Hugging her basket close as she hurried from her home to her employer’s house in the newer part of the town of Laon, Stephanie LaFleur anticipated the day ahead. It was the early 1950’s, the airbase at Laon-Couvron being restored by the United States Army Air Force. Resurrected from an old base Germany had claimed during both World Wars, it was being fully rebuilt during the threatening escalation of the Cold War.
Born and raised in Laon, Stephanie had been hired by medical officer Dr. Major Otto and his wife, to help with housekeeping and cooking, and to tend their young children at times. Fluent in English, and an excellent teacher of French, she was a welcomed helper to the busy family.
Though France had invited the U.S. military to rebuild the base, there was among the local people a distrust of more foreigners flooding their town. Major Otto found his twinkling eyes and warm smile, with a hearty “bonjour” and outstretched hand for a handshake of greeting, quickly broke the ice. It was not long before the Ottos and other military families were welcomed into their newly rented homes in Laon. Meanwhile at the base, building was literally from the ground up, much like relationships were being built in town.
A small local preschool in Laon was run by Stephanie’s cousin, Mademoiselle Clarisse LaFleur. Clarisse and Stephanie were of the same age, twenty, both unwed, and very close friends. Just becoming teenagers when the terrible war had bled into their homeland, they depended on each other like sisters. After the war the preschool had started not only for the purpose of helping young children learn, but also to offer support as the community endeavored to recover from the invasions and fighting in France, and the pall of the war that had covered Europe and their world. Children could play together at the school, and grow in relationship as families once again were knit together. Stephanie helped Clarisse two days a week, and with the Otto children in tow the arrangement worked well with her other duties.
Madam Otto enjoyed accompanying Stephanie and her children to the school. “Frère Jacque” became the children’s favorite French song, complete with hand gestures:
“Frère Jacques, Frère Jacques Dormez-vous? Dormez-vous? Sonnes les matines! Sonnez les matines! Ding, ding, dong. Ding, ding, dong.”
In English: “Are you sleeping? Are you sleeping? Brother John, Brother John? Morning bells are ringing, morning bells are ringing Ding, dong ding. Ding, dong, ding.”
Marie Otto, at age three began to speak French with the other school children and with Stephanie’s help, and her younger brother Richard began speaking French words during the months that followed. School was a delightful place to go, the children always enthusiastic to visit the charming French prescolaire.
Today Stephanie waltzed into the Otto’s kitchen bearing a precious gift. Strawberries for Richard as a surprise for his birthday. The whole family would be delighted with Stephanie’s offering, and she glowed with anticipation of their happiness. The strawberries were grown in her cottage garden behind her small home, a walled-in garden with vegetables and flowers, and an old pond with a few small turtles. The home had belonged to Stephanie’s parents, both now deceased, her father dying in the war, her mother from a prolonged illness. An only child, her relationship with Clarisse and her aunt, uncle, and other cousins meant the world to her. They were all the family she had… but for the Ottos and other dear families the LORD brought into her life.
“STRUMBLEBERRIES!” Marie shouted for joy as she peered into Stephanie’s basket. “Shhhh!” her mother whispered. “We want to surprise Richard when he wakes up from his nap.”
“Okay!” grinned Marie in a conspiratory whisper. “I can keep a secret!” “Strumbleberries” would soon become Richard’s favorite word, his eyes alight with glee whenever he spied the plump red fruit.
Stephanie just laughed with delight. Such little things to warm and bring joy to a child’s heart. “Merci beaucoup, Stephanie,” murmured Madam Otto turning to the tall dark-haired young woman. Hugging her close Madam peered into Stephanie’s eyes and said again, “Thank you! You know how much the children love strawberries!”
“Oui, Madam, I do,” laughed Stephanie. “It makes me happy to share them with you.”
Richard’s birthday was a roaring success. A beautiful June day begged the party be held outdoors, just a few lazy clouds floating overhead in a cerulean blue sky. The garden patio was complete with large grey tiles covering a wide area that held a wrought iron table and four chairs. Richard’s walker, for he was just turning one year old, could slide easily on the smooth surfaces tightly joined together. He was a brilliant and happy little boy, and he and Marie adored each other.
Click! Click! Click! went Major Otto’s camera as he captured pictures of his son’s first birthday. A new stuffed toy dog Richard clutched and babbled, “Ruff Ruff!” became forever known as Ruff Ruff. A colorful spinning top promised hours of fun. But the present that Richard seemed to enjoy the most were the strumbleberries. “Mama, mama, can I feed them to him?” Marie asked, dancing around her brother excitedly.
“Of course, Marie,” Mother laughed. “Sit right here on this stool, and you can give Richard one piece at a time. Be sure he swallows it all down before you give him another.”
Big girl that she was, Marie did exactly as she was told, Richard standing securely in his walker eagerly awaiting each bite. The children laughed and laughed at each other as strawberry juice ran down their chins, Marie stuffing the next delicious berry into their mouths… one into Richard’s, one into Marie’s. It would be a dear memory that both children would hold all through their lives, their joy captured by Major Otto’s camera. The simple gift of strawberries for Richard.