La révérence by William Bouguereau
My swimming coach came back from the 1948 Olympics with a French fiancée. She was statuesque, stunning, and utterly fascinating to the young girl that I was, because of her fabulous accent and beautiful European manner.
At ten years old I had some vague designs on my swimming coach– thinking he might wait until I grew up and then marry me, but I couldn’t be altogether jealous of Gisèle — the woman who called him Pe-tair and whom he called “Sweets.” She was really all that a hero’s fiancée could be expected to be– a princess sort of person — (and admittedly much more “his age” than I was.)
During the summer a heavy vellum envelope came in the mail addressed to me. The smooth inner envelope, with the slip of tissue paper and the heavy folded card with superfine scrolled engraving informed me in French that M and Mme G_____* requested the honor of my presence at the reception following the wedding of their daughter to my coach!
From that invitation I learned that Gisèle had four names, and if you used “Mademoiselle” in front of it all it came out to be Mademoiselle Gisèle Marie Henriette G_____ , a mouthful of French that I rolled repeatedly over my tongue until I could say it without hesitation and with an almost French accent! Then, if you added the married name to the end of it, Gisèle had six names! What a remarkable woman to have all those names!
For this wedding reception I had to be shopped for. The perfect summer dress and the right shoes with real stockings. I had to get my hair cut. I had to learn what to say to a bride and to a groom and practice saying it. AND I had to learn to curtsey!
“Yes,” said my mother. “It’s the proper behavior for a young girl to curtsey to a respected elder in Europe, and Gisèle is a European lady from a very proper family.”
I bobbed up and down awkwardly trying to find a way to curtsey without feeling stupid. Which foot to put behind? Do I have to pick up the skirt of my dress? Do I absolutely have to curtsy? How low? This feels so dumb! I am sure I will be the only one curtseying. Pete will laugh. Gisèle will notice my awkwardness. All these tormenting thoughts.
I thought about playing sick at the last minute so I wouldn’t have to curtsey. But then…I wanted to see the bride. I really wished to see the wedding itself, but Mother explained that it was to be just for the family– conducted in the dining room of Pete’s family’s house before all the guests came.
Well, the day came. I wore my new dress and crammed my summer feet into my new shoes over the alien-feeling stockings. My mother drove me up to the door of Pete’s house and I got out and went up the steps all alone, full of instructions and hesitation. And full of curiosity as well.
A butler at the door brought me through the hallway with the twin stairways going up, and into a large living-room full of unfamiliar adults chattering comfortably with each other in French as well as English. I zigzagged my way through the big people until I could see that Pete was standing against the bay window and alongside was the beautiful Gisèle in her satin and lace gown and delicate veil, looking like a princess. Not one of the people greeting them was a girl like me, and, of course, not one of them was curtseying.
Get it over-with– that was my rule for jobs I couldn’t get out of. I got in line, and internally rehearsed my speech…congratulate the groom…wish the bride happiness. If I didn’t curtsey, what would happen? I knew my mother would ask Gisèle later how I had done. I had to. So I did it. I bobbed while holding her hand, looked her in the eyes as instructed, and I said I hoped she would be happy. I shook Pete’s hand and said congratulations. Then I was finally curtsey-free forever, I hoped!
I found three other swimming team members were on a couch eating canapés and the butler got me a ginger ale and I joined them. Not one of them had bowed or curtseyed, I found out.
I babysat with their children occasionally over the years that they lived in our neighborhood, and I got familiar with the big house with the twin stairways to the upstairs. Eventually I lost track of Pete. He and Gisèle divorced after about fifteen or so years of marriage and I kept in touch loosely with her. The last time I heard from Gisèle it was a note from California telling me something about what her life was now like. Somehow, after that, I lost track of her. She would be near ninety now if she’s still alive.
It would be fun to sit down and hash over some things with that lovely lady. I would especially like to know how it looked to her– the gawky ten-year-old she usually saw athletically thrashing through the swimming pool — how it struck her when I did that curtsey. I’m not sure why, but I’m actually sort of glad my mother made me do it.
* M. G_____ , Gisèle’s father, was a well-known professional composer and arranger of music, as my musical mother was aware. She told me of a visit she had made to Pete’s home to meet the G____s, where she found him with sheets of music paper spread out all over the dining room table on which he was writing out notes freely, as if he were writing cursive script. I later learned that he was a lifelong friend of Ravel, and had made transcriptions of works by Debussy and Ravel. Small wonder my (justifiably star-struck) mother made me curtsey!