Mother goaded me into coming to France. “A break from the stress of the past couple of years will be good for us,” she said. By September 2009, it looked like the economy might be recovering. While we’d never recover from Dad’s death, soldier-like, we carried on.

Mother still speaks of him so often it’s as if he hangs over her shoulder, whispering instructions.

“I’ll buy tickets tomorrow,” she pushed. “We can go to Normandy after Paris.”

Tempted, I said, “Let me know exact dates so I can organize time off.”

“You’re the boss, Tad. What’s there to organize?”

Dad’s people still fondly refer to him as “Dear old Al.” Since I took over as president of MacPherson Building Supplies (in my mind an interim position) they can’t do enough for me.

I’ve read a lot about Normandy, but to actually be there brought on unexpected feelings. Walking the cold beaches and entering intact bunkers, the frozen-in-time nature of Sainte-Mère-Eglise, with the paratrooper facsimile hanging from its church spire, the American cemetery that has a new visitor center honoring those who died. Mother made so many comments about Dad’s days in Vietnam that I ended up saying, “He had nothing to do with D-Day.”

Not one to back off, she said, “He felt proud to be in the military, no matter when.”

After our too-short stay on the coast, she came up with a tour of this partially completed castle on our return to Paris. La Forteresse will become an exact replica of a structure inhabited 800 years ago. As we hauled suitcases out to the corridor by our adjoining rooms, she said, “I know with your love of history this will be a real treat, and the workmanship looks fascinating.”

Unlike my father, building practices of all types hold little interest for me. Before our flight home to Seattle tomorrow, I had counted on a last meal at a Left Bank bistro, with a good bottle of wine. Something special before facing my future. Now, we’ll have to settle for anything we can grab along the way.

At La Forteresse, stone walls rise above us maybe 75 feet. The castle keep is the first section to be built. This guy with dirty blond hair tied in a ponytail, dressed in tan jerkin and dark brown leggings, says, “I’m Jack, your tour guide.” Obviously American. Like me, he looks somewhere around 30. “Careful of the steps. No safety railings in olden times,” he warns. We follow him to the top.

I take Mother’s arm, but she brushes my hand away as though it’s a bothersome fly.

Once we enter onto a flat roof, Jack gathers our group of ten or so at the winch and treadmill. Off to one side, masons, in clothes like his, all of them speaking French, pound and chisel and form stone blocks with ancient-looking tools.

“Your father would have loved this,” Mother says.

“You think so?” Sure, my father, Alfred MacPherson, Sr., would have loved it if he had ever taken time for a vacation. I found him one night working late on a project, gasping for a last breath. He struggled to get out the words, “Take care of your mother.”

“Absolutely!” she says. “He knew what it takes to build something substantial over decades. Doesn’t this inspire you?”

“Sort of.” Not at all. Plans are to complete the castle in 25 long years.

“To make his legacy even better?”

“Right.” I decide not to go there, not here anyhow. Besides, with no alternatives what can I say?

Dad started his company in 1974, the year he married Mother. “It was my good fortune to find Sandra to help me,” he used to tell people. She became his assistant, standing solidly behind him, putting in 14-hour days, even through her pregnancy with me. I spent my early years in a playpen next to her desk, yelping like a puppy until I learned that my cries generally were ignored. Their dedication to the business paid off. MacPherson’s became an icon in the Seattle construction community, expanding to three locations. Before the crash, Home Depot opened another store in our vicinity, but longtime accounts have stuck with us.

“Castles were built of stone to withstand attack,” Jack says. “As you can see by the pictures,” brochures rustle, “ladders on the outside reached upper rooms. These were pulled in when enemies approached.”

After Dad’s heart attack, at Mother’s insistence, I took a break from my contracted position teaching WW2 history at the university. She had long ago left the company in my father’s capable hands, yet he continued to give her credit, saying things like, “Without my wife, I’d never have made such a success.” Every summer all through school, I worked at the company. In Dad’s absence, Mother assumed I’d take over. Rightfully so, I guess. I’m good at building (made all the bookshelves in my Madison Park condo). A person can be good at something he doesn’t want to commit to for life, just like he can admire a person but not want to be him.

Jack shows us pie-shaped windows from which archers could shoot, and says that with the slanted walls, most returning arrows deflected, falling uselessly to the ground. Looking out, I notice a quarry and a draft horse hauling a wagon full of stones, clump of hoof after clump of hoof, straining against its harnesses with no other task in mind.

“There are fifty costumed people working here. If you have any questions, please ask someone.”

From the time I could walk, Mother dressed me in overalls like a little carpenter. I had a canvas apron with plastic hammer, screwdriver, and wrench to go with my Fisher-Price workbench. As a kid, it felt right as a plumb line. When I got older, remarks about how much my long legs and deep voice reminded everyone of Dad, and how I’d keep the company going for future generations, began to grate. Eventually, I wanted to lash out with, “I don’t look anything like him,” when Mother would say, “Your features are becoming more defined—exactly like your father’s.”

“What’s with the wagon down there?” an older man with florid skin asks.

“We’re behind schedule.” Jack grimaces. “The wagon got stuck in mud. Those stones have to be lifted up to this level with pulleys and winches.”

We are told something about scaffolding made from wooden poles tied together to provide access. And then something about carpenters who use oak from the forest surrounding this castle. Timber supports are made out of wood that has been soaked in water all winter—to toughen it, which makes sawing difficult. Nearby, craftsmen carve decorative details on plaques. It’s dusty work and several onlookers sneeze. After a few minutes given over to appreciating their efforts, Jack leads us to another wider stairway that goes down to the main area.

On the landing, he gestures to a closet-like opening, where a crude-looking seat is mounted over a shaft dropping down to below the ground. “By the 1200s, they added lavatories.”

This room is next to the great hall. What about piles of shit and stench? What if a stray child slipped into the hole? It must have happened. Mother’s not bothered. She’s rubbing a hand over an archway, as carefully scrutinizing it as an architect searching for flaws.

We move into the cavernous room, where Jack says, “There’ll be huge tapestries of the time. These took years to make, and were practical as well as beautiful. They kept out drafts.” He points. “Through that archway will be a duplicate of long-ago royal apartments, away from the clamor.”

And, the smells.

Before building the big house, we lived in cramped quarters on the floor above the company. I don’t remember much about it, since we spent most of our time downstairs. After Dad really made it, he moved us to Broadmoor. There are so many rooms in that place, where Mother still lives, that I used to hide out for hours playing with my miniature military and naval figures, making pretend battles.

Jack waves his arms around and tells us about feasts and nobles at a long, elevated table. Others sat “below the salt,” and around the lord according to rank. Servants ate afterward, mostly cooked vegetables. Their betters indulged in a spicy, rich diet consisting mainly of meat. “Jugglers, jesters, and minstrels provided entertainment. The fortune-teller hovered in a dark corner.”

What would one predict for me? Despite Mother’s arguments, I can’t stay on at the company, and my university department head has moved me to the bottom of his instructor list. Little chance of getting another position, even if I wanted one.

“Tasters tested food to make sure it wasn’t poisoned. Meat was served on thick slices of coarse brown bread fit inside silver plates. The bread soaked up grease and sauces, and was tossed out to beggars at the castle gates. Dogs sniffed around tables, searching out tidbits on the rush mats. For dessert, the nobles ate marzipan.”

“Hmm, marzipan.” Mother smiles. “I wonder what one of our dinners would be like in this kind of venue?” She’ll probably have a medieval theme at her next party.

Several times a day, she’s been calling for updates and to give suggestions, but she seldom comes into the office. Mother’s now considered to be “company hostess,” a duty she used to refer to as tedious—necessary, but not much fun. Recently, she said, “What would I do without your father, if not for these events.”

Jack walks over to a wall. “This portion of the castle will be finished by the end of 2009 with forty roof trusses and 20,000 tiles. Early financial records, illuminated manuscripts, cathedral stained-glass windows guide our work.”

“Did any of those tasters die?” a boy with several cowlicks asks.

“Sure. That’s why they got paid a lot. These heavily fortified castles provided protection against numerous enemies, but spies still infiltrated.”

“Cool,” the boy says.

“Let’s move on to a storeroom.”

The group fumbles into action, shifting backpacks and purses. We shuffle, single file, down another set of wall-hugging stone steps. I clasp my hand to Mother’s thin waist, steadying her.

“I’m fine.” She gives me a little shove. “I have wonderful balance.”

I back off.

On the level below, Jack loops his thumbs into armholes of his jerkin like he owns the place. “Here, bags of grain, barrels of cider, fuel, and weapons were stored. When a castle was under siege, which might last for a year or more, inhabitants desperately needed all these things.”

He looks at Mother, I’m sure noticing how she carries herself, like she owns the place, too. “When the lord went off to war, he could be gone for years. His lady ran the castle and community around it. She had to know about expenses, supplies, and giving commands.”

Light shines in from a small, arched window. Jack says, “There’ll be torches placed along all stairways. It’ll be bright in here compared to the last room I’m going to show you.”

Despite vaulted ceilings, I feel claustrophobic. The stone walls seem to be pushing closer to our group. Packed landing crafts heading toward Omaha Beach come to mind. Those men must have felt terrified. Another batch of tourists mingles at the top of the steps, waiting for us to sink further into the castle’s depths.

“Before the cannon’s invention in the fourteenth century, buildings like this were indestructible. Invaders attempted takeovers by hurling heavy stones against weak points, or digging tunnels to collapse walls. From siege towers they fired arrows into the courtyard. Defenders fought back with their own constant bombardment of arrows and boiling water poured on the besiegers’ heads.”

Jack looks around the room as if picturing stacks of provisions. “The people in the castle faced diseases like typhoid. They couldn’t gauge the progress of battles. Running out of the necessities meant either death from starvation or surrender to the enemy.”

Members of our group scan the walls, their expressions uneasy. Maybe others are feeling hemmed in. Not Mother. She’s standing upright and sturdy as one of the support beams. Nodding, she says, “A commonsense arrangement.”

“Captured enemies encountered dire fates. Beneath everything else in the castle were prisons, often built with only a hatch to the outside. Human beings could be cast into these holes with no possible escape. The French have a word for it. Oubliette—dungeon of oblivion.”

I want to burst free. Mother lifts her head even higher. Apparently she’s comfortable with the necessity for dungeons, probably thinking of executives from Home Depot.

“The prison I will show you isn’t like that. It’s a room where visitors can enter. Be extra careful of your footing. These steps are the narrowest.”

I don’t try to help her this time.

On the dungeon’s wall are mounted rings where a prisoner’s hands can be attached. Will there be instruments of torture? Catching my breath, I move to the edge of the crowd. How much longer will Jack ramble on?

“I’m sure some of you are uneasy. Think how an actual captive must have felt. Walk around that wall and you’ll find an opening to the outside.”

“Are you going to leave it like that?” the boy asks.

“Certainly. Tours of the castle are meant to be fun and informative. We don’t want anyone passing out from anxiety.”

Everyone else laughs. I’m going to be the first one out of this entrapment.

In the bright sunshine and fresh air, Jack says, “Time for me to leave. Come again to see La Forteresse grow.”

I hand him a tip, and turn to Mother. “How about coffee?”

“Maybe I can find some more gifts.”

For several minutes, I sit with my mug at a wooden table under a gnarly oak tree, watching costumed workers walk by. Tearing apart a croissant, flaky and buttery as those in Paris, I hear conversations of other tourists. A flock of birds flies overhead toward an opening in the forest that surrounds this site.

Mother brings her cup of coffee and places a large bag on the table. “I found a perfect tapestry reproduction.” She spreads it out for me to see. There’s a warrior with a hand on his lady’s arm, ready to venture off. “It’s time to go home. I don’t have any more room in my suitcases.”

Now or never. “If you have to leave some things, I’ll send them to you.”

“Send them?” Her face rumples in confusion. “What do you mean?”

“I’m staying.”

“Here? At this castle?”

“No, but in France.”

“For how long? What about the company?” Always the company.

“However long it takes.”

“What takes?”

“For me to figure out what I want to do.”

“I repeat…what about the company?”

“You can take care of it.”


“You can take over as well as I can. Better. You helped build…”

“That was years ago. Do you want to let your father down?”

The sun warms my head, but her tone is icy. Still, I go on. “I know you can handle it. Like those ladies left behind when the lords went off to fight their wars. They managed—more than managed.”

“You’re deserting me, Tad.”

I know she won’t cry. Mother never cries. “They probably felt deserted, but they held down the fort for years at a time. You can, too.”

She sips her coffee, deep in thought, possibly recalling those 14-hour days. Holding her chin higher, she says, “Can’t I say anything to change your mind?”

“No. I’m certain.”

“What about Home Depot?” She looks at me out of the corner of her brown eyes. Could there be a spark of excitement?

“You won’t let them take away any of MacPherson’s business. There’ll be big sales. You’ll cash in on the Broadmoor house, everything, before you give up.”

With that, her brow etches in resolve. “What will you do?”

“I’m going back to Normandy. I have the background. I could become a tour guide.”

“Little did I know that a trip to this medieval castle would change everything.”

“Your life as much as mine.”

published by Marco Polo

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© Kathleen Glassburn