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Monday, March 02, 2009Je T'aime Chérie
She appears to be decades younger than she actually is but you don’t realize this until someone reveals her actual age. There are several other things you notice about Franise. First and foremost is her jet black hair. It falls well past her buttocks in mega thin dread locks. Her eyes are a beautiful shade of gun metal gray fringed with thick curly black eye lashes. Her skin is the color of burnished copper and has a natural glow to it; she looks as if she never had a bad skin day in her life. The final thing you notice about her is that she is mentally ill.
Forty years ago Franise had and her husband had been teachers. They’d moved to New York from New Orleans. One night while returning home they were attacked by a group of men in the elevator of the building they lived in. Her husband was murdered in front of her and what was done to Franise is better left unsaid. Franise never recovered mentally from the trauma. Shortly afterwards she moved into our apartment complex. After the death of her mother Franise’s family took over her care.
No one in this neighborhood remembers Franise ever being anyway but the way she is now. Everyone knows her story and is very protective of her. She has a soft voice and rarely speaks; the few times I have heard her talk I’ve picked up traces of a lovely Cajun accent. She’s afraid of people outside of her family and because of this avoids interaction with outsiders. The exception to that rule seems to be my mother and no one including her doctor has been able to figure out the why of it.
When we moved into this complex eight-teen years ago Franise was immediately drawn to my mother. She'd approach my mom every morning and spoke to her. It was never more than a sentence or two but coming from Franise that was miraculous. When she’d spot my mother anywhere she’d raise her hand in greeting and smile at her. She even rode the elevator with her. Franise never rides the elevator with people. In fact if someone is waiting for the elevator she’ll take the stairs. When Franise’s mother first witnessed this she was shocked. She was even more surprised when she discovered that Franise would often knock on our door and ask to borrow a cup of sugar or an egg. It turned out that Franise never really needed the items she just used it as an excuse to approach my mother. Mom was touched by this and used the concept of borrowing as a way to reach out to Franise. For example when mom bakes she listens for the sounds of Franise arriving home and has a slice of cake wrapped and waiting for her. Everyone knows when Franise arrives because as soon as she steps into the elevator she presses the alarm button and doesn’t take her finger off of it until she reaches her floor.
“Franise,” mom calls out from our door way when Franise walks past, “I baked a cake would you like to borrow a slice?” On days when the weather is an issue mom offers something cold or hot to drink depending on the need and asks if Franise would like to borrow a cup of whatever she’s made. Always Franise stops, takes what is offered and scurries into her apartment calling out, “Merci !” behind her closed door.
She’s never called my mother by her name, she’s never called us by our names either but she knows who we are and who we belong to. Years ago when my little sister Caitlin was wailing in my brothers arms after scraping her knee in the playground Franise approached them and stroked Caity’s hair. “Hush ma chérie it’s going to be fine. Boy you take her on up to your mama.” And then she walked them to the elevator pressed for our floor and rode up with them ringing the alarm all the way. When they got to our floor Franise watched as they knocked on our apartment door only when she’d seen my step out into the hall and gather the then 6 year old year old Caitlin into her arms was she satisfied. “La petite got hurt.” She said to my mom. “Thank you for bringing them up Franise.” Mom replied. Franise nodded her head and gave mom one of her rare smiles. That was the first and last time Franise ever spoke to my siblings.
The other day mom spotted Franise in the lobby holding a jar that contained 2 pickles floating in pickle juice. It was the third time that day mom had come across her with the jar. Franise smiled at my mother and held up the jar for her inspection. Mom stared at the pickles in the jar. “You waiting to see if they have gherkins?” Franise laughed. She obviously had a sense of humor and caught the joke. I’d never heard her laugh before it was kind of odd and from the reaction of the people around us I gathered they felt the same way too.
Several hours later we heard the elevator alarm ringing “Franise is home.” My mom said just as someone knocked on our door. Mom opened the door and found Franise on the other side holding a small jar of Vlasic Baby Gherkins. She thrust the jar at my mother and smiled. “Look chérie they had babies. I am a grandmère!” Mom laughed it was the first time she’d ever heard Franise make a joke.
Franise smiled at mom and then opened the jar and fished a baby gherkin out. “Would you like to borrow one?” she asked as she handed the gherkin to mom. “Thank you Franise.” Franise nodded and started walking towards her apartment. When she got to her door she turned to look at my mother and smiled. “Je t'aime chérie.” She said before quickly escaping into her apartment. Mom stood there stunned staring at Franise’s door. She could hear Franise behind the door locking the first of her many locks. Mom walked over to the door and touched it, “Je t'aime aussi Franise…I love you too Franise.” She said as Franise slammed the last deadbolt into place.
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