My Mother (Extract)
I am peeling shrimp for my mother. Most likely, she'll refuse
them. She eats nothing at the
Mother Cabrini Hospice
where she is dying
of cancer. Three months ago, the doctors gave her three months to live;
it is clear to me that she has no intention of dying yet, as if hanging
on were a matter of spiteful retaliation. She complains all the time in
a whiny French voice, especially when attendants are hovering near her
bed. Each time the dietician asks her what she'd like, my mother
answers, 'Chinese shrimp with vegetables,' as if she's in Chinatown. I
have finally found the time to prepare this fantasy dish in my own
kitchen, convinced that the greasy version from a restaurant will kill
her. Perhaps I should have gone for the take-out.
I visit her every afternoon. When I come in, she is usually asleep, or
at least pretends to be. The television is always on, with the sound
turned off. She lies still, her face turned toward the television, her
eyes closed. The skin of her face is very taut. Her head looks like a
skull with an immense forehead because her hair is pushed all the way
up. I sit on a dark brown leatherette chair and wait for her to wake up.
Her hands, with their perfectly manicured nails, lie still beside her
thighs. She was always proud of her long-fingered, elegant hands. Mine
show the signs of washing, cooking, and gardening: short, jagged nails;
swollen knuckles; heavy cuticle moons. I used to be very jealous of her
hands, but I've since found revenge through my three daughters, who have
magnificent hands. The Haitian nurse comes in to look at her, checks her
breathing, and leaves. When my mother is awake, she tells me — in
French — how vulgar she finds the nurse's nails, which are very long
and airbrushed with intricate designs and sprays of glitter. Once a week
I bring the nurse chocolate to appease my guilt, and to make sure my
mother doesn't receive retaliation in the guise of care.
My mother wakes up and looks at me. She is silent and unsmiling.
'I brought you some Chinese shrimp. You want to try some?' I say. She
continues to stare at me in silence.
'What time is it?' she asks suddenly, minutes later.
'Half past five. Do you want to try to eat? The shrimps? They're still
hot.' With irritation etched on her mouth, she rasps, 'I'm not hungry.
I'll eat later.'
There are long silences between us. We never talk about anything that is
important: God, love, my father, her life without us, how she met my
stepfather — who had died a few years earlier — or why she became
Catholic when she had been raised in the Jewish faith. My father died in
Aswan when I was six. I vaguely remember him.
My mother never talks about him, and I always avoid bringing this
subject up as I know from experience that our conversation will lead
nowhere. I don't know why. When he died, she left me for four years with
my Egyptian grandparents. I never knew what she really felt about me,
and I still don't know today. When we went back to Paris after the war,
she again left me, this time with her mother, and I did not see her
until I was twenty. When I moved to the United States with my husband,
she wanted to follow us to New York. I think she was lonely and she
thought that we would be friends and that I would let her come into my
life. It never happened. I made sure that she lived nearby but never
with us. We always pretended that we loved each other, but I had built
myself a world of memories where my mother is nowhere to be found. I
want it to stay that way.
It is six — time for Father Paul's visit. He comes in, smiling. 'How
is my girl today?' My mother beams, slightly flirty, and tells him she's
just fine. Maybe now she'll eat. As the priest leaves, I plead, 'You
want to taste the shrimp? They'll get cold if you don't eat them now.'
She tries one, then another, and finally smiles like a small child who
has gotten what she wants. 'They're good but they're not Chinese,' she
says petulantly as she pushed the plate away and closes her eyes. She
dozes off and I wait, flipping through the thick photo album by her bed.
There are many pictures — in tones of pale gray — of my mother when
she was young. She is at the beach ... in a convertible ... at her
wedding. I gaze at her lush, tall body in a long, white satin dress with
the undulating waves of a train arranged behind her and a heavy,
cascading bouquet in her hand. My father is taller than she and darkly
handsome like an Arab prince. There are pictures of them on their
honeymoon in Venice, then in Paris on their balcony. Then page after
page of my brother, and just a few of me. There is a picture of me in
Cairo in my grandparents' house. My brother and I are sitting on a white
Victorian couch with a gilded frame. I am an adorable little girl with
curly hair and a shy smile. I look at these pictures with a smile; I
feel very tender toward that little girl.
I am painfully pulled from the beginning of a journey I was afraid to
take by my mother's strangely low voice. 'I was beautiful,' she says, as
if she had never fallen asleep. She had been, in all her heavy curves
and thick auburn hair, and large, lazy hands. Whenever she would take me
in her arms and pressed my little child's body against her, I'd flash
back to one of the only times she took me food shopping, a job normally
undertaken by my governess or the cook. I was four at the time, and
while my mother was ordering something, my curious eyes spotted an
enormous hill of sweet butter. I suddenly felt the urge to bury my hands
in it. It looked and smelled so good, I went for it. The saleswoman
screamed, my mother slapped me, and my hands were retrieved from the
yellow hill. I tried to lick them, but my buttered hands were pulled out
of my mouth. My mother wiped my hands, apologized, paid for the damages,
and dragged me out of the store. She never took me shopping again with
her, and from that day, whenever she drew me close to her, I thought of
her as a large lump of butter, except her smell was not as pleasant. She
used a heavy carnation-scented perfume that turned my stomach. I would
push her away, saying, 'You smell terrible.' 'Well, you stink of
garlic!' my mother would answer. And it was true, since I liked dunking
a piece of fresh baguette into a dish of crushed garlic marinating in
olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper that Georgette, my
grandmother's cook, often prepared for me, instead of the traditional petit
pain au chocolat that most French children ate with relish.
As we enter her room, Thomas's voice
booms, 'Hi Grandma, look what I brought you. Semits, the ones
you like — have a piece.' My mother looks up and smiles, greeting him
warmly. She tries a small piece of the pretzel, chews, and tries hard to
swallow. 'Don't force her,' I say, 'and give her something to drink.'
They both ignore me. He saunters around her bed, chatting away, telling
her about his girlfriend, whom he wants to marry. 'Get better quickly
... you must come to the wedding.'
I am back in the armchair, looking at the album. There is a picture of
me taken in Paris — wrapped up in a large shawl; large eyes,
accentuated by thick black lashes, peering out of the intricately
colored material. I must have been about four when we lived in a large
Paris apartment near the Parc Monceau. My father was the European buyer
for his father's large department store in Cairo. A Swiss governess,
Marie-Louise, took care of my brother and me. By the time I was two, my
father had become ill and my mother decided that I should spend some
time at her parents' apartment on the avenue de la Grande Armée, near
the Étoile. My father needed a lot of care and quiet, and my mother
used to tell her parents that I was very noisy. I did not really care
because I liked their apartment with its long corridor leading from the
entrance hall to the kitchen. This is where I learned to rollerskate.
And then there was Georgette, the old-maid cook who ruled the kitchen,
which was always open to me. I can see her slim body bent over a heavy
saucepan, a wooden spoon in her hand, tasting a sauce, peeling potatoes
or chopping shallots for the evening meal. I would rollerskate to the
kitchen, perch on a high stool, and watch her cook. Inevitably, my
grandmother would catch on and oblige me to leave the kitchen. 'Une
jeune fille de bonne famille ne fréquente pas la cuisine!' ('A
young girl of good breeding does not go into the kitchen!') I'd try the
living room after that, gazing out the French windows overlooking the
avenue. It was furnished with a Louis XVI petit point couch and
armchairs, wonderful stained-glass lamps on inlaid tables, and a very
ornate crystal chandelier. In one corner of the room was a grand piano.
I used to hide under it. It was covered with a very large embroidered
Egyptian shawl, maybe a present from my Egyptian grandparents. Sometimes
I would wrap it around myself, cover half my face, and proclaim that I
was the Queen of Egypt. My grandmother would be very upset. 'Get out of
there,' she would cry. 'You are not Egyptian, you are French!' Looking
again at that photograph of me made on our first trip to Cairo when I
was barely four, I think I did look Egyptian.
Sometimes Georgette would take me to the market with her. She would stop
in a front of a stand piled with fresh herbs — thyme, marjoram,
tarragon. She'd squeeze a leaf or two between her fingers and sniff. 'Mmm
... these are very fragrant. Smell, Colette.' And I would smell and
approve her choice. My favorite day was mussels day. The whole house
smelled of garlic and parsley cooking in butter. I'd wait in the kitchen
for lunch to be ready, but my grandmother would get angry with us. 'Tu
sens la cuisine! Va-t'en!' ('You smell like the kitchen! Get out of
here!'), she would say in disgust.
I preferred Grandpère James to my grandmother. He was shorter than his
wife, with a round belly. He wore pince-nez, which made him look like a
stern teacher, though he was not. My grandfather loved everything
English. I was told, years later, that at the age of eighteen he had
changed his first name to James and his last name to Bémant. I never
did find out what his real name was. I always knew when he was upset: he
would remove his pince-nez several times and clean it with his
handkerchief. He was a dental surgeon who had made his fortune as an
inventor of special steel for dental surgery. Every Saturday he took me
for walks in the park; then we would end up in a salon de thé for
pastries and hot chocolate. My grandfather loved food. He had put on
weight, and the salon de thé was our secret, to be kept from
my grandmother. I disliked pastries but never let on, as I did not want
to disappoint him. I would order his favorite cake, take a bite, say I
wasn't hungry, and my grandfather would finish his cake and mine. We
would walk back home, hand in hand, pleased with ourselves for having
fooled my grandmother.
Grandmother Rose was the opposite. She was tall — like my mother —
with a large bosom and a very thin waist. She was corseted from chin to
thighs. I liked to lie on her bed while she dressed, fascinated by her
corset with its hundreds of grommeted holes where the laces went
through. While dressing, she'd advise me as if I were about to become a
bride: 'Never undress in front of your husband; keep the mystery.' Or,
'Always look pretty, even in the kitchen.' Although I didn't understand
these words of wisdom, I listened attentively since it was the only time
she paid attention to me. Sometimes she would take me to the park with
my brother. She always wore a large hat decorated with flowers or birds
about to fly away; a voilette would hide her face. Sometimes
men would follow her in the street, murmuring words I did not
understand, but I knew they pleased her. I would try to see what or who
had made her smile, but her steps would quicken and she would say,
'Let's hurry, we are late for tea; and don't look back!'
There is a knock at the door, and the nurse comes in with a tray.
'Dinner,' she says cheerfully. I look up at my mother. There is a sly
expression on her face; I am afraid she is going to say something nasty
to the young nurse, but my son is quick to take over. 'Let's eat
something. Do you want to start with the soup?' He feeds her a spoon or
two; she eats to please him. I can see she is very tired; her eyes are
now closed. My son looks worried and tries to talk to her but she does
not answer. Thomas is upset. He bends toward her and says, 'We're going,
Grandma. I'll see you next week.' She smiles wearily and turns her head
toward Thomas for a kiss. As I wait for him in the car, I see myself at
age five, leaving again for Egypt, saying goodbye to my grandfather
James and feeling lost at the idea of leaving him behind. That summer,
my brother and I accompanied my French grandparents to Biarritz, where
they owned a house surrounded by a large garden. My father had to be
operated on in Geneva, and we were to join my parents later in the south
Georgette loved Biarritz, the Atlantic coast resort town, where she
could prepare all her favorite dishes because my grandparents had lots
of guests on weekends. We all ate in the garden on long wooden table.
The lunches would drag on for hours, and I had to wait for Grandmother
Rose to nod toward me; only then could I leave the table and run to the
kitchen and Georgette. This was the only summer I remember when my
grandmother allowed me in the kitchen. I would sit on a stool and watch
Georgette prepare a tomato salad. She would place ripe red tomatoes in a
bowl of boiling water, leave them there for a few minutes, then refresh
them under cold water and show me how easily the skin slipped away.
Sometimes I helped; I would be given the task of preparing the herbs,
cutting the leaves away from the stems of tarragon, sage, or parsley. My
favorite was chervil, which Georgette used in her lettuce salad. But the
best time I had in the kitchen was when Georgette made chicken soup. We
would go to the butcher together, and she would ask the butcher for some
marrowbones. 'Pour la petite,' she would say, pointing at me.
Then later, when the soup was done, she would remove one marrowbone from
the soup and with a tiny spoon place the marrow on a piece of baguette,
sprinkle it with salt, and give it to me. The warm, slightly gelatinous
marrow would slide down my throat, its strong meaty taste filling my
mouth. The other marrowbones would be served at dinner with onion confit.
If Grandmother Rose caught us, we were in trouble. 'You are making her
fat! It is not good for children!'
The news came that my father had had a stroke. He was now paralyzed and
blind. We all drove back to Paris. At the time I didn't understand what
being paralyzed was, and my brother, two years older than I, explained
that my father could not move, not even walk. Everyone had to take care
of him, and I had to be very quiet and nice. Several weeks later,
summoned by my Egyptian grandfather, the entire family, along with a
male nurse and our governess, left for Egypt.
Thomas joins me in the car; he looks unhappy and worried. 'She looks
bad.... I won't be able to come back until next Thursday. Do you think
it's okay?' I don't answer since I am still in my memory's hold, saying
goodbye to my grandfather James. It must have been 1937. He hugged me
and whispered that we would see each other the following summer. I kept
on saying to him, 'I'll see you next week,' but he simply embraced me. I
never saw him again. War was declared two years later, and he died
before my mother brought me back to Paris. Thomas interrupts my reverie.
'She's dying,' he says sadly. We drive in silence; tomorrow I have to
speak to the doctor.