Friday, October 9, 2015
My Mother -- Part I
It struck me recently that I’ve written extensively about my father and not so much about my mom. So here goes.
My mother was what the French called an enfant terrible. Born to a middle-class family with creative aspirations, she—according to stories she told to me when I was a child—lost her mother early. Her father remarried to a woman she did not like, and so her closest friend was the family maid. She did not get along with her brother, Jacques, who at an early age became a child prodigy pianist. I remember him as a totally dislikeable man and could tell even as a kid that he looked down on us, and without much reason. For all his genius, Jacques was a momma’s boy who never left home.
My mother had artistic ambitions of her own. She studied painting under the Cubists, did some perhaps nude modeling, met Picasso and hung around with George Braque. She also played the piano and taught herself the accordion, though I never saw her play it. In France, the accordion has always been considered a lower class instrument enjoyed by the blue collar. I suspect she took it up just to piss off her father, who had pretentions to grandeur and wrote operas that seldom got produced, with one exception: Mona Vana, written with the composer Maurice Maeterlinck, had a brief run in the United States during the Roaring 20s.
My mother married very young. Her husband was a North African Jewish doctor who also produced films. The marriage got her disowned by her middle-class Christian family (people still discussed the Dreyfus Affair) and she would not get back into her father’s good graces until after World War II.
At the beginning of the war, she and her husband fled Paris when it became obvious that German forces would conquer the city. They went to Algeria where Something Happened. It may be that my mother had a brief affair with the writer Antoine de St. Exupery, the author of The Little Prince. She alluded to that a time or two. Or, more prosaically, she might not have appreciated the North African lifestyle, where her harridan mother-in-law ran the household and made it obvious she thought her a poor bride for her son. By then, my mother and her husband had two daughters.
She started working outside the family home, which was not appreciated by either her husband or her mother-in-law. She wrote and published a beautiful children’s book, Isabelle dans le Pays des Oiseaux and had a hand in the creation of Babar the elephant. Then she joined the Free French, the force of French citizens who refused to abide by the Vichy government’s capitulation to the Germans.
In time she met my father, also a Free French soldier. I was conceived quickly (in the back of an Army truck, according to her), and after a few more adventures, the little family of three moved to the States. To her great sorrow, her daughters chose to stay in France.
My mother could never quite understand America. It was too big, too bountiful, and its people laughed too loudly and truly thought no one had ever been as great as they were now. The language challenged her: pepper and paper; cheep and cheap and sheep and chip and ship. And who had ever heard of going shopping for a week with a cart? She was a shop-daily-an-buy-fresh-food string-bag person.
In time, she became the doyenne of the French in the Washington, DC, area. She ran the Franco-American Friendship Society; she had a Francophone book club, took part in the French theatre company, and baked quiches for the French parish. She befriended francophone diplomats and their wives, and one of her favorite people was the wife of the Madagascan ambassador, who showed up at our house in full native dress, to the befuddlement of our curious neighbors. She gave to trying to become an American and stayed irremediably French.