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Saturday, January 17, 2004

This is not being done on the very date it says: I was unable to sign on to blogger. I am cheating on the date, because I want to see if it works in a logical way. We''ll see.

Here goes:

Off to a slow start this morning. I finally cleared the answering machine. There were a few real messages among the junk, digital garbage, and I have been apologizing to the entire world for being incommunicado--all five of them. Hum! This is not healthy.

Of course, what is, these days?

After announcing our determination to colonize the Moon and send a manned mission to Mars, NASA has scotched a simple repair mission to just fix the Hubble Space Telescope. How fiscally responsible can you get before your example sends everyone out on a private guilt trip which will paralyze the entire economy? I mean, those seven astronauts died just because they were cutting spending on security checks, then they went and spent all that dough on the investigation, does any of this reflect a healthy attitude to reality? A healthy sense of priorities?

I have a brown rice casserole dish slow-cooking for lunch, and here is today's effort for the blogosphere.

"La Semaine de Suzette"

I think I have told y'all about my mother's violent death in 1944. At the time, my father was in the R.A.F. in England, doing secret things which I only found out about some thirty years after the end of World War II, when he was finally released from the thing called "the Official Secrets Act".

My father was notified of my mother's death through the offices of the Red Cross in Switzerland, who conveyed the news to the Red Cross in the U.S.A., who relayed it to the Red Cross in England. By the time my father caught up with the fact he had become widowed, he also was notified his two children were "disappeared", location unknown.

The Allied landings in Normandy had taken place by then, but the R.A.F. were not on the ground, and the only way my father could get to France at that time was to somehow wangle getting transferred into the army. He had tracked us down by early December 1944, and brought us back with him to Paris, where the army had assigned him, or the R.A.F. had seconded him, or whaterver the appropriate term might be, to the Psychological Warfare Department. This morphed into a stint in charge of the Film Section at the British Embassy in Paris some time after the war, which he left eventually to start his own business.

We spent the last months of the war in the apartment of an old friend of my mother's, near the Porte de Saint Cloud in Paris, and one of my mother's surviving sisters took care of us.

The summer of 1946 was spent away from home in some sort of summer camp outside Paris, where the boys and girls were separated, so that both my brother and I found ourselves, shell-shocked and suffering from severe post-traumatic stress, totally isolated and miserable. I remember so clearly I can feel it and smell the smells in the woods, and I remember clearly the day I decided I couldn't take it any more, and I decided to run away. I was just seven years old, don't ask me what I intended to do with myself or where I was headed to, all I knew was I wanted OUT, anything would be preferable to staying in the place of unkindness I had landed in.

As I walked through the woods on my way to who kows where, I unexpectedly came across my little brother, whom I had not seen all summer, just standing there by himself, all frozen and stiff, crying.

In those days, we small kids would be wearing sort of overalls or aprons, like little short dresses with long sleeves, which were worn over our regular clothes to keep them clean; they were usually made out of cotton gingham or madras checks, with pockets, and they usually buttoned asymetrically down one side, left for girls, right for boys, all the way from neckline to hemline.

As soon as I recognized little Alain, I became aware of two great wet rivulets of tears clearing a clean path through the dirt on his two chubby little cheeks, and the great globs of snot dripping from his nose, and the great heaving sobs shaking his little frame, the snuffelling, his little dimpled hands screwed into stiff fists on each side of his body, shoulders raised up around his ears in protection, and the final, awful detail: his apron, his sarraut, his overall, was buttoned out of kilt, that is, the buttonholes and buttons had been mismatched, it was clear he was uncared for.

As I put my arms around him to hug him and comfort him, and rebuttoned his apron correctly and wiped his face clean, it was clear to me I should not run away, but that I should stay behind and somehow arrange it that I should be able to keep an eye out for little Alain, even though the boys and girls were kept separate. It was only because of this fortuitous meeting in the woods that my father found both of us present when he happened to come to pick us up later that day! In the normal nature of things, of course, we never told him.

The winter of '46-'47 was a very nasty one in Europe. We lived in a house in Sevres, a suburb of Paris, with the same aunt and a small dog, and our father made more or less regular visits as he continued to work for PWD. I don't remember much about this period, except the cold and the cat-sized rats, and the moments of great joy when our father made a surprise appearance and played with us, and shot the rats with a beebe gun.

Where life began to have meaning for me was during the summer of 1947. My father rented a small house at the seashore at a place called Cabourg, and we stayed there all summer with our Aunt Marthe, and our father made periodic showings for the odd weekend.

Because of his work at PWD, my father was closely connected with all sorts of people in the film industry, some of whom had rented seaside houses in an affluent neighborhood, more appropriate for "famous" people, that is Deauville, not so far from Cabourg, both places enjoying the very rigorous same climate, weather to you and me, and the summer of 1947 was a long, cold, wet one... gales galore. These are shores with vast differences between high and low tides. When the tide was out, inumerable tidal pools would shimmer into the distance where you could just see the waves break along the sand, this would have been most interesting, if the weather had been good, for one thing, and if it had not been so soon after the end of the war, for another, when all these tidal pools and stretches of wet sand were filled with all kinds of unexploded ordnance and stranded mines. Noone was allowed to bathe at low tide, and demining teams came down to explode all sorts of things on a regular basis, if they could find the stuff ahead of curious kids who exploded them all on their own, trying to work out how they functioned..

No big deal, really: swimming at high tide was just terribly unpleasant anyway, all that freezing summer, you rarely wanted to go in at all, you wantted to come out as soon as the grownups allowed you to, all purple and goosebumped, when they ripped off your sandy-wet woollen jersey swimming suit, rubbed you raw with a sandy-wet towel, and changed you into a sandy-dry woollen jersey swimming suit, where you shivered and itched until the grownups decided it was enough misery for one day, and you could finally change back into your regular clothes and go home to the cold, miserable, unheated summer rental house, which had no smidgeon of "home" about it, but where no one stopped you from hunkering down on the cold porch with the book you finally could pick up again..

During the cold winter before this raw summer, I had developped an avid reading habit. To be frank, real life held very little attraction for me during this entire period: I was still missing my mother and my grandmother too much. I took no comfort from Aunt Marthe: I was far too aware of the fact that from May to December of 1944, I had been abandoned to strangers who ill-treated me terribly, and to the thought which carried the weight of reality as I perceived it, that I was the only person who had survived the bombing. So that the discoverey, or revelation, in December, that both Aunt Marthe and Alain had also survived, and that she had taken Alain with her, left me with an abysmally deep mystery, why had no one ever come to check out how I was doing? Why hadn't anyone thought it important to come give me one hug and let me know I was not alone in the world, someone, somewhere loved me and we would one day be reunited?

I thought it was all my fault and that I was not loveable. It didn't exactly make me feel like reaching out.

Anyway, discovering the world of literature was the perfect solace: I loved reading, and when I stepped into a book the world became perfect, nothing was impossible, all pain became tolerable, nay, nonexistent, and I lacked for nothing.

Among my father's famous friends, in Deauville, was Leo Lax, who was known in his day for "Special Effects". As I remember it, he had a daughter about my age, maybe just a year or two older, I think I remember her name was Valerie. We didn't meet enough to become real friends, we were just both of us tagalongs with the grownups who met for their own pleasure, but she had a lot of books that I had not read, and she lent them to me, and I was happy and grateful.

I read a lot of books that summer published by the Bibliotheque Rose (the "Pink Library" for young girls, provided by Aunt Marthe) and the Bibliotheque Verte (the "Green Library" for young boys and girls somewhat older, provided by Valerie Lax). I remember my fascination for Edmond Rostand's "Le Roi de la Montagne" (The King of the Mountain), and all the Comtesse de Segur stories, I could not get enough of them.

In those early post-war days, I suppose paper was still fairly rare everywhere in Europe, so that books, newspapers and magazines were always in relatively short supply. But still during that time of hardship one weekly magazine was launched for girls, and it was called "La Semaine de Suzette", Suzette's Weekly. It came out on Wednesdays and the rythm of my life swung on a joyous pendulum, from Wednesday to Wednesday.

I don't believe anything in my life has ever matched the sense of happy expectancy I associate with obtaining the new issue of La Semade de Suzette each week. Even today, the mere mention of the name brings a huge grin to my face and a warm feeling of pleasure into my heart.

Things were not very sophisticated in those early days of recovery, and La Semaine de Suzette was not a glossy-covered, bound affair, filled with advertisements. In fact, I don't remember any advertisements at all.

La Semaine de Suzette was printed on several large sheets of regular newsprint, no photos, just line drawings, black and white only; these large sheets were folded into four and you started out by cutting the pages yourself, if you wanted to handle your copy by turning the pages over. Naturally, Aunt Marthe would not let you use the sharp kitchen knife, she only allowed you access to a very unsharp, almost butterknife blunt knife, after which she berated you for a scruffy cut that was less than perfect. The knife? You say... A bad workman always blames his tools. You learnt to make a sharp crease with the back of your thumbnail, and to work out how to cut mutiple folds one at a time, carefully, patiently, so that you never tore an ugly gash across a part of the text. This difficulty of access to the contents built a head of steam on the excitement of opening a new issue.

When you had properly cut your magazine, the next decision to be made was: which sequel to read first. La Semaine de Suzette operated on the simple formula of several parallel cliffhangers! Then also, every week there would be a new, stand alone story of one sort or another.

In that childhood of mine, La Semaine de Suzette always satisfied, never disappointed. I truly believe it is the reason I grew up halfway normal. I also remember it had a serial about children a little older than myself, teenagers old enough to have experienced the German occupation with a great deal more awareness than mine, and this serial story fascinated me even more than the ones which told more familiar tales appropriate to my age group, as they enabled me to process and reevaluate some of my own experiences, which I would otherwise not have been able to assimilate, since there was no one around me at the time with whom I could have discussed what were for me events of tremendous significance, carrying unimaginable pain and regrets.

La Semaine de Suzette was my secret garden and my fortress.

As they remember it, it rained all summer in Normandy for everyone except me. Despite the memory of the cold bathings on that mined, windswept beach, it never rained on me: I had the best time of my life and I mainly remember that weather and that miserably cold climate because everyone else has told me so often what it was like that I have finally adopted the opinion of the majority.

In my inner heart, it glows forever with the tremendous sunshine of La Semaine de Suzette.




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