The Summer of the Elder Tree
INTERPLAY OF LIKENESSES
Last summer we took some friends who were passing
on a tour of the
house in Lans. In one nook of the huge granary that Harry uses for an
office there are only a few photographs on the wall. One romantic oval
frames a serious-looking, long-haired young woman. The pale low-necked
blouse she’s wearing makes it clear that the portrait is fairly
its intentional sepia tint.
“What a lovely picture!” the woman exclaims. “I’ve
seen that person
before. Which one of your daughters is she?”
“It’s only me,” I say with a laugh. “At thirty-two.”
In her embarrassment the woman apologizes profusely.
“Why? I’m delighted to be taken for one of my daughters.
They’re a lot
more beautiful than I am.”
In fact, I could have half-jokingly gone on, that sepia girl (she’d
appeared in ’74 on the back cover of my first book) isn’t
half bad after all!
It’s hard to refer to her as “me.” Is she still me?
I’ve been separated from
her, too—with regret, obviously.
“The funny thing is,” my friend said appeasingly, “your
don’t look like one another, but each still has something of you.”
No need to
say, that was music to my ears.
PASSING THINGS ALONG?
More than once I’ve been
told, “You’re lucky, you have
a good relationship
with your daughters, and that’s no accident: you got on well with
No doubt it’s true. Among my childhood paraphernalia there weren’t
only sorrows but a multitude of tiny items passed along to me, trifles
are shining treasures that never burn out, whatever advanced age one
reaches. What are these treasures if not childhood itself, broken into
that are glued back together with words, colors, beach pebbles, whatever
comes to hand… On condition that something new is made of them?
Assembling small memories—decals and scraps of all kinds, a medley
Chocolate bar between two slices of bread—time for your afternoon
Garden, elder tree, sheets shaken out at a window, the house has been
sold—the pink horse-chestnut flowers with it?
Velvety skin, cheek smelling of fruit, maternal breath when she comes
home, train at night delight.
Intimate scent of scarves, silk and muslin, snitched the length of an
Rings, jacquard knitting, how slow your weariness climbing Mont
Chopin waltzes, the Moonlight Sonata and the German language never
shall I forget it.
Molyneux No. 5, compact snapping shut (powder mist), and your voice
in church, so pure, so other and beautiful I’m almost ashamed of
Smoke rings, Lucky Strike, blue whorls, black coffee…
My mother, you’ve disappeared and yet you walk in silence at the
of my dreams.
Thus the “good relationship” takes shape, and it keeps moving
a ball passed along from player to player, from mother to daughter. Love
and trust—if that sounds old-fashioned, too bad—those were
for us our
infallible code of transmission. It hasn’t always been a smooth ride—sometimes
the motor races or stalls—it is, I repeat, a question of improvisation,
dependent on humor more than on principles, at least I think it is. Love,
trust and every shade of laughter: I stick obstinately to a maternal
where you can navigate by sight.
Translated from the French by Harry Mathews
MARIE CHAIX, born in Lyons and raised in Paris, is the author of nine
seven of them autobiographical, two of them novels. She is best known
Laurels of Lake Constance, which retraces the life of her collaborationist
and that of her family during the postwar years. The
Summer of the Elder Tree, a
memoir and meditation on the theme of separation, was published in Paris
2005, her first book to appear in fourteen years.
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