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The windows in my study are wide open; I am looking down at the garden. The cherry tree is in full bloom and from above it looks like a very light white cloud. I remember when we planted it thirty years ago. Juliette, my daughter, wanted a small cherry tree for her birthday. We planted what we believed was a miniature cherry tree. To our surprise it grew nearly sixty feet high and produced great, dark Bing cherries. Juliette loves the tree and thinks that when and if we sell the house, she will cut down the tree and use its wood to make furniture.
The mailman has just delivered a letter, which I hold in my hands. I am not sure I want to open it. I know in my heart of hearts the news will not be good. I am a witch, as I always tell my children; I am sure that this letter bears no good news.
I go back to my desk, letter still unopened. I can hear my grandchildren laughing on the floor above, and as I sit down at my desk, I take out my mother's old photo album and gaze at a photograph of her. She is so beautiful in her long dress. Her train is artfully arranged around her feet. She carries an enormous bouquet of cascading flowers. There are also pictures of my handsome father and of my grandmother, elegant in a large hat and a long dress, holding on to my grandfather and staring boldly out with icy eyes.
I remember my French grandfather's round belly, a pince-nez perched on his nose and a mustache of which he was very proud. I remember walking with him in the park, holding his hand; his picking me up on our walk in the summer to grab hazelnuts from the tree in the back of their summer house. There is a lovely picture of my husband and me when we first met. I look so happy and French; he looks so American!
My grandfather is dead. He died the last month of the war. My mother is also dead. I want to cry.
I open the letter and read the doctor's note. The biopsy is positive. I have breast cancer....Could I call him right away to make an appointment for surgery? I stand there, silent, and then turn back to the photo album to take one more look. I find a picture of me on the deck of the boat taking me from Egypt to Paris. I look forlorn and sad. I close the album and remember.
I am standing on the bridge of a Greek ship, which will take us to Marseilles, looking down at the pier. The noise is deafening, and people are running and passing baggage, crying out in Arabic: "Be careful...turn right...No, I mean left...You idiot! Why can't you be more careful!" as they are loading possessions and themselves onto the deck. Families are gathered in a corner saying goodbye to those leaving. Most of the passengers look young. I imagine that, like me, they are going to Europe to study. The war has been over now for nearly two years and the Mediterranean, which had been mined by the Germans, is now declared safe. I am going back to Paris with my mother to attend a lycée and to see my brother, who has spent the war years in France. We are going to live with my maternal grandmother, who has raised my brother. I am excited to go back to France where I was born, although quite sad to leave my Egyptian grandparents and Egypt, where I have spent eight wonderful years.
My mother was French and my father Egyptian. For the first six years of my life we lived in Paris and summered in Biarritz with my maternal grandparents. But in 1937 my father became quite ill with lung cancer. After a successful operation we were summoned to Cairo by my Egyptian grandfather. He believed that my father would recover if the family surrounded him. We arrived in Cairo, greeted by a noisy, affectionate, extended Sephardic Jewish family. We settled down in my grandparents' apartment on the ground floor of their four-story house, surrounded by a large garden with a resplendent mango tree planted, my grandfather liked to say, when I was born. The life of the household revolved around my grandfather, a stern but loving man, and my grandmother, a diminutive woman who ruled the household and her brood with an iron fist. My voluptuous, attractive mother, happy to be relieved from her duty of taking care of a sick husband, made herself the toast of Cairo society. As for me, I spent my time roaming the house, usually ending up in the kitchen where Ahmet, the cook, prepared meals that reflected the complex cultural makeup of the family. I spent a lot of time in the kitchen, tasting Ahmet's food and listening to the kitchen gossip. Warm spices, pungent herbs, exotic fruits, and the alchemy of hands became part of my daily life. Within a year, though, my life was shattered for the first time. My father died. A few months later, my mother decided that her best life was elsewhere, and left me with my grandparents for the next four years. I was devastated and heartbroken. Ahmet and his kitchen became my only solace as he enveloped me with love and food.
In 1942 Cairo had become the center of the North African war effort. It was a bustling city occupied by the English, swarming with foreigners and immigrants who escaped the horrors of the war in Europe. My mother, attracted by the glamour and excitement of Cairo, suddenly reappeared in my life and yanked me away from the security of my grandparents' home with the idea of taking care of my education. Since my attachment to her had transformed itself into resentment, our relationship in the beginning was tense and difficult. Desperate to have a mother like the other children in the family, I tried to reopen my heart to her. Caught up in the swirl of Cairo's social life, my mother quickly tired of the mother role she was playing and stuck me in a convent school for three years, hoping to convert me to Catholicism while she traveled from resort to resort playing cards, dancing, and flirting. To please her and win her love and attention, I did convert, to the chagrin of my Jewish grandparents who felt betrayed by my mother. During those three years I was shuttled between two households, living a difficult double life between an indifferent mother and loving but powerless grandparents. The convent, a squat, five-story house surrounded by gardens just outside Cairo's city limits, had become my haven. The nuns, or mères (mothers) as they were called, were warm and tried to make me feel at home. I especially loved Mère Catherine de Rousiers, a young nun full of vitality and good humor who had taken me under her wing. She was the only person I could really talk to about the problems faced by a young teenager problems that my own mother, who was never there, could not help me solve.
In 1947 my mother, pressured by her own mother in Paris, decided to go back to Paris to be with my older brother, Eddy, whom she had not seen for eight years. She was permitted by my Egyptian grandparents to take me along only after she convinced them that I was in dire need of a proper French education. It was an argument that my grandfather could not ignore; his own children had been educated in Europe. In reality, she was obeying her own mother, who insisted that she finally assume her child-rearing responsibilities. In 1939, my brother had been unhappy in Cairo. He hated the heat, the noise, and especially seeing my father paralyzed and ill. My French grandfather suggested that my brother be sent to France for the summer months, and my mother agreed. The war broke out two months later, but my grandfather, thinking that the war would last just a few months, thought that my brother should stay there. My mother consented, although her decision would create the same nagging resentment in my brother, too. Now that the war was over, my mother had no excuse for not coming back to Paris.
As I stand on the bridge there is a light breeze, and I feel cold and lonely. I look with envy at a young man being hugged and kissed by many relatives down below on the pier. I have no friends here to wave me goodbye, no family below to wish me a safe trip. My grandparents have not come, crushed by the idea of my departure. I shiver at the memory of my grandmother's tearful embrace as she hugged me tightly. I wrap myself in my light wool coat that my grandmother had had made for me, fearing the cold of Paris after being accustomed to the warmth of Cairo. The coat feels heavy on my shoulders from the gold links my mother has sewn into the hem. The government does not allow us to move funds from Cairo to Paris. My grandfather had a long, heavy gold chain made. It is about two meters long, and at his suggestion it is sewn into the hem of my coat. "She is young," he tells my mother, "no one will know. Don't worry. When you reach Paris, here is the name of one of my friends, an Egyptian jeweler. He will sell it for you." There are also gold coins sewn into my shoulder pads. I am a walking golden child. Years later, when I was at the Sorbonne and totally broke, I wore that same coat. I decided one day to remove the shoulder pads, no longer fashionable, and found twelve gold coins hidden in them that my mother had forgotten to take out. I sold six of them immediately and kept six of them. I still have them. One day, I will give them to my grandchildren. As for the chain, my mother sold it when we got to Paris but kept a small piece as a bracelet in memory of our trip. I also have the bracelet. I never wear it as it makes my wrist black because it must be at least twenty-four carats. "You should sell it," my husband tells me once in a while. I seem to be unable to do so, nagged by a superstitious notion that if I do, I will cut all my ties with my childhood. The bracelet stays in my jewelry box. I take it out from time to time and remember.
A loud siren pierces the air and the shouts and cries below intensify. I hear a voice crying, "Semit, semit." I look down and see a young boy with a basket on his head filled with semits, the Egyptian version of a soft pretzel. I suddenly remember my first bite of the hot semit topped with roasted sesame seeds when we first came to Egypt. I run down the plank to buy some while the sailor shouts in Greek to come right up as the boat is about to leave. The soft semit tastes wonderful. I don't know then that I will have to wait twenty-five years to eat another one. The loud siren pierces the air again. It is time for the boat to leave, and the people on the pier below look like ants trying to find shelter. I look up to see my mother smiling and talking to the captain on the upper deck. I feel a pinch in the middle of my stomach as I realize that I will probably not see much of her during the trip. She is already flirting and will probably befriend the other officers, who are Greek and Italian. She speaks both languages and will have, I feel sure, a great time becoming the belle of this boat.
As the ship slowly leaves the shore, I look with anger at my mother. I want to go back to Cairo. I am afraid of what lies ahead. What will it be like? I don't even remember my brother. The only thing I remember is that we did not get along. And my French grandmother? What was she like? I have no recollection. I only know stories that I have overheard. My mother and her mother were not close. It seems that my grandmother got along only with her son. I recall someone in the family saying that my mother was afraid of her. She even got engaged to someone she did not like just to get away from her mother. I think it is her father who broke it up, realizing that she really did not love the man. She met my father at Mendès-France's (the future prime minister of France) wedding. Mendès-France's wife was Egyptian but had gone to school with my mother. They were best friends. She asked my mother to be a bridesmaid. My father, friends with the bride's family, was also invited to the wedding. Seeing my mother, so the story goes, he fell madly in love with her at first sight.
The boat glides slowly on the deep blue Mediterranean waters. I keep on eating my semit, feeling slightly sick as the harbor slowly disappears. It is getting cold and the bridge is slowly emptying; passengers are going to their cabins. My mother, too, has disappeared. I go down one flight to our cabin. Nausea comes over me like a wave as I sit on the corner of the bed. I run back upstairs, and in the open air on the deck I feel better. My mother reappears and wants me to come down belowdecks to have lunch. I follow her, angry with her for not being by my side when the boat left. My mother looks around the large dining room, smiles at people, and seems quite happy. "Stop brooding, Colette," she whispers harshly. "You don't look pretty when you frown." She chooses a table near the captain's table and smiles at him as she sits down. I cannot stand her! Will she ever behave like a mother? I look around and see other passengers with children. A young mother is bending down to whisper something to her son. He smiles and nods. I feel envious and look back at my mother. "Look around," she says with impatience. "There are several young people your age here....You should make friends. Look at that girl there; she is laughing, do you see? Why can't you be like her?" I want to answer but the nausea returns in cold surges. I don't have a mother and a father like her, I want to say, but I feel really ill. "I don't want to be like her and I don't want to be here...I feel sick!" I run back to the outer deck, my stomach churning and my skin damp. I hate boats! All along the deck sailors are opening chaises longues. I plop myself on one and allow the breeze to settle my stomach and my anxiety. I promise myself that this is how I am going to spend my days and nights. I don't care about my mother and the other passengers. I just want to feel better.
Later in the afternoon my mother reappears and sits next to me. She has brought me sandwiches and looks at me sheepishly, but I am unaffected. "Try to walk on the deck," she says. "The captain says that it should help you. Shall I bring you a book? Do you need anything else?" She walks away and I do not see her until dinnertime. As she sits again near my chair, she begins to ply me with concerned questions and an offer of help. I look at her in astonishment. Why this attention? I am very pleased and smile for the first time. "I can't go down," I say. "I tried, I really tried, but I can't. Can I have dinner here?" Later the captain comes to talk to me with the ship's doctor. There is no medicine on board that will alleviate my seasickness. They bring me blankets, food on a tray; people stop by to talk to me. I feel better all the time. I like being the center of attention, although I feel somewhat uneasy. Am I like my mother after all? I sleep like a lamb and the next day I try again to go down to our cabin. I wash and dress myself, trying very hard to calm my stomach. I don't last long and very quickly I go back to my chaise. One day down and five days to go.
My days are the same. I walk, eat, and sleep on the deck and spend just a few moments in our cabin to wash and change. I am not sure if by now I am still seasick but I love the attention I am getting, especially from my mother. I am also getting used to the Greek food. I like their salad, especially the cucumber yogurt salad. Their babaghanou is not as good as my grandmother's but it will do. I love the soups and this is mainly what I eat.
The day before landing in Marseilles, my mother comes to sit next to me. She looks embarrassed, clasping and unclasping her hands, which she always does when she wants to say something serious. "There is something I must ask you. I don't know how to explain it but...you see...my mother does not know that we are Catholics. She will be very upset when she finds out." I put down the sandwich I had been eating, feeling a by now familiar wave of cold dampness over my body. I look at her, not quite understanding where this conversation is leading. My French grandmother would be upset? But why? Isn't she Catholic?
"You have to promise not to tell her."
"But why? I promised Mère Catherine that I would go to Mass every Sunday. I don't understand! Why is it wrong to tell her?"
My mother sits quietly for a while as I weep. I see myself going to hell, being punished for my sins. I remember my First Communion, the promises I made, the warmth of the convent, and especially Mother Catherine, who took such good care of me. I long to be back in Cairo. There, there were no lies. My Jewish grandparents knew about the convent and my conversion. We never talked about it, but there was a tacit understanding about freedom of choice, which my mother then refused to acknowledge. I look at my mother; her skin is dry and her eyes are opaque with annoyance and fear. I suddenly realize that my mother has converted to Catholicism and that she, too, came from a Jewish family. I had heard my aunts, grandmother, and grandfather talk about the problems facing the Jews in Europe. Whenever I would approach or try to listen they would suddenly stop talking. My cousins and I thought that whatever was happening in France was dreadful, but we didn't really comprehend the gravity of the situation and wondered constantly. Cairo had a great number of European Jews who had escaped the war, and stories about their hardships reached my family. At this particular moment I felt confused and for the first time I found myself wondering what I was Catholic or Jewish? Could I erase the fact that I had been born Jewish? I desperately wanted to be Catholic. Would my grandmother force me to abandon what I had been taught? Why was my mother scared of her?
"Just promise me you will not say anything. The war was hard on her and Eddy and it would make everything worse if we tell."
I look at her again and realize that once more she has betrayed me. I also know now, feeling her fear growing into panic, that I can ask for anything in exchange for my promise. "I will not tell but you must promise that you will stay in Paris and not go back to Cairo without me."
"I promise," my mother says with relief.
For the last two days of the trip, my mother takes care of me, reading books aloud and talking of the things we would do together. I am so happy that I start to forget about her mother and my fears slowly disappear. On the first of June, 1947, our ship anchors in Marseilles. I stand on the bridge looking down onto the pier. The atmosphere is not the same as in Alexandria. Less shouting and pushing, and the pier looks cleaner. People are standing there waiting for the passengers to get off. My mother is looking for someone in the crowd. "There she is," my mother says. "The tall lady with the hat. Wave, Colette, so she can see you." I look down at the tall woman in an elegant black dress with a large hat waving back. She does not look so terrifying, and I feel better.
The boat is slowly unloading. Suddenly my mother screams, "Faites attention, regardez oú vous allez!" (Be careful, look where you are going.) Along the plank an enormous burlap sack is being unloaded. Suddenly, the bag rolls and falls with a large thud onto the pier, bursting open. "O, mon Dieu!" My mother sighs with disgust. "There goes the rice!" And the kilos of rice that my mother, at her mother's request, had packed to bring to France where food was still scarce and rationed, has spilled out everywhere. I see people running with paper bags, picking up as much rice as they can. To my mother's chagrin, we end up with only a small bag of rice.
At the bottom of the plank stands Grandmaman Rose, looking at me and smiling. "You're not very tall," she says, "but you have very nice hair. Come...let's get to the station and home." She takes me by the hand and, followed by my mother, we walk to the exit and to what I think will be a new and marvelous life.
The train ride to Paris was interminable. We all sat in a second-class compartment on hard seats, wilting in the close, hot air. My mother didn't dare complain as yet. The two women, voices shrill with tension, talked together and ignored me. My brother, Eddy, was the first topic of conversation. Grandmaman Rose boasted of his success in school, how he had passed his baccalaureate at the age of sixteen, one of the youngest students in France to do so. "He is planning to be a chemical engineer," she preened. "He loves music, you know." She paused so that we might absorb his grandeur, then added gravely, "But why would you know?" I saw my mother's face become chalky and her hands tighten their clasp on each other, so I did something that soon became a habit in her presence. I started to chat about anything that came to mind. I talked about the crossing, about the dark Greek sailors, about some of the more colorful passengers. My grandmother laughed, the atmosphere of our compartment relaxed, and my mother smiled at me as if to say thank you. I felt like an actress who had just won her audience.
The journey was slow due to mines on the tracks. During the war, my grandmother told us, the cheminots (railroad workers) sabotaged the Germans by derailing trains en route to Germany. "Not only the trains carrying Jews to concentration camps, mind you, but also French workers who were obliged to work in German factories," she explained. My mother's look turned sheepish, as it often did in the next few months, at the mention of what the Jews and by implication what her mother and son had suffered during the war. My dread at the lie I was to live returned as I looked at my grandmother's slight smile of satisfaction at having just humiliated her daughter. To dispel this embarrassing moment, I announced loudly that I was famished and could we order lunch.
My first meal in France, in a hushed and formerly elegant dining car, was a revelation. The menu was absurdly simple; there was a choice of an omelette aux fines herbes or a sandwich jambon beurre. I chose the omelette and was delighted by the flavors of chives, tarragon, and chervil mingling in the creamy lightness of the eggs, all so new to me. If the food in France was so good even in a train, I thought I might have a happy life here after all. Raspberries laced with streams of crème fraîche sold me on the value of my new adventure. To this day, I have an intense and nostalgic fondness for both dishes. In fact, if my grandson Matthew ever shows an unwillingness to eat at lunchtime, I bring him back to the table with a promise of an omelette aux fines herbes.
Two hours later I awaken in the recovery room. I am freezing, and nurses fuss over me. I hear them talking as if through a cloud of cotton wool. It seems that my temperature is too low and that they need to bring it up. I am wrapped in blankets, hot water bottles tucked around my body. I want to tell them that I am all right, that I want to see my family and get out of that room. I think I am saying something to the nurses but no sound comes from my lips. I am not as cold and I fall back to sleep. Two hours later, as I am wheeled out of the recovery room, I see and feel my husband kissing me. I feel wonderful. I am alive and he is here, as I knew he would be. I squeeze his hand and smile again because I see my son and my three daughters. This is what I have lived for, fought for. We are the beginning. The room is full of flowers; my children take turns holding my hands, kissing me. I am tired and relieved. The doctor comes into my room and says that the prognosis for full recovery is even better than expected. The lymph nodes are free of cancer. I look around me and think that in three days I will go home and the future does not seem bleak, as I know deep in my heart that I will beat this curse.
Copyright © 2003 by Colette Rossant