them in our bedroom room, a few steps up from the kitchen, “But, Nicolas, don’t cry. I will be right back!” A few footsteps later, we’d hear, “Oh no, Catherine, you spilled your milk…”

We had received Nicolas and Catherine the previous year from Père Noël, and my father was impishly busy recording these conversations between my sister and the dolls, which we would listen to again in later years, on special occasions. As a research physicist, he experimented with fancy new toys, and in this case, it was a magnetic tape recorder, commercialized by his company. The tape was like the one used for the films we watched at home on another electric engine-driven, impressive machine, but this one had no transparency; the apparatus laid flat and recorded sound.

After several weekends of baking, drying, tasting, and boxing the multi-hued, flecked cookies; excitedly watching the mailman’s special deliveries; and enduring the surreptitious secrecy, the smells of anisette, cinnamon, and honey would fade, and at last, we heard that the momentous day was to turn up tomorrow. After all, we had opened all twenty-four windows on the calendar on the kitchen wall and behaved like angels, yet we were sent to our bedroom to play, rest, and prepare for a prolonged evening, during which there would be no bedtime.

Our eagerness for this lengthily awaited day allowed only for a very short catnap; now we craned out ears to hear covert footsteps and words we couldn’t quite decipher, yet there were no signs of familiar baking or cooking. Finally, with extreme cautiousness, we readied ourselves to peek. Through the slightly ajar small heat exchange opening, our two pairs of eyes peered to witness only a deserted, vacant dining room, and the closed white door to the music room leading to our parents’ bedroom. Not a soul or any sign of potential activity; we heard only the sound of our bare feet shuffling on the red linoleum floor of our bedroom to steady our bodies as we searched for a clue. No scent of cinnamon or anisette baked cookies, no leek soup gently stewing, no pine-fragranced wood fire.

We looked at each other, disappointed, and a flicker of suspicion entered my young mind; was this a ploy? Did our parents want us to take a long nap? We retreated with a whisper, puzzled, and continued our games, and our flamboyant enthusiasm, born from weeks of expectation, waned, giving way to apprehension. Outside, large, milky, cotton-ball flakes paraded against the indigo evening sky. We began to wonder again. Our parent’s Sunday afternoon naps usually did not last this long! Had something happened to them? Had they left us for another merrymaking trip? Our ears were glued to every crevasse of our room, but we only witnessed the muted flutter of snowflakes outside; all was stillness, absolute and flawless silence.

“I don’t hear anything. Are they gone?” I whispered to a worried Bebelle, who was near tears.

We looked at each other, dismayed, concerned, and speechless when, suddenly, an abrupt, solid knock burst from the front door, and a deep voice boomed:

“Hello, hello!”

In an instant of great relief, we rushed out of the room toward the heavy, wooden front door, attempting to reach the old brass handle hilt to open it. As the massive door swung open slowly, a snow-bearded man stood in front of us, dressed in a red suit and a funny hat like we saw in photos. We greeted him shyly, backing up from the entrance’s pine floor to the brick-colored tile hallway, cautious of the stranger. We had only seen him in pictures but never in person, especially under our own roof. He smiled as he entered, carrying a hefty camel-colored jute bag on his back, but we were still hesitant. The cream-colored door to that magic moment creaked ajar by mysterious hands, and we glimpsed the glow of a majestic tree lit with a multitude of white candles, some already dripping with white long drops. The aroma of the green pine needles, the scent of burnt amber beeswax, and the sulfur of matches enhanced my beguilement at that moment: My mother stood by, smiling, gazing joyfully at our dazed and mirthful faces. My father guarded the tree and candles, grinning. A song played: “Mon beau sapin, roi des forêts. Que j’aime ta verdure…” Isabelle and I danced and sang along. Later, our neighbor, Mr. Cruchet, joined us for the celebration. He sat on a burned red chair, with his white mustache, crew haircut, and a dark vest that smelled of pipe smoke. His ice-blue eyes glistened; they strangely resembled those we saw on the man who knocked at our door. But we were too caught up in the cheer to note the coincidence. Under the ceiling-high tree lay carefully wrapped, colored boxes. Glittering glass garnish, trimming, and sparklers graced the tree that bloomed with fire.

In the colorful boxes we found comely, resplendent wooden toys, carried back from the anniversary day. A wooden dollhouse appeared covered in paper, with tiny furniture, curtains, and delicately crafted people to live there. The tiny residents wore clothes sewn by our mother. We found a Noah’s Ark with hand-carved animals. In later years, I will find an ingeniously constructed toolbox with a small drill, hammer, and important instruments that I cherished and used weekly for years to come while helping my father with Saturday’s repair chores.

These memories illustrate the importance of my parents’ involvement in our joyful memories. Toys were few but carefully selected, and they carried a message of the meaning and value of family and home that will stay with me throughout my adulthood.

To be Continued:  “The Cherry-Red Bicycle II

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