Que de chemin parcouru

The trail seemed easy enough. The hotel offered a free shuttle ride up to the start of the three-hour walk along ‘Levada Nova’.

Levadas are the irrigation channels that carry water down to the seaside towns from the top of the mountains on Madeira. We were visiting the Portuguese island for an extended anniversary weekend, a mini holiday that we take every year around this time. The weather was perfect: spring-like temperatures with a few clouds and a bit of fine rain. Walking along the levadas is a popular activity for visitors to the island.

I was wary of getting in over my head, though. The Frenchman I married all those years ago is far more at ease than I am at altitude; he skis and climbs and can keep going forever. I figured we should start small and see how we went. So we chose the easiest trail.

It started out well. The paths were fairly narrow but flanked by lush vegetation of all kinds on both sides. Madeira was once the world sugar cane capital but these days bananas are the more lucrative crop.

But it quickly got a lot scarier. The narrow path edged along the mountain side with a fairly sheer drop just centimetres away in many places. Where it was steepest, there were barriers — stakes with ropes attached – which provided at least psychological support.

I had to fight my fear of heights to keep going. Coupled with my challenged sense of balance ever since I had inner ear surgery several years ago, the fear of taking a wrong step had me seriously considering walking in the irrigation ditch, lower and away from the edge. But it would have meant slowing down and soaking my feet, so I slogged it out. I was too afraid to stop and take photos of the steepest parts. You’ll have to take my word for it: it was impressive.

We didn’t have a map but had been told the path was clearly marked. No one said anything about a tunnel. Did I mention I also have a fear of the dark, of both open and closed spaces? Basically I am a mess. I thought the man I married thirty-odd years ago would have known this by now.

Reaching the tunnel, I balked. Then ensued a scene not dissimilar to many others we have navigated over the years together.

“No way am I doing this. Are they out of their freaking minds? It’s pitch black in there. Why didn’t they give us torches?”

“Don’t worry, your eyes will adjust.”

“Mine won’t. Wait, I’m going to use my phone flashlight.”

“But you can see light at the end.”

“No I can’t, you’re blocking it.”

“All right, then, just let me step aside…” There was a splash and my scream echoed through the tunnel as I turned my phone light and saw him struggling to right himself from where he had fallen into the ditch.

“Oh, god, are you okay? You could have broken your ankle!”

“I’m fine. Don’t worry about me, just get moving.”

I walked as quickly as possible without running in the dark, as the speck of light at the end of the tunnel grew bigger.

We emerged on the other side to a gorgeous waterfall with another sheer drop. I collapsed on a rock. He looked at me and shook his head.

“You’re not your daughter’s father!”

I cracked up. “No, that would be biologically impossible.”

But he was right: I’m my mother’s daughter, not my father’s. My dad is the adventurous one, the guy who goes kite surfing at the age of 86. My late mother’s idea of sport went no further than the dance floor.

I inherited her fear of heights, of enclosed spaces, of flying, of fear itself. I also got her eyes, some of her kindness and a lot of her sensitive soul. Sadly I did not get her ability to cut a rug. From my dad I got a love of the outdoors and some of the exercise gene. Just not at altitude.

We continued on, through gorgeous vistas. Fifteen minutes past the tunnel, he couldn’t find his sunglasses.

“Where did you have them last?”

“On my head.”

“Right. They probably fell off in the tunnel.”

“I’m going back for them. You wait here.”

I put my foot down. I may have even stamped it.

“No way! There is no guarantee you’ll even find them. And I’m not going to wait here for half an hour worrying while you go and look. We’ll buy new ones.”

He was not happy. I reminded him that if we had made it this far together it was because we both knew when to pick our battles and when to cut our losses. We moved on.

A short while later, the path disappeared. We stopped at a fence where it had been washed away. Some other hikers confirmed that the steps we had passed some ways back led down to a different levada, one that would lead us back to the hotel.

On reflection I suppose that marriage is like that trail. Sometimes it is dizzying, and sometimes there are dark passages where you can’t see the light. But you just keep walking, a step at a time, putting one foot in front of the other. You keep the faith. And suddenly you realize how far you have come. Que de chemin parcouru.

Happy anniversary, mon amour!

One of the last sightings of the sunglasses…

 

Millésime 1957

The year I came into the world people drove cars with fins that looked like this.

Just about everybody smoked.

Men and women still wore hats to work. Women dressed like this.

A new house cost less than $12K, and a yearly salary was around $4,500.

Elvis Presley was all shook up. Fans flocked to see him star in the movie Jailhouse Rock.

Heart throb Harry Belafonte crooned his way to fame with the Banana Boat Song (Day O) while bombshell Brigitte Bardot headlined in the French romantic comedy La Parisienne.

The frisbee was invented.

The cool kids were watching American Bandstand.

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz filmed the final episode of I Love Lucy, a TV comedy about a screwball redhead married to a foreign guy with a funny accent. (Years of watching reruns of that show as a kid may have influenced me slightly).

The Russians launched Sputnik, starting the space race. The Soviet space dog, a stray from Moscow called Laika, was the first animal launched in space and, sadly, the first to die.

John Diefenbaker became Prime Minister of Canada, leading the Progressive Conservative party to victory for the first time since 1930. Queen Elizabeth II officially opened the Canadian parliament.

The Suez Canal crisis ended. Canada’s Lester B. Pearson, who would later be prime minister, won a Nobel peace prize for deescalating the situation with the first UN peacekeeping force.

The Treaty of Rome was signed, bringing about the creation of the European Economic Community.

The 44th edition of the Tour de France was won by Jacques Anquetil, who went on to win it five times.

French fashion designer Christian Dior died while on holiday in Italy. It was never confirmed whether the cause of death was choking on a fish bone or from a heart attack after a strenuous sexual encounter.

In 1957, the peak of the baby boom years, the life expectancy in the US was 66.4 years for a male and 72.7 for a female.

Millésime, by the way, is the French word for vintage or a year in which something special is produced. 1957 was a very good year and I am happy to have been born on this day.

Even happier to be here today to remember so many things that have happened since.

Where were you in 1957?

Or where were your parents, if you were still just a gleam in their eye?

Photos d’identité

mug shots

‘La photo d’identité’ or passport picture used to be something of a French specialty. They were de rigueur for just about everything — joining a club, getting a bus pass, starting school or applying for a job. There were automated photo booths in every supermarket and photographers’ shops on all the main strips did a booming trade in portraits.

In various wallets, purse pockets and drawers around my house is a jumble of old ID photos. These records of past lives capture moments, years, entire eras since I first arrived in France back in 1986.

Now you can get them done online and print them yourself. Although I’m not sure this is good enough for official passport purposes.

Like any good French wife and mother I always carried a few photos around as mementos and to be prepared if anyone asked about my family.

This collection documents most of my daughter’s journey from pre-school to young adulthood. The first one cracks me up. That expression! She wasn’t going to take any guff.

She briefly morphed into a mini-me when some well-intentioned professional recommended glasses to ensure she missed not a single letter of the vital early reading years. It was just after that that she rejected all efforts (mostly Belle-mère’s) to give her that cute little B-C-B-G look (bon chic, bon genre, a French version of the well-heeled chic). She grew her hair and became a tomboy par excellence before transforming into a beautiful young woman. More recent photos even show her smiling!

There are fewer ID photos of my son. This may be because he was in constant motion, especially in the early years. One teacher dubbed him ‘Zébulon’, a French cartoon character on a spring who simply can’t stay still. (If you’re interested, he shows up in the video below at about 20 seconds in.)

Husband matured from handsome young man to handsome older man. As he is still my junior by several years, he will always have youth over me. Although possibly not hair.

I am not sharing any recent ID photos. Since they changed the rules in line with the biometric passport, and you are no longer allowed to smile or even form your facial muscles into the semblance of an expression, I will spare you my slack-jawed mug shot.

But I’ll keep the collection for my memory box.

Do you keep a collection of ID photos?

Boite à souvenirs

Boite à souvenirs

I’ve always kept a memory box. None of your nicely curated ones with the pretty covers, neatly annotated photos and properly catalogued albums. Just the random flotsam and jetsam of my life.

Somewhere in our basement is a collection of boxes, battered and bruised. They contain the memorabilia of growing up, the bits and pieces I’ve found it necessary to keep over the years. Always with the vague idea that, one day, I would look fondly through these things and remember that one particular moment: this elation, that heartbreak, the time we… The broken guitar string. The cigarettes I believed I’d never give up.

Thankfully I did quit, and my broken heart mended. And though I never seem to find time to sort through all the keepsakes, I roost upon them like a clucking hen, hoping that one day they’ll hatch into something.

In among the boxes are photos, unsorted, mostly in the envelopes they used to come in when you picked them up from the drug store. What? Yes, mes enfants, we did that.

There are birthday greetings and farewell cards, both funny and corny. Party invitations, concert ticket stubs, student travel cards. There are yearbooks with messages earnest and flip from people I went to school with and have mostly forgotten. Crude comments from clever boys. There is an impassioned letter with an embarrassingly bad poem written by a doorman in London whose heart I apparently stole with my ‘face like an elfin grove.’

There are poems and lyrics of my own, a few that got published in high school reviews. There are my on-again, off-again journals – the sporadic ramblings that kept me sane pre-blog era.

There are the letters – ah, the letters! – exchanged over months of overseas correspondence with a certain Frenchman. And the postcard that changed everything. The one that made me decide he was serious.

There are the family mementos, the cards my kids made for Mother’s Day. Souvenirs of holidays in France and trips back to Canada. Ghosts of Christmas past.

The boxes have gotten thinner of late. Now most of our memorabilia is online. This makes me sad. Nothing can replace the treasures hidden inside my memory box.

Recently I’ve dug through some of it, pulling out pieces I needed for my memoir. So far, though, most of my memorabilia has yet to be released from its boxed purgatory. But I’m glad I saved it, every last bit.

Photo: Robert de Jong

Thanks to Colin Bisset, whose excellent blog recently reminded me of the importance of keeping a journal.

Do you keep a memory box?

Fête des mères

In honour of Mother’s Day in France this Sunday, and in memory of my mother who would have been 90 this year, here are a few memories I hold dear.

Her name was Gladys, or Gwladys in the French spelling that picks up on the Welsh origins of the name. This post is not about anything French or Welsh but a woman who in some ways I hardly knew, and yet who was close to me as only a mother can be.

Gladys Catherine Angela Kennedy was born on the 21st day of March. “I came with the Spring,” she liked to say, with a raised eyebrow and the glint of a smile, all the self-deprecating humour of the British bred in her bone.

Perhaps Gladys was a name that needed a sense of humour. The only other Gladys we knew of was a gorilla at the zoo, and a funny looking cleaning lady on the TV commercials. One morning after my parents had been out late at a party, I found her name tag stuck on the toilet seat: “Hello, my name is Gladys.” When we asked why it was there, Dad said it was because that’s where a glad ass should be. He always called her Glad for short. And Glad she mostly was.

My mom (which we always pronounced ‘mum’, in the English way) was mine in the way that only a mother can be. She was the one person I could admit anything to, who understood my fears and helped dry my tears without judging or making fun. In return she confided in me, her eldest, making me feel special and unique.

She was proud to have a first-born girl of many talents. I was good at drawing and could ride a bicycle, had a fine voice and was not afraid of going on stage and showing off in front of people, none of which she was able to do. And when at times I got too big for my britches, she told me so, reminding me that humility was the greatest virtue and that God loves the weakest best.

God was where Gladys and I parted company.

To my eternal disgust, my mother named me after a nun, a certain Sister Mary Ellen that she herself had greatly admired. It probably explains why I later adopted my initials as a nickname. Other than my hero Julie Andrews, who is kicked out of the abbey for being rebellious in the Sound of Music, the only nun I could ever relate to was played by Sally Field. As a child The Flying Nun was one of my favourite TV shows, and I would have sold my soul to stay home to watch it on Sunday mornings rather than getting dressed up and going to mass. Come hell or high water, my mother conscripted all four of us children to attend church with her. Dad, a sometime Anglican, stayed home and read the paper.

The only part I liked about church was the hymns. It was also an opportunity to observe the backs of people’s heads and try to catch them in surreptitious behaviour such as nose picking, shifting suspiciously in their seats (maybe that was why they were called pews!) or catching a few z’s. When I got bored with that, it was my personal ambition to try and make my mother laugh. This didn’t always work but every now and then I would draw her attention to some particularly ridiculous looking hat or a bald fellow singing off-key in the next row. At my best I’d manage to reduce her to tears. It got to a point where if I could only catch her eye, I could get her going with a simple deadpan stare. The poor woman learned to religiously avoid looking at her eldest daughter during mass.

When I reached the grand old age of sixteen I put my foot down, announcing to my mother one Sunday morning that I had decided not to go to church anymore. God was all very well but I just didn’t believe in religion, I explained, standing on the stairs in my pyjamas when they were about to leave for Holy Spirit. Why should the Pope dictate that people spend their Sunday mornings inside some church smelling incense? My idea of spirituality was going outside and communing with nature. Furthermore, it went against my feminist principles: why shouldn’t women be priests? Besides, I declared, figuring I might as well go the whole nine yards, I didn’t think there was anything wrong with sex outside of marriage.

Upon hearing this speech my mother blinked at me in stupefaction: I may as well have told her I was Mary Magdalene. She eventually got past the shock and accepted that, despite having done everything she could do to raise me as a Catholic, I was not cut out to be one of the faithful.

Other than her family and her faith, what kept my mother going in life were her friends, along with her coffee and cigarettes. She drank coffee all day long and was almost never without a smoke. Gladys was a people person. Her friends and acquaintances were many; she got a kick out of people from all walks of life and truly enjoyed listening to their stories. She always laughed, no matter how silly the joke. But although her sense of humour held her in good stead, it was not always enough. Sometimes she was depressed, and these times were hard on all of us.

She was not a very good housekeeper; this was less to do with any innate lack of orderliness but rather of being overwhelmed by life: four children, two large dogs and a husband whose right it was to come home and put his feet up. Our house was never dirty but it was often hard to tell beneath the sea of clutter.

Her priorities were often elsewhere. She was a good cook and a light hand with pastry. She had excellent, expensive taste; she decorated and dressed well, if conservatively. She often went out to church groups and she and my father went to theatre evenings and to play bridge.

Mom did not approve of swearing but she did use colourful language. She was famous in our family for her expressions: “Go to Putney on a pig!” she would say in moments of duress. Her most cutting criticism was, “She gives me the pip!” And she often asked the iconic question: “Who’s she when she’s out?”

‘Mother’ was the name that Gladys always used when referring to her own mother, my grandmother, upon whom she doted. There was a formality in their relationship that was altogether foreign to me. I detested all things stuffy and stuck up. I wanted us all to be friends and equals, kids and their parents and grandparents, with no artificial boundaries of age or politesse between us.

From the first time they met, Gladys liked and approved of her future French son-in-law – small matter that he was foreign and seven years my junior. She got a kick out of his fractured way of speaking English. “You have a nicer sewer,” he said when he saw her sewing machine; another time he said ‘crow’ and pronounced it like cow, sending her into the kitchen in fits of giggles. He also won points by thoroughly enjoying her home cooking, the ultimate compliment, resulting in a situation of shortage at family suppers that was quickly dubbed, “The Frenchman factor.”

She had a sweet tooth, and when she came over with my family to Paris for our wedding, she made it her personal ambition to visit every pâtisserie and sample every pastry possible. I remember her clapping her hands with delight when a waiter came bearing her dessert, a generously sauced serving of profiteroles.

Gladys passed away far too early, shortly after learning that I was expecting her first grandchild. Many chapters of the family story have unfurled in the years since she left us, and still she is missed and fondly remembered. She lives on in her grandchildren, who resemble her in different ways: a bit of bone structure here, a smile and a kind word there.

My mother’s story is part of me, but her story is not mine. Although I eventually did become a mother, I did it on my own terms. Perhaps being true to myself was the greatest tribute I could pay to Gladys.

gladioli

Bonne fête à toutes les mamans!