The Resting Place
©2021 Michèle Bacholle
“The Resting Place” is about never getting to the bottom of abuse, no matter how hard and how long we try to remember and piece together snippets of memory, aided by photographs. It is also about learning to be at peace with the enduring doubts and uncertainties.
Knit purl knit purl knit purl. I remember being a compulsive knitter. As soon as I was done with a sweater, I would start a new one. I remember being a compulsive reader. As soon as I finished reading a book, I would start a new one. So many stitches, so many words. I stopped knitting when I came to this country. I didn't stop reading, but I read differently. I learned to read critically. I discovered new writers. Writers who wrote in my language but who were not widely read in my country, who were known only in closed circles. I discovered truths about recent history. I discovered what was unsaid in the pictures of soldiers pausing in front of palm trees, drenched by the sun. Not the whole truth – that would come later – but the fabric of history started to unravel. The words of others unearthed secrets. Now I am knitting words in a foreign language in an attempt to unearth my story, buried under the countless stitches I knit and purled compulsively, under the countless words I read compulsively. I yank on the yarn, I pull on the pen. So many aborted beginnings.
The First Place
The very first clear memory I have of my childhood is on the steps of the city hall. I am 5. Or almost 5. The year is 1974 and as I go down the steps, I proclaim that Giscard will win the elections and be president of the French Republic. I don't recall who his opponent was. Nor even if it was the first or second round in the presidential elections. I just remember announcing loud and clear, as I go down the ten or so steps, that he will be president. I can only assume that, my father being a fierce Gaullist, the political talks at home revolved around Giscard, the rightist candidate. I am sure that my father voted for him, as he voted later on for Chirac, and more recently for Sarkozy.
Until that Sunday in 1974 everything is a haze. Memories reconstructed, reconstituted from family photographs. Collage-like childhood. Two or three-year-old me in a long white dress, puffing skirt of tulle, a dark blue velvet ribbon around the waist. Golden locks frame my green eyes and radiant smile. Seven or eight-year-old me dressed as a squaw, maybe a Cherokee, my cheeks flushed flamboyant red for dancing in so many rings. Both pictures were taken in the Salle des Fêtes, the big room that in my memory occupies the whole second floor of the city hall. That is where municipal social events were organized, from card games nights to children's carnival dance parties like these two, when the photographs were taken. As a member of the Comité des Fêtes, the committee in charge of the town's social events, my father organized, or at least attended, these events. The first floor of the city hall hosted the town offices and a large room for civil weddings. Maybe it is in this room that the town people cast their votes that Sunday. It would be easy for me to check. Some members of my family still live in that town. I could go to the city hall next time I visit. But what use would it be? It is just a detail. Not bigger than one of these dots on pointillist paintings. Just a little dot. But dots make a painting and focusing on details is sometimes the only way to mask the truth, to escape from reality. I don't know when the assault took place. Probably before that Sunday in 1974, or else I would remember. Wouldn’t I?
The town is small. 1,500 inhabitants. 2,000 at most. Still. It is surrounded by a dozen villages. Their students have to take the bus to come to my town, the closest secondary school.
My memory is failing. My memory is faulty. My memory is at fault.
There is a monster in me. It is gnawing at me. Some would say it is depression. But I know better. I tried to run away from the monster. I put an ocean between us. But the monster caught up. In fact, it never left. It went dormant. It was always there. It is always there.
I remember that my father used to park his van, the van he sold fish in, going from house to house in the countryside surrounding my town, on the left side of the church, almost behind it, so it was almost out of view when you stood in front of the church or parked your car on the small parking lot there. I don't know why he didn't park it in front. Or on the street in front of the shop. Maybe out of respect for a place where he never set foot except for weddings, baptisms, and funerals, but where he demanded that I attend mass every Sunday with my aunt, his sister. Certainly out of commercial interest, so that customers have room to park their own cars, so that his shop window with the sale of the week hand-written on it with that special paint called blanc d'Espagne, white from Spain, that could be wiped clean with a wet cloth, is not blocked. I don't know if at that time he already used that strange, hard to read handwriting to advertise the specials. It did look good. Very artsy. But on paper the letters looked like fireworks trails going in all directions. To me, it was as incomprehensible as Chinese, or Arabic but without the roundness and the arabesques, with an infallible rigidity instead. It was not even illegible the way doctors' handwriting is. It was illegible out of lack of practice. I don't think his wrist ever learned to become supple enough to form the loops and turns of cursive writing, his whole arm moves when he writes, even to this day. Did I get kissed by the left side of the church, not far from my father's van? or did I just long for that kiss so much that I think I remember being kissed there? I had almost forgotten that boy, whose mother bears the same name as me. I just know that I didn't want to move away from this town, from all the promises that it held.
I remember that we had catechism in a small building, past the gates of the rectory, to the left front of the church. I went once to see Abbott Adam in his living quarters to rehearse a text I was to read at mass. I could not for the love of God say His name right, it came out as Djeu, rather than Dieu. I was deaf to the abbott's teaching, pig-headed in my pre-adolescent rebellion. I don't know what the abbott thought of that eleven-year-old girl, whom he had baptized three weeks into her life. The abbott just said mass and had no bearing over my life, nor my behavior.
I remember that with my classmates, we used to attend mass every November 11 and May 8. There was a ceremony in front of the church and a wreath was placed there for soldiers who had fallen during these two wars. The day before, three different flags would appear in our living room. As a war veteran and a member of the veterans' association, my father was the “Keeper of the flags.” But I don't recall that he was the bearer of any of those three flags during the ceremony. After mass, we, schoolchildren, would walk down the main street in a procession to the city hall, where we would receive a small brioche. This sweet bun was the best part of the day. The brioche was warm, golden, topped by four little mounds that looked like four burgeoning breasts. I would slowly eat those one by one and get to the soft heart of the brioche. Mr. Cahorel's brioches had that specific look and texture. Never have I seen nor tasted them again. Same thing with his lemony madeleines. They're just part of my childhood, as much its prisoners as Marcel Proust’s Albertine.
After the procession and the distribution of brioches, everybody would disperse. It was almost lunchtime. Women would go to the baker get the petits gâteaux, the individual cakes delicately wrapped in a paper pyramid and carried with the index finger inserted in the loop of the tying ribbon. Or they would put the finishing touches to the fancy holiday meal. Men would probably go to the café for an apéritif, a little drink before lunch. Children would follow one group or the other. I probably returned home since the shop was open till 12:30 or 1pm on that day. Since those days were like Sundays, we would probably then go for lunch at my grandmother's.
I remember that the schoolteachers would wait for us outside the church. Ours was the town's public school. I think the children from L'Abbaye, the Catholic school, walked in the procession and attended mass too. How else would I have seen Pierre, a blond boy I was secretly in love with? I used to feel red in the cheeks and weak at the knees whenever I saw him. I don't think he ever noticed me. At that age, boys don't notice girls, especially younger ones.
I remember the duckies made of galantine, that pâté covered with a film of jelly that the charcutier sold at Christmas time. I always asked my mother to buy me one. They came with a small paper umbrella. Infinite desire for those duckies. No sooner was one on my plate than I ate the head and always left the rest. I never liked the galantine they were made of, this hodgepodge of meat and God knows what else. Each Christmas, a beheaded ducky remained stranded on my plate.
I remember galloping up and down the main street. I don't know who I thought I was. I was just riding my horse, running in a galloping way. People must have thought that I was crazy. A crazy girl on a horse. Just that they couldn't see the horse. So many things people couldn't see.
I remember Aurora.
I remember the former school director's funeral. His son was in my class, and probably because we were his classmates, we sat close to the altar, on the side. Jean-Pierre did not sit with us though. Behind me, I could hear Véronique's sobs and I wondered why she was sobbing so hard. And why I wasn't. So I made that pained face and tried to jerk a few tears out of my eyes. Apparently, it worked. My mother said I looked sad and affected at the funeral. Everything is just pretense. A big farce.
I remember Sister Marie-Henri. Rarely did I go up to L'Abbaye. I went for a retreat before my solemn Communion. And I went for Sister’s piano lessons. Sister Marie-Henri would place big coins, or medals, on my hands to keep them flat over the keys. I don't know if I wanted to learn the piano, or if my parents wanted me to. Probably not the latter. In any case, I never went further than the Méthode rose, the first (pink) book. The Méthode bleue, the second (blue) volume, remained as elusive as a bat in a cave.
I remember periodically going to the churchyard. You need to go around the church on the right, past the main door that all my cousins who got married in S. passed as new husbands and wives under handfuls of rice thrown at them in celebration, and then go down to the tall iron door. The path was lined by what looked like laurel bushes, at least six feet tall, or maybe they were not laurel bushes; the leaves looked like laurel leaves but didn't have the fragrance of laurel. The scentless path of laurel bushes opened up to rows and rows of tombstones. My grandmother's was farther down, on the left. You had to watch where you walked. You couldn't step on the edge of the tombstone, that was disrespectful. Every October 31, my father would clean her tombstone, and the next day we would bring flowers and I would look at the picture of an old woman, in fact not that old, in her early sixties but with white hair, a woman made old by eight children, five boys, three girls, by ten pregnancies, a woman I never knew. I would then ask my mother to visit Mrs. Houet's grave. She had been my pre-school teacher. I remember her heavy silhouette, her brown hair a soft halo around her gentle face, her thick, swollen ankles, her heavy legs. I remember that she liked me. That she had great hopes for me. That she said that I would go far. That she trusted me, and that I trusted her. But I am sure I never told her it. How could I have?
I remember the hazelnut cookies that we bought at Mr. Brisset's pastry shop. They looked like a hazelnut cluster, brown with sprinkled green sugar. Each of the four sugary prongs held a hazelnut, carefully hidden inside. You had to bite hard through the sugar coat to expose it. Mr. Brisset's store was close to Mr. Houet's ambulance company. After his wife died, Mr. Houet married a nun from L'Abbaye. She renounced her vows in order to marry him. Not long after my pre-school teacher had died. I sometimes wondered if he went to visit her grave after he remarried.
I remember the dolls that periodically sat in the baker's shop at the top of the main street. For little money, you could guess their names. After the baker had collected enough names, we would find out the doll’s real name, and whoever had guessed right would win the doll. I never won. And I never realized that the doll's name was probably not known beforehand, that her name was most certainly drawn from the pool of names suggested by children and silly geese like me. How could one, even a doll, not have a name until fate struck? Even I had a name before fate struck. These poor dolls sat there with their ruffled dresses and no name. I sometimes wondered if they had underwear beneath their wide, ruffled skirts. I always wore underwear.
I remember buying chewing gums at that same baker's. If the chewing gum had a green wrapping inside, you won and could get another piece of gum; if the wrapping was pink, you lost, and that was it. Such excitement to unwrap the gum and see if the underlining was green or pink. The promise of more excitement if it was green. The end of the game if it was pink. Until next time.
I remember the dentist in Ch. who put four crowns in my mouth, two on each side on the bottom. He worked alone, with soft music playing. When I told him I was thinking of becoming an English major, he talked to me about King Arthur. It was almost an enjoyable experience, hearing about King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table while having one's teeth disappear under crowns.
I remember the dentist that filled in for Dr. Bouhon one summer in S. I must have been nine. In my mind's eye, I'm wearing the jeans of the two piece suit I wore for my aunt's wedding, which must have been in the summer of 1977 since my uncle, her brother, was there and he died in March 1978. Maybe it was another pair of jeans altogether. The substitute dentist was young, probably inexperienced with children. Back then, we didn't go to the dentist unless we had a toothache. There was no prevention. And my mouth was always full of candy, and therefore full of cavities. I visited Dr. Bouhon quite often. One had to walk under an arch and down along a tree-lined path to get to his office. It was a tranquil place. The sound of the wind rustling in the leaves. The shaded waiting room. The office. The chair. I don't think I was afraid when I sat in it. Soon I would be relieved of my toothache. I don't think I ever felt scared when I went to Dr. Bouhon until that day. Since then, I've uneasily sat in dentist chairs. I don't notice how tense I am until the appointment is over and I feel my muscles relax and I see the nail marks in the palms of my hands. The substitute dentist must have welcome us and asked me to sit in the chair. My mother must have sat somewhere behind me. In my recollection I can't see her. Back then, the instrument now placed in the mouth, hanging over the bottom lip and that sucks up the saliva, didn't exist. The substitute dentist told my mother that I was producing an abnormal amount of saliva. I could feel the irritation in his voice, which, mixed with the noise made by the tree leaves as they brushed against the large windowpane, made the scene surreal. I could feel the saliva running down my chin and all of a sudden sharp pain in my right thigh. The substitute dentist had not placed the drill back on the small metal table with the rest of his instruments but laid it to rest on my thigh. Inadvertently, he had pressed on the pedal. The drill had gone through my jeans, making a hole in them the size of a dime. I can't see blood on my thigh. I can hear my nine-year-old self scream, the tears and the snot from my nose now mixing with the saliva. Through my wailing, I can hear him angrily tell my mother what an insufferable child I am. The door out of the office led straight onto the courtyard, we didn't have to go through the waiting room. I found myself walking back up the tree-lined path, my hand in my mother's, the front of my white tee-shirt drenched with tears, snot, and saliva, a hole in my jeans. A scar on my thigh still bears witness to this visit. I don't know if my mother spoke to Dr. Bouhon about this event. We did return to his office. He was the only dentist in town.
I have asked them to remember. Will they? I asked her once, my mother, point blank. She denied knowing anything. Seeing anything. Suspecting anything. I couldn't ask him. Didn't even occur to me to ask him. What could he remember, this man who can't even recall important news I told him about last week? What does he remember? Does he remember?
I remember my body opening up for my son. After being stuck for three hours, he unwedged himself and I was able to push him through. The birth canal, which had felt tight and as hopeless as a dead-end street, suddenly, magically, abracadabraesquely opened.
I remember the bright yellow synthetic fur coat that made me look like Big Bird or like a lost chick who had wandered away from the coop or from the cardboard box that my grandmother used to keep by the fireplace. We could hear the chicks' and ducklings' squeaks muffled by my grandmother’s cozy sweaters that kept them warm and made the box their home. I loved that chick coat and wore it so much that the fur had clumped up. It almost went down to my knees and thus covered my almost bare butt that evening when we went to the fair after spending the day with my cousin S. I envied S's freedom to play outside her apartment building. There were wide stone stairs flanked with two wide sides that we decided we would use as slides. It must have been difficult to slide down those stone make-do toboggans, but we had a lot of fun, only to end in tears when we realized that the repeated friction from the stone had worn out my pants and S's red tights and our parents scolded us. On the way back, we stopped by at the fair as planned. The coat covered the big hole in my pants, but I was mortified and felt so humiliated, my underwear exposed. S. had gone back home. And probably changed.
I remember the doll whose skirt was all puffy because of the petticoats underneath it. It was at a time when women wore petticoats under their skirts or dresses. Later I had a white cotton petticoat with a lace hem. My mother wore slips. White slips, pink slips, nude color slips. I think she wore them in the summer too, she just removed her pantyhose and showed her white legs. Not the elegant kind of legs that make Hollywood tremble, the swollen at the ankle kind, but free of varicose veins. The doll was not big, maybe four inches tall. She had long dark hair. Maybe braided. Maybe she had a scarf on her head, tied in the back, under the hair that still showed on both sides of her face. I used to lift her skirt and her petticoats one by one. Each was longer than the next. Under the last one – there may have been ten of them – she was wearing underwear. My pleasure, slowly lifting the petticoats. Men don't chase skirts, they chase petticoats.
I remember the red swimsuit I wore for the lesson at the swimming pool in C. It was a one-piece suit, with small cups to accommodate my growing but still only burgeoning nine-year-old breasts. Their sudden burst made me feel self-conscious in my regular swimsuit. So my mother bought me the one-piece suit of that orangey red hue that I didn't dislike. The cups were slightly too big and made my breasts, which I obviously wanted to hide, even more conspicuous. I remember trying to hide the whole thing under a red and blue checkered shirt with two breast pockets, but the bumps were still visible, and I would get on the bus that took us to C. in tears. Maybe my friends thought I was crying because I didn't like the swimming lessons. And it is true I didn't like them since I was not very good at it. I was scared, I couldn't bring myself to jump into the pool even though I knew the instructor held a pole over our heads that we could grab onto if needed. Once, he surreptitiously asked one of my classmates to push me in. No, I was crying because of that damn suit that exposed the ongoing changes in my body and made me different from my classmates. (The following year, then out of elementary school, I was the only one of two that menstruated; Sylvie, the other one, was older than me by two years.) During gym class the boys looked for any hint of a sanitary pad under our clothes. One proudly announced that he now could procreate. Another one kept a Playboy magazine in his desk drawer. Since my desk was close to his at the back of the classroom, I could see that he sometimes had his hand in his pants and moved it rhythmically. I avoided his gaze and focused on the lesson instead.
I remember that F. once said that I used to climb the big tree of the rectory's courtyard and kiss him there. That is a lie. I am clumsy and scared of heights. Even today, being on a ladder to get into the attic which doesn't have the slide-down stairwell, petrifies me. How could I ever have climbed up any tree?
I remember that as kids, we used to play on the side of the church flanked by the sacristy, and also on the dirt road in the back. Behind the church lied some fields and then the churchyard, invisible from the back of the church. The structure of the building provided us with nooks and cranies that were perfect for playing hide-and-seek. Hardly any car ever came in the back. They all parked on the parking lot in the front of the church. Except for my father’s van, parked right behind the sacristy.
The right hand-side of the church was lined by two-story houses whose windows overlooked the parking lot and a small café, named after the title of a novel by the local 19th century writer whose bust stood guard over the entrance of the castle. I remember the café as a dark, dingy, sordid kind of place run by a single woman that my father seemed to know. (Her name was also the name of a sister of his, who died in infancy.) It somewhat changed when her nephew took over, it attracted a younger crowd, you could hear music played on the juke box. I didn't go there then. I think I went with my father once in a while when Marie-Aimée still ran it. He preferred to go to the café that was in the middle of the main street or the one at the bottom of the main street, maybe because the owners were also our customers and we had to "return" their business. The name of Marie-Aimée's café (but did it have that name when she was running it?) stuck with me. The Crimson Curtain. Maybe because it brought poetry and a certain cachet to a place that had none. Maybe because it made me think of one of the doll's petticoats.
Our little town could thus pride itself in being the birthplace of a quite famous writer, probably the only thing it had going for it. I remember that when I was in 6th grade, there was talk of a movie made of another one of this writer's novels, The Bewitched. It would be shot in the surrounding bocage, the vegetation so typical of the area. There were rumors that schoolchildren would be hired as stand-ins. A few of my classmates went. (To audition? Or to actually be in the film?) The magic of the 7th art didn't touch me, and I don't know if the shooting ever took place, let alone if the movie came out.
The topography of the town is quite simple. The main street stretches from the church to the castle. Toward the bottom of the main street, a small open space where the open market is held every Saturday morning. From there, a perpendicular street crosses the main street and leads to the city hall and its bigger open expanse. If you go down in the other direction, you pass by the place where the covered market is held on Tuesday mornings and end up at the public garden and the pre-school. The fact that there are other streets, houses, even businesses beyond these four landmarks doesn't really matter. For me, the town is the main street which I gallop up and down, back and forth on my imaginary horse, looking occasionally at my reflection in the shop windows.
This is not where it happened.
This is not where it happened.
I remember the florist's daughter's orange knitting project. One Saturday afternoon, I went to her place at the top of the street to learn how to knit. The house, or rather the living quarters, were behind the shop, as at our place. She was knitting something orange, maybe a purse, in stockinette stitch while watching TV. She showed me the garter stitch, lost patience, and let me fight on my own with my needles. I came home with a shapeless little whatever knit, pink and dark blue and full of holes. She had refused to show me how to start a new row. My mother finally realized that I was serious about learning how to knit and she properly taught me. From age ten to twenty-one I knit fiercely, ferociously, as if my life depended on it.
For some reason, my memory collapses the florist's daughter's brother with the son of the drugstore's owner. Both were older, maybe looked vaguely similar. I remember going to the drugstore once when the son was watching the store for his mom. I was looking at lipsticks, he was somewhere in the back, out of my sight. I had probably just started being interested in make-up. I was wearing my jean jacket, which had two inside pockets. I wanted these lipsticks so badly. The temptation was so violent that I thought of slipping one in one of my inside pockets. The boy was out back, he wouldn't see anything. I didn't. I came to the cash register and lay there what my mother had sent me to buy. Then he asked me to put the lipstick I had stolen on the counter. I told him I had stolen nothing. He insisted. I argued I didn't. I pleaded innocent, I even offered to show him my empty pockets. He wouldn't look. I remember being home, later, in tears, upset that I had been suspected of this crime, ashamed that I had been tempted to commit it. The doctor came, gave me an injection to calm my nerves. The next day, the drugstore owner apologized to my mother for her son's behavior. She didn't believe him. She told him she couldn't believe him because even when there were free samples, I always asked for her permission to take one. But I was guilty. In thought if not in action. And he knew it.
I remember Aurora and her older sister.
I remember my white and apple green bike that I left outside my father’s store one evening. In the morning, it was gone.
I remember waiting on the step in front of the store for my father to come back on the evening of the town's fair. My aunt and her daughters were staying at my grandmother's that month. My older cousin hated being there. To be fair, she didn't have a good time with my grandmother, who openly favored her younger sister. Around 5 pm, since she didn't want to go back to my grandmother's so early, my cousin asked me to come for a walk with her. We walked and talked, talked and walked quite far. When we finally came back, my aunt, my mother, and my grandmother were waiting for us on the sidewalk. My father had gone to the police, who laughed at him when he told them that my eighteen-year-old cousin and I were gone. He had been scouring the streets and roads around town in his car and had enlisted the help of one of his nephews. When we came back, my mother got in a car with my aunt, grandmother, and cousin, and left me alone on the front step on that deserted late Sunday afternoon, waiting for my father. I think it’s the only time he hit me. He slapped me in the face, refusing to hear that I was not responsible, that it was all my cousin’s fault. I went straight to bed, without dinner. When he came to talk to me later as I lay in bed, I just turned my back to him. Maybe that’s why we didn’t talk for so long. As for my mother, she’s never been one to show any guts. She took the easy way out. She ran and left me out to dry. I realize now that she’s always run from unpleasant conversations. Try to broach any delicate topic, she ups and leaves. It may be her nature, but she was supposed to protect me.
I remember going to the bank with my mother. She would deposit the week’s earnings. She would tell me, in such a concerned voice: “We don’t have any money anymore.” And she rang so true that I would panic and try to come up with ideas. Give the teller a piece of paper and he’ll give you money. What sick pleasure did she derive from that? Still, it never occurred to me that she lied. She was just teasing.
I remember my hair cut in that singer’s style. I hated that singer, her huge mouth, big teeth, and that black hair on her head that looked like a bowl. I had that hairstyle for years. I know from photographs that I used to have long hair. It must have been really nice because the hairdresser once offered my mother to give me a special haircut so that she enters a competition or gets her hairdresser degree. I got all dolled up but then refused to walk on the catwalk with my beautiful new hairdo. I clang to my mother, in tears.
I remember the records I used to buy from the hardware store at the bottom of the main street. I would check them out as I galloped by. I had the records of the most “in” French singers. Decades later, I stumbled upon a TV variety show where these songs and singers were featured. The show’s title was “Les années bonheur,” the happy years.
I remember watching Happy Days at 12:30pm while eating caramel custard for dessert.
I remember the huge Christmas tree they erected in the town square, by the bank, the hardware store and the photographer. That’s where the weekly outdoor market was held, my father selling fish from his van there on Friday mornings. Was there no market in the winter then? The photographer was tall, slender; she had short dark hair and was single, maybe a lesbian. That would put their number at five. My third-grade teacher became director of the pre-school and shacked up with my newly arrived French and Latin teacher. My seventh-grade history teacher lived with her partner a few houses up the street. My father sometimes made some delivery there and cracked tasteless jokes after his visit.
The elementary and secondary public schools were not in the town center. One had to walk past the city hall, past the fire station, and up a road to the top of a little hill. The elementary school was in one building, the playground was delineated by a low fence painted off-white, like the school, a collection of prefab one-story structures, except for the kitchen-dining room and covered courtyard we used at recess on rainy days and to play prisoner's ball.
I used to walk to school and back, twice a day. I would not eat lunch there. I remember walking one morning through the snow. There were only a handful of us there that day since the buses bringing the students from the surrounding villages couldn't make it through the three or four inches of snow. The fifth-grade teacher had us work on our cloth napkin holders. Mine was electric blue – the teacher had sewn the sides of the rectangle, we just had to embroider it. My tulips were embroidered with orange thread and with the excitement of that day's snow, so rare in our parts.
I remember the courtyard for recess. Each season had its game, or each game its season. We played “1-2-3 Soleil,” our version of Green Light Red Light, where one of us would hit the wall three times with their hand and quickly turn around, hoping to catch someone moving. Then we moved on to marbles, then the elastic game, some version of Chinese jump rope. I loved the elastic game although it didn't help me with my complexes. I was bigger than the other girls. Bigger, taller, wider. I remember being the tallest in fifth grade when we played basketball. The elastic game increased in difficulty as the girls passed each level. Two girls, facing each other, would hold the elastic in place around their ankles, then around their knees, at the buttocks level, then at the waist, then under their armpits, and finally, around their shoulders. Then the same levels would be repeated but the girls would stand sideways. I was fine with the game up to the point when the elastic band had to be around only one of our ankles. The girl that would jump always came closer to me than the girl whose ankle held the other side of the elastic. My ankle was thicker and it was easier to perform the complex figures with the elastic there. As an only child with no friends, I used chairs and the legs of the table at home to hold the elastic stretched out, and I would twist it and untwist it with my feet. How far up one could execute the figures was challenging. I've never seen any girl play this game in America. A few years ago, I saw three girls play it in southern Europe, and I couldn't help but smile as I saw in them a carefree reflection of my old self.
I remember that I totally sucked at marbles. My mother kept on buying me marbles, and I would lose them just as fast. I once even played against a girl two years younger, thinking that it would be a sure win, but she still beat me. I was mortified.
We used to have non-organized games at recess. I remember reenacting episodes or inventing spin-offs of the TV shows I used to watch. I played Sam and Sally with J-Y. My father had sanded a small piece of wood that I used as a pretend walkie-talkie. I drew numbers on it and he hammered a nail to peep out at the top as a pretend antenna. I think it's the only game I played with J.-Y. With my cousin S., we played Charlie's Angels. She was Jill. I wanted to be Jill but S. was blond, so I was Kelly. When we were in the car with S., we would look through the back window and squeal "Oh George" and "Oh Georgia" whenever we spotted blue and green cars. S. is the closest I've got to sibling rivalry. She had white-blond hair and was tiny and slim. They all loved her.
At one point, I got my short hair permed. I looked like a Harlem globe-trotter. Some idiot at school called me Curly Sheep. I was a curly sheep doing judo in a floral print blouse under my kimono jacket. I never knew how to defend myself.
I remember the morning we were told that our gym teacher died of an aneurysm during the night. He was not even 40. He was the fun and nice one. The other one, older, with longer salt and pepper hair and his thick but well-trimmed beard (but no mustache), was said to squeeze girls' buttocks.
I remember Rolf und Gisela, the two characters in my German textbook. The English ones were Jenny and Bob, or Brian. The English teacher had beautiful freckled hands and smoked Dunhill cigarettes. My German teacher was also my French teacher, a tiny, slim woman always walking at a brisk pace on her height-defying heels, her fingernails still stained by the bright red nail polish removed the night before. She heard me once call the math teacher "old mother M." and said she would tell her. The next day, I apologized to Mrs. M. only to find out that she knew nothing of the insulting words. I felt my ears turn red when she told me so. She hated me forever after.
I remember Miss B., the arts and crafts teacher. Everything I know about sewing, I learned from her. We used ruled index cards to try to sew in straight lines on the machine. Eventually she had us make a letter notepad, envelopes, and stamps holder out of denim. Mine closed with a pink ribbon. (The boys sewed a hunter's vest.) I kept my denim letter set for a long time.
I remember the short music teacher with long, long hair who sent me to the principal's office when she noticed the cuts on my forearms. What was I to tell the principal? I didn't even know that what I was doing had a name, that it was some kind of disorder. I just used my box-cutter or one of my broken rings to cut my forearms. To me, there was no difference between doing this and spreading superglue on the back of my hand, let it dry, and pulling it up slowly, like shedding an old skin.
I forgot when I started cutting myself. I still lived in the small town with the main street, the church, and the castle. I clearly remember doing it once in the parking lot in front of the church. I forget why. I used to wear rings on each finger, and one was broken. I would pull it apart and use the end to make cuts on my forearm. Tiny cuts. Just deep enough for pearls of blood to rise to the surface. It stung and felt good. Tonight, I do the same. But I’m so angry, I stab at my arm. I don’t have my ring anymore. Nor my box cutter. I used it in class. The school principal the music teacher took me to didn’t understand why I’d cut myself. I just liked it. Tonight, I understand that the stinging feeling draws all the pain pent up inside, as if it were flowing towards it and leaving my body through that pearl of blood. But there is too much pain for this single little pearl.
I remember crying in front of TV, not because of what was on (although, boy did I cry when Mary Ingalls became blind or when there was no other way to lower her temperature than putting her in a tub full of ice). I just cried. And my mother would pass by and ask why. I would shrug my shoulders. I didn't know why. Cry then, it will clean your eyes, she used to say.
I remember Aurora, her older sister, and our games.
I remember Kiki the dog. I remember sitting with him on the steps between the kitchen and the living room and playing with the multi-colored plastic strips of the curtain between the two rooms. When I was sad, I would hug Kiki and cry. He had been there longer than me. He was older and wiser. He must have known.
I remember the storage room between the shop and the living room, where my father kept his tools and where we kept our shoes and all kinds of other things. The house didn't look like much from the street. It was narrow (the width of the shop) but long. Behind the shop was a passage with the storage room to the right, then the living room, the kitchen, the courtyard with a little shed on the right, and a big shed in the back. The apples from the apple tree would fall on the roof of the big shed. I have a picture of my uncle Y. standing on the roof, picking apples.
I remember Titus the guinea pig. He stayed in an open crate in the little shed behind the kitchen. They told me he starved to death because mice ate his food.
I remember the Picasso-like artwork I did one summer in the kitchen. I would put paint on thick paper, like a 5 by 7 flashcard, and mix it. I was especially proud of one that was green and black. I remember my cousin F. calling me to the toilet, opposite the storage room, to see his willy. The roof of the toilet was made of glass, like a greenhouse. I turned around and left as soon as I realized why he called me. What a weirdly shaped house.
I remember the snail-shaped staircase right behind the shop. After two or three steps, there was a little recess where the rotary phone sat (before that, there was a black phone with no dial on it, just a metal lever). The stairs led to my parents' bedroom. There was also a door to my first bedroom, a space tucked between their bedroom and what was to become my big-girl bedroom. Then, behind that third bedroom, a fourth one, overlooking the courtyard and the back shed with the apple tree. There was no door between my first bedroom and my parents' bedroom. I never heard them.
The staircase actually went a bit higher, into the attic, where my mother used to hang the laundry to dry. I remember my parents folding sheets up there and I would jump in them. Later, I used the attic to learn my lessons in peace. I discovered two boxes with adult magazines in them. A few years ago, my mother told me that she was afraid that I would hang myself up there.
I remember the white and orange furniture in my first bedroom and the orange curtain with small white and green flowers that closed and hid some kind of storage space behind an armchair a deep shade of crimson. It was the perfect hiding place when I played hide-and-seek with my cousins F. and S. When I came out of there one Easter Saturday morning, I didn't see the sewing needle that my mother had left in the armchair; it sank straight in the middle of my palm as I put my hand on the armchair to ease myself out of the hiding place. The next day at communion, the priest delicately placed the host on my bandaged hand.
I remember the tiny playing cards with bare-chested women on them. I kept them under the frame of my white bed with big orange knobs. My father found it and I never saw it again.
Aurora's house was opposite from ours. A weirdly shaped house too. Narrow, long, and tall, like ours. Every Wednesday afternoon her mom would make pancakes. There was a room behind their clothing store, vast and well-lit with a large table in the center where Aurora's mom would cut fabric and make dresses and blouses. She used a strange-looking kind of chalk that wasn't chalk to trace the outline along which to cut. The scissors had long, gleaming blades.
I remember spreading superglue all over the back of my left hand during classes. I would wait for it to dry and then slowly peel it off. A lace-like pattern would appear on the stiffened whitish glue. The lines on my skin. Like the veins on a leaf. Endless game, repeated over so many classes. The old skin shed. But the new me didn't rise up to the surface since I had to shed the skin again, and again, and again. Except when we studied Freud and psychoanalysis, I spent all the philosophy classes my last year of high school chipping at my nail polish. I carefully painted my nails in the evening, only to chip at the polish the next morning. Sisyphus without a boulder. Or rather, a self-inflicted punishment in the stead of our games with Aurora. A punishment in the name of what fault?
Where does the truth lie? Comme on fait son lit, on se couche. Wie man sich bettet, so liegt man. In which bed does the truth lie? With which man?
Was there a bed under the glass ceiling in the dining room? I can clearly see the wooden, saloon style doors over the few steps between the kitchen and the dining room that replaced the curtain of multicolored plastic strips. (That's where I used to cry, holding my dog Kiki for comfort.) I can clearly see the other side of the room with the red armchairs, low table, and television where I watched Happy Days and ate caramel custard before going back to school in the afternoon, but I can't see a bed under the glass ceiling. I am told there was one. That's where my grandfather had slept when he came to stay with us. That's what I'm told. I don't know. I don't even remember he stayed with us.
I remember the toilet to the left opposite the storage room, before the living room. It was the same glass ceiling that extended over the living room. Once, my cousin F. called me in there and showed me his thingy. I turned around and went back to whatever it was I was doing. Maybe the black and green paint swirls on a thick paper that I claimed were like Picasso paintings? Wait. I already remembered that. My memories are turning in circles. My words spin a sterile tale.
I remember Aurora, her big sister, and our sick games.
I remember M. He played a drunkard in a play. I liked him. He knew it. We fought at recess, and more than once we ended up wrestling on the wooden floor of the portable classrooms, cheered on by classmates. A boy and older, he had the upper hand of course, or rather the upper body. When I moved away and I saw him again in Ch., the spell had been broken, I was a free girl. So, what was it about that small town that I was unable to shake off?
At the bottom of the main street lies a medieval castle. That's where we would watch the fireworks on national holidays. I remember going with friends under the trees around the lower part of the castle. What looked like little sticks stuck out of the walls. Somebody said it was bones. Once, I even thought I saw a skull. Were people killed there, the bones later used to build the walls? Does this castle have oubliettes, forgotten cells with forgotten prisoners?
I remember going with my parents to see a rebouteux, some kind of medicine man, in the nearby countryside. My mother had hurt her back and could barely move. He would "touch" her, massage her with some cream maybe, and relieve the pain. Once, when the session was over, my father asked him if by any chance he would have something to help me stop suck my thumb. He turned his back and opened some jar with some ointment in it, applied it to my thumb, and warned me "If you suck your thumb, you'll die." At night, I would make sure I put my hand inside my red PJs, between my legs, far away from my mouth. I woke up one morning with my thumb in my mouth, convinced that I would die that day. I rushed downstairs to tell my mother. Total panic. I don't even remember her reaction. I was eight. I never sucked my thumb again. To me though, it still looks more wrinkled than my other thumb.
This is not going anywhere. I am not going anywhere because it is not where it happened.
“She’ll go far,” Mrs Houet used to say about me. “If the little pigs don’t swallow her whole,” added my mother.
Why did you have me? If you didn't want me, why did you have me?
(This summer, I found the doll with the petticoats. Her eyes are missing. She does have underwear.)
This is not going to define me. I won't let it define who I am and dictate my future.
But some days, no matter how much and how hard you squeeze, lemons just don't make lemonade.
On Wednesdays, Muriel would invite me to come over to her house and play with her. As she prepared the batter for their crêpes dinner and tended to her customers, her mom insisted that we don’t leave younger Aurora out of our games. Their place, opposite my parents’ store, felt like a mansion, although it was probably no bigger than ours. The girls had, however, a room all to themselves, with all their toys. Entering it was like stepping into Ali Baba’s cave.
The afternoon always started well. We played with dolls. We played nurse. We played house. Being a bit younger and a lot shorter than me, Muriel was the mom and I the dad. Benevolent and playful at first. But after a while, unfailingly, I would feel increasing frustration and anger towards “our child” Aurora. Nothing but a good spanking, her panties down, could abate these feelings. Aurora would bawl and run down to her mom. Nothing ever came of it. My crime went unpunished. I just stopped going to their place.
I remember my clenched jaw, my bulging eyes, my flared nostrils, my hand as it hit Aurora’s white, round buttocks. To this day, I don’t understand from what hidden fold, what deep recess of my innermost being this anger sprang forth. I was not a violent child. Why this demented brutality against sweet, young, pure and defenseless Aurora?
The Other Place
I remember my grandmother's house in R. When I was very young, the second floor was not finished. Later, my uncles made two bedrooms there. They put up walls and wallpaper. I never slept there.
I remember that there were only two rooms on the ground floor. A big room with a wide fireplace where my grandmother used to keep chicks and ducklings in a cardboard box – a worn-out sweater, full of holes, would keep them warm, we would hear their peeps as we played cards or the horsie board game. A long wooden table stood in front of the fireplace, a wooden bench on one side, chairs on the other. The fire warmed those who sat on the bench. Only one window. At the other end of the room, the stove, the kitchen area of this big room where we would do everything: eat, shell peas out of their pods, peel vegetables, play cards every Sunday afternoon, later watch TV, the everlasting École des fans, a TV show where kids sang a famous singer’s song and were routinely mocked when interviewed by the show’s host. The other room was the bedroom. A cold place, separated in half by a curtain. There was no lock on the door, not even a doorknob. The door opened with a thin metal bar we would raise or lower. Facing the door was a tall piece of furniture with a full-length mirror. The massive Norman-style wardrobe was at the other end, in the part where my uncle used to sleep.
Were there two or three beds in the bedroom? When he died, they put my uncle to lie on my grandmother's bed, right by the door. That morning, he died in his own bed, behind the curtain, after my grandmother told him to go and lie down after breakfast since he was not feeling too well.
There was a handkerchief around my uncle's head, as he lied on my grandmother's bed. It kept his mouth shut. Forever silent.
I hardly ever went to this bedroom, except on the rare occasions when I would sleep at my grandmother's when my aunt and cousins came from Paris and spent one month there in the summer.
I remember the full-length mirror opposite the door. There was a small table next to it. On it sat a basin full of water for us to wash ourselves. Same water to wash and rinse my pubescent body.
At first, there was no indoor plumbing in the house. No toilet. One had to cross the courtyard and walk up to the outhouse, right before the vegetable gardens that went up to the road.
It was not a courtyard. It was more like a barnyard. Muddy on rainy days, it would suck our shoes in. My grandmother kept chickens and ducks there. At one point she had a male duck that chased us as we went to the outhouse and back and would nip at our calves. I was not unhappy when he died.
My grandmother also kept rabbits in the rabbit hutch in the other outbuilding next to the barnyard. I don't know what else was there. I know that's where my uncle kept the machine to till the plot he finally bought right before he died. I only remember the rabbit hutch, piles of empty cider bottles, and sacks of potatoes in there. My mind draws a blank. Is it where it happened? There was no space in the house. The bedroom was off-limits. A sleeping place, a place to wash up since there was no bathroom. We lived under the others' gaze in the large room. Nowhere to hide.
There was another room. Off the big room. A tiny, cool, dark space where my grandmother used to keep food. There was no fridge in the house at first. What else was in that tiny, cool, dark room but the mesh-covered cupboard way up on the wall? Was I lured there under the pretense of a sweet treat?
I remember the space in front of the house where my grandmother's dogs were kept. At some point my uncles put cement on the dirt floor and divided the large space in three. In each, a doghouse. The three female dogs never left the place, rain or shine. Their feces scattered the ground. I don't know how often my grandmother cleaned it. Once, one of the dogs managed to run away. My uncle and my grandmother must have looked for her. She was taken in by a woman who found her filthy and gave her a bath. The only bath she ever had. She returned to her enclosed, shit-littered space, and finished her life next to her mother and sister. There is no escaping. You can wash and scrub, there just is no escaping.
When I occasionally stayed at my grandmother's with my aunt and cousins, in the evening, before going to bed, we would all (my grandmother too probably) go behind the house and relieve ourselves, crouching on the grass in front of the neighbor's house. The neighbor was an old and sweet woman named Blanche. I don't know if she could see us. We went anyway and wiped ourselves with a large leaf of greenery.
I remember some kind of water, off the side of the house. Standing water lined by a row of trees. I don't know if it had a purpose at some point. Maybe it had been used to wash clothes. There were reeds and green algae lying on the surface. My uncle used to say there were muskrats in the water.
The two houses were at the bottom of a small road, the vegetable gardens on one side, a field on the other, and a large hawthorn tree by the entrance to the field. We would play jokari under its branches in the summer. There was no predicting where the ball, tied to a long elastic band anchored on a wooden support, would rebound as we hit it back and forth. When we played badminton, the shuttlecocks would often get stuck in the branches of the hawthorn tree.
I remember taking walks in the evening with my aunt, my cousins, and my grandmother. We would collect grass for the rabbits. We would go to the nice house of the farmers who owned my grandmother's house. Their son's name was Pierre. My cousins would tease me about him. He would drive his tractor, sitting high on the wide seat. He was much older than me. My cousins' age maybe. A country bumpkin in the eyes of my Parisian cousins, a handsome eighteen-year-old in mine.
Every now and then, my cousins, who were five and seven years older than me, would organize treasure hunts, leaving clues here and there. But there was no treasure. There never is a treasure, just the promise of one.
Where did it happen? The unfinished upstairs floor? The tiny, cool, dark room where food was kept? The outbuilding with the rabbit hutch? Why have I been convinced for so long that it happened in this place?
I couldn’t swallow my grandmother’s Sunday riz au lait, the rice pudding almost made me gag.
I remember my grandmother being a fierce player. She hated to lose. No way would she let us children win to make us happy. She told me once that her father used to hide the knives and forks from his children so they wouldn't eat. Mean man who had lost his wife when my grandmother was only fifteen years old and her sister, the youngest sibling, only nine years old. I remember there were rumors that he abused the little one. My grandmother was too tough, too willful. The only thing she was afraid of was thunder and lightning, probably for milking cows, alone, sitting on a three-foot stool, her fingers yanking at the udder. My grandmother couldn’t be broken. Or was she?
Secrets hide in the corners of that old house. In the folds of my faulty memory. In the silences of my family.
I don't know where my grandmother used to wash her dirty laundry. There was no washing machine in the house. Even later. Maybe she went to the washhouse. When my mother and her siblings were growing up, she used to launder people's clothes and sheets. She had that flat, pan-shaped, wooden tool she used to beat the water out of the laundry. She no longer worked when I went there in the summer.
She was a woman who buried a one-year-old daughter during the war, and later her husband and later yet her 37-year-old son. She bent but never broke.
I remember my uncle. He died three weeks after one of his friends and colleagues, who, blinded by the sun, had driven his tractor through an intersection and been hit by a truck. At the funeral, my uncle was not able to carry the wreath. He was already experiencing pain in his left arm.
He used to call me coucougnous. It doesn't mean anything.
I remember one day, he had just had his hair cut and his beard trimmed. I told my mother, excitedly: "He looks like my brother."
She had me. Although she didn't want me. At least, she didn't have another child after that.
I can't recall when I started feeling that something was off. I used to scream and cry when a classmate would run after me and try to catch me. What was I running from? Who was I running from now that my legs were no longer made of lead and now that the pursuers were playing harmlessly?
I can't recall when I started feeling that something was off, but I clearly remember thinking that he was responsible. That it was HIM, my uncle.
I remember my mother telling me that she and my father would let me, as a young child, with my uncle and grandmother, and that my grandmother would find my uncle hiding, cradling me, crying because I was crying. I suspected him for years. I based my accusations on nothing, on thin air. I needed a culprit and as a single man and an alcoholic, he had guilt written all over him. Guilty but dead. What happens to the memory of those wrongly accused?
What happens to the sandcastles and the sand fishes when the children leave the beach? Where do the balloons that escape the beach and fly over the treetops go?
There was a small hole in the door opposite the full-length mirror in my grandmother's bedroom. A keyhole without a key. My aunt watched me once as I was washing up in the basin, naked in front of the mirror, skipping and jumping and prancing in the vain attempt to make my nascent breasts jiggle.
I remember coming out of that bedroom as a five or six-year-old and starting singing, a pretend microphone in my hand, as if I were on stage, coming out of the wings. When did I stop singing?
I remember sitting on my other uncle's lap, stroking the long curly hairs on his forearms, all the while sucking my thumb. It was so soft, so sweet. I felt so safe.
My father told me that he would take me out for a walk when we would visit my grandmother on Sundays and she would be too mean with me for him to bear. I don't recall where we would walk. Maybe to the “resting place” at the end of the road. I have two pictures. One shows us both under the heather tree in front of his white van, smiling - I'm probably eight years old. In the other photograph, I am alone, about four years old in front of my grandmother’s front door, I am trying to work something that I think is a camera and asking why it's not taking a picture. I've always thought that my father is the one who took this picture, held the camera. I ended up suspecting him too. I just hated him too much later on, when I was a teenager.
I am writing fragments, short pieces from my fragmented memory and my broken body, looking for answers in these letters that I string into words, that I string into sentences, that I string into paragraphs, that I send to the winds like these balloons one ties to a postcard with our name and address printed legibly and let soar high in the sky, hoping that someone will receive them and return the postcard. A returned identity.
Now I know. I know that I know nothing. That’s all I will ever know for sure. I have to let go. I have to put “it” at rest. Where better than here?
I remember taking a walk with my aunt, cousins, sometimes my mother down a deserted country path with a clearing at the end. We would sit, chat, and braid little bracelets or crowns with the wildflowers that grew there. We called it l'aire du repos, the resting place. Which ghost has not been put to rest? For me there is no rest. I am afraid that I will keep looking at mental snapshots of my childhood, I will keep unraveling the thread of memory. Unless… Unless I simply stop looking, as I used to discard, once eaten, the hard candy’s make-believe seashell that I bought from the itinerant grocer’s truck at my grandmother’s. My words will then swim to shore and nestle at the feet of Stella Maris, the Sailors’ Virgin, that will watch over them as she watches over me.