Copyright © 2001 by Fabienne André Worth, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.
- I know. You'll judge me untrustworthy, even guilty, right from the start. But I decided to dig, so there is no way to hide the mess. My own mess, that of my brothers, my sisters. Maybe even my parents, if I get around to them. Of course I'll spare my own children. They are the apple of my eye and they are perfect. Honest, thoughtful, hearts big as mansions. So they'll only appear in that guise, or not at all.
- Yes, I belong to my birth family, no matter how hard I want to deny it, how far away I put down stakes, how much I make myself the black sheep. Imagine me stealing a picture, for example. You'd think I was eight, maybe nine years old. But it was years after the twentieth anniversary of the liberation of Masevaux. The last one I attended. I was more than grown up, already a mother. That's when I stole an original watercolor from my parents' guest bedroom in Masevaux, Alsace. Was Maman already sick? I can't remember.
- That bedroom had a dark window on the left of the double bed. The eastern light could shimmer a bit through the leaves, but the view was blocked by an oppressive willow tree. Thank goodness, this hadn't been my room. Across from the bed was a row of built-in closets, and on the pastel green wall on the right, the Hansi picture.
- Maman loved spare closets. After the seven of us were gone, she used them for collecting remnants from the past, old books, toys, knickknacks she had inherited from her mother, games, blankets, even an old wood engraving tool I used as a teen. Nothing else would I stuff in my suitcase, but that wasn't the reason. Besides I am no kleptomaniac and I have never stolen anything before or since.
- Like most people in my family I have an excuse: I love my history and I don't want to give it up. My other excuse is that I am the fourth daughter and the sixth child and the likelihood is slim that I will get what I want by asking for it. Anyway that was still true in the seventies when I was a young wife and mother. Asking for something was still rude, or on the contrary revealed my lack of clout. In any case the answer was often a curt "no," or an obliterating silence.
- I didn't know then that my oldest sister would crown herself with Maman's diamonds as soon as Maman died, and that my oldest brother would inherit our two childhood homes as soon as Papa died. But I sensed grabbiness in the air.
- Maybe the past was choking us. The houses stolen, abandoned or shelled, the land conquered, the language silenced, all those weeds of mental scarcity continued to invade the blossoms of post-war abundance. Or it was the belief that what held us together was primogeniture, a system whereby oldest ones were more entitled than younger ones, and boys more entitled than girls. Which -- by the way -- created an unsolvable conflict between Jacqueline, the first child, and Jean Louis, the first son. They were like France and Germany, both entitled to more land, more jewels, more power. We younger ones were neutral countries, just trying to prosper with the left-overs.
- That's why I sensed that, if I wanted something, anything, I better grab that picture then and there. Stick it into my blue Samsonite suitcase. Smuggle it to my home in America.
- The picture is called "GOSSES D'ALSACE," Alsatian kids. My parents would never have called us "kids" any more than they would have put wooden clogs on our feet. But I liked Hansi's kids because they reminded me of the children in my small town, those I used to watch playing through the dark green gates. And they illustrated Alsace's tormented history, a history I knew through the dinner table stories, the military marches, the patriotic bugles, the wreaths, the minutes of silence, the monuments to the dead.
- As far back as my great-grandfather Isidore, each generation had a war, and each time Alsace had to become the opposite of what it had just been. French, German and then French, back to German and then French again. Imagine your parents getting divorced and every year there is a change in custody, a loss of home.
- Right after I was born, Alsace became French once more. Through all this zigzagging of history, my father's family, just like Hansi, had remained steadfastly French Alsatian. We were Alsatians who spoke French, were French and risked death to hide French flags in attics and to abandon German uniforms in toilets. But Maman, who wasn't Alsatian, was worried Alsace wasn't French enough. Most people spoke Alsatian, a German dialect, or French with an Alsatian accent. To make sure my youngest sister and I wouldn't catch the dreaded accent, Maman kept us from going to school in Masevaux.
- The "kids" in Hansi's water color stand in front of a timbered Alsatian house punctured by a French flag and a shelled roof. The little boy has a gun and leather shoes and the little girl a patriotic blue-white-red bouquet and wooden clogs. Anybody can tell that they belong to the village and the village is proud of them. They are the future. And they are the past. They are eternal, ever reborn, Alsace.
- Underneath the picture is a caption, "On attend le Chéneral," "Waiting for the Cheneral." In this caption, the written letter G of general turns into the spoken Alsatian Ch, which calls for, at the end of the word, a meandering ah and a curly L, turning a single word into a dirge-like songlet that French people do not have the time, throat and tongue to produce nor the ear to listen to. The picture is dated Thann, May 1916. This water color probably celebrates the liberation of Thann, the town on the other side of a Vosges ridge, right behind my parents' home in Masevaux.
- My eye glides down the picture. Underneath the ink caption, I read a penciled dedication to my grandmother: "A Madame Charles André, Hansi." I realize today that dedication was my true title of ownership. I was the one who most resembled my grandmother.
- She died before I was born, and Papa burnt her diary, so I have no proof. But Maman told me Grandmère was a multi-lingual intellectual-artist political-gardener type. I figured Grandmère didn't fit into the female bourgeois mold in which fate had poured her, and that's like me.
- Grandmère had even been invited to the USA to convince Americans to enter the First World War. But her husband, my beloved Grandpère, forbade her to go. Too many German submarines prowling around in the Atlantic. Probably the Lusitania had just been sunk. Or he was jealous, but that I don't know. I just know Grandpère and Grandmère had nothing in common and never took a vacation together. That they ended up living separately, he in Masevaux, she in Nyon on the banks of Lake Geneva.
- I feel a remnant of bad conscience. At least three of my siblings have greater claims to Hansi's picture than I. Jean Louis, the designated upholder of the family name, has inherited our home in Masevaux and the villa in Nyon with all of Grandmère's treasures. Why not the Hansi as well? That's where it really belongs. And Jacqueline, she already has the diamonds, but she also stood up to a Nazi schoolmaster when she was nine. She could be the little girl in the picture one war later. And Françoise, she was Grandmère's godchild, the official closest descendant. I've never seen a Nazi soldier on French territory, I've never seen Grandmère and I've even abandoned France for America. Why did I think this picture was mine?
- I go back to the caption "On attend le Chéneral" and I discover that unlike my mother's Alsace, which only recognizes "Frenchness," Hansi's points to the Alsatian divide. Alsatians want to be French but they have a Germanic accent and culture. That's why Alsatians are really like me. I want to be American, I have become American, but I'll always have a French accent and culture, I'll always be a hybrid.
- Twenty-five years ago I was drawn to a picture where home was never home, where accent and flag didn't match. Stealing it fitted the sense of alienation. The picture was mine and not mine, like my two countries, like my childhood split between home where I was and school where the other kids were.
- But today, being a hybrid also means having a double vision. Besides, I have moved on. So I brush off the alienation and the guilt, and I look at Hansi's picture with fresh eyes. The Hansi no longer takes me through life as if I were an Alsatian between wars, eternally stranded between the past and the future. There is less yearning for Grandmère, for old houses or even for family fairness. This is hard to accept. Memories cast in stone are so comforting, even when they are infuriating. If the past is no longer sacred, can it be friend with the present, I wonder. What can I drop, what can I keep, what can I discover?
- Not every thing is rosy. There is my feminist consciousness and my childhood affect, both twirling uneasily around each other and around the picture's content: the little girl and her flowers, the little boy and his gun, and the yearning for a general. There is a voice that says I wish these kids could both have shoes, both have flowers. I wish they weren't waiting for any big shot. And the hell with the gun! But their story is my story as well. I too have stood in an Alsatian costume, in front of my parents home, between General Carpentier and General Gambiez, and I can't let the present clean out the past. Every part of it matters. Several links across time make one life.
- On the radio news I hear about the Yugoslav forces and the Kosovo rebels. And about the Kurds so incensed by the world's indifference to their plight. And the massacres in East Timor. A lot of people still have their homes and even their lives taken away. But France and Germany have moved on.
- When I visited Masevaux last summer, it had become a tourist attraction where succulent potted plants, geraniums and all of Europe's languages peacefully co-exist. Main street is closed to cars, the old bakery has outside tables and deluxe halogen lamps. The great historical figures of Masevaux' history are painted on a frieze, going back to the 1600's when Alsace was part of the Austrian-Hungarian empire. Only old people still speak Alsatian, but Alsatian is now taught in schools. Alsace has shifted from the margins of two feuding nations back to the center of a continent.
- As for me, I have my own home an ocean away in Durham, North Carolina. Now and then I go by my own bright yellow guest room and look at the Hansi watercolor. More often, I garden and I write, patiently seeking meaning, as time keeps changing the shape of minds and the color of memories.
[AUTHOR'S NOTE: A peephole view of what's under "Quicksand." Victor Hugo was more than a name when I grew up in Alsace after World War II. He was a story teller -- through the warm story-telling of my maid Blanche; a challenger of style, grammar, and philosophical thinking -- compliments of the dictation exercise inflicted by my tutor; and a treasure trove of printed images and lithographs. Not surprisingly I sensed Hugo was an important as well as a "good" guy and it turns out, I was right. He was our representative French poet, in the same way as Walt Whitman is the representative American poet. But as loved as he was by "the people," Victor Hugo was always a bit of an embarrassment to the French educational system.
Yet he was one of the most vibrant voice to fight for a secular education free for all throughout the nineteenth century. But Hugo wanted to unite materialism and spiritualism. He wanted to appeal to the gradual emergence of conscience to create a strong link between teaching and social questions, rather than to emphasize mere knowledge or action.
One of the recurrent motifs of the Hugo oeuvre is that of the cesspool, mud, chasm, abysm, swamp. Quicksand is obviously related, although I have not been able to locate the text in which it appears, except in my memory. Those motifs signify social misery, negativity and the finite nature of life. But each of Hugo's descents into the cesspool ends up with an invocation to light. This is the outcome of a dialectic process that also suited my own experience. I heard so much about the hardships and the excitement of war, yet I lived in perfect comfort and boredom. I too was tuned in to the link between darkness and light, death and life.
Although Hugo fought for free secular education for all because it could save poor people from prison, he also warned that school itself could become a prison. But the teachers of the IIII rd Republic who defined French secular education were positivists and State functionaries, not poets. They wanted to prepare children for the national mill, rather than for "the future of humanity." This is reflected in "Quicksand" in the comic tension between the emotional content of the Hugo text and the formalistic dictation exercise.
The dictation is a corner stone of French education. It is always a literary excerpt, dotted with ancient words and elaborate expressions, divorced from the child's experience. Its purpose is to train the child to master intricate rules of grammar, spelling and penmanship, and to internalize French language and literature through the visual representation of penmanship. Ultimately the exercise is thought to help bind the past to the future, to erase social and local differences, to create a strong and unified Republic.
Beyond the formality of the dictation exercise, stands the formality of my tutor, which is also representative of a secular French education. Teachers ignore emotions to encourage the development of a universal French citizen dedicated to principles and to the common good rather than to an individual and local self. Victor Hugo liked the idea of a common good, but certainly not at the expanse of individual growth. Besides he believed that pure knowledge can entrap the mind rather than liberate it. Hence another comic split in my story between the inner turmoil the emotionality of the Hugo text raises for me, and the impassive behavior of my tutor.
Infused by the democratic Hugolian ethos as I was, I had few opportunities to test my "conscience," since I didn't attend the local school for fear that I would catch the "Alsacian" accent. This irony got elucidated otherwise, as my experience of the "social question" was to witness how my mother, a person I adored, treated our maids.
Czeslaw Milosz writes, "we often spoke of France as Alexandria, because she had become stylized in the antiquated rituals of her grammarians and rhetoricians." It was lost on me why Masevaux had to become Alexandria, why my "French" education made me rootless, timeless and friendless. But, thanks to Victor Hugo, I never lost track of the light at the end of the tunnel.]
"To learn to read is to light a fire;
every syllable that is spelled up is a spark."
- Mademoiselle sits straight, her bulky body close enough to watch my every move. I also keep tabs on her, her faded eyes, her pinched nostrils, her straw hair. For the rest, I either look glued to the assignment du moment, stare at the grey walls of the bedroom turned classroom, or chew my pencil.
- Every day of the week, twice a day, she walks from Masevaux to teach me the Hattmer correspondence course. She never gets sick. And the course sent from Paris in a big brown envelope is never late. We begin the morning with a prayer: Notre père qui êtes aux cieux (our father who art in heaven) and never Sainte Marie, mère de Dieu (Holy Mary, mother of God), because Mademoiselle is a Protestant.
- That's the only thing I know about her. But I don't know what it means and do not dare ask. I must already have internalized the basic rule of French upbringing, which is never to corner adults with embarrassing questions. Or it may be that I did ask, and all I got for an answer was that Protestants do not say "Holy Mary." In any case, by the time I was eight, I figured that Mademoiselle was there to teach me what the Hattmer Correspondence course wanted me to learn, not what I was curious about.
* * * *
- One foggy grey morning Mademoiselle brings an orange into the classroom. She pokes a knitting needle through it and twirls the fruit around. I can see myself poking more little holes in the tender flesh, and drinking the juice. Or shredding the peel and trying to make a pasted sun out of it. But her look tells me that what is funny for me isn't funny for her.
- She begins talking about the earth with her slight Alsatian lilt. I ask if it's the one I walk on every day, or the one I dig with a shovel, or the one God made in seven days. She says yes, and it's round and revolves on itself like an orange skewered by a knitting needle. Every time Mademoiselle defies common sense, I hope she is finally joking. But she always looks like a marble statue who wants me to become one as well.
- Every week, there is a dictée, a spelling exercise. Like mass, meals, and military parades, they follow a strict order. First there is preparation. That's when I peruse the dictée for ten minutes, ask about words and memorize the spellings. I never pay attention to the story, because it isn't necessary and most of the time there is none.
- Dictations are mostly descriptions -- of shimmering butterflies, the inexpressible softness of lakes, the infinity of stars in the celestial vault. Dictations are made of words, and words are like precious stones. They need to be polished and admired, not necessarily understood.
- When Mademoiselle begins to read the dictée, she repeats each phrase twice, ending with housekeeping words like comma, period, or paragraph. She waits a few seconds for me to write the sentence down, then reads the next phrase.
- I listen to what she says, try to remember the order of words, how to spell them, and the grammar rules in which they are embedded. A grammar mistake costs me two points. Simple spelling mistakes are one point, punctuation half a point. If I lose more than ten points, I must do the dictation all over again.
- All that's needed to do well is to remember the rules, and to follow the rhythm. Listening, listening, writing, listening, listening, writing. That's how printed words take off in the air and land in my inky notebook. No surprise there.
* * * *
- Those dictations have long vanished in the marshes of my mind, except for one. It's titled "Sables Mouvants" (Quicksand) and begins with a man walking on the beach. I can still see him, his breeches rolled up on his calves, his suspenders carving a V in the back of his billowy peasant blouse. He looks at a gorgeous sunset behind Mont St Michel Abbaye and thinks about God who made the earth so beautiful. Then he notices his feet are sinking in the sand. He lifts one and the other dips in deeper. Soon his knees are swallowed up, then his hips.
- I write my words as carefully as I can but suddenly I wish I knew if somebody was going to rescue this man. Or that I could ask Mademoiselle. But once the dictée is started, Mademoiselle cannot be interrupted. Neither can I get distracted or I'll miss the next batch of words.
- Somebody is writing about this wretched man, yet nobody is there to watch, to worry or to help. Just Mademoiselle re-hashing glowing words in her same serious, slow voice, and my sore fingers pinching the pen as if it could pull me out of the sand.
- I am resting my left hand on the soft pink blotter, scared to make a spot and scared the man is going to drown. I am in that familiar bedroom-turned-classroom alone with my tutor, yet my spellings are vanishing in the quicksand of my mind. I am becoming this poor man.
- Mademoiselle holds the Cent Dictées book with one still hand, and caresses the back of her neck with her other pudgy fingers. While she opens and closes her fleshy mouth, I dip my pen in the inkwell. I must catch enough ink to make le plein et le delie, (the full and the thin loops) which are as necessary to handwriting as inhalation and exhalation are to breathing, yet a lot harder to produce.
- Meanwhile the man is flapping his arms like a fish its fins, but soon they, too, disappear. Then his fingers try to grab a piece of the red sky. After they vanish in la brêche horrible, he continues to scream, but soon his mouth fills up with sand. Then all is silence. Only his eyes bulge from their sockets in horror. Finally the sand gulps down his head just as the bloody sun drops behind the horizon. A glistening ripple survives a few seconds, and then, nothing. Cette vision sombre, abregée, loin du monde is over.
- Until then death hadn't mattered much. A monument to the dead. A ladder to heaven. It's the ink and the paper, the painstaking efforts at imbibing slippery, awesome words, that hits my pupils, my ears, my soul. Now the man keeps disappearing again and again in slow motion from the earth of my imagination. I see the measured tempo, the horror of the face, the terrifying finality of the story.
- Mademoiselle says "Victor Hugo," "quotation mark." The author's name. I write it separately on a new line, on the right side of the page.
- As I write Victor Hugo's name, I see the old man and his white beard reminding me I am just a little girl in a classroom and the drowning man is just a make-believe person in a story. I keep my head bent and pretend to be re-reading my dictation one more time. I try to ask myself, "Is this an infinitive or a past participle?" I even squash my brain into "If it were a participle, does it agree with its subject or its object?" but all my questions fade into a blur.
- After the allotted time, Mademoiselle goes to work with her itchy red pencil. She sighs, frowns and scratches her throat, silently bleeding my dictation to death. I doodle a black sun on my blotter.
- My brain goes on soaking the dictation, until a new picture becomes slowly visible. And then, I was no longer scared, and no longer alone. There was a warmth in my heart. Victor Hugo would probably call it a fire.
- That fire showed me that deep understanding could come from tumbling into hell. That my life was a tenuous and finite gift I couldn't waste or take for granted. That even people who were very different from me, could enter my brain and become me, or I them. That I belonged to humanity rather than just to my family or to myself.
- I had been carefully cast to be a cute curtseying little girl behind the gates of a post-World War II upper-class home. But my identity became larger than the one defined by my social class, gender and experience. Behind my parents' back, Victor Hugo gave me a French XIXth century romantic patina, and a big, compassionate universal self.
- Sure I belonged to humanity, and I was so lucky to be alive, but I was still lonely during recess. As I went on staging snail races, or saying mass to an imagined audience, I wished for companions, and for doing something that made other people laugh or cry. I began asking myself "How can I meet friends my age?" And later "Who can I become?" And "How can I become?" I must confess neither Hugo, nor my French education, ever helped me to answer those questions.