My mother disdained most dangers as American construcs, invented by timid women who washed their vegetables. She was always certain that nothing would go wrong. “No one evern told me it was dangerous to swim in a lightning storm,” she would say when I laughingly mentioned the memory years later. Her voice pitched defensively; she did not like to be teased.
My mother wasn’t perfect. My mother was intense. Things didn’t happen because they were possible, they happened because she decided they would. She once fit a couch through a door frame that was several inches too small simply by pushing with all her strength and saying, “Cough go in!” But, as anyone who hwas read a fiary tale knows, all spells come with a cost. The magic pulled on hidden sources. My brother referred to her exertion of will as “the fireball technique.” She could set the universe aflame, but she used herself as fueld. Somewhere inside, the earth was scorched.
I had thought that my shame had seared the memory deep only for me. But when I brought up this incident twenty years later, my mother nodded in recognition. I felt a small thrill. There were so few memories that we actually shared.
It is posed as a theoretical question, whether a mother would run into a burning building to save her child. It is not one that many people know the answer to.
They spent hours chain-smoking and talking. Françoise smoked Gitanes with filters, like her doctor father, because she knew about the latest advances in health. Jean-Michel smoked Boyards, so strong they made nearly everyone nauseous but were worth it, because the thing corn-paper stuck to your lip and the cigarette hung there as you talked, the very epitome of cool.
The stories we use to create our sense of self – the stores we tell new lovers at five a.m. so that they can understand who we are – are also the ones over which we have most heavily embroidered. They have been altered by the moods and settings in which we have told them. They have been altered by what we wneeded them to mean each time. The story involving poor forgotten Guyot, for example, had been pressed and shaped, through entering and leaving my mother’s conscious mind, into a smooth block that lay at her foundation. It was one of the first she ever told me about her adolescence, and she had told it to me many times since. Even so, when I questioned her, certain details came loose. How was the phone call to the headmistress broadcast to an auditorium, I wanted to know. By pulling a rotary phone on a long cord onto the stage and holding the receiver to the microphone, she told me with certainty, though this did not strike me as fully plausible. Somewhere along the way, the episode had passed from memory to story to myth.
It was cool to get good grades, though cooler still to get them without working hard.
I shed childhood with a vicious shake.
“It warms my heart to see a young woman asking for a raise,” said the female editor in chief. “But no.” I quit.
“You were tough on me, and it made me tough,” I said, “In the end, I think there is a balance. I like who I am, more or less. I feel strong, capable, and confident. And that came from you, one way or another. As a kid, I was jealous of the attention you gave my brother – but honestly, I don’t think you did him any favors.”
My mother pulled away from the armrest we shared.
“Did I ever tell you about the moment when I decided to have a second child?” she asked. She looked at me sharply. I saw the hard metal glint in her eyes and knew that I did not want to hear what she had to say next. But I kept my voice light and said no, she had not told me. It had been so long now since we had fought.
“You were three and a half years old and it was your bath time. I loved your bath. It was the only moment I had to myself. And you loved your bath, too; you’ve always loved water. I left you to play while I had a cigarette, read a book, I don’t know what. But this day, when I got up to leave, you said, ‘Maman, stay with me in the bathroom!’ I felt so trapped. I stayed for a minute, and then I tried to leave again. And you said, ‘No, Maman! Stay with me longer!’ You were on the verge of tears. I sat back down. But the violence of my emotions–being made prisoner by you, my hatred for you–it scared me. So I left. I slammed the door behind me and let you cry. That’s when I decided to have a second child. It was to break something between you and me.”
“Oh,” I said. The back of my throat burned hot with shame. She picked up her newspaper and began to read. I turned toward the window. Tears pricked at my eyes. I sniffed loudly but she did not turn. We barely spoke for the rest of the flight.
I soon learned that in France it was rare to admit ignorance on any topic. My open naïvete was a novelty.
“I was a ghostwriter for many years,” she said. The word for this in French is nègre, and for a quick moment I wondered if she was being racist. She enjoyed being provocative, her comments sometimes so shocking that it was difficult not to laugh. “Look, black and yellow have made a little bumblebee,” she said once, as we passed an interracial couple and their child.
Suddenly I exist. I am six months old. My parents have stopped in Paris on their way back from Auschwitz (its own surreal home video, me in a stroller in the ruins of the camps). Morning sun streams in the houseboat windows and paints my slee-rumpled mother and gradmother with streaks of gold. My mother bounces me on her knee. My grandmother holds a pot of yogurt toward the camera.
“You want some?” she says in charming French accent. “No thank you,” says my father’s voice, softer and more polite than I’ve ever heard it. “You don’t like it,” Josée says. “No, I liked it,” my father says. “I just wanted a taste.” “If you want, there is some without fatness,” Josée says. There’s a fat-free version,” my young mother translates happily, her accent thicker than I’ve ever heard it. “Fatness,” Josée repeats, nodding solemnly at the camera, yogurt still outstretched.
I smiled, but I didn’t even need to smile. My veins were filled with light. An uncomplicated, inexplicable joy surged through me, taking me by surprise. I tried to keep it in my peripheral awareness. I knew how happiness slipped into the present only in bright, brief flashes. Most of the time, it belonged to the past or to the future: “I was happy” or “I will be happy” and not, or almost never, “I am happy.” Even trying to savor the moment tinged it with nostaliga.
“I’m so proud of you,” she told me over and over as we sat down to the breakfast I had prepared.
“For what?” I said each time, my intonation fluctuating between curious and dismissive. For everything. For keeping a plant alive, for living in Paris, for making reservations in Deauville, for knowing how to buy cheese. I waved aside her praise. I was embarrassed by how easy my life was, and how little I had done with it. and yet, of course, I also wanted her to continue, and she did. I was filled with the buoying sensation that often came from being with her, that feeling of invinicibility.