THE fragrance of bread baking in my oven suddenly takes me back, over long years, to the Palace of Versailles. Not so much to the palace itself, but to the gardens, where my French cousin, Yvonne, and I liked to eat our lunch on the grass beside the reflecting pool. After Yvonne was married, her Parisian father decided that it was all right for the two of us, over 20 years old, to wander about Paris in daylight hours, unescorted and unchaperoned. So we enjoyed ourselves in the art galleries, voyaging up and down the Seine on the bateaux-mouches, and taking a tram ride to Versailles. Our lunch basket contained bread, Camembert cheese, and grapes. One day, to my amusement, the yardstick of bread that we bought in the boulangerie near our faubourg was wrapped up when it was handed to me. ``Mais, oui,'' said Yvonne, ``it's because you are wearing your best clothes. Madame wants to protect your dress.'' The family loaf, delivered at the house early every morning, unwrapped, was always wedged between two rods of the railing near the garden gate. An American friend told us he had seen a schoolboy on his way home from the boulangerie, rolling one of the huge round loaves like a hoop and whacking it along with a long narrow loaf.
``I was on my way to the boulangerie . . . .'' I can hear Yvonne's musical voice as she told me, years later, after the Second World War, in western New York: ``I was on my way to the boulangerie, in Nice, near the Promenade. You recall?'' The time she referred to was during the Vichy regime. Her husband, a French cavalry officer, had lost his life on the Ligne Maginot. She had gotten permission to travel from Paris with her two children and join her parents, who then lived at Nice. A long train ride with two young children and their pet rabbits and almost nothing else salvaged from their house in Villiers-sur-Marne.
``I was on my way to collect the monthly ration for Alain and Marianne. You know, we were allowed biscuits made with white flour once a month for the children. The streets were deserted, and none of the shutters had been taken down from the shops. It seemed odd, for I had not had any report from the neighbors that morning who listened secretly to the TSF [radio]. I did not know that the Resistance [through the BBC] had warned us to stay indoors.
``The boulangerie was closed.
``Then I heard a shot,'' Yvonne told me, ``and I drew myself back against the shop wall. And a young German sentry, who had been in the doorway, fell at my feet, dead. The underground had taken over. A boy in his teens. I had only pity. Probably, I thought, he has a mother and brothers and sisters in Germany. Then I remembered my English mother in the villa with the children. So I ran all the way home.''
The compassion she expressed, in spite of her loss, as we sat on the banks of the Niagara River, is something I will never forget. ``. . . on my way to the boulangerie.''
The fragrance from the kitchen tells me it is time to take the bread out of my oven.