Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Rainy Days in St. Germain

On Saturdays when it rained, I might be bundled off after the half-day of school to see my great aunt Thérèse—Tatie. I’d take the train from the Gare St. Lazare to St. Germain where Tatie lived and walk from the station to her home.

Tatie was short and probably did not weigh a hundred pounds; she  smelled of ancient talcum powder and lilac soap. She wore a fox stole year-round, a nasty thing with claws and a tiny glass-eyed head full of sharp little teeth. She dressed in combinations of grey and mauve and at night slept with her hat on so as to not disturb her hair.

Even though she had a live-in maid, an evil little Bretonne named Mathilde, the house was poorly taken care of and filthy. There were balls of dust and fur from her almost-dead poodle, Mathurin, cobwebs on the ceiling, piles of old magazines and, always, a stack of unwashed dishes by the kitchen sink. None of this bothered Tatie.

My parents’ relationship to Tatie, and indirectly to her maid Mathilde, was complicated by the state of her home.  On the one hand my great aunt was a delightful and eccentric woman of some means and capable of bestowing largess upon our genteelly impoverished family. My father, however, found Tatie’s house so filthy that, when invited there, he would only accept to eat fruit he would peel himself and soft-boiled eggs in the shell, on the assumption that neither Tatie nor Mathidle could have touched the edible parts.        

Mathilde and Tatie detested each other, but Mathilde would never quit—who else would hire her?—and Tatie would never fire her; neither could envision a life without the other. Mathilde was a thief who regularly embezzled small sums from the household budget and stuffed the stolen moneys into her mattress. Tatie may or may not have known about this, but did in the end get a sublime vengeance: When Mathilde died, the money was still in the mattress. Mathilde had no living relatives so Tatie inherited money.  

Tatie’s house was a crowded museum of colonial artifacts and to me a constant source of wonder. She had met her husband at a military ball when she was sixteen and he was a dashing soldier of  twenty-one. They eloped that very night. He died young while still in the service and she remained childless and  never remarried, spending her time among the relics of their time in the colonies.

Tatie had spears from darkest Africa, leopard skins, ancient firearms, daggers, a full suit of armor that seemed hammered together to fit a child. I managed to dislodge one arm, much to her consternation, and it fit. She had ao dais from Indochina, kaftans from Algeria, an elephant’s foot fashioned into an umbrella stand, a collection of jade figurines from the Far East and what years later I would recognize as an exquisite samurai sword. She also had a collection of graceful ivory netsukes I was not allowed to touch, though I did when she wasn’t looking. One figurine, a monk, had a rotating head with a smile on one side and a frown on the other.

Rainy days in St. Germain were also reading days. Tatie had a collection of illustrated books showing battles in violent colors, where the French flag waved high over corpse-strewn battlefields. There were images of Napoleon addressing Parisians after escaping from exile and the French fleet laying rightful waste to the British navy. There was a pair of  posters—they now hang in my dining room—of French kings and queens from Merovingian times, including Thierry I, II and II, and their wives, who had appalling names like Cunégonde and Bertha Big Feet.

The only downside to visiting Tatie when it rained was the dog, Mathurin, who never moved, farted often, and emitted a gut-wrenching smell. Mathurin was sneaky, too. I was lying near him breathing with my mouth and reading when he suddenly lurched up, bit my butt, then fell asleep again. I should have gotten stitches but Tatie was afraid that if we went to the hospital, the police might come and take Mathurin away.

I still have a scar on my butt.   

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