Friday, November 6, 2015
Recently, a friend reading my blogs asked me if I thought my mother had been a good parent.
I’ve been writing a lot about my mother, lately, as the 24th anniversary of her death in Paris approaches. I’ve been trying to depict the complexities of a woman whom I loved, who raised me during unforgiving times, and whose life saw war, peace, divorce, and estrangement from her daughters, genteel poverty, migration, settlement abroad, and a return to the country of her birth. All of this was marked by anxiety, passion and obsession.
The question—was she a good parent?—took me aback.
I thought about it for a day or two, weighing pros and cons and throwing in the importance of thing’s I could not know and never will, and now I have an answer. She, like most everyone else in the world, did the best she could.
She was never a helicopter mother, and parents nowadays, obsessed as they are with the safety and every-moment whereabouts of their sons and daughters, would undoubtedly say my mother afforded me far too much freedom. When I was seven years old, I walked to school, a good ten blocks, crossing the Boulevard Malsherbe and skirting the Parc Monceau. I walked home for lunch, and back to school for the afternoon session. I did this six days a week—Thursdays and Saturdays were half-days back then.
At home on the third floor of the apartment building on Rue de la Terrasse, I entertained myself. We had no television, of course, and the radio was turned on only during the evening. I was rarely supervised. My parents both worked and the aged maid, Louise, had better things to do than oversee my actions. I knew not to be underfoot, and spent hours assembling and re-assembling a tabletop diorama of cowboys and Indians with here and there an Eskimo and a Roman legionnaire. I remember that there was also a triceratops in the mix, and oversized farm animals. I read compulsively: Tintin, Spirou, Paris Match, and an amazing illustrated book of world history, festooned with photos of pyramids, Asian people in conical hats worshipping at pagodas, and Genghis Khan’s invading hordes.
There was also a book I discovered hidden behind the collected works of Rousseau—naked ladies from the thirties, buxom and round and smiling, posed against backgrounds of vineyards, Pompeiian ruins, and rococo beds draped in shiny sheets. I could only access that particular book when my parents were out and Louise was doing that day’s shopping. To get to it, I stood on a chair, and shoved Monsieur Rousseau’s oeuvre aside. I snuck quick peeks in the privacy of my tiny bedroom. I’d replace the book after a few minutes, heart beating hard and fast by the daring of it all. Things are less naïve today. Sex and naked ladies are not mysterious anymore. Children are not allowed to walk anywhere unaccompanied.
It was actually rare for either parent to engage with me in any way. We each had separate lives and knew what our responsibilities were. Mine was to eat all the food in my plate and not put my elbows on the table. I was to do my homework quietly and ask for help only when I truly stymied, or when the task at hand was beyond my capabilities. I couldn’t draw, for example, whereas my mother, a trained artist, could sketch a map of France free-hand, which she did for me once or twice a year. I don’t think she ever gave such assistance a second thought.
To the best of my recollection, neither parent ever went to school to talk with my teachers. Communications were established through the carnet scholaire. What the teacher wrote there concerning my disposition, my behavior, and my intelligence, was gospel.
Nor was I involved in family decisions. The very idea that a child should have a voice in such matters was plainly ridiculous; I learned of our move to America when large, muscled men came to pack up the furniture.
When I visited my great aunt in St. Germain outside of Paris, I immediately took off to wander the thirty-three acre estate surrounding the local chateau. I made friends as I went, got beaten up a time or two, and had my entire collection of glass marbles taken from me by a much bigger kid. When I complained about the unfairness of this, my great aunt walked me to the local toy store, bought an assortment of incredibly dull-looking clay marbles, and told me about her travails during World War II.
The adults in my childhood were deeply involved in their own lives We, their children, were to be polite and respectful. Well into my teens, I knew sons and daughters who, when talking with their parents, addressed them with the formal ‘vous,’ rather than the familiar ‘tu.’
We were expected to be well-informed and not offer opinions based on anything but knowledge. I remember, as a nine- or ten-year-old, getting into an argument with one of my parents’ friends over the difficulties of communicating by radio with submarines. It’s easy, said the friend. Not so, said I, having that very morning read a lengthy article about this very subject in Science et Vie. My father retrieved the article. The friend was dismayed. I was never feted for this important achievement, but my mother glowed with pride.