Friday, 28 October 2005

It’s all my mother’s fault – a tribute (of sorts)

In 1959, my mother went to Poland to visit some cousins of hers and to bring them part of the money they needed to bribe officials in order to be allowed to emigrate to Israel (btw, in your dreams, Iran, in your dreams!). She should have been a spy, my mother; she took dollars rolled up inside a couple of emptied toothpaste tubes and sewn into the lining of her clothes. A year later, they managed to leave Poland and move to the city of Ashkelon, where, at the time, you could bend down and pick up bits of Roman artefacts in the road (and where the word ‘échalote’ – shallot – comes from: isn’t this more fun than Wikipedia, eh?).

Now, earlier on, those cousins of hers, they had sent me a traditional costume from one of the Polish provinces (see pic). I was about eight or nine at the time and I blame it (and my mother) for my dislike of fancy-dress anything, because, for the next several years, I was paraded in the streets of Paris, wearing that costume, on Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras, pronounced “mahrdee-GRAH”, in French; btw, “coup de grâce” is pronounced “coo-duh-GRASS” not “coo-duh-grah” – drives me nuts). I was a very very shy little girl and there I was, saddled with a mother whose middle name was “gregarious”. She embarrassed me all the time and never more so than the day she pushed me on to the stage of the Alhambra theatre and forced me to join a whole lot of poor little red-faced kids, all wearing fancy dress, just before a live programme presented by a guy called Jean Nohain, who looooooved little children. No, no, I’m sure he was all right, but he was so unctuous that, even then, when I used to watch his programmes, I felt like throwing up, so you can imagine how I felt on that stage. When the show started, we all filed in front of him and said our names into the microphone and what costumes we were wearing. I was a big hit, although what the viewers thought of it in black and white I have no idea. Within a minute I found myself in the wings on the other side of the stage and vowed to never ever put on that costume again – or any other costume, for that matter.

That’s why I will not take part in any Halloween celebration (I wouldn’t anyway: Halloween’s nothing to do with me) and I absolutely hate dressing up.

Today is the 9th anniversary of my mother’s death; I shouldn’t really slap her, but she won’t mind: we had that kind of relationship. No, no, I don’t mean we hit each other all over the place, but it was, shall we say, “robust”. (You can start rowing again, Mum!)

The Dead
The dead are always looking down on us, they say,
while we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich,
they are looking down through the glass-bottom boats of heaven
as they row themselves slowly through eternity

They watch the tops of our heads moving below on earth,
and when we lie down in a field or on a couch,
drugged perhaps by the hum of a warm afternoon,
they think we are looking back at them,

which makes them lift their oars and fall silent
and wait, like parents, for us to close our eyes.
Billy Collins


  1. Can we slap Halloween please. I simply cannot understand why trick and treating is viewed as a wholesome activity for children rather than being seen for what it really is - a large scale organised extortion racket.

  2. Beautiful post, J.

    That Billy Collins poem is a favorite of mine. It reminds me of St. Paul's earnest promise - the best thing he ever wrote - that now we see things as though in a dim mirror; but some day we shall see face to face and we shall know as fully as we are known.

    Not slaps, but hugs - to you and your mother, and to all parents and children who have such a difficult time seeing each other clearly.

  3. ahhhh, I had the same type of "robust" relationship with my mother ... who was always pushing me to do something. I'm sure she's sitting up there (or wherever) going tsk, tsk. *mwah* to them both. xoxo

  4. GSE: I meant to slap Halloween, but, when I realized what date it was, I decided to modify my original post. I don’t understand the way that ancient festival has evolved at all. Have you heard of the eggs sold by Asda? The boxes bore the mention “Halloween Fun” and the eggs were obviously meant to be thrown by kids. Asda denied it was the aim, but they didn’t fool anyone. They said they would make sure they were sold only to adults. What nonsense! There are stylish ways of exorcizing death, but throwing eggs and flour at passers-by isn’t one of them. Nor is trick or treating.

    Thanks, D! My “difficult” parents produced a “difficult” child.

    What’s ironic, M, is that I’m now the least shy person I know. My mother’s exhortations finally bore fruit – too late for her to approve. I hope your mother’s also “rowing” peacefully up there. :-)

  5. Have suddenly realised that St Paul's 'through a dim mirror' is the modern equivalent of 'through a glass darkly' - isn't it? (Bible scholars please step forward.) I prefer the older language - but the idea is moving anyway. And connected surely, too, to Plato's cave and the shadows?

    Bela, did your mother's exhortations really work, or would you maybe always have grown out of being shy and her pushing you forward delayed it by making you embarrassed? We will never know.

    My father used to tell me dirty jokes when I was a child in front of adult company and then ask me to try to explain them. They all thought it was hilarious, whether I could attempt some sort of stammered suggestion, or whether I admitted ignorance. I think I would have preferred the Polish costume. What is it with adults - do they *always* forget what it's like being a child?

  6. "Through a glass darkly" is such a lovely phrase!

    It's quite possible I would have shed my shy carapace eventually. Working in the theatre helped a lot – and realizing life’s too short to tiptoe around. They say shyness comes from self-consciousness and ultimately arrogance: an inflated idea of your own importance (you know, believing that people are looking at you and judging you, when, in fact, they couldn’t care less). Once you become aware of that... it's very liberating.

    Looks like I should be thankful for the Polish costume: it most definitely could have been worse. Adults can be so cruel to kids.

  7. greatsheelephant - you say "extortion racket" like it's a bad thing ;)

    I miss dressing up every year for Halloween. And no, I don't think it's the same when you're all grown up. Something magic-feeling happens when you're little and in costume.

    Love this post. You must have a million stories about your ma.

  8. Fantastic poem. Fantastic mother. Truly child-shaming costume.

    What would a coup de gras be? (Do people really pronounce it like that?) Would it be like when the sumo wrestlers smack each other with their obese bellies?

    I confess, I've always loved dressing up in costume, for any reason, or none at all. Blame it on my birthday, the morning after Halloween. Imagine my poor mother: 9-months pregnant, sitting at the door, passing out chocolate bars on her very first Halloween (it being her first year in the States), when lo, her water breaks. Now the question: was I a trick or a treat? Ho ho!

  9. Thanks, K! My mother was quite a character, no doubt about that. LOL!

    Indeed, T, two out of three people mispronounce that phrase (at least here in the UK). I think they want to sound clever and show that they know that the 's' in 'gras' isn't sounded, except that, er, it's "coup de grâce" not "coup de gras". I absolutely love your definition of the latter. LOL!

    If I'd been born on that day I probably would be dressing up at the drop of a hat too. Your poor mum! And, you're a bit of both, like all of us, I expect. :-)

  10. My mother dressed me up far too chicly (take THAT, Jacqueline!) for my own comfort. I will never forget having to wear ankle boots, cashmere turtlenecks and wool trousers to school in the FIRST GRADE!!!! Everyone else was wearing plaid dresses and saddle shoes. I've been on the margin of conventional society ever since. (How the children laughed when she came to walk me home from school, she in her fox fur hats. Don't ask and I won't tell.)

  11. How embarrassing for you, L! Children do not want to stand out.

    My mother loved furs too - everyone did at the time. I have to confess I did own a fur coat, years ago, before it became unacceptable. We were very unaware. There's a fur revival at the moment, but, these days, it would never occur to me to wear anything that was killed for its pelt.

  12. Good post. My Mama was a sweetheart. She didn't have the money to dress me up. Maybe I was lucky after all. But I love that outfit that you picture.

  13. Thanks, TLP. I love the stories you tell about your Mama. :-)