Wednesday, December 3, 2003

Through a Glass Darkly

A Southern Gothic Tribute to Angela Carter

Wearing an antique bridal gown, the beautiful queen of the vampires sits all alone in her dark, high house under the eyes of her demented and atrocious ancestors, each of whom, through her projects a baleful posthumous exhistence; she counts out the Tarot cards, carelessly construing a constellation of possibilities as if the random fall of the cards on the red plush tablecloth before her could precipitate her from her chill, shuttered room into the country of perpetual summer and obliterate the perennial sadness of a girl who is both death and the maiden.
The Lady of the House of Love, Angela Carter

The house did have ten or eleven foot ceilings, but could not have been called dark. It was an American house. Naturally it was built of yellow brick. I was nine the year we moved in with my maternal grandparents. Of the two of them, only grandfather was half-American. His father's people were from Atlanta. His father went off to Paris on some sort of European tour, from which he brought back a French bride on the eve of the First World War. Although surprised by the hasty marriage to a foreigner, his Irish-American parents aparently were consoled by the dual attributes of her being Catholic and not-English. I knew her well, as she lived into her mid-nineties and spent the last part of her life in the garage apartment behind their house. She told of no sooner arriving in Atlanta than being taken under the wing of her new kinfolk by marriage, some Aunt who immediately insisted that she go to a tea dance at the Driving Club. There, this Miss Pittypatt-type Aunt paraded her around as "My niece, the Countess." All this was quite embarassing to my great-grandmother. In France, women do not inherit titles, the question of why there are today titles at all, being yet another issue. Had she kept her maiden name it would have died with her, as it were she was quite happy to be called by her husband's name. In the grander scheme of things, the Catholic and non-English bond did not make the marriage make, or rather did not make up for the fact that great-grandfather was an alcoholic and gambler and prone to abandoning his young wife and son to go off on periodic benders. She never spoke ill of him, nor did she did she ever ask for money. One day she simply left the Georgian Terrace hotel where they lived, and returned to France to raise her son in her mother's apartment in Paris.

Great Grandmother saw her brother and cousins go off to fight the First World War with great pomp and circumstance. How they must have looked, the regiments marching out from Paris, beautiful young boys clothed in the ideology of the previous century. They marched right from La Belle Epoque to the War to End All Wars, from the Nineteenth century to the warm embrace the Twentieth century reserved for their generation in the trenches of France. Was great-uncle really in the cavalry back when it was horses and not the air cav that my uncle, my mother's brother, must have known in the Vietnam war? The first world war showcased the advent of military aeroplanes. Supposedly great-uncle's regiment charged off to meet those aeroplanes on horseback, swords in the air. How Don Quixote-esque. The family had a weakness for lost causes.

She saw her son march off to the Second World War. He needn't have done it. His mother's step-father, probably the only real father figure in his life, was Swiss and the head of the Paris office of a respected bank. They could have gone to Switzerland to cool their heels. He could've traded on the American citizenship of his biological father, gone to the States and avoided that war for a few years, but he didn't. Fatalists are they. His military experience was, as can be expected, not of long duration and he spent the majority of the war in a German prisoner of war camp. He eventually bought his freedom with some gold pieces his mother sent him in a jar of honey, how that got past the prison guards I have no idea. He made his way back through Germany, working odd jobs as a house painter until he made it to France and to his fiancee's property in the unoccupied zone. He was a delightful grandfather and, with a child's disingenuousness, I always loved for him to show me his German prisoner of war identity papers, which seemed very exotic.

He met grandmother before the war. She was Colombian, her family originally from Santa Fe de Bogota. Her father worked for the English company, Pearson, in Paris. He was quite a bit older than his wife. When he died, grandmother's mother was a relatively young widow with three small children. I never heard it said that grandmother was any beauty (I only knew her when she was old). She was rude as hell, would say the most outrageous things--so outrageous that she could only have gotten away with them had she some charm and wit, which they say she had. She must have had some desirable qualities for she counted among her suitors a future prime minister of France and she was engaged to a prince from a prominent French family. A prince, how ridiculously fairy-tailish that seems. The normal thing would have been for that engagement to have been motivated by social ambition, but it wasn't, at least not in the conventional sense. It was a competitive "fuck you" gesture, a response to the earlier marriage of her younger sister, the blonde beauty of the family. Well prince though he might have been, she decided that he didn't really meet her needs for a prince charming and showing up her younger sister really wasn't high enough payment for life with him. She broke off the engagement. As consolation she immersed herself in "good works," which is how she met great grandmother, the mother of her future husband. Great grandmother worked in the Red Cross, a job that proved very convenient for getting false papers to people during the German Occupation. Of course, La Resistance occupies its own role in French mythology, but in her case, I think the participation was actual. At any rate, she got a Legion d'Honneur medal for it.

After the war, they immigrated to Atlanta and bought the house where they raised six children, born in the course of five years (Catholicism and the twinning gene). They spoke English with very strong accents, his French, and hers more Spanish. Sharing a common sort of fatherless upbringing in Paris, they nevertheless represented two very different cultures and personalities. I think marriage provided them a respectable context with which to have arguments and argue they did, loudly, passionately and quite raucously. I can't remember so much of what she said, but he used to freely speculate that her people, who considered themselves una buena familia de Santa Fe de Bogota were about three generations removed from the banana tree. I think they loved each other very much.

Great grandmother moved into the garage house some time in the sixties and we lived with them for one year in nineteen eighty. What a marvelous house it was for a child to cavort in. The furniture all came from other centuries, classical lines of Louis XVI, curvy Louis XV and heavy dark baroque-looking Colombian stuff. There were gilded saints in the nooks and crannies and silver reliquaries, but they weren't morbid at all. Hadn't my irreverent mother and her siblings used to put ketchup on the saints' wounds and chicken bones in the reliquaries to shock visiting guests and relatives? They grew into wild children, coming of age in Atlanta in the sixties, of course some of them were still wild in the eighties too. In the eighties, when I was a child, I would run into adults who wistfully remembered parties at my grandparents' house in the sixties. They were European and had permissive attitudes about alcohol. Supposedly they started out rather strict and with the best of intentions, but by the time the fourth and fifth child entered adolescence, I think they just gave up.

Back to the house, any money either grandparent had through their families had long since disappeared through the excess and improvidenceof earlier generations. What last bit they had was spent on raising their own children. Long before the advent of their grandchildren, the house had settled into a genteel decay. There were silk brocade curtains, but they were beginning to be sun-bleached and a little frayed at the edges, there were worn patches in the carpet, vestigial servants bells when the servants were long since gone. This decay was somewhat precipitated by the extended occupation of a snarling dynasty of dachsunds--the house animus, there were generally about three of them at any one time. They mostly had German names like Fritzie and Ludwig. These very spoiled creatures patrolled around snarling and barking and generally relieving themselves on what nice patches there were left on the brocade curtains and oriental carpets. Oh, but it could still an enchanting place for children, we drank wine in our water at Sunday lunch and while we were told that children were to be seen and not heard, we were generally indulged--at any rate, the real lesson among so many boisterous French-Colombian-Irish American aunts and uncles was that you had better be really loud or say something clever and preferably insolent if you wanted to get anybody's attention in the first place. We all danced the can can to "tra-la-la-boom-di-ay" on New Year's Eve.

There was a Red Room, with the furniture and walls all done up in toile de Jouy and a real honest-to-goodness spinning wheel upstairs. The toys that had belonged to my mother and her siblings and grandfather were not particularly numerous, but far better than what passes for childrens' toys today--Madame Alexander dolls, a disturbing little monkey that clapped a pair of cymbals, clever little ivory dominoes in inlay casing from a store called the Blue Dwarf in Paris, grandfather's brightly painted lead soldiers. I always coveted those and wanted to have battles with them; my oldest male cousin got them and didn't let me play with them much. I must admit, though, in every other respect he was an exemplary older cousin--would always play hide and seek with the younger children and taught me to play Poker. While most children cheat at cards for their own benefit, he had the perversity to cheat to let me win the first time--a gallantry I appreciated not at all. I had been particularly obnoxious bragging
about my royal straight flush. With what shame I realized how ridiculous I had made myself, that he let me win. He laughed and I burned with the outrage of the most hardened criminal upon finding herself the victim of some petty chicanery. It was not an affront to property or to honesty; far worse, it was an affront to dignity.

There were French children's books from my grandfather's childhood. They were morality tales, though not morality in any Anglo Saxon sense of teaching children the value of "goodness." Goodness no, these were French children's books from some decades back. They preached the virtues, or more effectively, and much more fascinating, the horrible and creative punishments that awaited children who did not learn to conform to social expectations. One title, Les Gourmandises de Charlotte, the (Culinary) Excesses of Charlotte, told the story of a little girl who refused to eat anything but sweets. She shrinks and shrinks to a very small size and is kidnapped by a rat who forces her to be his servant and cook for him in his rat hole. She realizes the error of her ways, but overcompensates. She then becomes a very greedy little girl, turning very fat and obese. Finally, she learns moderation and to eat a normal diet, at which point she and her parents once again form a loving family unit.

Then there were the clothes that, surprisingly enough, I was allowed to play dress up with. The dresses belonged to some great-great grandmother. They came from dressmakers in Paris and another life--low cut ball gowns in ashes of rose silk broadcloth or gold damask, a royal blue velvet afternoon "for visiting and tea, Madame" jacket with lots of beading, accompanied by a royal blue taffeta skirt. My ancestor must have been very small-waisted and worn a corset to fit into those because they were even tight on a child's figure. I wasn't permitted to put on the good jewelry, there wasn't much of that left. After all, my grandmother did not marry the Prince, but I was allowed to look at a few good pieces and received a sort of early Colette education there--"Now dear, remember the good sapphires are dark in hue." I grew up not to care much for jewelry, doesn't reflect my lifestyle or practical nature. However, only now does the significance of that exquisitely useless bit of courtesan's knowledge strike to apply it? "Don't expect much from a man who offers you a pale sapphire. He's cheap and will short-change you?" Needless to say, gentlemen bearing sapphires never materialized, nor did I expect them to.

Ironically there was one instance, involving the world to which my husband belongs, a modern, scientific world, when this sort of background served me well. I accompanied him to a graduate conference at the University of Lund, in Sweden, where he was presenting some work on X-ray lasers. We were given a tour of their facilities. I was quite bored with x-ray lasers in general, but there was one point that piqued my curiosity about the thing-a-majiggys: they apparently use gems in them. Ah ha, something I could relate to. I asked a question about the color and hue of the gem in question, can't remember if it was a sapphire or ruby. Quite accidentally, it turned out to be a relevant question. We were, after all, talking about focusing rays of light and the hue of gems was significant there. People were impressed and I had the good sense to say nothing further. Grandmother would have been proud.

Dear me, I seem to have rambled along the passages of memory, puttering around the nooks and crannies of that house. I never got to the portraits. That was the subject on which I was meaning to write in the first place: the portraits of Mademoiselle de Sombreuil, the French Revolution and how she came to drink the goblet of blood.

To be continued.

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