by Mary A. Scobey
Apples to Paris? Is this possible? Indeed, it was. Allow me to tell you how, but first I must go back in history a bit - about ninety years, in fact - and give you some background information.
I had heard my father, a veteran of World War I, extol the virtues of France, its glorious history, its beautiful countryside and its language since I was a small child. He was injured in the Second Battle of the Marne in 1918 and after a recovery period, sent to Richelieu, France to guard German officers. These officers were housed in a large chateau called Chateau de la Vrillaye. In Richelieu he met a pretty French girl whose name was Eugenia Pettibon, but alas, she spoke no English and he spoke very little French. They made an agreement, somehow, that he would teach her English if she would teach him how to speak French. I can't say how much English she learned, but he must have been an apt pupil for he learned enough French that he could converse in their language and read a French newspaper.
After the armistice, Dad returned to the U.S., got a college education and became a school teacher and principal in several Mississippi high schools. He and Eugenia kept in touch by corresponding and when each of them married, they exchanged pictures of their spouses. When my brother was born, his picture was also sent abroad, and Eugenia responded, "Baissez pour moi votre petit garcon." (Kiss your little boy for me.)
I remember from an early age hearing my Dad describing the huge castles along the Loire Valley and the beautiful countryside but he was especially impressed with Chateau de la Vrillaye where he took his shifts guarding German officers. He described it as a beautiful, three-storied structure with turrets on each corner and encompassing a formal garden. He taught me elementary French phrases and how to count in French before I started to school. I would try to visualize the cities, the chateaux and the countryside over there and would ask him questions, such as: did their trees look like ours, did the sky look the same and how did the people look? I had dozens of questions which he always patiently answered.
As a school principal he always made a talk in the high school auditorium on Armistice Day (now known as Veterans' Day) about his experiences in the First World War and his interaction with the French people. For years after he retired, he would be invited back on November 11th to give his Armistice Day speech in various schools. So you can see how I came to love this foreign country long before I had the privilege of visiting there.
Was it any wonder that I majored in French when I went to college? In fact, I went on and received my Master's degree in it. I became a teacher, met a wonderful man whom I married and we eventually brought two beautiful children into the world - a son, Gene, Jr. and a daughter, Julianne. With day-to-day living expenses, buying a modest ranch-type home, a car and two children to send to school, money was tight, but I never stopped dreaming of traveling to France some day, and I especially wanted to see Paris.
During this time my father passed away and my mother suffered a heart attack and stroke. Being quite elderly, she could not live alone, so she came to live with us. I gave up my teaching position to stay home and care for her. I desperately needed something to keep my mind occupied and when I learned of a class on the making of apple head dolls, I decided to attend. Now I had only seen one such doll in my entire life and it was in a museum, but I was fascinated that an apple could be carved, dried and made into a head. With the addition of a padded wire frame and a simple dress or overalls, it became a “grandma” or “grandpa” doll patterned from the ones made by our early settlers as playthings for their children. I came home from the class, peeled an apple, carved a head out of it and put it in a sunny spot to dry. Gradually, a wrinkled, grandma face evolved.
I made arrangements for my brother and his wife to stay with my mother, and arrived in Mountain View, Arkansas, with my husband, son and daughter and the car loaded with boxes of Grandma dolls and owl plaques. Believe me, I had no idea what a large operation the Folk Center was. It consisted of ten or twelve octagonal buildings, each featuring a different craft, demonstration areas for herbs and vegetables, a nice restaurant, a welcome center containing a gift shop and a large auditorium where country music entertainers performed each evening.
I dressed in a long, period costume, set up my display in the Apple Doll building with son beside me, and the crowds poured in. At times, there was hardly standing room. Luckily, I had read up on the history of apple dolls, which I learned had been around almost five hundred years when the Seneca Indians made them, so I could talk fairly intelligently about them. But I was scarcely prepared for the NBC crew who showed up one day to interview me. Now I was on national TV! I sold completely out of dolls in just a couple of days and Gene, Jr.'s Shingle Art, as he called it, went over in a big way. At the conclusion of the festival, Mr. Daum invited me back for a second festival later that fall and ordered several dozen dolls to put in the gift shop. Thanks to son, we had stumbled on to something good!
With that amazing beginning, the invitations to craft fairs poured in, and I began traveling all over the South demonstrating and selling my dolls. Often there were craft competitions, and I received my share of ribbons. My brother, who was in the printing business, helped me do the lay-out for a booklet on "The How-to of Making Applehead Dolls" and printed them for me. These, also, were an extra source of income.
It was great fun attending all these craft fairs and traveling about. I became a member of the Mid-South Craft Guild and met many talented artisans. Gradually, I learned to carve faces on my favorite Golden Delicious apples that looked like people - not only grandma and grandpa faces but many historical characters, such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Betsy Ross, etc. Sometimes I made busts but most often little characters dressed in pioneer costumes and sitting in miniature rocking chairs. People had a hard time believing that they were made of apples and were inclined to pinch them to make sure. I was contacted by the president of a national doll company who traveled to Memphis to meet me and ordered several dozen apple head dolls. He chose Apple Annie, a grandma in a red print dress holding a basket of apples, for his company to promote, and she appeared on the cover of his next magazine
This fascination for the old pioneer crafts continued for five or six more years and when I finally counted up my earnings, it occurred to me that I had put enough in savings to make my long-awaited trip abroad - and not just me, but enough for my husband, son and daughter to accompany me. Where? Well, to Paris, of course!
Excitement ran high as we applied for passports and poured over travel books in preparation for our flight to Paris that June of 1979. My husband and I had only flown once before and it was with both anticipation and trepidation that we boarded the plane in Memphis for Boston. There we took Braniff's initial flight to Paris and as we descended into Orly International Airport, I gazed out the window at the red tiled roofs below in amazement. These buildings surely didn't look like any I had ever seen before! As we entered the terminal building in Orly, a group of musicians, playing accordions and dressed in regional costumes welcomed us. Forgetting that this was Braniff's initial flight, I chose to think of it as a special welcome just for us to “the city of light.”
Fatigue and excitement erased most all of my ability to speak in French, and I understood very little of the rapid-fire speech I heard all around me, but somehow, we made our way to our hotel and began a week of the most intense sight-seeing imaginable. We visited the Louvre and gawked at the Mona Lisa, went to the top of the Eiffel Tower, walked up the steep steps to Sacre Coeur and saw most all of the better-known landmarks in Paris. Then, knowing how I longed to see the place my father had spoken of so often, our son decided we should rent a car and drive to the Loire Valley. From there we drove to the small but historical town of Richelieu and in my halting French, I got directions to Chateau de la Vrillaye located several kilometers outside the town. This was the place Dad spoke of so often and where he spent many months guarding German officers. The chateau was just as imposing as he had described it but appeared to be vacant. Although we couldn’t get inside, we peered through the huge, iron gate and made pictures. With tears streaming down my face, I said, “Dad, we’re here.” And, somehow, I felt he knew.
This was not my last trip to France, but certainly the most memorable. Although I haven’t made an apple doll in years, I can not look at a Golden Delicious apple without feeling a debt of gratitude.
Writing short stories and poems has always been a favorite pastime of Mary's. She wrote her first poem at the age of eleven, got it published and has been "hooked" ever since. She currently has a book of her father's World War I memoirs titled French Memoirs - World War I for sale on the shelves of Square Books in Oxford and Davis-Kidd Booksellers in Memphis.
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