24 April 2008

Alice held between her skinny fingers the bitter white end of a head of lettuce. She had found it nestled between a piece of tomato and a slice of cucumber in the salad she was fed at dinner. She never thought of eating lettuce heart. The black-haired girl sitting beside Alice leaned over and whispered,
“A gypsy told me that if you eat a lettuce heart without breathing, you can make a wish and it will come true.”
Sitting at a table with other orphaned children, Alice swallowed the bitter heart. Her eyes were closed, as if to ensure the granting of her wish. Once the heart had begun its journey through her petite body, she opened her eyes. Through the window that sat next to her, she saw the figure of a woman entering through the lofty metal gate that keep her imprisoned in that foreign home. Her chest jumped with her heavily beating heart. She was in that moment when reverie and reality balance on each other, where life can surprise you or it can deal you a predictable hand. She then recognized the figure. It was her mother walking towards her. It was her mother that she had wished to see.

Alice was born in Paris in 1941 as the daughter of a Tunisian father, who was quite fond of absinthe, and a French mother who could not read or write. When Alice was born, her mother was living in a one-room apartment without a toilet or running water. Alice’s mother had one child every year for ten years. All of Alice’s siblings lived in that one-room apartment for the first few years of their lives, but none of them stayed for as long as Alice. Seven years passed before the French authorities thought it better for Alice to live in a clean orphanage rather than the impoverished home of her parents.

All Alice longed for when she was a young child was to be like everyone else. She felt alienated by the sole detail that her mother’s absence was due to the poverty that plagued their family. Everyday she left school, she longed for her mother to be waiting for her, as all the other children’s mothers were waiting. Once, her mother rode on a bus for nearly an hour so that she could feel like everyone else, so she could live a dream for a few sweet moments.

Alice’s mother did not visit any of her other children. Her mother chose a favorite, such a taboo for parents. She even remembers her mother telling her that she was her favorite, that all her other siblings were hardened by the difficulties, but that Alice kept a softness in her.

When Alice was fifteen years old, she lived alone in Paris in a room the size of a small walk-in closet. Not until eighteen though, did she realize she was alone. As she huddled in that tiny room, she listened to Beethoven and wondered about the complexities of life; but she had no one to ask the myriad of questions that pierced her mind. Her mother loved her, but was unable to give her any guidance. At some point between Beethoven's third and fifth symphonies, she came to terms with the idea that she knew nothing and this stimulated her to engulf herself in people that knew more than her. She surrounded herself with artists, musicians, and writers rather than delinquents, criminals and drug addicts. Her siblings never came to terms with their lack of knowledge. They became those delinquents Alice chose to withdraw from.

At twenty, she moved to London and lived as an au pair in the house of a woman no more amiable in temperament than the callous siblings she had left behind in Paris. She endured the unkindness by seeking out small but gratifying forms of retribution. She would purposefully cook an over-salted, burnt breakfast, and act ignorant when the woman complained, as if the culprit was her lack of skill in cooking and not her devious intentions.

Over time, Alice endured more misfortune, enough to cause some to surrender, believing their unlucky hand would continue. She did not surrender. Not until the age of forty-one did her river of misfortune finally evaporate into a bearable stream, when she found a companion in her neighbor’s brother. She dove into a second marriage, not letting previously failed attempts restrain her ability to become blissfully vulnerable. And she had a healthy child at an age when the odds were against her.

Alice has been living in the United States since 1965, yet still her French accent is as thick as the skin on the soles of her feet. For every English word she mispronounces, no more than a second goes by. To this day I have never heard her utter an ‘h’ without someone articulating it for her first. Americans often mistake her accent for animosity. Policemen regard her accent as grounds for always giving her the ticket.

Americans see her as too French. The French see her as too American.

Her beady brown eyes often water if the air-conditioner is on too cold. Her knuckles are enlarged with arthritis, but her hands are still lean and feminine. When she was in her twenties and it was the sixties, she plucked her eyebrows leaving only a thin row of hairs. The hairs never grew back.

She was a petite child and she is now a petite woman. She's in good shape except for a little belly. No matter how much she walks, bikes, or swims it never goes away. She explains this phenomenon with a statement made by Albert Camus in the Stranger that all women have little bellies when they get older. I looked up the quote later in life, to come upon a much more grotesque description, something involving ‘bulging stomachs’, rather than the little bellies Alice made reference to. It's as if she wanted to expose me to Camus but edited the content until I was mature enough to understand something like existentialism.

She changed the spelling of her name when she was in her twenties, but in no official way. She just started spelling her name with a –ys instead of an –ice. She is now Alys.

And she paints. Alys sees the world in paintings, as a photographer sees the world in pictures, and a writer sees the world in words. But her paintings are of nothing concrete, just collections of brightly colored shapes. When she was younger, her paintings were of bold lines and black squares atop a background of primary colors. Now her paintings are of soft lines and pastel-colored circles. She never uses black paint anymore, unless it’s for mixing with white to make gray.


J Rizzo May 23, 2008 at 6:28 PM  

"Alice’s mother had one child every year for ten years." ... the timing and rhythm of that sentence is so good, even tombstone worthy.

A few hiccups in the narrative (the jump from being in her 20's to the softening of her bad luck is awkward) but otherwise the tone and rhythm are great for telling a story.

Great engaging storytelling Nessy. I also agree that your mom is way too French, and that's coming from someone who's way too Dutch.