127 avenue des Fr?res Lumi?re
The oldest resident of Maison Saint Charles died this morning but it is still birthdays as usual on this last Thursday of the month. I have just arrived in France from Australia, and my first visit is to my mother whom I have not seen for two years.
For once, I did not get lost. I got off the bus near Le Gros Caillou, a strikingly large formation dating from the ice age and unearthed, in 1892, when the ficelle, a funicular, was built to link the peninsula to the hills of La Croix Rousse. From there, one has the most breathtaking view of Lyon, the confluence of the two main rivers, the Rhône and the Saône, the Renaissance houses, the Cathedral of Saint-Jean and Fourvière, the Roman amphitheatres and the Museum of Antiquities. It is in this quarter that my mother was born.
The gates of Maison Saint-Charles, 14 rue Maisiat, are wrought iron, large and heavy as they only are in France. A bell rings. I am apprehensive and overjoyed. I push the glass window of the former Convent and the ghosts in coifs and habits pass me by. The Director welcomes me politely and warmly, and I am reassured that my mother is well looked after.
I am shown to the dining room and I see her, my mother; frail, fragile, stern, and serious, celebrating her eighty-fourth birthday. Her blond hair has turned grey all of a sudden; it is straight and thin. She is wearing the cardigan she knitted with the Australian wool bought twenty years ago during her visit to Hobart. She has sewn the cloth badge "Australia" on the left side, above her heart. Her white blouse, now too big, contrasts with the colour of her face, pale, but almost yellow. When she sees me, she smiles with relief that I have made it safely back to Lyon and calls me to the empty seat next to her. I notice her hands which resemble more and more a Huon Pine statue, twisted but beautiful.
The nurses and staff of this Retirement Home have decorated the large dining-room with drawings and garlands, made with love by the young pupils of a neighbouring primary school as a sign of generational respect. When they agreed to adopt a grand-parent, the children pledged to give some of their free time to bring joy to their old friends. They have lovingly made gifts and the birthday boys and girls open them, with a lack of enthusiasm, knowing that, once again they will receive a school-made photo frame which announces the swift passing of time. Chantal Goya's rendition of Voulez-vous danser Grand-mère ... is playing... Tout comme au bon vieux temps , Quand vous aviez vingt ans .... and they hand in word sheets (word-sheets) so that everyone can join in, inciting (encouraging) the guests to come on the dance floor to share in the happy times. The dancers, like malformed children, robot-like, put one foot forward and take two timid steps to the left, to the right, back, forward and one two three four, one two three four... enjoy yourself like when you were twenty. Allez Monsieur Mathieu, pick your partner... Allez Madame Dubois don't be shy... and one two three four, one two three four... oui c'est ça, a big smile... one two... and the thirty year old social worker cum DJ continues her waltz of encouragements which remain resolutely un-followed.
They sing Joyeux Anniversaire to the four January-born residents who look untouched by the felicity and the well-intentioned but nonetheless, fake joviality. I take one small bite of chocolate cake and a flood of tears, unexpected and unstoppable, makes me choke as I hurry outside to the park covered with snow. I sit on the wooden bench and I cannot stop this glacier of memories.
My father sneaked in, a box of presents offered by the his employer, the firm of Compteurs Garniers. Every year on the 24th of December, my father would enter the house quietly, at exactly 6pm. He would try to dodge the flurry of little feet, and with a big smile, proud to be bringing in the loot, he would go straight to the dining room and disappear with my mother to hide the box.
We always took great delight, my sister and I, in decorating the freshly cut fir tree. The needles pricked our fingers as we fixed the real candles to the end of each branch, inhaling the smell of the dense and dank forest. In the meantime, my brothers had taken out the box from the top of the wardrobe, and arranged the brown crib paper into hills and valleys, and then placed the Virgin Mary, Joseph, and the Three Wise Men with the animals. The little wax Baby Jesus would have to wait till the following morning to be reunited with the rest of the family. Cotton wool, taken out of the iodine-smelling pharmacy-cupboard, hung from the hill top to complete the scene.
That Christmas - the one that was the beginning of my non-believing in Père Noël since I had caught my father with his special box and seen in the cellar the dolly's bed my brother Joseph had spent hours making for me - my parents had been given an enormous goose. She may not have laid the golden egg but she was full of promises. There she lay, in all her glory of white feathers, like a dancer from the Moulin Rouge, ready for the transformation. First, she was boiled to make the plucking easier; then, each feather was pulled from its cavity. We watched with horror and admiration the making of a map on the naked, whitish skin, blue rivers, craters and elevations.
When my mother began the autopsy with a sharp knife, her hand assured and confident, the stench of warm flesh and offal became overbearing, but the little soldiers that we were remained transfixed, paralyzed by our mother's callousness, wondering how she could be so cruel and gleeful. She seemed to enjoy the challenge. She wore a flowery apron which she had sewn herself and her blond hair softened her face. Her blue eyes lost in the memory of her home, a farm where, when she was growing up, this type of killing was an everyday routine.
The time had come for our mother to take out the liver, and just as a surgeon holds a heart to be transplanted, she examined the yellow fatty liver and told us how the farmers around Toulouse force-fed their geese with grain using a huge metal funnel in order to obtain super-sized livers. We could not comprehend how such cruelty could exist but, on the other hand, we thought that the birds were lucky not to go hungry.
"The liver is to make the pâté de foie gras my darlings, and I am going to prepare one that you will never forget."
And mesmerized, aware that a sprinkle of magic and love would be used, we listened attentively to the next steps to be taken. On Christmas Day, we would eat this golden, crispy fowl garnished with a stuffing of chestnuts purée mixed with cream and bacon. The goose would be served with cardoons, vegetables similar in appearance to artichokes. My father grew his own, in his plot. Like an artist, he had gauged the precise time to remove the leafy vegetables from under the bags which had allowed them to whiten. They were served with a roux sauce. It was unforgettable.
Nothing of the goose was to be wasted. The feather down would be used to refill the double bed mattress and we would help our mother with the pointy circular needles to sew back the striped heavy linen. Our fingers would be pricked and tiny drops of blood would collide with the whiteness of the down.
My father had collected the snails from the garden. They were safe to eat as no weed killer had been used. He had imprisoned the gastropods in a Hessian bag, poured sea salt on them and tied the entrance to their freedom, letting them to disgorge in the dark. While my father would boil them on the gas stove, my brothers would clean the shells readying them for the fillings of garlic, butter and finely chopped parsley.
We would start our Christmas Eve Réveillon after the midnight mass at Saint Maurice's. My father, a non Churchgoer, would nonetheless, walk us to the church, past the Monument for The Resistance Fighters of the Second World War, Place de Monplaisir, past the mansion of the Lumière brothers who had invented the first colour film, past our primary school where boys and girls were segregated. We would stop in front of shop windows and stare back at the pig heads which, adorned with crowns of thyme and laurel, were daring us to eat them. Chaplets of salamis, andouillettes, and sausages hung over the Christmas delicacies. We stopped in front of the brightly lit pâtisseries, overstocked with rows of chocolates ranging in colours from rich white to deep black, contemplating the enormous chocolate Father Christmas and his elves which stood over artificial snow. Even the bookshops were decorated with mountains of books and toys and we drooled over such prodigality.
We skipped through Paradise in our colourful hand-knitted scarves, hats and mittens; threw snowballs, slid in the snow. We crossed ourselves at the entrance of the church, sucking in the warm air perfumed with incense, prayed and sang, Mon beau sapin, O Sainte Nuit, shed a tear or two, moved by the beauty of the human-scale crib where a real baby boy was soundly asleep. But our mind was somewhere else.
We ran home, knowing that a warm, extravagant meal was awaiting us. My mother had prepared her famous pike quenelles in a light tomato sauce with button mushrooms and un-pitted green olives. She had baked the traditional bûche de Noël, (Christmas log) with my older sister's help. I knew their secret even though I had been too young to be admitted into their sisterhood circle. It was all in the rolling of the cooked pastry in a wet towel and the filling in, by expert hands, with chocolate and cream. There was always, on top, a small plastic wood-cutter holding an axe, holy leaves and mistletoe.
We always went to bed having placed, with anticipation, in front of the black marble chimney, eighteen shoes, hoping that in the morning they would have been magically filled with mandarins, chocolate, fruit-jelly or sugar papillottes and presents. Early in the morning, the youngest would be followed down the stairs by a gaggle of expectant siblings.
As my hands and body start to freeze, I re-enter the dining room where residents are shuffling to the rhythm of the same waltz, eyes lost in memories. The word sheets are being collected, and the plates, cups, and saucers are being passed to the end of the table. I help my mother to stand up and I am sad to tower over her, realising that I have become her protector, and her guide back to her room, where no doubt, to the collection of photographs will have been added several baby portraits. And, as she slowly pushes her walking frame to the lift, she turns her face to me and asks where I had gone during the birthday party. I reply without hesitation, "Home," and as the doors of the lift close very, very slowly, I wish I could climb with my mother, into Doctor Who's Tardis to be transported in space and time to our home, 127 Avenue des Frères Lumière.