Wednesday, June 24, 2009


When I was a kid, I was often sent by my parents to spend the night in the house of my aged Tante Thérèse, an amazing lady of minute proportions who lived in St. Germain with her maid.

Tatie--Madame Bertrand--slept with her hat and veil on, bathed once a week, ate only soft-boiled eggs and raw carrots, smelled of talcum powder, violets and mildew. She had a dog, Mathurin, who never moved except when the maid kicked him. The maid, Mathilde, was toothless, irascible and mean, a Bretonne woman who resented children. Tatie and Mathilde detested each other and had been together about 40 years, ever since Tatie was widowed when the natives of Tananarive speared her husband, the governor of Madagascar, through the neck. Tatie witnessed this from the palace where she and her husband reigned. She narrowly escaped the wrath of the Malgache populace and, from that day on became an insomniac. Tatie was persuaded Mathilde would one day either poison her--hence the soft-boiled eggs and carrots, neither of which could be tampered with--or murder her in her sleep, so she locked her bedroom at night and placed empty bottles on the floor next to the door, a primitive yet efficient alarm system which, in retrospect, must have worked.

Spending the night at Tatie's house was a treat. She had African spears mounted on her walls, Buddha heads from Siam, a stuffed leopard cub from the jungles of Brazil. I would sleep on a small settee at the foot of her bed, and she would waken me at two in the morning to start the day with a cup of strong coffee, a day-old croissant, and the music of Shubert on her Victrola. We would walk--or drag--Mathurin until he deposited a small, evenly shaped crotte on the sidewalk. The local flic knew Madame Bertrand well, as did the boulanger and patissier who, if his wife was not looking, would give me a free palmier. The patissier was also an insomniac, a good trait for his trade, and he and Tatie would exchange the latest sleep-inducing nostrum: tisanne with honey, cognac with a teaspoon of laudanum, vaporized eau de rose.

Like Tatie, I have become an insomniac, but my sleeplessness is based on financial and other worries compounded by sleep apnea. I waken 40 or more times an hour, occasionally stop breathing entirely, and, in the end, arise from bed exhausted. Soon, I will wear an odd-looking mask that will force a constant stream of air down my throat and into my lungs. This, much like laudanum, will help me sleep.

Tatie was 87 when she died. Mathilde had preceded her by a dozen year, and when she passed away, my father, while helping to clean the deceased maid's room, turned over the mattress and found more than 100,000 Francs. Mathilde had saved every sou Tatie had ever paid her and since there were no relatives, the money was returned to my aunt.

After Mathilde's death, Tatie slept like a log.

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