Sunday, May 30, 2004

I was in a strange mood, last night.

A friend emailed me, saying she hoped we might meet for coffee sometime. I emailed back a suggestion we could take advantage of her regular shopping trips to my neighborhood, where I know she stocks up on organic staples. Then, she emailed me to say, great idea, but I'm going to be too bizzy for the next month or so, is that OK? Well, yes, it is OK.

For a lot of people, let's face it, that's what it's all about. "Do you really like me?" Once you have reassured them, they move on. It's the personal version of the politician's "How am I doing?"

My Holey Ghostliness was about to slump into, not a rant, but an unholy mo----o-----o-----an, when it occurred to me to nip it in the bud, and I fished around my drawers until I unearthed a large rayon thinggy printed with zebras of all stripes stotting across a savannah. And I felt much, much better. And I went to bed early.

Irene called a few times. She is job hunting these days and she has given my name as a personal reference. Nobody has called me yet. I have told her I would let her know when they do, still she calls to make sure.

"Gotta go!" she announces brightly before hanging up, "Eh... How are you doing?"

"Fine, just fine." What is there to say?

Irene hasn't actually seen me once since the party at Sabrina's early this year, where I made the shrimp toast, etc. I have told her about my news, my condition, but I would bet my last dollar she has no idea what is really happening.

Hey, kiddies, guess what? One of these days, my URL is gonna change for good, without my prior approval, or even much advance notice, to me or from me.

My friend Gil up in Canada has been somewhat upset and scoldy at the way I talk about the perceived failure of my life. It's her conviction that we all bring to the table everything that we have, at all times, so that it's never "nothing", but always "such as it is".

She said something like "You made me your assistant librarian in school, and I couldn't read. Then I became full librarian, and I still couldn't read. Then I came to Canada, and became a teacher, and I still couldn't read. Then I became a special Ed teacher, and then a school principal, and so and so on..."

"...And you still couldn't read!"

We both laugh.

That is practically the truth, because Gil is blind in one eye and her good eye is on her "wrong side", if you know what I mean.

Gil read my post about Suzanne B. She comes from the same kind of background and she knew Suzanne well until her marriage. She did not know about the death of her parents though, only about her adoption by some other couple.

"Isn't it funny," says Gil, "How people with a common experience always find each other?"

On Suzanne, the notable thing was she was not Doom and Gloom, by a long shot. She was full of fun and high spirits, a radiant, energetic, laughing slip of a girl. Gil thinks I am probably the only person she ever told her story.

Gil told me her own story too, once upon a time.

I have heard so many stories in my life, is it any wonder sometimes my heart feels like it's been kicked by a 40-mule train?

On my mother's side of the family, there is a large family which doesn't speak to each other because of one family feud after another. It goes back to a Dragon ancestress whose name was Olympia.

What distinguishes this particular Olympia from the others was the fact she wore the pants in her marriage, she despised her husband, who built a chicken run in the back of the castle in which they lived, where he took refuge with his hens and had himself a nice, quiet, peaceful time, keeping out of her way.

They had two children, a boy and a girl. The Dragoness called the girl Olympia, after herself, and despised her. She married her off as soon as possible, very advantageously and very far (there was a huge dowry came with the girl), and thereafter was able to devote her affections and energies to the only thing that interested her, the apple of her eye, the light of her life, her son, my great-grandfather.

Down the pike, it became a tradition in each generation for the first-born girl to be named Oympia after the Dragoness, unless a suitable alibi could be found to name a girl something else (for instance, something like the threat of disinheritance by some other member of the family). When came my generation, the custom was discontinued as the Dragoness slowly relinquished her grip before passing on to her just reward.

I met her just once, when I was about two years old and my mother taught me a little song to sing for her name day. I can still sing this little song, it's in Breton and I don't know what it means anymore. But if ever a tune gets stuck in my head, all I need do is sing this little song and it clears everything.

I also remember being carried into the Dragoness's parlor in someone's arms for the event, and seeing the grand piano in front of the small-paned french windows, through which streamed shafts of afternoon sunlight, speckled with golden dust motes dancing as if alive, splashing bright stripes of vivid colours across a beautiful persian carpet. I never knew what I was remembering so clearly until 1986, when my Aunt Marie in California, as I told her the story of my little song and described the room, exclaimed: "You are describing Granma's parlor at 5 rue d'Orleans--Oh, yes, but that was a beautiful carpet!"

Anyway, all the Olympias on my mother's side hated their name, and they all went by their middle name "Marie". None of our Maries were real Maries, they were all of them Olympias, incognito. Aunts, cousins, second cousins, whatever. Past a certain age, no matter what the relationship, we children called them "Aunt Marie".

So there was an Aunt Marie who actually was a first cousin of my grandmother's--or rather, actually my grandfather's. She had a house at the seashore, and she would lend us her apartment in Paris during the school holidays sometimes, when the weather was fine enough to go to the seashore. Afterwards, I continued visiting her, whenever I came to Paris. She held an open house on Saturdays for young people, children and young grownups of all provenance. She was married to a famous French general from World War I and the old codger would be stuck deep in an armchair in his carpet slippers (he suffered from the gout), surrounded by young graduates from top French engineering schools and military academies, who were dragged in by Aunt Marie as fodder to play chess with the General.

Parenthesis: In my family an Uncle would never be called Uncle Henry, or Uncle Daniel, or Uncle Augustus, but specifically: "The General", or "The Captain", or "The Bishop", etc. I only know of one exception, cousin Robert Lhuillier de Laon, who went missing in action during World War I, whose body was never recovered, and who to this day is referred to in the family as "Robert the Disappeared" ("Robert le Disparu"). End of parenthesis.

When you arrived for lunch on Saturdays at Aunt Marie's the elevator would usually be stuck upstairs on some higher floor, because the last person to use it had not closed the door, and it would not ever move again until you slammed it shut as you walked past. You would have to start up the six flights of stairs, and after the first landing, you would start coming across various packages: a few stray oranges, a french baguette, a cardboard container of sauerkraut, miscellaneous cheeses, a carton of gooey cakes, jars of pickles, packets of cold cuts, tubs of salads, etc., etc. By the time you rang the doorbell with your nose, your arms were full of goodies, and Aunt Marie would open the door and beam at you: "Oh, thank you soooo much for bringing lunch!"

The charm of her luncheons was in part due to the fact you never knew who would be there, and then, there was no menu. You were pretty much a bunch of kids around the huge dining room table, and every kind of food was available, you could eat whatever you liked. It literally meant that if you were so-minded, you could stuff your face with nothing other than "choux a la creme". Aunt Marie definitely saw no merit in the meat and two veg regimen.

Drinks were the same too, and yes, there was wine, if you so chose. You were deemed to be grownup enough to decide for yourself whether you wanted some or not.

At the end of the meal, Aunt Marie made her incomparable coffee, in an oldfashioned drip pot with a sock. It was always worth it to "help her" in the kitchen, you could learn a thing or two.

Her incomparable coffee contained: two varieties of coffee grounds, roasted chicory, salt, sugar, a few grains of rice--and instant Nescafe. Yeah!

"I don't give anyone my secret recipe," she told me, making it sound like a conspiracy of significance.

Aunt Marie had raised three daughters, about my mother's age. They were all three of them artists, I believe two of them married artists and I think the third married some American drug manufacturer in Salt Lake City.

Aunt Marie's little apartment had original art on all the walls, gifts, I gathered, from her daughters and sons-in-law. We were doing a walkabout one day, admiring the art. There were quite a number of paintings representing kitchen cupboards, opened wide onto empty shelves: it must have been a phase of one of the donors. I noticed someone had cut out and pasted onto the shelves various cans and sauce bottles from glossy magazines, and here and there, a bright green pepper, a ripe tomato, a bunch of fresh bananas.

"Uh...." I said to Aunt Marie, "Did the cupboards come empty, or did they come fully stocked?"

Aunt Marie swung around to me and hugged me, laughing: "You are the only person who has ever asked me!" Then, she said: "Yes, I put all this stuff up--Those empty shelves were downright depressing."

"So, who did the paintings?" I asked, "Maryvonne?"


"And she doesn't say anything when she comes over to see you?"

"No. She just thinks I've lost my marbles, but she doesn't say anything. It embarrasses her! So, I don't say anything either."

"I think it's funny!" I said.

"I think it's funny too," Aunt Marie said, wiping the tears from her eyes.

"You know," she murmured, "We are all of us not very much at all, not so very much at all." Pause. "I raised those three girls..."

I waited.

"The other day, Josephine Z. came to lunch on Saturday. Now, she is just sixteen. She came over to me and asked me: 'Tell me, Aunt Marie, how exactly are you related to me, I mean, how is it you are my aunt?'
I had to say to her: 'My dear little Josephine, I am your grandmother.' Can you imagine it? She comes to lunch regularly on Saturdays, she didn't know who I am..."

I couldn't find words: all I could do is hug her, and hug her.

And slowly change the subject to one of joy, when I told her that I had discovered her pet field mouse in the kitchen, years earlier, when she had lent us her apartment for Easter once, and how it would come into my hand to be fed and I had not told my father about it, because for sure there would have been a mouse trap the very next day if I had. And we were able to enjoy the shared memory of that sweet little tamed wild creature, lost from its country home in the sixth floor kitchen of a Paris apartment building.

The wymin of my family, my very own Olympiads, are precious and wonderful to me--as in "full of wonder".
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