Toutes les mamas

Here is my song for Saturday — Voici ma chanson pour un samedi…

Mamas and mothers the world over are on the whole entirely under appreciated. Just as was the singer of this song, ‘Toutes le mamas’ (All the mammas). It was one of many hits by the Belgian singer known as Maurane, who sadly passed away on May 7th last year.

I remember dancing to this tune back in 1988 when it first came out. It was upbeat yet sort of jazzy with the the rich, velvety undertones of Maurane’s voice.

As it turns out, the song was less about mothers in general than a tribute to a certain idea of the African ‘mama’. Racially questionable yet joyously musical nonetheless.

I first discovered Maurane when she played Marie-Jeanne in the 1988 production of the rock opera Starmania in Paris.

The song of hers I love best is this one, ‘Sur un prélude de Bach’, written and composed by Jean-Claude Vannier. It is hauntingly beautiful and still gives me the shivers.

May all of the mamas around the world enjoy their day in the sun. Here in France, country of the cultural exception, we will have to wait until the end of May.

RIP Maurane. ❤️

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.


Bonne fête à toutes les mamans!

What makes a bonne maman?

ImageI knew when I became a mother that I would not conform to the stereotypes. As a kid I was a tomboy who detested playing with dolls. My own mother – devout, self-sacrificing, much loved and fondly missed these twenty-four years – was no role model for her eldest, renegade daughter.

The first of my two children was born in Toronto. A bouncing boy, he surprised everyone at 10 lbs., 4oz (4.7 kg),  including his petite maman. Somehow I was able to keep my identity intact on becoming a mother: we had a midwife, used cloth diapers and my husband spoke French as he pushed the stroller around the neighbourhood.

Our second, a girl, was born in Lyon. I feared giving birth in French more than actual labour and childbirth, having been there and done that. The idea of expressing myself in extremis in what was then (and still remains) a foreign language terrified me.

I needn’t have feared. As the old joke goes, everything came out just fine. Including my daughter. She, by the way, was also a tomboy and has grown up to be something of a renegade herself.  Was it because or in spite of the fact that I was no maman like the others?

Two memories from those early years stand out in mind: in the first, we are in the car, my daughter strapped into the car seat as we race forward and slow down, continually changing lanes to avoid parked cars and errant pedestrians – driving in the French way. Suddenly a motorcycle zipped by.  My daughter, then two, pointed and said “Asshole!”  Forgive me, dear Mother, I taught her well.

In the second, I arrive at school for the annual kermesse (end of year event). The school yard is crowded and chaotic as such celebrations are in France (in contrast to the structure and strict routine the rest of the time, they let loose at parties). My daughter came running up from where she was playing with a group of boys, crying “Maman, tu t’es déguisée en maman!” (Mom, you’re wearing a mommy costume!) I was wearing a skirt.

Much of the time my foreignness was my disguise. It hid the fact that I was not the good old-fashioned kind of mother. I did not take Wednesdays off like most working moms, I did not make crèpes, nor did I iron my kids’ clothes. I did the school runs dressed not for success but in my exercise gear, often walking our two French bulldogs, to whom I spoke only English. This often sparked comment from the other parents. (“Mais ils comprennent l’anglais? How clever! Bilingual dogs!”)

NB: It’s impossible speak a second language to small children or dogs. You have no credibility.

At parent-teacher meetings, I tried to go native for my kids’ sake. There is nothing more excruciating to a child than a non-compliant parent. But even when I managed to suppress my North American attitudes (“Don’t you think that four hours of homework is perhaps a little – excessive?”), my accent was a dead giveaway. The French will not let an accent go by without commenting on it. Nor will they suffer a mistake in grammar without some sort of grimace, however slight. For years, I believed this was indigestion.

Sooner or later, my foreign ideas always came to the fore. I would begin asking about art class and gym and all the things that made our children well-balanced individuals but that the French school system has little time for.

The other mothers would complain only if there was too little homework, in a sincere belief that if little Pierre, Paul or Jacques didn’t work his derrière off in primary school he would never get his baccalaureate. In France, everything in life depends on le bac.

I observed these bonnes mamans with a form of awe bordering on horror. It seemed their whole lives were devoted to feeding, clothing and educating their families, in most cases while holding down a job. The papas were rarely in evidence.

One woman explained to me that as she had to get up at six in the morning to get ready for work and school, and didn’t make it home in the evening until late, the only way she could serve her family a home-cooked meal was to get up and start cooking at five. Then, when she got home all she had to do was heat it up. Genius, non?

Another told me that she did her grocery shopping on her lunch hour, then stashed the booty in the office fridge. Her only regret was not having time to eat. I told her I went to the gym at lunchtime, stored my salad in the fridge and ate it at my desk. No regrets.

In addition to hours of ironing (French women rarely own clothes dryers, so ironing is de rigueur), most of the mamans also spent much of their free time ensuring that their kids did their homework. Drilling on grammar, checking sums.

When my kids were sick I let them stay home and watch TV. We only went to the doctor if things looked serious. French mothers took their kids to the doctor the instant they ran a fever, followed by a trip to the pharmacy. Dosed up with as many médicaments as possible but preferably antibiotics (which the French are convinced are necessary to cure the common cold), they were able not to miss any school.

I refused to do homework with my kids. I made them make their own beds and pick up their toys. I set out the breakfast things so they could get themselves ready in the morning.

I was certainly no bonne maman by French standards. But my kids grew up anyway. They even passed their baccalaureate exams with flying colors. So what did I do right?

I didn’t bend to the pressure that said women should be mothers first and individuals second. I took care of my children as well as I could while taking care of myself. I never missed a bedtime story. I baked banana bread and made sure they celebrated Canada Day and Halloween. And I did the one thing that truly defines a bonne maman.

I saved their Mother’s Day cards.