Tuesday, October 20, 2015
My Mother, Part 3
My mother was not an easy person to live with. Between the weight of her anxieties and panic attacks and the burdens of her expectations, I believe a good part of her life was steeped in frustrations and the belief that the world was not an equitable place.
She rarely discussed her thoughts on the matter, but there’s no doubt in my mind that her childhood years were unhappy ones dominated by a father and stepmother uninterested in their daughter’s life, and a child prodigy brother who garnered all of the family’s love and attention.
She was sixteen when she ran away from home and married a North African Jewish doctor and film-maker. She had two girls within six years, and while in Algeria, ran away from her husband’s overbearing family. She would meet my father at the end of the war and, pregnant with me, return to Paris after the liberation.
There was a long and heart-breaking lawsuit over the custody of my half-sisters. My mom essentially got visiting rights. The girls could come to the apartment of her new family but rarely spent the night. Both my sisters held that my father was responsible for their mother’s divorce and, indirectly, for their own father’s death from cancer a few years later.
This would have strange ramifications. My oldest sister, Florence, was a carbon-copy of her mother: creative, impulsive, argumentative at times, and focused on success. She managed famous French singers, including Patrique, a rock star, and they had matching Porsches and mink coats. But the singer was an addict and neither of them bothered to pay their taxes, so he went to a Swiss rehab and the Porsches and fur coats were taken away. After this, Flo began to write and was soon the successful author of a half-dozen novels starring an ingénue—her—whose life is ruined by an evil mother—our mother. The books broke my mom’s heart. She could not understand the depth of her own daughter’s resentments, nor did she appreciate being portrayed as a post-war Cruella deVil. Reconciliations between her and Florence came and went. When my mom died, Flo left town to avoid going to the funeral.
I was shielded from this acrimony, but even as a kid I knew something was wrong.
Her disappointment in Florence’s action was offset by the pride she took in the achievements of her other daughter, Isabelle. Isa was the personification of steadfastness. Barely a child, she was accepted into the prestigious Paris Conservatory and, once there, she never left. She studied composition, and then taught it. She is today possibly the world’s best known and most prolific composer of operas for children—yes, there are such things—and well into her seventies continues to prosper. She met her husband-to-be when she was fourteen, married him five years later, and they recently celebrated their golden anniversary. Isa tried hard not to take sides in the internecine warfare between her mother and her older sister, and she suffered from it, being blamed and manhandled by both sides.
One of the reasons my mother accepted coming to America, I think, is that she truly believed it was the Promised Land, and in her mind, a lot of promises needed to be fulfilled. Promises and expectations were the same for her. It wasn’t necessarily clear who had promised what to whom, but it was obvious, for example, that her husband—my father—should have been a diplomat, perhaps even an ambassador. Her son—me—should have been one as well. Her paintings should have all sold at the last gallery showing. Indeed, whatever project she was involved in should have led to success. That it often did not was an affront. She took the failures of her expectations personally, and as she grew older, so did the resentments attendant to unrealized hopes.
Late in life a bitterness set in, and as I grow older, I find once again that I can mirror her thoughts. I have tried to build myself after my father’s image, but deep down, my mother rules. It has been revelatory, occasionally, to come to a complete stop of whatever I am doing or thinking and realize, ça, c’est Maman.
At first this horrified me. I knew my mother well and her shortcomings were often more visible than her many assets. Now, I’m not so sure. I think it took immense courage to come here to this baffling, faraway land and make a life among it friendly, baffling people.
And I can now understand her hurry to return to France as soon as my father retired, and trade a four bedroom house in Chevy Chase for a minuscule garret in Paris. She was going to prove that you can go home again.