WHEN I was a child, my mother used to tell me a story on very rare and special occasions; the story ran just like this: There was a little girl Who had a little curl Right in the middle of her forehead And when she was good, she was very, very good BUT When she was bad, she was awful!
The story certainly contained a deep meaning (for mother) and I would sit up on my bed and ponder it over and over in my head with as much earnestness as Rodin's ``Thinker'' ponders his bronze fate.
Why did that little girl have a curl right in the middle and not on one side of her forehead, and how could she be very, very good one moment and then suddenly turn Awful?
The enigma cleared itself away, many years later when I took the heroic decision of visiting Paris with Carlo, age 10, and Giulia, age 8, my newly acquired stepchildren.
I had been summoned to Paris by Fran,cois Nourissier, a renowned French writer who courageously ventured to invite all three of us to lunch the day after our arrival.
After a 24-hour span in which we diligently examined the largest toyshop in town, purchased ``gifts for the family'' at the Galeries Lafayette, bought a print of a resigned-looking madonna at the Louvre, eye-shopped up and down the Champs-Elys'ees, halted open-mouthed before Maxim's, enjoyed an irresistible variety of creamy p^atisseries, and walked in a circle around the Mona Lisa, eluding her awesome gaze, Carlo and Giulia had had enough of ``tourism.'' This wise decision prompted us to settle like pigeons in a friend's apartment located in the very heart of Pigalle.
While the city bubbled with vitality beyond closed doors, Carlo and Giulia lay huddled up in blankets on the couch and watched me lopsidedly as I gave them what I thought to be a firm and priceless briefing on Next Day's Behavior.
But something must have been missing, for next morning before getting ready for our lunch, absolutely NOTHING seemed to move in accord with my quaint dispositions:
First of all, Carlo refused to wear his crisp white shirt and stubbornly insisted on his bedraggled turtleneck instead. Then, grabbing a large-toothed comb, he disappeared into the bathroom where he managed to flatten his hair way over his forehead, sprinkling his bangs with water and pressing them like glue to his eyes.
Thus he reappeared triumphantly, a perfect mix between an undersized gorilla and Tom Sawyer AFTER a ferocious street romp.
Even Guilia, apparently safe in her Scottish plaid skirt, suddenly discovered that her tights were a size too small. This embarrassing discovery was made exactly one second before we reached the precincts of Monsieur Nourissier's home at No. 16 Rue Henri Heine, another Distinguished Celebrity.
Nevertheless, adventures had not yet begun: Emerging from M'etro stop Auteuil into broad daylight, Carlo and Giulia decided to give the Parisian passers-by an opportunity to admire the full range of their capacities, which included such marvels as pulling hair, whizzing around the square missing cars by inches, shouting Indian war cries, and, last but not least, putting up a noisy quarrel over what kind of cake to choose as a peace pipe for Fran,cois and his sprightly painter-wife, C'ecile.
The cake (a raspberry tart aglow with chantilly) dangerously shifting in its carton, we finally headed for our Appointment in a prim row, Stepmother severely preceding two very gigglish and mischievous-looking stepchildren. Just before reaching destination, however, I stopped, turned around, and assumed what Max Reinhardt would have called in bygone days An Intensely Dramatik Attitude.
The effect was surprising: Carlo and Giulia immediately hushed down, for No. 16 Rue Henri Heine looked very impressive surrounded by a tall gate entwined with green ivy, long austere windows peering down at them from above. All of a sudden, even Paris seemed silent and out of reach.
But time for realization was interrupted by C'ecile opening the front door holding on to Java, her black and gold German sheperd.
Holding their breath, the children walked in the entrance and up the steps through brightly colored Alechinskys and imposing Greek caryatids; higher on the ascending scale stood Majestic Fran,cois, his glistening beard silhouetted against a ray of sun.
But, wait a minute! Where had the mischiefmakers gone?
In their place stood life-size replicas of well-bred and polished Victorian aristocrats! Little Lord Fauntleroy couldn't have done it better!
Gone were the belligerent bangs. They had been brushed mysteriously aside, leaving Carlo space to stare politely at his shoes. Dazed, I followed into the living room as Fran,cois and C'ecile expressed amazed approval on Italian Upbringing.
Now, seated demurely round the elegantly dressed dining table, Carlo and Giulia conversed easily with their hosts, backs straight and hands clasped neatly on their knees; all four seemed absorbed in such up-to-date topics as Marguerite Yourcenar's solitary island refuge and the fragrant home-made bread she baked herself, Rome's favorite football team ``La Roma'' and its hard-won victories, Major Movie Delights such as ``Star Wars'' and its fearless hero Luke Sky-walker, slashing his laser-beam sword against Darth Vader.
A bit apart from the rest, seemingly intrigued by her p^at'e, sat Stepmother, memories of other lunches flashing through her thoughts -- the first strained ones with their Daddy, Carlo's small hand clasping hers reassuringly under the table, his round expectant face looking forward to our newborn encounter. . . . Giulia, more in the background, hid behind a gigantic Babar, peeping at her from above the pages just enough to wink.
It seemed to me that in the Nourissiers' sparkling dining room only Java, crouched in a corner, fully perceived the underlying reality of our lives, gazing at us as she did with her inquisitive and somewhat melancholy, dark-rimmed eyes.
By the time the raspberry tart was brought to the table, friendship had developed into such intimacy as to allow C'ecile to rip off with a pair of scissors Giulia's size-too-small tights, releasing her from unnecessary restraint. Fran,cois, C'ecile, and Stepmother exchanged a significant look:
Time for playing grown-ups had ceased, suddenly they were children again.