The mother Odile and I used to adore as children and dread in our adult years, has died.
My sister and I can finally breathe but we brace ourselves for our first meeting after ten years as we attend her funeral back in France. It won’t be easy: Odile’s antagonism is fierce, my goodwill and strength have limits, and money is as nothing compared to the emotional legacy mother has left us during a childhood of emotional bondage.
Having become a catholic nun during her long exile in Canada, Odile has tried to save her soul after a devastating encounter with a man following university. Finding refuge in London, marriage to an English artist insured my own sanity for a few years, but after my divorce I am now lost. Solitude is very hard. Falling in love after five years with an exciting and cruel man, I am desperate for a child. A first boy is still-born but a baby girl, Sophie, survives this destructive relationship. Alone again but with the treasure of a child I discover childhood anew and can’t forget my childhood love, René-Jacques, whose letters mother still won’t return to me.
Looking back at a past when Odile and I had to witness mother’s tears and father’s sly cruelty, attempting to find my way in a morass of untruths is a tall order, as horrendous flashbacks and illness prompt me to seek therapy.
Now finding the support I need to face the truth of our abusive childhood and the emotional servitude to mother which often paralysed me and crippled Odile, I can also rely on a happier inheritance: that of Jack London*, who fathered my adolescent dreams of a larger world, adventure, discovery, conquest, courage, endurance: I know I have to fight, and thanks to reading his books as a girl I think I am eventually equipped for it. Which is just as well…
* JACK LONDON: “The Call of the Wild”, “White Fang”, etc.
If a bush starts behaving unreasonably on a still day, it has to be because of a squirrel, the birds are more discrete, but the squirrels are the hooligans in the trees, they clamber, tumble and leap extravagantly from branch to branch, crashing into the bushes. This garden is a playground, a comedy-theatre. I organise shows every morning at breakfast, when I throw pieces of bread and apple peel for them as a fast-food treat. Then I watch them from behind the glass of the orangery, a cup of lemon tea in my hand, laughing at their pranks.
This morning, I slowly come to, and remember dreaming my father wasn’t dead. ‘Am I going to have to kill him, then?’ I thought wearily – that dreary, awful duty of mine.
I see myself -was I thirteen or fourteen? – standing opposite him at one end of our dining table, clearing the dishes after a meal. I don’t know what he had said, to mother very likely, but I raise my hand and point my finger at him, I shout: “If you say one more word, I will tell you what I think of you, I will!” and he stares at me stunned, then looks away sheepishly without responding, slinks out of the dining-room, pursing his lips. Mother has stood rigid. I sense they are both frightened. I have a strange awareness of a power I didn’t know I had: what on earth did they think I was going to say? And where did I get that courage, that daring? Why wasn’t I punished for my insolence?
“I want to be shown respect!” he said vehemently on another occasion when we had argued. I remember retorting that I would respect him when I thought he deserved respect. These scenes, which I recall because they reflected my nascent and tentative coming of age, make me look strong and clear when I was none of those things then. I came to learn over many years that it is enough simply to appear stronger, clearer and slightly more aggressive than the enemy to be able to reclaim some territory: bluffing would do until I came true, and I was certainly not clear enough in myself to even bluff consciously at the time. My anger came from deeper inside me, somewhere I didn’t understand, while I would have explained it at the time by my duty -and my need- to protect my mother, which is nevertheless also true: all children protect their parents. And clearly he wasn’t strong, which on occasion gave me an advantage: he was shy, awkward, hesitant, and shifty. He rarely looked you in the eyes, and when he did, it sometimes seemed a ‘not-quite-there’ look that both doubted and withheld, often sad and self-conscious. His answers were usually evasive – “Yes, no, I don’t know…” and gave me a sense of the fog he was in, which was contagious. I came to notice the way he walked, disoriented, right foot and body to the right, left foot and body to the left, a yes-no of the body. Maybe the ground was not stable beneath his feet, and I grew to see that he had had no guidance, merely precepts, in childhood. On family outings, he would walk ahead of us on the pavement. Odile and I followed behind, holding mother’s hand, and if she became aware of his aloneness -or a lack of symmetry- she would push us ahead: “Go and walk with your father”, and we would suddenly appear on each side of him, to his surprise, his two little daughters in identical coats and polite white socks.
“Go and kiss your father goodnight”, mother would also remind us when bed -time came. So we did as we were told and finally went to bed, me wiping my cheek.
Conscious of his own weakness, he would now and again attempt authority, but in daily matters mother’s reasoned judgment usually prevailed, and his longed-for dominion over the household seldom materialised. He would at times announce a pronouncement by wagging his index finger for a while, then hector: “In life…” followed by some warning or definition, and would further delineate our world: “A meal is a ceremony!”; “A bourgeois house is a closed house!” – “Yes,” I would counter later, “une maison close!” (a brothel) to his powerless indignation.
His authority a failure, he allowed himself on occasion to show his gentler feelings, indulging me with some extra pocket money – “but don’t tell your mum” – or sweet talk, when he would express himself in baby speech which, as I grew up, irritated and offended me : “Don’t talk to me as if I am still a child!” . Most embarrassing was his question, uttered in private: “Who do you prefer, your mum or your dad?” I remained silent, unable to give him the answer he must have yearned for. But when he pointed at me the three monkeys figurines sitting on a bookshelf covering in turns their eyes, ears and mouths, illustrating some philosophy or other that he might have cultivated and wished to impart to me, “A good philosophy for monkeys”, I replied.
I was puzzled the time he cried: coming into my room to kiss me goodnight one evening, (mother would have checked: “Did you say goodnight to the girls?” if he had been in his study when we went to bed) he kissed me, then burst into tears. “What’s the matter, daddy” I asked, embarrassed. “Nothing, it’s nothing”, he said, rubbing his eyes and composing himself, “it’s only some work I haven’t finished.” I could relate to that. A little unnerved, I wiped my cheek as usual when he had gone and allowed myself to breathe again.
After lunch, he always took a nap in his study, while Odile and I went back to school as we were day girls at that time. Then he left again for his practice, or the Court of Law if he was pleading a case. At weekends, we would have to be quiet, whisper, tiptoe during his nap, then occupy ourselves as best we could until the day’s end. Playing with dolls had its limits, as they were shy of role-play and slept a lot, ever silent in their frilly little cots as good children should be. I preferred reading, more and more.
When he drove to Toulouse to plead a more important case, I remember praying he wouldn’t come back, there would be an accident: then life would be good, mum would stop crying, there would be no more arguing, we would be safe. But he always came back. He would announce his arrival by whistling on three notes. Mother greeted him, dinner would soon be ready and it was always delicious even when it was a simple omelette. I admired without envying her the care she took over her meals”. “I don’t want him to be able to reproach me for anything!” she said sometimes, fretting with anxiety, as if defending herself. “Is it nice?” she couldn’t help asking. “Umm, it was better last time”, he condescended. She winced.
His health often seemed to worry him although he was rarely ill, and then only with minor chest complaints. Red meat was de rigueur, this was a French household after all, so we ate steak regularly, because it was ‘good for us’. There was implied a feeling that the blood-redness of the meat would transfuse into our veins, making us strong and healthy. When a chicken was killed -we had a small chicken coop- the blood was kept for my father who liked it fried in a pan like a pancake. I can still see the scene the first time I saw mum cook one: it sizzled in the pan, the minute it met the oil, the heat, and spread to a dark full moon, with small volcanoes made by bubbles. A trembling in her hand, mother pricked it with a fork, a little harshly, irritated as I stood watching, my head at her elbow, asking: Who is it for? What is it? A blood pancake, she said, and shook it a little strongly, it nearly spilt. ‘Your father likes it’, she added, an eyebrow up, tight-lipped, then complained: “To make him strong.” And I could hear her silent prayer: “Let it not work, please God, let it not work.”
Not knowing she was herself strong gave my mother other weapons; she would be the trembling victim, and her tears and cries would guarantee her her daughters’ adamantine loyalty. In part because he was petty, also because he owed her what he had, father took his revenge and assured his supremacy by both humiliating her and depriving her of money. Even the housekeeping was the subject of arguments that we heard through my father’s study’s door, mother pleading that he hadn’t given her any money that week, which he usually denied. She would come out of his study wrecked, defeated. She would later kiss and hug Odile and me, saying we should be good and well-behaved, and polite with daddy. We cried, kissed and promised. Sometimes, he would refuse to give her any money to buy clothes she needed, even though she had given him for safe keeping the money she had left after the purchase of his practice. At other times I recall mother’s voice shrill through the door: “No! No! You can ask me for anything but not that!” followed by more tears. I didn’t dare to wonder what.
He had perfected a very subtle act at meal times: mother would cook lunch, serve us all. He would watch her silently as she ate, critically focusing on her mouth as if she was eating noisily. He was playing ‘gentry’ to her ‘shopkeeper’s daughter’. She would wince again, as if slapped. I would make mental notes, become little by little more radicalised: come the Revolution! He did, at the time, scornfully call me ‘the rebel’.
Since he did not normally look at Odile’s school books or mine, I cannot see that either of us received much comment or encouragement. Besides, he relied on our mother to take care of these things. She reminded us he came home tired after a long day’s work. It seems true to say that work took up all his time and he had no interests outside. When I started secondary school, I naturally continued to go to the Lycee, the guarantor of Republican rights. I cried bitterly over Latin and Maths, was puzzled by Chemistry, but showed liking and aptitude for French and Languages. Overall though, results were not brilliant. The social mix was unavoidable, and when I came home one lunch time and asked at the table what ‘fucking‘ meant, my parents looked at each other with consternation and I didn’t get an answer. I was soon whisked off to a convent school nearby, run by nuns of the order of the Holy Family.
Looking back on it, the convent school didn’t feel very different from home in atmosphere or style. There were, of course, do’s and don’ts, duties. It was also fairly joyless, except that the other girls knew how to run and play ball games at break time and I didn’t: almost a sin, not playing was a sign of ‘bad attitude’; conversations with a single friend were always broken up with remonstrations and exhortations to go and join a group. I much preferred to have a friend to chat with: there were secrets of sorts as we were all approaching puberty, and older and more precocious girls warned us about periods. They spoke of a time at once dismal and vaguely exciting, when we would bleed every month, possibly feel a lot of pain, and have to wear between our legs thickly folded pieces of towelling attached by safety pins to a cotton string around our hips.
What wisdom was imparted to us in religious education classes was based on the Bible, quotes from saints, missives from the Pope. We sat and listened, tame, breathing an air of seriousness and piety without grace. I to-ed and fro-ed there daily in my own particular fog, a breathing automaton.
Why did my father go (with me, it was about me) for an appointment with the Mother Superior? He must have gone instead of mother who was suffering terribly with arthritic pains at the time. Was it about my work, in some subjects downright bad? Was it about not playing ball games? Sister Marie de l’Annonciation greeted us with her usual -remarkable as it was- bounce in her step: she had a pretty face and a feminine silhouette alluding to a slim young body, and her leather belt always seemed tightly fastened. The memory strikes me, vivid, and with more unspoken lines than in a Pinter play, father stares at her as we follow her into the Mother Superior’s office, pursing his lips, twisting his mouth this way and that, a canine look in his eyes, insistent. And I can remember not a word of the conversation, but Sister Marie seeks shelter behind the masculine frame of the Mother Superior, putting her hands (these women who were never to touch) on the older nun’s shoulders in a kind of affirmation…
Catechism was fed into us twice weekly and came out of us in a monotone: we mouthed words of prayers, promises, praises and appeals for mercy until, one day, we processed in never-ending circles in the park of a local chateau, singing hymns in long white dresses under the gaze of our approving parents. In spite of the glamour of the occasion and supposedly resplendent in white, I knew that I was a disappointment to my mother: physically, for a start, I left a lot to be desired: my hair was steadily going from blond to mousy; my eyes, blue and giving some hope for the future, were spoilt by my gaze which was thoughtful, but shy and hesitant; my body was a mutant entity with growing breasts I did not know what to do with -those awful first bras!- and I walked clumsily, particularly when my mother criticised and attempted to correct, my posture, my walk, and the size of my hips (time for a girdle, or you had no idea how they would spread!). We pored over fashion magazines together in those pre-television days, when she attempted to guide and elevate my tastes, and I would stand afterwards in front of a mirror sucking my rounded cheeks in for a more sophisticated look. Her assessment of other people was often based on their appearance and clothes, which made what had become a task for me even more problematic.
At the same time, that beautiful woman was facing middle-age with dread. Concerns for her health due to very severe crises of arthritis which made her almost weep with pain, were a crucial argument in winning, after many years of quarrels with father, the right to twin beds in their bedroom. “I just cannot sleep with him! I cannot get any sleep!” Sleeping tablets had been in use for a great many years.
I hated entering their bedroom on Sunday mornings to get a book, the cat, whatever: the smell of my father’s breath, distinctive in its hot, smoky and feverish staleness, filled the room; I made my requests and left promptly, holding my breath. Being sensitive to all manner of things since childhood I regularly felt nauseous, was sick easily and resented it as much for the disagreeable if minor incident it was as for the anguish that it seemed -as most things did- to cause mother; she fretted, agitated, rushed for a wet cloth for my forehead, a hot-water bottle for my stomach. I made mental notes: if I had a child, I would never, ever, make a fuss if he or she was sick but would treat it as an ordinary thing and say: “Well done, darling, you will feel a lot better now!” instead of all this alarming drama. Suspicion would fall on possibly rich foods: was it the eggs? Did I eat two? Too many sweets? It was concluded I had a sensitive liver and should be careful what I ate; tablets were administered. The fact is that all my symptoms disappeared once I left home to go to University…
Meanwhile, there were the piano lessons, weekly plus lengthy practice, a harmless if tedious addition to my and Odile’s education: noblesse oblige… I got as far as playing ‘The letter to Elise’, although ploddingly and with clumsy feeling. ‘Is she gifted?’ mother asked on occasion. ‘Oh, oui, Madame.’ was the ineluctable reply. I knew this to be a lie but for my mother at least, the right words were uttered, as she felt reassured by formalities. The frightened and therefore conventional woman she was relied on propriety and conventions, and no more than the responses in a religious service were they for altering.
For my part, I was more and more putting my world into question, doubted received morality, pondered the nature of truth; reading helped a great deal, and mother herself read quite a lot, later passing some of her books on to me, though shy or unwilling to discuss them. Having had dreams in childhood of becoming a headmistress, she could have been a formidable one had she been able to continue to study, she had plenty of authority in her temperament in spite of all her fears. I also now see her wish as a way of creating a large (and obedient) family for herself, perhaps also of looking after girls who had been sent away as she had. She might have been more enlightened with those girls, being less close to them, than she was with Odile and me, since I realised later she was unable to see us as separate from her: “I am cold,” she would say, “you must put a sweater on!”; or “you can’t be thinking such a thing, I can’t imagine it!”
In many ways she also spoilt Odile and me, making clothes for our dolls, but mostly by cooking the dishes she knew we loved; for me, pork kidneys with soggy chips, vol-au- vent with sweetbread and mushrooms, veal escalopes and petits pois, steak and frites, chocolate biscuits, meringues and clafoutis…and after school, slices of bread and butter sprinkled with cocoa powder. This was a realm where all our dreams of pleasure and satisfaction merged without any chance of conflict, she creating and giving pleasures of her choosing, us receiving and enjoying those gifts and paying her back in praise and affection; we could then share a tangible and reassuring form of bonding. Indeed I often chose to meet her on her terms in that realm when in need of a safe place to exist under the gaze of her approving eyes.
Her beauty fed our adoration. Her large blue eyes with carefully plucked eyebrows increased the gentleness and often sadness of her gaze. Her thick black hair was cut short, framing her high cheekbones with planned and docile curves; she had her hair done regularly, preferably in Toulouse where she claimed were the only good hairdressers. This was an opportunity for her to be in a large town where elegant living was on display in smart shops and lively streets, in contrast to the tatty shop-windows and dull fashion on offer in our small town.
Many people would say: ‘Oh, your mother is so beautiful, and always so elegant!’ We were proud of her. Watching her was a more and more conscious occupation of mine, breathing in her feelings, her moods, being her almost. She smelled nice, Chanel No 5 her favourite perfume and a regular present at birthdays: she used it when going out, or when friends came to dinner, part of her offerings to herself and the world. When she felt in need of affection, it was blissful to be held in her arms for hugs and cuddles. Odile and I appeared to be the centre of her world, but were more often possessions to be administered, ruled over, processed. “To please mummy”.
Our obedience ensured her approval, as disapproval always caused me to question, albeit unconsciously, who I was or wanted to become, and as I grew up defined me at times as an adversary, in spite of my stubborn devotion. For although, when I was little, she ‘won’ at every turn, such was the depth of her need and her authority, as I became adolescent and required more freedom and time, or simply more of myself in me, her displeasure tore me apart in guilt and confusion. I have to be thankful to both my hormones and my books for once in a while standing my ground, but at those moments her face turned to deep sadness and disappointment, down came the long eyelids of disapproval, and a slight shaking of her head would point to her incomprehension; and depending on the nature of the infringement, she would react with: “My little girl, you are hurting me a lot!”; “What a pain children are!” “Children suck you dry!” and if I started to cry: “Oh, yes, we know, you are an abused child” (une enfant martyre), or quite simply: “Oh, stop all this play-acting, you are being a pain!” The tone was dismissive, contemptuous, resentful. In fact, she warned me often: “You’ll see, when the time comes, if it’s fun to have children!” She could not make it plainer that Odile and I were the disagreeable impositions in her life as well as to her freedom: “I stayed for you, I sacrificed myself for you!” We were humbled by that terrible gift.