I spent a few years in boarding school. I reflect fondly upon those days. The experiences and impressions from those early years, along with the love and wisdom of the sisters who ran the school, have guided me throughout my lifetime.
I didn’t get to go home very often. Instead, I spent many weekends with a classmate at her parents’ experimental farm. It was a sizable installation that included large apple orchards, almond trees, vineyards and vegetable patches that stretched beyond what the eye could see. The gardens around the house were fragrant patches filled with flowers of all kinds, and what seemed like acres of my friends’ mom’s beloved lavender.
Adjacent to the main house was a tower-like building where pigeons took refuge by the hundreds. Nearby, there were chicken coops, followed by an area filled with row upon row of rabbit cages. Given the size of the farm, the main house was rather small. It had only two bedrooms; one was the parents’, and the other was Malika’s.
Malika was a tall and lanky girl. She was a lot taller than I was. Her hair was thick, kinky, and very dark. Her skin was a deeper olive tone than mine. She always wore her hair the same way; parted in the back, with a braid on either side of her face. She had piercing jet-black eyes, recessed above very high cheek bones. Malika was quick-witted and acerbic, even when I first met her at the tender age of eight. Her dad, an agronomist, was a tall, very quiet man, originally from Nantes. Her mom was short, heavy-set woman whose voice carried for miles. She was always heavily perfumed and made-up. Her clothing was always modest. No one in the household was permitted to wear sleeveless shirts or short hems.
Wherever she was, a large group of children always followed. She was a very outgoing and physically-affectionate sort. While she was strict and no-nonsense, she always had hugs and kisses to spare. Her only purpose was spreading the word of god, interspersed with curt orders to the staff or admonitions for the children to behave. She almost never engaged in small talk or participated in the polemics of the day. The upheavals her community was undergoing didn’t seem to exist in her world on the farm.
The farmhouse was always clean and tidy. The doors and windows always wide open. There was no art on the walls, no knick knacks on the shelves. The few books that were on a single bookshelf were religious texts. Malika’s books were all of a religious nature. She didn’t have any of the literary works I cherished to keep her company and fuel her imagination. She loaded up on those at the boarding school’s library, where the sisters kept an amazingly varied collection of literary works.
Stays at the farm always included making the two-hour drive to the cathedral for mass on Saturday nights or at the crack of dawn on Sundays, come rain or shine. Dinner was always preceded by bath time and bedtime always followed dinner. Malika’s parents would tuck us in after prayers were said.
The house was kept by a tall, thin Berber woman whose name I never knew. Her features were typical of Morocco’s Berbers. She always wore traditional Moroccan clothing under a long smock. Her hair was always tucked away under a kerchief. She wore a veil whenever she left the house. She didn’t speak any French and, at the time, I didn’t speak Arabic. Every so often, when I was supposed to be doing my homework in the living area and Malika was in the kitchen, I would tip-toe to over to see what they were doing. On many occasions, I would see Malika and the housekeeper locked in an embrace.
Malika was a year ahead of me at boarding school. We lived in different dorms. Life at school was very regimented and I didn’t get to interact much with her during the week. Our weekends on the farm were spent walking around the grounds, playing with the rabbits. The first time she let me inside the pigeon tower, the pigeons scattered in a thick cloud of panic as the open door let in the sunlight. It was there that Malika told me, in disgust, how much she hated eating them.
Sundays followed pretty much one of two patterns: we got up at the crack of dawn for prayers or to get ready for the drive to church. Once everyone was ready, we partook in a traditional French breakfast of generously buttered bread and jam, and a big bowl of cafe au lait. We would study catechism until lunch. If we had driven to mass, the catechism was done in the car. Everyone was expected to participate. My status as a guest or a non-Catholic didn’t matter.
Sunday afternoons were always short. Malika and I tried to pack as much fun into the few free hours we had. Once the five o’clock bell tolled, we would start on our long trip back to school in Malika’s father’s bright blue Chevrolet Impala. The trip back was always as quiet and morose as the trips to the farm were chatty and happy.
Those twice-monthly trips to Malika’s farm lasted for almost two years. Near the end of the second year, Malika underwent a radical change. She became more detached and she became inconsolably sad. Her parents, like most pieds-noirs in the late 60’s and 70’s, were leaving Morocco. Malika’s parents were resettling in Nantes, where their family was originally from.
That second year was the last year of our friendship. While I’ve not seen her in decades, I’ve often wondered what became of Malika. Some time after her family’s departure, I was told the reason for Malika’s deep sorrow: the housekeeper at the farm was her biological mother.