If you know anything about me you’ll know I was born in the scenic Champagne area of France, more particularly in a small town appropriately named Ay-Champagne. Elsewhere I’ve detailed the wonderful youthful memories I cling to and hold close to my heart so that when I had recently decided to post a new photographic essay based on my favourite ‘cloud’ photos, an ancient memory resurfaced and I’ll confess it ran shivers down my spine. I had decided on a title: Clouds – ‘Heavenly Drifters’ and was quite satisfied as I lifted it from a poem I’d penned long, long ago. And yet, late at night, unable to sleep, I was musing about which photos I might use when of a sudden my father’s clear and distinct voice whispered , “God’s breath.” I sat up straight. Yes, of course, how could I have forgotten?
In a small, agricultural community it’s a common occurrence to see children visit their fathers working in the fields, or in our case in the hilly vineyards that provided the backdrop (and prosperity) to our town. Often after school, if I wasn’t kicking a football (soccer for you American readers) around, I might take it in my head to go see what my father was up to and if perhaps he’d found something of interest for me. Indeed, numerous times during a break from back-breakingt toil he’d taken the trouble to forage for fruit in season, cherries, pears, wild plums, even the elusive quince after the first frost. Very occasionally there might be a couple of delicious Chardonnay grapes but only if they were what we called ‘fumée’ that is the skin took on a smoky hue and you’d be lucky to find three such grapes in an entire vineyard. Failing that he’d always kept a little bit of his lunch carefully wrapped in his knapsack. I’d rummage through wondering what I might discover then I’d eagerly wolf down that tidbit as if it came from a royal table. Once he’d brought home four orphan leverets, another time it was a duckling with broken wing and numerous birds in particular a splendid, much loved magpie. (Elsewhere in this blog you might read ‘Mack the Magpie’.)
Here’s how what today I consider a wonderful ‘tournure de phrase’ came about. As long as I could remember every night for a few minutes I’d lay down next to my father who always went to bed soon after the evening meal and after having listened to the latest news on the radio. He regularly got up at five a.m. a not unusual hour for anyone who works in the vineyards or for that matter elsewhere in the outdoors. I’d get cozy under his arm, quietly lay there and wait for him to tell me a story. He was a consummate story teller, using different voices and either recounting events from his own youth (in Galicia, then a part of Poland), some true to life others wildly imaginary or inventing a new, fanciful tale just for me. Sometimes when he was out of ideas and that was unusual he’d say, “Today I’m a bit tired. So you tell me about your day, how was school? Did you have fun with your friends?” And I’d eagerly try to emulate him, trying to entertain him for a change.
One day when I’d run, skipped and hopped my way up to the vineyard where I knew my father would be found, a strange cloud formation drifted into view rising above the green forest that protected from harsh northerly winds the precious ‘vignoble d’Ay’. They were smallish, round, white clouds drifting into view in what seemed a perfectly aligned row. Ten or twelve and then nothing but blue sky. ”Oh, look Papa, look at these funny clouds, they look like smoke puffs from the train locomotive.” Dad adjusted the beret on his head, looked up, squinted for a moment seemingly weighing his answer, then he set me straight, “No son, that’s God’s breath.” Well, that was new to me and just a tad dubious I enquired, “How do you know that?”
He took the time to hug me first and then explained. ”You see, it’s quite obvious God was out for a jog and now He’s puffing and that’s the result. These clouds are a result of His breath.” Dad offered a mischievous smile, “Hmmm… He must be a bit out of shape to huff and puff like that.”
Needless to say I took it for God’s truth, after all this information came from my personal God and I was perhaps not more than five years old, a time when the word of an adult, a parent no less, was unquestioned.
As the days and years passed by even when I’d grown old enough and learned at school about the different types of cloud formations and what one might expect in the way of weather for the next few hours, I’d still ask my father how God might be feeling that particular day. On a day when we were just about caught by a violent rainstorm we were hurrying down the hillsides trying to beat the impeding drenching home. ”What’s God up to?” I called out as we were jogging down.
“Oh boy, somebody’s going to catch hell. He’s really miffed at somebody or at something. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near Him right now.” As a punctuation, just then a fiery bolt of lighting streaked across the sky and a thunder clap that seemed so close I gave out with a puppy yelp. Dad squeezed my hand hard but now I suppose it was to put my mind off the ominous rumblings of more to come that he actually stopped and cupping my chin in his hand earnestly asked. ”Say, have you been a good boy lately? He’s not mad at you, is He?”
Oh, no, did that have to do with me filching a few apricots on my way up? Thinking therefore acting like an innocent lamb I answered as forthrightly as I knew how, “Ah, non, Papa, I’ve been good and you know I serve mass every morning at 6 a.m. without fail and always on time.”
“Whew! That’s a relief as that last bit of fireworks had me a little worried. Too close for my liking. Let’s get home to your mother or she’ll be sick with worry, you know her.”
Allow me an aside here, for your information Dad didn’t approve of my early morning dedication to serving as an altar boy but here’s the proof positive that no one is more Catholic than a Polish mother – my own mother thought it wonderful that her darling might actually sprout angel’s wings. In all other aspects she was more fiercely protective than a mother hen but when it came to serving God, nothing was off limits including me getting up at the crack of dawn since I was apparently of all the boys I knew the only one willing to do so. And that too proves there’s no such thing as an ‘unwilling’ victim.
Mind you in my day at St. Brice parish altar boys were paid for serving at mass. There was a going rate for a low mass, high mass was more remunerative so were weddings and the most sought out gig was a christening, on top of a generous tip by proud parents, and not to be outdone in generosity the God-mother and God-father added to the bonanza. and that wasn’t all, there were scads of delicious sugar-coated almonds stuffed in cornets of pink if it was a girl or blue for a boy. Once I hit the absolute jackpot of all times by serving seven consecutive christenings on the same day. I was seven years old then and lorded it over my school pals by dolling out ‘dragées‘ for the next couple of weeks. A maharajah couldn’t have been more regal or blasé about his munificence. Rampant popularity waned and petered out as the supply ran dry. An early lesson in the old ‘what have you done for me lately?’
Incidentally, funerals were the most miserable of all to serve, muted sobs, the occasional bone-chilling wail, then leading with a heavy cross held aloft a dreary long procession to the cemetery. The gloomy affair paid not much more than for a morning mass and the bereaved were almost always too overwrought to remember the altar boy, the sacristan and bell ringer. Oy!
Of course I eventually learned that Nimbus were at times an awesome treat promising displays of pyrotechnics in lighting bolts and cacophonous thunder claps sure to scare the ‘beejees’ out of my mother (much to my delight). There were the lofty, thin as a gossamer veil Cirrus clouds that Dad would delightedly ascribe to, “God is having a pleasant nap. See He’s breathing nice and calm as can be.”
My father was as close to nature as a man could ever be; it was a quasi-religious devotion for he loved every moment spent outdoors, observing and doing his bit to ‘assist Mother Nature in her life giving work’. No one to my knowledge could eke out more veggies and fruit trees from a backyard garden. When he had a couple of acre garden on his sister’s farm the variety of tomatoes alone prompted my uncle to invite other farmers to see what he’d grown. He’s now up there among the clouds and speculating how God might be feeling on a particular day.
And so, since ever I can remember and ‘remembrance’ is now wearing the mantle of a longish, epic journey, I was fascinated by clouds. ”Boy, get your head out of the clouds,” was an admonishment I heard often enough much to my annoyance. However, it’s true even as a young lad I disliked boring. clear blue days, but enjoyed the passing clouds and always looking up imagine what a particular cloud might be the mirror image of that which it overflew. Oh, this one has the odd shape of England and that one a perfect copy of the Italian boot – by Jove! It’s aiming a swift kick at England, the cheeky beggars.
Of course some cloud types were much better for such speculation, for example Strato Cumulus were more artistically inclined than the lofty, airy Cirrus; I was so infatuated with clouds I even penned a couple of poems. Since poetry is the ultimate in subjective writing I wouldn’t hazard a guess as to their quality and thus they may perhaps best remain in the realm of ‘anonymous’. Not so long ago I wrote a pseudo fairy tale entitled ‘Little Lost Cloud’. You can find it elsewhere on this blog.
Over the years I have collected photos of my favourite cloud formations as I traveled here, there and elsewhere. Allow me to share my affection for our heavenly companions. The photographs I offer span several decades and in different countries. When I remember the exact location I’ll indicate otherwise it will be an approximation. In a poem I describe clouds as ‘heavenly drifters, rootless and country-less’ and it shouldn’t really matter where they were captured for a brief moment. Oh, by the way, isn’t that where our personal Guardian Angel rests after a hard day’s work?
On my way to Paris, clouds that I imagined were hugging close for warmth, somewhere above the North Atlantic ocean.
I like this photo for the clouds and the weathered stone tile roof, near Bû, an oddly named small town in France.
What would otherwise be a mundane photo of a chateau’s manicured lawn takes on a dramatic overtone provided by dark, threatening clouds.
In the same neighborhood – the background makes one forget the ‘frontman’.
Somewhere in the Piedmont, northern Italy. One of my all-time favs.
Idyllic Holland, where else?
Paris – naturellement. The cloud backdrop is perfectly suited to the statue.
In Corsica. Can’t see the clouds? Must be above as it’s still drizzling on the bucolic lane heading home. No technicalities, please.
Across from my window – Lost Lagoon in Vancouver’s Stanley Park.
And there she is, my ‘Little Lost Cloud’. She’s alive and doing well somewhere above your head.
English Bay, Vancouver.
North Vancouver across Burrard Inlet seen from Stanley Park’s seawall.
Somewhere in France
In Bavaria on my way to lovely Fussen and the fabled Neusweinstein Castle
The splendid castle built by the ‘inspired’ Ludwig II, a much more appropriate tag than the snotty ‘mad’ all too often attached to his name. The French poet Paul Verlaine called him the “only true king of this century” . The shy dreamer bequeathed this airy fairy tale edifice for generations of visitors flocking from all corners of the world and via Walt Disney’s whimsical rendition to millions others.
Different architectural style from above in Bavaria to Quebec Province, but either way God can’t be unhappy with the appearance of his house.
Sublime, spectacular, splendid Mont Saint Michel, in Normandy
Wild flower field in Bretagne
Above Dinard and the ‘Promenade au Clair de Lune’ – below the Flemish style roof of Beaune Hospice (first hospital in Europe) and Chateau Chambord final residence for exiled Leonardo da Vinci
Two of my favourite pics taken on the grounds of Chambord
At the behest of a dear friend I’ll after all offer my poem. As I’ve cautioned at the onset of this post I guarantee nothing; good, bad or indifferent it’s as I saw and felt it so many years ago.
Clouds in procession, aloof and oblivious
exotic caravans plodding across the sky
ferrying the burden of memories
across the desert in my heart
blasted clouds, shattered dreams
rainy days, sad refrain.
But look! A burst of sun
for one magic instant
transforms a lost wandered
to a star-bound palace
where in a secret place
my ancient joys are kept.
Too soon a wanton gust
scatters illusions of happy sails
homeward bound, homeward bound
brooding blood brothers to my soul
as a dreary mist drooping to earth
so too Melancholia, my confidante, my enemy.
A palette worthy of Renoir colours the Kootenay Rockies in British Columbia – photos taken five kilometres from Montana border.
Copyright@Vancouver, October 27, 2012 John-Michael Papirchuk