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Marie Chaix

The Summer of the Elder Tree



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 recent, despite 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 daughters don’t look like one another, but each still has something of you.”
          No need to say, that was music to my ears.



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 your mother.”
          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 that are shining treasures that never burn out, whatever advanced age one reaches. What are these treasures if not childhood itself, broken into pieces 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 of jingles…
          Chocolate bar between two slices of bread—time for your afternoon snack?
          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 absence.
          Rings, jacquard knitting, how slow your weariness climbing Mont Valérien.
          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 it.
          Smoke rings, Lucky Strike, blue whorls, black coffee…
          My mother, you’ve disappeared and yet you walk in silence at the edge of my dreams.
          Thus the “good relationship” takes shape, and it keeps moving on like 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 space 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 books, seven of them autobiographical, two of them novels. She is best known for The Laurels of Lake Constance, which retraces the life of her collaborationist father 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 in 2005, her first book to appear in fourteen years.

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