Inez, Colette 1931-
INEZ, Colette 1931-
PERSONAL: Born June 23, 1931, in Brussels, Belgium; immigrated to the United States, 1939; naturalized U.S. citizen, 1952; daughter of Monsignor L. (a French-American priest) and Marthe Dulong (a French medievalist); married Philip Rosens, 1961 (marriage ended); married Saul Stadtmauer (a freelance writer and journalist), July 26, 1964. Ethnicity: "French-born." Education: Hunter College of the City University of New York, B.A. (English literature), 1961. Religion: "Secular Humanist." Hobbies and other interests: Painting, drawing, the piano, astronomy, and naturalist interests.
ADDRESSES: Home—5 West 86th St., Apartment 6E, New York, NY 10024-3603.
CAREER: During early career held various jobs, including posts with Recreation Magazine, International Theater Magazine, the New York office of Le Figaro, and the Sephardi Foundation, 1948-61; high school and private school teacher in New York, NY, 1961-71; New York University, New York, NY, adult education teacher, 1962-63; National Academy of Ballet, New York, NY, instructor, 1963-64; Federal Title -III Anti-Poverty Programs, New York, NY, instructor, 1964-70; poet-in-the-schools in Binghamton, NY, and Pittsburgh, PA, 1973-74; New School University, New York, NY, poetry workshop instructor, 1974-83; Denison University, Granville, OH, Beck Lecturer in poetry, 1974; State University of New York at Stony Brook, poetry workshop lecturer, 1975-76; Columbia University, New York, NY, associate professor,
1983—. Visiting professor at Hunter College, 1979-80; Cooper Union, 1988; Ohio University, 1990-91; Cornell University, 1998; Colgate University, 2000; and Kalamazoo College, 1976, 1978, 1981, 1985, 1989, 1993. Poet-in-residence at Bucknell University, 1992; Colorado State University, 1993; and University of Tennessee, 1996. Poetry reader at Library of Congress, Lamont Library, Harvard University, and at many other bookstores, libraries, universities, and cafes, beginning 1967.
MEMBER: PEN, Poetry Society of America (director, 1979-80), Academy of American Poets.
AWARDS, HONORS: National League of American Pen Women poetry award, 1962; Osgood Warren national award, Poetry Society of New England, 1967; Consuelo Ford award, Poetry Society of America, 1971; Great Lakes Colleges Association National First Prize book award, 1972, for The Woman Who Loved Worms; Marion Reedy Memorial Award, Poetry Society of America, 1973; National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, 1974, 1988; Kreymborg National Poetry Award, Poetry Society of America, 1975; New York State Creative Artists Public Service (CAPS) fellowship, 1975; Rockefeller Foundation fellowship, 1980; Yaddo creative fellowships, 1980, 1985, 1987, 1989, 1990, 1996, 2004; Ragdale Foundation fellowship, 1982-84; Virginia Center for the Arts fellowships, 1983, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1993, 1994, 1998; Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, 1985-86; Pushcart Prize, 1986, 1998; named to Hunter College Hall of Fame, 1987; Djerassi Foundation fellowship, 1989; Millay fellowship, 1991; MacDowell fellowship, 1995, 1999; New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship, 1995.
The Woman Who Loved Worms, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1972, reissued by Carnegie Mellon University Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1991.
Alive and Taking Names, Ohio University Press (Athens, OH), 1977.
Eight Minutes from the Sun, Saturday Press (Upper Montclair, NJ), 1983.
Family Life, Story Line Press (Santa Cruz, CA), 1988.
Getting Under Way: New and Selected Poems, Story Line Press (Santa Cruz, CA)1992.
Naming the Moons, Apple Alley Press (Lewisburg, NJ), 1994.
For Reasons of Music, Ion Books, 1994.
Clemency, Carnegie Mellon University Press (Pittsburgh, PA), 1998.
Spinoza Doesn't Come Here Anymore, Melville Books (Hoboken, NJ), 2004.
The Secret of M. Dulong (memoir), University of Wisconsin Press (Madison, WI), 2005.
Poetry represented in anthologies, including Quickly Aging Here: Some Poets of the 1970s, edited by Geof Hewitt, Doubleday, 1969; Live Poetry: Thoughts for the Seventies, edited by K. S. Koppell and others, Holt, 1971; In the Belly of the Shark, Random House, 1972; Love, Etc., Doubleday, 1973; Rising Tides, edited by Laura Chester, Simon & Schuster, 1973; We Became New, edited by Lucille Iverson, Bantam, 1975; and I Hear My Sisters Saying, edited by Carol Koneck and others, Crowell, 1976. Contributor of numerous poems, essays, short stories, and reviews to periodicals, including Antioch Review, Nation, New York Times, Beloit Poetry Journal, Minnesota Review, Hudson Review, Poetry, New Republic, Parnassus, Prairie Schooner, Ploughshares, New Criterion, American Poetry Review, Chicago Review, Texas Review, Denver Quarterly, Georgia Review, Iowa Review, Progressive, Paris Review, Partisan Review, and Humanist.
Author of lyrics for Miz Inez Sez, a song cycle for composer David del Tredici's Secret Music (audio recording), 2002. Translator of works from French to English, including the poetry of Jacques Dupin.
ADAPTATIONS: The Woman Who Loved Worms was adapted for the stage by the Saeko Ichinohe Dance Company.
SIDELIGHTS: Colette Inez is a Columbia University professor and award-winning author of poetry collections. Inez was born in Belgium under unique circumstances, and her early life has had an effect on her poetry, as she explained in a Helicon Nine article by Dennis Bernstein: "I began life as the love child of [a] medievalist and a Catholic priest. I spent my childhood years in the corridors of a Catholic orphanage on the outskirts of Belgium, under the thumb of the very stern Sisters of Charity. So my sisters were my mother, my father was my brother, and my mother was no mother. . . . And I'm still haunted by this, still working it out, trying to find a way of giving it continuity, trying to come to terms with it, and I have. But as a source of poetry, it's still a rich field." Coming to the United States at age eight, she would later graduate from Hunter College and find work as a teacher and author. The sounds of words in her verses mean just as much to her as their meaning. "I sometimes think of poems as chamber music: maybe a solo, then maybe two instruments playing off one another, an intimate chamber music. Sometimes I even hear a poem before I get the words."
Colette Inez contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA:
My mother's last letter to me reads:
August 31, 1986
I am late in answering you but my health is not good. I can recover slowly with the help of God. I do not share your opinion about a religion which needs celibacy in its priesthood. It is a religion to which I have thoroughly adhered.
God does not want our happiness in this world, and Christ did not give us that example. Your father asked me to give him companionship so that he would have the strength to renounce the venal women he received regularly.
He realized it would lead to madness, as he could not renounce his early vows, and was grateful to me in the last period of his life to have been saved from suicide which he contemplated. Thanks to me he died in peace in the bosom of the Catholic church, bringing no shame to his family.
You were to be adopted by Mrs. Inez L. who was satisfactory in every way but some one told her or saw in person that you very much resembled your father, which was true, and she thought that as people knew she was a friend of your father, they would quickly guess where you came from.
She decided at the last minute not to take you, and since the American family wanted a child, it seemed a good solution.
. . . I cannot make myself explain to my cousin, Maurice, who you really are. It would bring a lot of worry to him. I have already told you the fact of your birth and those circumstances were entirely independent of my will.
I am trying to read your book of poems, Eight Minutes from the Sun, but I must admit I do not understand very much of it. I notice at the end of the book you invoke St. Francis. I wish it were true.
The beginning, June 1931. My French mother, a scholar, medievalist, carried her pregnancy from Paris into Belgium. The same month during which I was covertly born in an unwed-mother's ward in Brussels, my father, an American priest, prepared for his ordination as a Monsignor in the Roman Catholic church. A stout and lusty man, middle-aged, respected, an Aristotle scholar and linguist, he was marked by the Vatican for high investiture.
On July 4, ten days after my birth, my mother bundled me off to the Institut de Puericulture, a Catholic children's home on the Rue Chant d'Oiseau, Birdsong Street. I was left among other abandoned infants presided over by the Sisters of Charity. My mother resumed her archival calling, perusing the medieval tracts of Pictaviensis, Saint Otto, and Saint Blaise, obscure intellects of the faith.
Years. I would wake in the half-light of dawn, file in line in my white nightshirt to a bare washroom, part my hair, rinse my mouth, splash cold water on my face and pat it dry with a large, rough towel used by others in my section.
There were no mirrors. They will make us vain, the Sisters insisted. Beauty is empty, they said. I trusted others to tell me if my clothes were in disarray. We shuffled in our pantoufles, brown plaid felt slippers, to the floor's communal closet. Here we secured our uniforms; one in blue wool for winter, one in brown cotton for summer, undergarments, knee socks. Two pairs of shoes, heavy and light, galoshes for snow or rain.
Herded down the stairs each morning to join others at matins, we were lambs kneeling on cold stones, praying for God's mercy, for the forgiveness of sins. Breakfast in a cavernous refectory demanded we speak only when addressed by a Sister. The concert of spoons clicking against porridge bowls, the clamor of slurping children seated on hard benches in the grey light of day still drums dimly in my ears.
I memorized the alphabet, sang songs in a round:
"Frère Jacques," "Il Etait un Navire," plainsongs and Latin chants in harmony. That incantatory rhythm was part of the cadence of my childhood, its particular music. I also learned numbers, which sometimes were menacing. Fractions on the blackboard were a parade of digits, beheaded, mutilated, wounded like the beetles we crushed as they scuttled from under our beds.
Favorite subject? Geography, with its paraphernalia of pastel-tinted maps, compasses, place names, latitudes, longitudes, ways to locate myself in the vast world beyond me.
Lunch at noon. Cabbage soup, bread, mutton. Fish on Fridays, bones in our teeth. I would file out of the refectory and join the other girls at embroidery, cross-stitching palm trees, windmills, fleur-de-lis, hemming towels, handkerchiefs, doilies, tablecloths, items sold to raise funds for our African missions.
"You will always remember this day," said the seamstress with pins in her mouth as she fitted me for my communion dress. I had been at the institute six years when a thin young priest placed the wafer, fragile as a moth, on my tongue. Defying the rules, I allowed a tooth to touch it, and envisioned a tiny Christ in my mouth: Lord Jesus wounded and bleeding, weeping with the pain I inflicted. I collapsed in a limp heap over the railing of the altar, creating a discord that spoiled the ritual. In anger and reproof, nuns insisted I purposely misunderstood the symbolic nature of the host. To that incident I trace the beginnings of my distrust of ceremony, the beginnings of my faith in the powers of a spirited imagination.
During my sixth year, a startling announcement interrupted my needlework, "You have a visitor." I was puzzled and excited. Mother . . . father? I was never told if they were dead or alive. Hope flickered—years of such questions had been turned aside by the nuns: "Have faith in God . . . pray to the Lord for patience in all things." I had imagined they were missionaries remote from telephones or letter carriers. Perhaps they languished in an infirmary, ill with jungle rot, fevers, and agues.
"Elle est votre tante . . . she is your aunt," said stout Sister Paul. The somber woman who greeted me wore her brown hair wound in a bun at the back of the neck. A sliver of gold flashed from a front tooth. A crucifix on a fine gold chain hung from her neck, and her eyes in a long sallow face gleamed yellow in the whitewashed light of the reception room.
She had me kneel and pray with her. We did not embrace and she met a few venturing questions about my family in awkward silence. I pressed her no further. Sister Paul had warned me not to speak without being spoken to. She asked after my health and studies, and withdrew a stuffed animal from her handbag before leaving. "It's for the child," she said, but returned it to her purse after being told that toys might incite jealousy and resentment among the children and were not allowed. I didn't like this gloomy woman and was indifferent to her departure. While she came several times after, her visits seemed only curious diversions in the institute's monotonous rule of life. A very distant relative is how I described her to friends in my ward who thought to ask.
Two years passed. I was that much closer to the age when orphaned or abandoned children left for labors on Belgian farms, in households or factories. Girls of fourteen who flourished in school might accept the veil and join the Sisters in their pious duties. Although I was considered clever, my willful and sensuous nature seemed at odds with the career of the religious. Example: in the presence of a nun, in a fit of pity or passion for our Savior, my lips caressed Christ's body on the crucifix in a rush of kisses. A repudiating slap across my face knocked me to the floor.
One day in the spring of 1939, my hour of embroidery was again interrupted by a Sister. "Two men have come for you." I was introduced to stylishly dressed
civilians, one with the symmetrical good looks of film stars I had seen in magazines smuggled into the wards. The shorter of the two had a trim auburn mustache and brilliant blue eyes. Mother Superior stood near. "Colette, these gentlemen from America will be taking you away."
I caught my breath, my heart pounded. America? Are these family friends bringing me home at last? I asked this hesitantly but could make out no clear answer from the handsome man's stumbling French. If their mission was a secret covenant with others, even with the mysterious aunt, I was not told. They were to be companions for a long voyage, nothing more.
The hours following our meeting flew by in a swirl of happenings: my first shopping trip to a department store and its magical bounty. I chose a red dress with embroidered flowers at the neck, a blue coat with brass buttons. Then tearful good-byes to my friends. "Come back when you're a fine lady," a child cried out as I stepped through the iron gate, carrying a valise light with few belongings, leaving with the Americans for the port of Antwerp and embarkation.
Although unfailingly kind, my shipmates continued to ignore my many questions about parentage. Mr. Bale confessed only to being a lawyer involved in the complex paperwork of my emigration, and lived with his wife, Sue, near New York City. I further learned Mr. Branigan, his bachelor friend, was a classical scholar returning home after a yearlong European stay. He denied knowing my visiting aunt, who I had been told was also a student of history. The men had been fellow college students whose earlier friendship now bridged Bale's New York law practice and Branigan's university post in Massachusetts.
During the last self-indulgent days on shipboard, days of freedom and abundance I thought would augur the miracle of America, I was assured that "the family you are to meet will explain everything." We arrived at the port of New York in thick fog. The great lady in the bay and the gratte-ciels, the skyscrapers I yearned to see, vanished behind flotillas of clouds. I assumed my relatives were waiting beyond the customs door. "Would we be met?" Bale idly nodded and said in slurred French: "Tout sera bien."
All will be well. We later moved into a reception hall; I heard thunder and the spatter of heavy rain outside. Was it an omen?
The approaching slim, blond woman called out, "Bob . . . Paul." I could see it was not Sue, whose picture in Bale's wallet I had memorized, but she appeared to know both men equally well. Her pale eyes probed my face, keenly inspected its features. I sensed she wasn't my mother, but who? Bale touched my shoulder. "Mrs. Inez Londeborg is a school friend from California." How admirable to come this distance just to meet old companions, but why, where is my mother?
"There has been a delay. En retard. We must wait." We spent that evening in a New York hotel and left the day after for Pennsylvania Station. Branigan boarded a Boston-bound train with a promise to write. Mrs. Londeborg glanced aside and counseled prayers to God for patience and strength. "Let's not kiss, I have a terrible cold," she dabbed her eyes and nose as Bale translated. I was to leave with him for his Rockville Centre, Long Island, home.
Sue was waiting, prettier than her snapshot, radiant in mid-pregnancy. During the weeks I remained in their cozy one-bedroom apartment, bedded on the living-room sofa, Bale was even less communicative. But raised voices sometimes reached me through the bedroom walls. I overheard breakfast talk about house hunting and the threat of a European war. There were calls to New York City and Richmond, Virginia, where Sue had family. Weekends were spent at Jones Beach or at the Shelter Pines Golf Club watching Bale stroke drives down the fairway. It was tempting to pretend I was Sue's daughter as she cradled my face in her hands, combed and parted my hair, fed me cocoa and cookies.
One day at dinner, Bale announced, "It's time to tell her." I sensed the importance of that moment as he lit a cigarette while gathering his thoughts. Were they planning to give their new baby a sister . . . to keep me? No. "Your family is here and wants to meet you." We left for his law offices the next day. I recited my rosary in tempo with the towns speeding by the train window in a soft blur, while praying for a mother as affectionate as Sue, a father with Bale's princely stature.
They were waiting. Ma Mere, mother. She stood by the office door in a Persian lamb cape and matching hat pierced with a jewelled sword, her hair coiffed in dark ringlets. Elegant. I flung my arms around her, but felt only tenseness; she withdrew, opened her compact, and powdered her face. Puzzled, I was more circumspect with the older man who could not possibly be my father, the one I fantasized. Small and graying, nattily dressed in a Prince Albert coat and black derby, he stared at me vacantly through shallow, glassy-blue eyes. A large, red-veined nose protruded from a long face. When he drew closer, his breath was sour and unpleasant. Raymond and Ruthie Bieghler, my family?
Good-byes at Pennsylvania Station, and assurances from Bale we would soon meet again, perhaps at the golf club to which the Bieghlers also belonged. With a few ungainly French phrases, Ray escorted me to our seats and retreated behind his newspaper. I was left to silently admire the doll-like woman who spoke only English. "Freeport," called the trainman as Ray helped us into our coats. Then "Merrick." "Amérique . . . Amérique!" I shouted loudly, intrigued with the similar sounds of each. The Bieghhers seemed annoyed, and embarrassed by the outburst.
Bayview Avenue. The stucco house resembling others on the tree-lined street was small and drab, hardly the mansion I assumed this debonair couple would own. I was told to expect a crowded household, three parents living with them under one roof. They were waiting. Nana: Ray's thin, widowed mother, erect and imperious in a straight-back chair.
Maude: Ruthie's obese mother, frowning behind rimless glasses. I was also introduced to Ruthie's father, a sullen figure with a long ashen face. George Burt was immobilized by a hangover.
"Souper," I asked for supper, a finger pointed at my open mouth and a hand circling my belly. Family life began with a bowl of canned tomato soup and Ritz crackers secured through the universal language of gestures. A glass of ice-cold milk was the only accompaniment to that first meal in the house of my presumed family.
Spring days, 1939. Ruthie was quickly exhausted by my exuberance, and after a few gestures of mothering, shopping for my clothes, and arranging my grade-school registration, she resumed her secretarial job. "Headaches and pinched nerves" explained why I must tiptoe soundlessly past her room during early morning hours and weekends. The child must avoid all forms of speech and clatter when at breakfast with the two generations of gruff and brooding people.
Ruthie commuted daily to the Manhattan offices of the Kraft Cheese Company. She and Raymond, a fabric salesman, had met and married in Chicago, then relocated to the East with Iowa-born Nana. They said nothing about my origins until the night I drew an answer from the usually aloof Ruthie, mellowed by several highballs. I was "someone special" to comfort a childless marriage. Nana later insisted the idea of taking me was hers more than Ray's. Bale had shown Ruthie my picture during cocktails at the golf club: "Cuddly as a puppy," she had said, or words to that effect. A family doctor also prescribed a child to help her cope with bad nerves, depression, and drinking.
Our basement had been remodeled into a bar with a dance floor, a concession to Ray's fondness for Latin music and passion for the samba, rumba, and mambo, danced smoothly with Ruthie during full evenings of drinking. While they slept through Sunday mornings, I attended church services with Nana and later shared their afternoons at the country club—among other golf orphans in the community room behind the restaurant and bar. The Bales had since moved to Virginia.
During weeknight dinners alone with my foster grandparents, the women treated me as another irritant in a tense and quarrelsome household. Lean, dry-eyed Nana scorned fat, tearful Grandma Maude who loathed Nana's condescension and bossiness. Accord was reached only in their disdain for Grandpa Burt and his alcoholic binges and public urinations. He would greet my enthusiasm with loud groans, clapping hands over his ears.
There were moments of generosity as rare as they were baffling. Nana would invite me to her room to rummage through a box of Louis Sherry chocolates. But grateful kisses were discouraged: "Don't maul me, child, get your paws off me." And there were private pleasures, a small basement library of frayed books which challenged my beginning English while nurturing an early love for the evocation of words, their tones and melody. I can catalog them still: Zane Grey's Western potboilers, Anthony Adverse, the Bible, The Collected Works of Rudyard Kipling. I committed "Gunga Din" to memory, basking in its sounds, the muscular swagger of "you limping lump of brick dust," wrapping my tongue around pure rhymes and Burmese words, the steamy glamor of "Mandalay." Some Damon Runyon stories, books about sports, another of Ray's loves, and a threadbare hymnal completed the hoard.
And there was escape at the Episcopalian Church of the Redeemer, where I added my natural alto to militant Protestant hymns, joining hearty choral voices so unlike those who sang the hypnotic chants and plainsongs of my early childhood.
Although Nana often declared a dislike for children, she became my grudging caretaker: "You were a mistake, but they can't send you back." Small concessions and favors: freedom to sway back and forth on her personal rocking chair, leftovers from her delicious home-baked pie crust, visits with her elderly lady friends.
Ruthie was dazzlingly attractive in paisley dresses, furs, scatter pins, and glittering earrings. I learned to obey one of her few French phrases, "Ne touchez pas," when my hand or cheek heedlessly approached her rouged and powdered face. When I was not simply dismissed, a vague melancholy or peevishness sometimes bridged the distance; her eyes might well up with tears, or she would point to my flyaway curls and command: "Your hair, go comb your hair." Late one night, I happened on her nude body sprawled lifelessly across the bathroom floor. I cried, "Mama . . . elle est morte!" and woke the grandmothers. Ruth was sick, they explained without visible concern. She would be fine.
That autumn I brought my smattering of English to beginning classes at the Merrick Grade School. Within a year, Ruthie was dead, a victim at thirty-two of cirrhosis of the liver and pneumonia. Her death coincided with a visit Nana and I made to the Cleveland home of Nana's sisters. Kate and Agnes shared a decrepit house with Uncle Ed, Kate's fitfully employed piano-tuner husband. Other such visits would follow during summer lulls, intervals in an odd household that introduced me to the pleasures of poetry read aloud.
Crookbacked, deranged Aunt Agnes would aim a gnarled finger at my face and demand I identify myself. Aged and cantankerous Aunt Kate, who dusted at midnight, was barely on speaking terms with her husband, Ed. But it was he who tempered my view of adults as adversaries with a warmth and tolerance he reserved for few others. He took me to visit his piano-tuner friends, and I danced for him on the empty stage of a vaudeville theater as he rippled "Tiptoe through the Tulips" across the keys of the piano he tuned. In exchange for his gift of copious moron jokes, I washed his feet in white vinegar; he called me his treasured foot doctor and rewarded me with a velvet-lined, gold-painted ring box he had fashioned out of a walnut. Daily, to my delight, Uncle Ed stood to his full six-foot height in the kitchen and theatrically recited poems published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, precious interludes in our alliance.
Ruthie's funeral interrupted our stay. The burial was held in mid-August heat. To Nana's evident disgust, Ray, reeking of whiskey, flung himself on the open coffin and sobbed. Nana pushed me towards the casket, prompting me to place a nosegay of wildflowers in Ruthie's hand. Afraid to pry open the stiffened fingers, I flung the flowers at the corpse's chest and fled into the crowd of mourners. I could not bring myself to cry. "You're a cool little number," said Grandmother Burt, who believed my arrival had hastened Ruthie's death.
A parting of ways. "I'm sick of supporting these god-damn leeches," Ray often said before Ruthie's parents were finally ejected from the house. "Good riddance," Nana agreed. Life on Bayview Avenue was less acrimonious during that last year of the great World's Fair. I was free to ride my blue bicycle, to read library books in the crook of a huge maple tree overlooking the backyards of Bayview and Hewlett Avenues.
Ray was a weekend occupant, visible only at noontimes behind concoctions of tomato juice, raw eggs, horseradish, and Tabasco sauce. Although sharp-tempered and moody, Nana was a remarkably undemanding custodian, mostly unconcerned with my dress, schooling, or hygiene. She declared my fascination with reading a waste of time.
Shortly after Thanksgiving, Ray announced he had met "a helluva gal" in a Flushing bar near the World's Fair. "She's lace-curtain Irish and an absolute knockout." Dee appeared in a white ski suit whose hood framed a shiny fall of dark red hair; she studied us through mascara-caked eyes and chain-smoked red-tipped filter cigarettes. Not exactly the film star I first believed, she was nonetheless an ex-chorus girl who had also modeled. Mechanically, she asked about my school and hobbies before driving off to the city in the silver Cadillac of an adoring Ray.
"Very full of herself and a barfly in the bargain." Nana, a teetotaler, condemned her son's dalliance. I was also uneasy at the prospect of a new self-absorbed and haughty foster mother who at twenty-nine could be Ray's daughter. They married in January 1941; neither Nana nor I were invited to the wedding.
During the second year of the war, Ray left New York for sales trips to southern nylon mills. Frequently on the road for months, and flush with high commissions, he would travel with Dee on evening rounds of taverns along his route. One day a postcard addressed in Ray's oversized and swirling script arrived from North Carolina. "Darling, having a swell time. Love, Daddy." Despite its phoney endearment, the gesture and message astonished and moved me. Daddy. Father.
I continued my summertime Cleveland escapes through the war years, sometimes with Nana and later alone. The house on Columbia Avenue, which today spears through the city's Hough district, was at the crossroads of great migrations up from the South. Toward the war's end, our household and a family of Orthodox Jews were the only resident whites on the block. Not much melting in that brimming pot: Prague, Cracow, and Budapest were separately anchored around the corner. I read personal letters to illiterate women, charging a nickel for each. Partly out of curiosity about other lives, I would sometimes reread them without extra charge, reaching for the pleasure of language and the dance of words that I might articulate and share.
My first attempt at a poem was an ode to a milk bottle; my second a love poem to Roone Arledge, a red-haired schoolmate and Long Island neighbor who kept photographs of film star Brenda Marshall and baseball player Mel Ott in a backyard tent on Kenny Avenue in Merrick. Although Uncle Ed had charmed me with the rhymes of John Greenleaf Whittier and Longfellow, I later chose the more subtle music of Emily Dickinson's quatrains as a model.
Since school poetry seemed bland, and we were obliged to commit individual poems to heart for classroom recitation—an undertaking I thoroughly disliked—I decided to learn about poetry on my own. So much in life was arranged alphabetically, I ventured an A-to-Z voyage through the poetry shelves of the Merrick Public Library. Auden was admirable. I tussled with Browning and Donne. A mad and eloquent John Clare was followed by Emily Dickinson, and my hair stood on end. I recall the bliss of opening Bolts of Melody, turning its satiny pages, my eyes dancing with the cadences of ". . . Brazil, lie twirled a button . . . from tankards scooped in pearl." Even during air-raid drills and neighborhood blackouts, I read poetry by flashlight under the nighttime cover of a blanket. Books were life rafts, and like my cherished blue bicycle, were modes to flight and freedom.
My foster parents' general disregard of me went on. I had learned to forge Ray's signature on report cards, stopple holes in shoe soles with cardboard, and even pull teeth with a string and doorknob. But what ever moved Dee and Ray to dutifully attend my 1944 grade-school graduation? They wove to their auditorium seats: Dee in elbow-length white gloves, jewelled wedgies, a turban, and a tawdry red, white, and blue dress that mocked the flag. I heard wolf whistles. Ray was a five-foot-three George Sanders in white slacks, blue blazer, silk foulard, and Panama hat. Mortified and ashamed to introduce them to my teachers, I hid in a school closet and slinked out only after the graduates dispersed. Driving home in the car, Dee slapped me in the face. Ray tooled the Cadillac through stop signs bawling "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition," a song he claimed he wrote. Long Island days.
The following winter, Nana fractured her hip after slipping on a patch of driveway ice; I was accused of ignoring orders to clear the snow. Corrective surgery at her age was ruled out and she was confined to her bed in a brace of heavy sandbags. I was assigned to the tasks of bathing her and scrubbing the bedpans of an irascible patient who deeply resented the loss of her treasured independence. Her infirmity would influence my life until her death.
Alcoholism had begun to demolish Ray's career. When her diversion as a volunteer driver for the U.S. Army Motor Corps was over and Ray no longer traveled, Dee grew restive and bored. In a brief fling at domesticity, she tried her hand at decorating the master bedroom in white organdy and powder-blue taffeta. The room seemed to me more suitable to a Southern belle than to an unruly and hard-drinking couple.
Until closing hours, Dee and Ray boozed nightly at Al's Bar on Merrick Avenue. Nana spoke of financial problems and rumors that Ray had embezzled funds from his former company. A new siege of abuse began.
One night in mid-sleep, I woke to a rain of body blows as Dee cursed me for failing to empty the trash pail. I was yanked from bed, pushed downstairs, and locked out of the house in my nightclothes. Even though I later slept in Nana's room, I learned to sleep lightly, prepared for eviction at any time and to seek shelter in our garage or in neighboring parked cars.
Thankfully there were books, always books, and I strongly believed in the power of language to change my reality. When discovering Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel, I conscientiously copied out new words: stertorous, lambent, ptotic. I memorized these and other unfamiliar words, and invented paragraphs for them to live and work in. Curiosity about other lives led me to biography, and to the encyclopedia as a sourcebook for information about Picasso, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, artists and writers whose names and accomplishments I would record in a notebook. I wanted to be a cultured person.
My faith in a biblical, benevolent God and the assuagements of prayer was ended. I sought consolation in the beauty of the physical world and succumbed to a form of pantheism—that a walk through the woods, the truth of it, was more divine and real than the ritualistic clutter of the church. I lived various lives: the private, concealed life in a debauched house, a life of intermittent hours guiltily spent shoplifting clothes and gifts, and a public, extroverted life among others at church fairs, county choir, tea dances, picnics, and parties. Through it all, I spun my fantasies and wrote my poems.
Never quite divulging to any the humiliations of Bay-view Avenue, I reached for and won friendships. Among those I still value and keep are Joe and Syl Silverman, whose Quincy Street home was an oasis, and whose beloved daughter, Barbara, once an object of my envy, remains a good friend. Too proud to ask outright for food, on hungry mornings I guilefully lingered under the kitchen window of Nancy Kent's house until invited in for breakfast. My first published poem, which appeared in 1959 in the New York Herald Tribune, was dedicated to the mother of another friend, Inge Streek, whose freely given kugels and cupcakes spoke of her opulent spirit.
After convalescence, Nana was fitted with a large corrective shoe. "Witch!" children shouted as she hobbled by on crutches in baggy stockings, thrift-shop clothes, wisps of white hair escaping from a high-brimmed hat. "Snot-nosed brats," she would yell back. Conflicted, I hated her capriciousness but admired her spunk and stoicism. Even as blindness encroached with the onset of diabetes, Nana rarely complained. But she continued to berate and harangue me without much or any cause, yet I needed her ebbing protection against the Bieghlers.
A small annuity from her late husband netted her several hundred dollars, a few pennies of which were just enough for our suppers of lavishly salted boiled onions, potatoes, and carrots. Huddled over our bowls of steaming vegetables, Nana would sometimes delight in me as a confederate in league against the Bieghlers. The refrigerator had been padlocked by Dee in fierce response to my nibbling into a cup of coleslaw she set aside for a late-night snack. "This is the last time you will ever take my food," she wrote in a note.
Imagined or not, my offenses seemed to multiply. Was it the time I left a telltale footprint in the talcum powder Dee sprinkled on her bedroom rug?
"You are a liar and a thief," she howled, choking me almost to unconsciousness, releasing me only at Nana's shriek for the police. I was hurled out of the house and bicycled for miles, numb with fear and rage. After a night in a parked car, next morning I freshened up in the school lavatory and reported for class. During a study period in the library, I tried to absorb the insights of Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People.
With compassion from the Streeks, I spent the following week with Inge, sharing her clothes, food, and small room. It could not last; the modest means of a family of five would hardly support another, and a regretful Mrs. Streek suggested I solve my problems elsewhere. I left my refuge at night, walking aimlessly along a highway. Cars streamed toward me like phosphorescent sea creatures. Confused and mesmerized, I dove headlong into headlights that in the moment before blackness seemed to scream and wail. I was struck by a speeding police car on call.
The groans of women in labor punctuated the long, insomniacal hours of my first night in the charity ward of Meadowbrook Hospital. Diagnosis: concussion, fractures of the nose, spine, and collarbone, and whiplash injuries. My face was raw, its skin ripped off. I meditated on my toes, ankles, and wrists, on those limbs not in pain. I was clamped into a body cast and placed among poor and disfigured women in an amputee ward. While the Bieghlers never came during my months of recovery, Nana would cadge rides from neighbors or church members, limp to my room with a thorough scolding for my heedlessness. "You never look where you're going."
In early spring, during my senior year, I returned to the spiraling frenzy of Bayview Avenue. Night. As I crouched on a rooftop outside the window, a drunken Ray splintered his way through Nana's bedroom door with an axe. "Bitch, I'm going to kill you . . . you've ruined my goddamn life." Defiantly, she teetered up to full height on two canes. He retreated before her icy stare. Other instances of decline and delirium. I was forbidden to answer the doorbell or telephone for fear of creditors. Ray gibbered about spiders and roaches infesting the walls. "You're the bastard of a priest and a nun," he once declared, an eccentric charge that caught my attention. It seemed too fanciful for Ray's confined imagination. But I wondered.
Nineteen forty-eight. Returning home after a Junior Prom Committee meeting at W. C. Mepham High School, I opened the vestibule closet which stored my poems, letters, books, and keepsakes. Empty. I raced to my room in panic; my clothing and other belongings were gone. Dee strode through the hallway: "You want your things, you'll find them in the back lot. I want you out." Behind our house, a heap of smoking ashes was all I found. My precious writings, books, word lists, and letters from Uncle Ed and from Claude, a French pen pal, were gone. I drew some comfort from knowing I had committed numbers of my poems to memory. All that remained to me were a few items in my school locker: a change of clothing and a class
notebook which is today one of the only surviving mementos of those times.
The next day was my last in the house. I waited in the living room for the clunk of Dee's wedgies on the stairs. "She's not human," I said loudly to Nana, "she's a 'git." I spat out the word. Dee leapt at me, punched me. I struck back. We struggled, staggered to the kitchen and fell. I hammered her head against the floor until she rolled over me with pounding fists and bulging eyes. Nana limped toward us and lashed our legs with her cane until we were exhausted. In the rumpus room below, Ray uncorked a bottle of Jim Beam.
With some money stashed at school and a few borrowed dollars, I rented a room in Mrs. Hoppen's Boarding House near the Wantagh Avenue railroad tracks. I had been hired before graduation as a Freeport telephone operator earning $28 a week. Nana, who by then was legally blind, joined me several months later. Although she never revealed how or why she left the Bieghlers, she believed Ray was simply the innocent victim of Dee's evil.
We slept head-to-feet in a double bed. I had also absorbed something of Nana's frugality and painstakingly saved $1.25 a week to buy a Modern Library classic. One year and fifty books later, a well-thumbed volume became companion to brown-bag lunches at a new and higher-paying job as a file clerk with the Textile Banking Company in New York City. Habitual tardiness was a chronic flaw inflamed by dull work. But before I was fired for lateness, coworker Alex Scotti yielded to my missionary zeal by accepting the gospel of the Modern Library. Born to Italian traditions in a tough Bronx neighborhood, ex-sailor Alex was adrift in indecision about his future. With encouragement from me and other good friends, he entered college and gradually worked up the ranks of accountancy to head the comptroller's office of Simon and Schuster and then of W. W. Norton and Company. Knowing my book love, Alex has over the decades sent me many editions in acknowledgement.
Other short-lived office jobs followed. American Cyanamid was a compromise between the stupefaction of alphabetizing file folders and the lure of its nearness to Rockefeller Center and bookstores I could visit during lunchtimes. As a government contractor, the company ran a routine security check of all employees. I was called to personnel and declared subject to deportation. The Bieghlers had never filed papers reporting my status as required by the Alien Registration Acts of 1940 and 1948. In the government's view I was a nonperson.
Recalling Nana's parsimony, I rummaged through her boxload of old Christmas cards saved for recycling, looking for something, anything, that would technically anchor me in America. It was there, a greeting card from the Bales with a Richmond, Virginia, postmark. After tracking the name in an out-of-town phone book, I boarded a Greyhound bus for an unannounced visit to Bale's law offices.
It was recognizably him. Although at first bewildered, he smiled in recognition when I identified myself, and invited me to visit several days with Sue and their
children. A gracious and stylish Sue met us at the door of their lavish suburban home. After driving her that evening to a church bingo game, Bale and I remained in the car and conferred about my dilemma. "Your California-born father was a Roman Catholic priest who died when you were four or five. He pledged us to secrecy, and I cannot reveal his name. Do you understand?" I didn't entirely, but I nodded. "You resemble him, but your walk, your gestures are like those of your mother who still lives in France." My birth certificate stamped "illegitimate" was on file and he would soon process citizenship papers. Above the drone of voices from the nearby church basement, I thought I heard someone call out, "Bingo!"
France seemed a fortune away, and my savings were almost nil. More scrimping as I cut back on food and spent nights addressing bank envelopes for extra income. By chance I met Carmen Gonzalez, a Peruvian blue blood whose quest for her Spanish origins harmonized with my own pilgrimage; we plotted a backpacking trip to Europe. My citizenship papers were issued in the spring of 1952. Another seeker joined us on the Ile de France: Sondra Ewing, bound for Germany, her maternal grandmother's birthplace.
The face reforms itself in the doorway of a modest cottage near Oxford, England—the flash of a gold tooth. Marthe Dulong's eyes are level with mine. She is heavyset with grey-streaked, disheveled hair, full breasts curving under a threadbare sweater. Mother, the pretended aunt who visited the institute. From clues in my birth certificate and through pretext, I had traced her path from Nérac in Gascony to her only sister Jeanne's address in Paris, then to the university town where she glossed ancient documents for the revelation of church fathers.
"I have no money to give you." The words indented the fluent English of her flat and orderly conversation. I had blundered into a scrupulously censored life. I may write her only without reference to our bond and promised to keep the twenty-year secret. Nine months later, I returned as disenfranchised as before to Nana, who had grown frail and sickly and was now supported by checks from a prosperous niece in Chicago. Since there was no further need for my meager financial help, I moved out with my crate of books to a furnished room under the shadow of the Third Avenue El in downtown New York.
More jobs. Gal Friday for a correspondent, Leo Sauvage, at the New York office of Le Figaro. Clerk-typist at the Roosevelt Music Company, where I took dictation in longhand from composers of rhythm-and-blues and early rock-and-roll songs. Switchboard operator at Hunt and Winterbotham and Company, luxury English woollens.
September 1953. A heat wave. At the Meadowbrook Hospital, Nana brushed flies from her emaciated face and dismissed me with her terminal words: "Your best was never good enough." At her death, I was on my own. All three elderly Cleveland relatives had died within a year. The house on Bayview Avenue was emptied and sold. Raymond disappeared, likely into the dark night of unredeemable drunken men. A neighbor's son claimed that Dee had entered the lesbian life and hit Southshore bars with a lover.
Broke, despondent, and out of work after a dozen or more office jobs were lost to habitual lateness, absences, and poor attention, I met Bill Crosby, a Greenwich Village artist who had served in the Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War. As a member of his social circle I was marginally weaned on left-wing politics and the maelstrom of Bohemian life of the time and place. Toward the close of nearly three stormy years spent in his West Tenth Street flat, once occupied by Marlon Brando, I fitfully ventured into self-betterment: Speed-writing that promised ten extra dollars in secretarial paychecks, and psychotherapy at a New York clinic. In their own ways both nurtured enough stability to go after a night-school degree at Hunter College.
My first flirtation with the poetry classroom came with Jean Starr Untermeyer, whose course I audited at the New School. A gracious teacher, she treated her small brood of poets with an affection, tact, and flexibility that appealed to me. Although assignments were optional, I usually chose her suggested exercises, working with delight against the limits of the sonnet, the triolet, and the maddening sestina.
After an amicable split with Bill in November 1956, I settled into a fourth-floor walk-up on Twenty-third Street and was magnetically drawn to poetry readings, largely those held at the Cooper Union and the Ninety-second Street YMHA. Padraic Colum, e. e. cummings, and Léonie Adams were some among other artists who fueled my dedication to the Muse.
I sporadically exchanged formal, noncommittal letters with Marthe—bland "weather reports" that sometimes lifted the curtain on a fact or two. She admitted to feeling only admiration and pity toward my father. Her motive for leaving me in an austere orphanage? To endow me with Catholic virtues and purity.
Much like a fruit bat's first taste of plum, publication whetted my appetite for more. I relished the image of countless Herald Trib readers sighing over my first published poem ("For Mama Streek"). Self-esteem was also nourished by winning Hunter College's Hotchner Poetry Award and the Richter Memorial Prize for "conspicuous ability in some field of English" during a single year. About this time I was elected to the Poetry Society of America, on whose board of directors I would later serve.
Support also came from the late Elizabeth Culbert, a librarian at Recreation Magazine, where I served as secretary and factotum to the editor. Elizabeth, who spoke fluent Spanish and French, had been a protégée of poet José Garcia Villa as well as a professional chronicler and storyteller to children throughout the U.S. and Mexico. For almost twenty years, we met on and off in her London Terrace apartment to discuss translations of Lorca, Guillen, Machado, and the T'ang dynasty poets Tu Fu and Li Po. She became a rare and occasionally testy poetry-mother who respectfully read and encouraged my work.
My B.A. degree in English literature was a latchkey to the euphoria and exhaustion of teaching in some of the city's backwater schools. Never an early riser, sleep-short and stunned, I made my first journeys to a Bronx junior high school helping so-called "adjustment classes" learn parts of speech. But the adjustment was mine as I learned the custodial skills of public-school education, mediating among and soothing a hodgepodge of foreign-born, hyperactive, retarded, passive, or enraged students. "Never turn your back on a class . . . travel stairwells against the wall with an eye toward the rear," were some of the rules of engagement.
I left the often hair-raising world of junior high school for calmer precincts at year's end to teach English as a second language at New York University's American Language Institute. Foreign-born and feeling out of the mainstream, I identified with the dislocations and confusions of my adult students; their struggles at orienting to the unfamiliar had been mine as well. It was an awareness I clung to through the next decade of teaching.
I hardly gave up hopes of identifying my father despite my mother's and Bale's refusal to name him. Another avenue was Branigan, my other escort to America. I wrote to his still-active university address, and we agreed to meet at the Algonquin Bar during his next New York trip. "No," I lied over drinks at his clear concern about protecting my father's reputation, "I'm interested only in his looks and character—no names." Branigan was forthcoming with these innocent details, but inadvertently dropped a clue. "The Monsignor often dined with Jacques Maritain in Paris of the 1920s, and was friendly with John Meng." Meng was then president of Hunter College.
My letter to Meng, contrived as a heartfelt appeal from a former student, asked for the name of the "priest" described by Branigan. The ruse: the anonymous priest might lead me, an orphan, to lost parents
he once had counseled. I trembled while opening Meng's reply weeks later: "Undoubtedly, the man whose name you want was Monsignor L." Meng's question, how I learned of his friendship with the Monsignor, went unanswered. My search for more facts was reserved for later.
At teaching split classes at NYU I felt a growing confidence born of status. And equally important, there was more time for writing. "The Inmost War of Jack Be Nimble," my second publication, appeared in Noble Savage, an early-sixties journal edited by Saul Bellow and Keith Botsford. I policed the Eighth Street Bookstore, furtively signing copies and spreading them about the magazine racks.
Years of therapy were drawing to a close. At my psychologist's parting prescription for a treat instead of a treatment, he recommended an aesthetic and affordable escape to Monhegan Island, Maine. Summer 1962. While bracketed by two lusty painters on a Monhegan House sofa, I spied a tall, attractive freelance writer entertaining some nearby vacationers with a dazzling array of statistics about the Sane Nuclear Policy and strontium 90. Saul Stadtmauer's high forehead and boyish smile brightened an otherwise melancholy face. While drawn to him, at the time I was erratically involved with Phil Rosen, a jazz musician, postman, playwright, social worker, English teacher, and poet then traveling in Europe.
Saul and I fed hamburger meat to rock-pool anemones, slogged through moonlit marsh water, and flung wildflowers from the prow of the Balmy Days returning us to the mainland and home. By tradition, if the cast-off flowers floated back to shore, so would we. Both happened, with a few detours between. When Phil returned from the Continent, he asked for breathing room that was filled by Saul bearing gourmet cheeses, canned anchovies, and pimentos from his father's Connecticut grocery store. Congenial talkers, agnostics, stargazers, and word and book lovers, we were also bound by our histories of childhood frustrations and psychotherapy.
Through an unconscious calculation, I became pregnant at the same age as did my mother, a conception that might even have coincided with the month or week of her own. Neither of us was ready for parenthood, and Saul was then at an emotional arm's length from marriage. Angry and remorseful after the abortion, I turned for solace to Phil, my intermittent lover who unexpectedly proposed. Despite his last-minute forebodings, we married on Saint Agnes' Eve, January 1963, during the week of Robert Frost's death. A poem that appeared in the Nation brought little comfort during days of desertions and shaky reunions as Phil shuttled his scant belongings between our apartments. By agreement, I was served with annulment papers at the end of the year. But the mythic wildflowers had rooted deep on the beach-front of Monhegan.
Unexpectedly, Saul and I met again on the island. The wildflowers we once more cast overboard were as resolute as before, and one year later, we returned as honeymooners. I felt safer in marriage, more conventionally settled, and more inclined to enter the prevailing currents of contemporary poetry. I registered for a workshop conducted by Denise Levertov at the Ninety-second Street Y. Although the competitive mood in the class chilled my inspiration, I was touched by Levertov's artistry and erudition. I continue to recommend a number of her reading suggestions to my Columbia University, private, and West Side Y students: Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, Ezra Pound's ABC of Reading, Stephen Spender's Making of a Poem.
Seeing "Colette Inez" in print made me feel quickened and visible, a spur to writing which I attacked with greater zest and purpose. And prizes and awards, how they gladden the heart of the striver. My first, earned in 1967 for "The Woman Who Loved Worms," judged by Peter Davison, was presented at a New England Poetry Society dinner. With a large body of work published through these decades, and with the toehold on immortality that printer's ink just might confer, I can understand the appeal of membership in what arguably may be the world's oldest profession. Could there be a finer balm for the questing ego?
That same poem titled my first collection, published by Doubleday in 1972. Saul and I were renting a cottage in Rockland County, New York, when the acceptance letter arrived. The book was a catalyst, and other letters and notices came after. A telegram announced it had won the 1972 Great Lakes Colleges Association National First Book Award, pollinating that garden of delights, poetry readings at colleges and universities. The mail delivered a New York Times review by Thomas Lask, who called it "a book of substantial achievement." Perhaps on the strength of that review, I was invited in 1973 to conduct a poetry workshop at the New School, New York City, a post lasting ten years before I joined the Writing Program at Columbia University.
Before these appointments, I had also taught English to illiterates with Operation Second Chance, a federal antipoverty program whose intimacies introduced me to the foment of my students' family lives. Family. How might I go on to reclaim my own? It was then that Meng's letter, like an unpaid bill, finally goaded me to contact various chancery offices for information about my father. A web was spun.
School records reported my father earned his Ph.D. in Romance languages at Stanford University. An obit in the San Francisco Monitor placed his death in Paris, struck down by a heart attack at age forty-eight. An article in the New Catholic Encyclopedia filled in some of the gaps . . . "historian of medieval philosophy whose writings and participations in international historical societies stimulated basic research into the history of medieval thought."
More deception. Posing as a scholar, I wrote to my aunt Elizabeth, whose name was through stealth provided by her lawyer cousin. Would she supply details for a biography I proposed writing about the Monsignor? Her gracious replies, flushed with pride in her older brother, spoke of his illustrious career. Other letters glowingly mentioned the family's Jesuit
novitiate, a nephew, and another seminarian at Saint Joseph's. Clearly, she idealized my father's saintliness and probity, his modest posthumous fame.
Revealing my origins would be a cruel shock to an aging lady and a cause célèbre within a family that would hardly countenance a priest's bastard. Then what is it that now prods me to open the pages of a closed book? Aunt Elizabeth is probably buried in Holy Cross Cemetery with her kin and mine. I have visited the cemetery, stood by the Monsignor's stone. And while I have not yet made any overtures to my father's people, he appears in my poems of loss and longing.
A postscript. The last of two meetings my husband and I shared with Marthe at the family's riverside home in Nérac came during my 1986 Guggenheim Fellowship year. Her earlier comment on news of my second marriage had been cool and vaguely critical: "Saul, I note, is not a Christian name."
After two years the house appeared shabbier, the wooden shutters a paler blue than I remembered, although the garden tended by her Jehovah's Witnesses tenants was as luxuriant as it was several springs before. I looked up at the second-story window, which framed nothing but emptiness. At the last visit, Marthe had leaned from it, beckoning us up a flight of stairs to her rooms. This time, we walked to the door, called out our names, and were greeted by a tall, elderly man with a benign face and manner who introduced himself as Maurice, her cousin from Paris.
"You are the American friends, of course." He shook our hands and led us up the stairs. When I saw no one on the top landing, I imagined he would tell me his cousin died in her sleep. A stroke or heart attack. He whispered: "Elle est fatiguée," and accompanied us into a spacious room where I saw her looking immensely frail, packets of medication scattered on the side table. She pointed to a wheeled walker in the corner of the room and told us she suffered a badly bruised hip and arm during a recent fall. Her once-fluent English had begun to limp perceptibly.
Our words flew across her thin body, interrupted by the same questions she asked two years ago. "Where will your holidays take you?" "Have you seen the chateau of Henri de Navarre?" She looked at me indifferently, as if I were a casual visitor come to idle away part of the afternoon. We learned Maurice, who spoke no English, is a retired Latin professor summoned from Paris to attend her. An affable gentleman of the old school, he guided Saul and me on a tour of the property he would inherit. How pleased he was to show us the valuable antiques and to quote a price for each.
My mother relinquished her fragile hold on the hours. I saw her drift away. Her indisposition and age formed a shield I could not pierce; I remained an ally in her strategy of denial, an accomplice in this playlet which allowed her to pretend I was someone else. A letter sent to her the following month read in part:
New York, New York
June 19, 1986
I had hoped to speak to you about what is in my heart and has occupied and concerned me these many years, but I do not wish to alienate you, the only living relative who recognizes me, knows of my existence. And since cousin Maurice was not aware of our mother-daughter tie, it seemed inappropriate to ask for private time to talk to you.
Certainly, you know that through circumstances of my illegitimate birth, I am a stranger to my family both in France and in California. As the Monsignor's daughter, a fact I cannot even prove, his relatives would likely shut their doors to me.
Perhaps the case would not be the same from the point of view of the Dulongs. I am your rightful daughter with proper papers . . . but to come to the point, this is what I wish: for you to finally let the secret out, to announce my existence to the family.
Needless to say, times have changed since you gave me birth. With today's growing acceptance of births out of wedlock, I can only imagine compassion for your plight as a young single woman with a child in the early 1930s. Surely the family will be understanding and curious to know your daughter shares their bloodlines. You and they would have reason to be proud of my accomplishments as a poet and a teacher.
In the time left to us to make things right, I appeal to your sense of justice and look forward eagerly to your response.
Her answer asked for mercy and my continued silence. Since you have waited this long, can you not wait a little longer, until after my death? she pleaded. Cousin Maurice has since written that Marthe has charged him with the duty of telling me she has taken to her bed and will no longer correspond. There was no answer to the last two letters I have written him. Has my mother told Maurice to discourage this strangely persistent American friend? Has she told him in a
deathbed confession who I am? Will Saul and I again see the snowcapped Pyrenees from Espiens's churchyard cemetery in which my mother and my family are buried?
Spring 1986. When I last saw her, the withered stretch of day slumped toward mid-afternoon. My proud and willful mother appeared without knowing it to have won a reprieve from my need to break the silence. "Go with God, or whatever you believe in." Were those her thoughts following Saul and me down the steps and into the garden my grandparents planted at the century's turn? Episodes, large and small, are framed in God's will, she will say to herself, holding firmly to her faith as I to my doubts. Birth and alienation are to be endured. We are part of a blueprint, a celestial master plan; this is her credo. From a vase on her night table, Marthe handed me a rose before we left. It wilted during the long, hot drive to our distant hotel.
POSTSCRIPT: Inez contributed the following update to CA in 2004:
Correspondence with my mother thinned over the passing years. Her once-firm penmanship wobbled and slanted downward, her English stumbled and Meanwhile, after a fitful correspondence with my Elizabeth, I mailed letters announcing my existence various members of my father's family listed in San Francisco area phone books. None was answered. I supposed the family's lawyer advised them to inquiries which might defame the memory of my father.
I was also in contact with Maurice, whose letters me of his frequent visits to Nérac to tend to my mother. He reported her death in December of She would be buried in the family plot at Espiens its view of the snow-clad Pyrenees. At long relieved of my vow of silence, I wrote in French Maurice in April of 1992 and revealed my identity:
I thank you for your kind letter of last January which told the sad news of the death of your cousin, Marthe. As you say, at eighty-nine she was well on in years and I am consoled by knowing that her end was neither solitary nor painful. I am also content that Marthe reposes at the cemetery in the little village of Espiens, so close to Nérac. I visited it in 1986 with Saul, and was impressed by its beauty and calm.
Surely you have reasons to believe that I was very moved by the death of Marthe. From time to time, were you perhaps curious about my earlier visits to Nérac, and my sending postcards and letters to Marthe several times a year? Between Marthe and me, it was not a question, as you may have believed, of a distant friendship between Mlle. Dulong and the daughter of American professors. I hope you will not be too startled to know that I am the daughter of Marthe, Colette Inez, born in Brussels and placed just after my birth with Catholic Sisters in a children's home where I spent my childhood before coming to the United States before the outbreak of World War II.
As you can imagine, Marthe wanted very much to keep the secret of my birth and her friendship with a Catholic Monsignor, my American father who died in Paris in 1934 at the age of forty-eight. Respecting the wishes of Marthe, I promised, when I saw her in Oxford in 1953,to maintain silence on this question until her death. Marthe's older sister, Jeanne, suspected nothing. Finally, having received your gracious letter, I am now free to tell the truth of my identity. I hope with all my heart that you will accept this news with the intelligent and generous spirit I recognized in you when we met in Nérac almost six years ago.
After an anxious wait of several weeks, his open-hearted letter came, inviting me to meet the few living members of my newfound French clan.
I arrived at Maurice's Paris apartment two years later. Joined by his older brother, Marcel, Maurice insisted at first sight that I resembled Marthe "around the right eyebrow." My cousin's spacious third-floor quarters at 4 rue Brochant was a museum of bric-a-brac, a floor-through crammed with china, statues, books, family mementoes, snapshots, tapestries and antiques. Mirrors, elegant and cheap, large and small, adorned every room, and I was told my mother often visited and dined here while staying in Paris.
Maurice brought out pictures of his mother, his lawyer son Jean-Jacques, and his grandson, Maxime; but it was the spirit of his late wife, Liliane, which haunted the space. Photographs appeared in every room, and I studied her level, gray, intelligent gaze, the neck-length hair later shaved to pluck out a malignancy in her brain.
The brothers were animated and intrigued by my story, a chronicle beginning with Marthe and my father's meeting near the Sorbonne on the other side of the Seine where I was conceived. "And we thought Marthe was a virgin," Marcel mused. At eighty-three, he was pink-cheeked with a moderately sized aquiline nose, unlike Maurice's long, thin nose which cast a shadow over his upper lip. Long noses were distinguishing traits among the Dulongs. I guessed that mine, small and slightly upturned, belonged to the other side of the family.
On the wall of my guest room hung an autographed photo of Albert Camus, my literary hero and a childhood friend of Liliane while both lived in Algeria. They had grown up together in the same town, and Camus was best man at her marriage to Maurice.
My cousin had learned to care for women: for his mother who survived fourteen years after a massive stroke, for Liliane who battled cancer, and for my aged mother during her last years in Nérac. He now daily attended his sister, Suzanne, in a nearby nursing home. This was a family loyal to its members. A student of the piano with excellent technique, Marcel had hoped to concertize professionally, but lacking world-class artistry, he said, he entered academia to become the principal of a lycée, a high school in his home town Auxerre. "Your mother was also an accomplished pianist who played with great eagerness and charm when young," he said. "Your mother's sister, Jeanne, on the other hand, had no ear, much like Monsieur Maurice here." The brothers teased one another with affection.
Maurice recounted the last days of my mother, who failed to summon a priest for her last rites. He believed religion had ceased to matter to her, but I was not so sure. Her faith in God and Christ needed no emissary. She believed profoundly in what Maurice and I denied: the immortal soul and life everlasting.
The next day, Marcel left for home, rejoining his wife of fifty-five years. The couple slept apart, watched separate TVs, and dined each night without speaking. "She is the jealous type, an ice palace," Maurice said. He described his own marriage as a love story. A visit to the Villa Monceau nursing home followed. At eighty-eight, my aunt Suzanne had smooth cheeks and was rather beautiful when smiling. Black eyebrows arched over astonished dark eyes, but her small body was hideously deformed by osteoporosis. Maurice buttoned her clothes, lifted her to bed, fetched what she needed while she protested and sobbed. But when he left us to summon a nurse, her manner changed abruptly.
"Marthe was very intelligent and played Mozart's piano pieces especially well. We shared a Paris apartment for a year while she attended the Sorbonne. We were about the same age and flourished in our musical studies." Her voice was calm as she looked at me; she seemed to accept my illegitimacy, embracing me without question or comment. Maurice later showed me Marthe's translation of medieval lore from Latin into Occitan, the ancient language of Provence. She was a prize-winning Latinist. It was the Latin my father needed for his studies of Aristotle that began their affair.
Our conversation drifted to the relatives' relationship with my maternal grandfather, affectionately called Ton-Ton. With him her brothers shared the masculine joys of hunting, fishing, playing cards and billiards. For a few months every year, the father of daughters could imagine himself as the father of sons. A few late 1920 snapshots of my mother in Italy caught her stylishly attired in the close-fitting dresses and hats of the period. In one sultry pose, her hair, becomingly cut into long bangs, accentuated her large eyes. At what point had she begun looking frowzy and disheveled? Was it gradual neglect, a growing contempt for society's emphasis on appearance?
Maurice claimed that Marthe disliked things distinctly French: wine, fine foods, fashion, abstract art and above all, Paris, which she characterized as a "great garage with no air."
I immersed myself in family lore, consoled that I was no longer a piece of flotsam, but anchored on a natural shore settled by the Dulongs. It was my good fortune that Maurice served as the family genealogist and guardian of memories. We toured his collection of books and I was touched that he and Liliane were also fond of Katherine Mansfield, whose journals and short stories they read in translation. I marveled that we were connected by literary interests. Maurice had lived with his mother in the same apartment during the war while studying for a doctorate in Latin and Greek. Convinced the Allies would be defeated, he learned German, not English, as his foreign language. While officially in a government post, Jeanne worked covertly for the Maquis, the French underground. After the war, Charles de Gaulle awarded her a Legion of Honor. "And where was Marthe?" I asked. "In Oxford. She had it easy compared to us under the Nazi boot."
A pre-planned trip to Nérac brought us south to the century-old family river house my grandfather, TonTon, had purchased at the turn of the century. When I found a crib in the room I would occupy, the thought of sleeping next to it was unbearable. I was the baby not brought home by my parents, the baby parcelled out to strangers, the child who shamed her father and mother. My early history had gone unrecorded, no
pictures taken of me before the age of seven. These musings preoccupied me as I appealed to Maurice to remove the crib. He nodded sympathetically and rolled it into his room.
Settling in, I discovered an armoire filled with my mother's limp and featureless clothes, likely washed countless times: an aged brown and orange tam-o'shanter, a roughly knit tan sweater, and gray wool stockings she probably wore with her one pair of battered felt slippers. Her correspondence, filed in sundry boxes and methodically arranged in proper envelopes, untouched since her death, seemed to have fallen into a torpor of unread words. I was their rescuer setting them free from confinement and neglect.
My cousin and I tried again to better understand why the sisters did not get along. He guessed Jeanne may have resented her younger sister's more conventional good looks and seen her as a rival for their parents' attention. Jeanne reigned for five years as the only child. And Marthe might have felt overwhelmed by her sister's imposing memory and effortless brilliance. Jeanne earned high grades without long hours of study. The younger sister could not successfully compete. We examined these motivations like detectives probing a persistent mystery.
I woke refreshed in a town I found noisier than rue Brochant in Paris. The clamor of motorcycles and scooters mingled with the whine of woodworking power tools used by the Jehovah's Witnesses tenant-caretaker living below. All the same, the house was large and airy, and I easily made my way through its rooms and corridors, inspected books and academic journals, examined the paintings and drawings on the salon walls.
Proud of her family home, Jeanne enjoyed entertaining friends here, some of whom were artists and writers from Paris whose smoking and agitated talk Marthe likely found unpleasant and tiresome.
After a visit to grandmother Aubroisine's abandoned chateau in Poudenas, we set out to visit my mother's grave. I passed my fingers over her name, freshly chiseled in stone, content that her last thirteen years in her Nérac birthplace had passed quietly and peacefully. I asked whether my mother ever spoke of her grandmother, and he recalled Marthe's horror at confronting the almost catatonic woman who spent her last years as a widow in the Nérac house. I was cheered to learn Marthe was not entirely a passive, goody two-shoes. With the sting of sudden insight, I realized that she had not bonded well with any of the major female figures in her family: grandmother, mother or sister.
I tried entering the thoughts of the well-cared-for child who dutifully practiced the piano and finished her homework, who would head her class in every subject at the lycée in Agen, the same private school Jeanne had attended five years before. She was regarded by the surviving Dulongs as a sweet-natured child with excellent powers of concentration, a girl drawn to music and books. But in an earlier letter to me, Marthe wrote with little detail: "I did not have a specially happy girlhood. My father had studied to become a professor of literature. He married my mother only because she was richer than he, but had little brains. . . ." Leafing through her letters, I realized that Marthe had not been entirely solitary and
unconnected. Scholarly acquaintances named Ursule, Edwige and Edith sent her postcards and Christmas greetings illustrated with Gothic art, portraits of the Virgin Mother and child, and Pietas. Some wrote of their hopes to meet her again in Oxford or Paris. American, Canadian and English scholars apologized for delayed payment for her research on church history or medieval lore.
If, in an astonishing turn of events, my mother had willed me this house, would Saul and I, as proprietors, have fretted over taxes and repairs to the veranda? Would we have entertained visiting American friends at cozy suppers, mulched my grandfather's roses in the garden below, trimmed the calla lilies for a vase? No. It was earlier explained that the property was registered as a trust whose ownership excluded all but the male line of Dulongs.
I gradually began letting go of the indictment, feeling some tenderness for my mother's high-mindedness, sympathy for her early rivalry with clever Jeanne and came almost to accept the resolute passivity that deepened after her affair with the Monsignor and my birth.
We returned to Paris. After driving more than five hundred kilometers, warm Gascony sunlight gave way to a cold, slate-colored Parisian sky. I missed the extravagant roses, the ocher-colored river Garrone carrying debris from the spring rains. I missed the shabby though convivial air of Nérac, cold suppers on the porch, my spacious room with a wide, low bed, feather pillows and ancient yellow blankets.
Once settled in, Maurice and I surmised that my father may have met Marthe in 1927 or earlier, that she was then twenty-four and he, forty-two. Their affair lasted three or more years and broke off after my birth. I had once pressed Marthe for personal details which she supplied with rare candor in 1966:
He did not confide in me immediately but asked me to help him "find himself" again and to give him love and support in order to break with mercenary women. I did not want things to go as far as they did. Anyway, as he often said to me during his last illness, it was only my great devotion which saved him from destroying himself or from carrying on with less and less prudence and being found out by his superiors—that was before you were born. After that his main worry was to prepare himself for death in a Christian way. What he wanted was for me to save him from madness.
Indeed, he was grateful to me, warm-hearted, unselfish and generous, studious and fond of hard work. So you see there were good things to be said of him. Be sure he died in the religion of his youth and wished you to be Catholic. It is also what I pray for, very often; although things have not turned out that way exactly, there is still time . . .
"I see her in your eyes." Maurice restated my resemblance to Marthe, "But your character must belong to the paternal side. Your mother lacked your sense of life, your courage." He defined himself as somewhat of a velleitaire, a person who wants to, but does not accomplish his or her wishes and ambitions. I believed he needed me as an ally urging him to put aside his apathy, to also buy a hearing aid and a set of comfortable dentures he clearly needed. Along with those, to acquire a new pair of glasses (his were cracked), and replace his failed stereo.
My flight home was scheduled for late morning. A swift kiss at the boarding gate ignited a spark of warmth in his eyes as I squeezed his hands, and to which he responded: "I have more to tell you, and you'll be back next year," averting his head to hide his emotions. "I'd like that," I replied. I left knowing my presence cheered him and buoyed up his flagging spirits. More than blood relatives, we were like-minded companions tracing the paths of our ancestors whose mute photographs would now forever be accompanied with an aura of lively stories. At this first visit, my dear cousin, keeper of memories, had proved an excellent guide to the mother country.
We corresponded for a year and a half. Cousin Suzanne had died in her nursing home at age eighty-nine. Another cousin from Bordeaux was alleged to have earlier tricked my mother into signing away Jeanne's inheritance from the sale of her choice Paris apartment. Through power of attorney, he appropriated most of the proceeds and reportedly absconded to Switzerland. Your poor mother would have signed anything, Maurice wrote. Yes, she had, of course, also blindly signed the papers that surrendered me to an alcoholic American family, misplacing her trust in their sincerity.
Jean-Jacques had married Béate, a multilingual German-born dress designer employed by a French fashion house. I was again invited to Paris.
Looking fit, Maurice escorted me aboard the cramped l'ascenseur to his apartment floor. Almost everything remained in place: the mirrors and books, the hand-carved Louis XV buffet and ornate cupboards, the paintings and photographs, the spinning wheel, Liliane's tapestries and bric-a-brac, porcelain ducks and small stuffed animals, brass pots and plates with hand-painted country scenes. But I learned that next summer he would vacate his cherished apartment and move to Jean-Jacques' house in Dourdan, an hour from Paris.
He would hold on to what he valued most, and the rest was to be sold. "It is more economical, more practical. And Jean-Jacques is right, this place has become a shrine to the past, to fifty-six years of recollections and souvenirs. All the same, I am terrified of losing my independence, of becoming an old dog, half-deaf and half-blind." I realized I would lose Paris, my walks in the neighboring park, a private room presided over by the spirit of Albert Camus.
No longer Maurice's only guest, I would at future visits have to share the Dourdan house with a growing family. Keeping these resentments to myself, I
reminded him of the pleasures he would still enjoy: soccer matches and detective stories on TV, the daily paper, academic journals, and the satisfactions of preparing classic French cuisine for which he shopped daily with an eye to quality. "It is always worth paying more for quality," he had advised. I withheld admitting that Saul and I, intermittent dropouts from the school of thrift, were taught opposite lessons. We continued our dialogue as he reflected, "Your mother would come into a room, find an easy chair, open a book and three hours later would be in the same position, utterly absorbed in her reading. She was like a statue."
"Did she do sports in school?"
"She loathed competition as much as domesticity. Without me during those last days, she would have lived on boiled potatoes." We turned to the subject of Marthe's flashing gold front tooth, recalled from childhood memories at the institute. "No, it was silver," he insisted, maybe unconsciously debasing gold into silver to diminish the extremes of her physical and religious self-denial.
Another trip to Nérac, joined by Marcel, was undertaken. My cousins communicated along the highways in loud voices, not always managing to hear each other clearly. "What did he say?" Marcel shouted from the back seat. "What did you say?" I asked Maurice, not always distinguishing his words over the engine and road noise. A hearing-disabled trio headed for Bordeaux and outlying reaches. After passing the rivers Garonne and Charente, we entered Nérac on wintry gray evening. Maurice later foraged in a dresser drawer and removed some of Jeanne's costume jewelry: pins and rings. "Here, these are for you. Their value is purely sentimental. And this, too." He handed me a bracelet worn by my grandmother—so old the clasp had frozen shut. Without knowing it, he had given me the keepsake I long ago requested from my mother, a memento of her mother.
I woke to a local public address system broadcasting Christmas shopping bargains in town. We were overwhelmed with noise. A sympathetic Marcel commented at my complaint, "Les emerdeurs sont toujours partout et parmi nous." Roughly translated, "Jerks are everywhere among us." I proudly wore Aunt Jeanne's pins on my coat collar and on the pocket of a long-sleeved blouse. Her spirit pervaded this house; it was she who had modernized the kitchen, brought paintings from Paris and repaired the gallery.
We spoke that night of the family's religious skepticism, and contemplated the origins of Marthe's faith. Maurice recalled that she turned to God after contracting typhoid during her last year at school in Agen. A vulnerable seventeen, isolated and dangerously ill, she feared she would succumb. Maurice speculated she then made a pact with God, promising a life of piety and devotion in exchange for survival.
Back in Nérac, the brothers tossed off a few shots of cognac and retired to the salon to watch soccer on TV. A cold snap swept the region, and for warmth I ran a hot iron over my grandmother's hundred-year-old linen sheets whose blue embroidered "Ds" swirled at the hems. My sleep had been enveloped in the past, my waking hours in family stories and visits to cemeteries where we paid homage to our ancestors.
"They were all on the list," Marcel quipped. It was still cold for the south, but the sun wandered in and out of the clouds, warming the stone streets of Francescas, the home of Vital, our seventeenth-century forefather. At the cemetery, Maurice recalled that the large tombstone was purchased by Jeanne. Marthe's return to live with her sister was prompted by financial need and old age. I was convinced that, had she the means, she would have spent her remaining days in England. "You are stronger than I am, you two." I bantered with Maurice and Marcel, leaving them to occupy casual hours with talk of grammar, the ablative and vocative tenses in Latin.
After a long trip north, slowed by weekend and holiday traffic, we returned to Jean-Jacques' and Béate's country house in Dourdan. An excellent cook, Béate had prepared a Christmas Eve dinner of quails soaked in Irish whiskey (a waste of good Jamison Scotch I thought), roast vegetables and a smooth Neapolitan cake for dessert.
The brothers discussed hunting and fishing in the days of plentiful game. Jean-Jacques derided the "disastrous" gun culture of the United States but admitted to France's romance with American Westerns, the High Noon and shoot-'em-up films of his childhood. Tomorrow would be Maurice's birthday. My gifts to him were a camera and my illustrated book of poems, a collector's limited edition titled Naming the Moons.
I had just resigned myself to staying another night when Maurice announced we would return to Paris, after all. I was back in my calm corner of Maurice's apartment, a bit player in the patchy gray theater of Paris in winter. Maurice, who prepared delectable meals for us twice daily, rephrased his reluctance to judge Marthe, but still failed to understand why I was abandoned to the nuns, and in another country. "Why Belgium and not Nérac?"
"My mother didn't want me living in France where her secret might get out, and she would never have brought me to Nérac," I persisted. "It was not in her character to confront clicking tongues and pointing fingers. Nor could she face her own mother's disdain, and Ton-Ton's warmth and tolerance wouldn't be enough to sustain her. Her sister might have pulled it off, Jeanne who stood up to the Nazis when called in for questioning, Jeanne who rode a horse bareback in Kansas without knowing how to ride."
"Perhaps so." Maurice gave me a smile that flickered under his moustache. I knew I was marking time, a pampered hostage in Paris sometimes wishing for Maurice's serenity and Jeanne's sense of entitlement. I learned that he had assisted Jeanne in translating David Copperfield into French—with editing, spelling and syntax—although not in her translations of Moll Flanders, Adam Bede and Oliver Twist, which he had not even proofread. It was not clear to me whether any of these works were funded privately or by the government.
Jeanne was formally a directrice, a director in the Department of Labor under President de Gaulle with whom she dined at receptions held in his residence. Had Jeanne been my mother, I mused, she would have kept me in Paris, and showed me off to her friends. "Here's my bebe, my little rabbit." I imagined her an ebullient single parent urging me to win first prize for this and that contest, attending my piano recitals, escorting me to museums, the ballet, the opera. That she might be a domineering and harried working-mother also occurred to me, but I preferred to spin out the fantasy of a grandly nurturing Jeanne. While I walked the long hallway to the front rooms, it occurred to me that I had found a French mother in Maurice; it was not the first time I had made mothers of men.
Up at eight-thirty the next day, Maurice had slipped into a clean shirt, eaten a brioche and coffee, washed last night's dishes and shopped for groceries, toting his carry-all net bag. Another gala lunch followed, garnished with a hearty red wine from the Tarn that eased our talk of poet Paul Verlaine whose son, also named Maurice, became a Metro conductor in Paris.
I was startled by another family anecdote revealed by Maurice quite by chance. When visiting Paris, my grandfather had met with my father-to-be, the Monsignor, and voiced his displeasure at knowing Marthe was working long hours for a Catholic priest who offered small recompense for scholarly work without the promise of pension or promotion. He had not educated his daughter to receive such meager returns, and indeed, had hoped she would assume a university or government post. Of course, he had no cause to suspect anything between them but a professional relationship. Certainly, even Ton-Ton's good nature and liberal convictions would have been sorely tested by their liaison.
Although I had finally begun to think in French just days away from my departure, some thoughts hobbled and flopped, and my lips pined for the fluent ease of English words; I was also homesick for Saul and New York. Not that Maurice complained about my French. On the contrary, he praised my pronunciation and clarity of speech. Mumblers distressed him.
For our farewell dinner we would be joined by Domino, a family friend and chef assigned to keep an eye on the roast chicken and whip up a mayonnaise dressing for the chilled asparagus. We spoke of the move to Dourdan he believed would be healthy for Maurice. "Maurice has not finished mourning for Liliane, he cannot let her die." Domino confirmed what I had long suspected. I learned more from him about the money likely appropriated from Marthe at the sale of Jeanne's Croix Nivert apartment, a very large sum in U.S. dollars. He hesitated naming the exact amount. Not one to deny herself, Jeanne had spent liberally on travel, clothes, friends, good food and wine, and left few cash assets in her will. But money from the sale of the upscale apartment would have gone to Marthe, her next of kin. Left to her devices, would she have willed that inheritance to the Church? No, I could not imagine that at the end of her life, she would have turned a cold shoulder to gentle Maurice and the family who attended her in those final years.
This winter morning's cockcrow was a squalling baby somewhere in the intestines of the building. I heard its cry while sitting groggily in the W.C. down the hall, and less distinctly when returning to my room. Over mid-morning coffee, Maurice recalled a party held here to celebrate Jean-Jacques' birth in 1952. And as a parting gift, he presented me with a note written by Albert Camus in tiny script extending regrets at missing the affair. How many days before Jean-Jacques' second son, Thomas, would enter the stream of Dulong men?
I left rue Brochant with images of Christmas in the mother country—difficult, tender reflections—poised for the moment as I was in the center of a small and cohesive family, a bona fide clan with all its burdens and consolations.
We took a taxi to the de Gaulle airport. "When you see me next I'll have a new set of teeth, a hearing aid and a wig." He cut a dapper, quintessentially French
figure in a gray raincoat and slouched hat. "And a gold earring," I added, "I will visit you again in Dourdan or Nérac."
"I am counting on it," he replied. I glanced back several times and waved. Au revoir, Maurice.
My cousin Marcel died in 1998. Jean-Jacques and Béate have four sons, the youngest born in June of 2003. Maurice left his Paris apartment and moved to Dourdan where he still lives. He celebrated his eighty-sixth birthday December 2003. Although we correspond once or twice a year, I have not seen him since 1995.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Bezner, Kevin, editor, The Way Home: On the Poetry of Colette Inez, Word Press (Cincinnati, OH), 2003.
Their Place in the Heat, Road Runner Press, 1971.
Choice, November, 1993, M. P. White, review of Getting Under Way, p. 454.
Georgia Review, fall, 1998, Sydney Lea, review of Clemency, p. 556.
Helicon Nine, spring-summer, 1984, Dennis Bernstein, "The Poetry Worm: A Portrait of Colette Inez," pp. 60-69.
Hudson Review, spring, 1989, Robert Schultz, review of Family Life, p. 154; fall, 1994, Robert Schultz, review of Getting Under Way, p. 474.
Library Journal, March 15, 1993, Daniel Guillory, review of Getting Under Way, p. 80.
Parnassus, fall, 1993, Susan Lasher, review of FamilyLife, p. 443.
Prairie Schooner, summer, 2001, Thomas Carren, review of Clemency, p. 180.
New York Foundation for the Arts,http://www.nyfa.org/ (March 24, 2004).