“I took my love, I took it down
Climbed a mountain and I turned around
And I saw my reflection in the snow covered hills
’Til the landslide brought it down
Oh, mirror in the sky
What is love?
Can the child within my heart rise above?
Can I sail through the changin’ ocean tides?
Can I handle the seasons of my life?”
Landslide, Fleetwood Mac
I had only seen my brother look at me like that twice. The other time being when I was crumbling beneath a destructive friendship. It was a look of panic; there was an unsureness to it. What was he to do when the person who was normally so composed, well, relatively composed, fell apart? He quickly handed me a travel pack of Kleenexes to mop up the stains from the tears and snot on my face.
My mom would tell my brother and I stories. All these stories of her childhood that always just seemed like stories. It was not until very recently that I connected these stories to France. It was like a bitter puzzle that I finally finished, and when I was done, I wanted nothing to do with the picture.
I got home from that trip and was forced to recount how great the trip had been. Most people wouldn’t understand that my trip to France wasn’t pleasant. Or that my family wasn’t happy to see me. For many of my friends, that was unimaginable.
I had to sit through lunches and discussions with my friends describing outings with their grandma, movies with their cousins, dinner with their grandparents. But it wasn’t until I heard the people around me complain about their family. It was then that I felt sad. The anger I had felt earlier was now envy. Envy makes you sick. Envy is embarrassing.
How could they not know? Didn’t they know that their problems with their family, maybe their grandparents supported Trump, were not insurmountable? Were they trying to rub it in my face that my family was broken? Why couldn’t they just understand?
My friends didn’t understand because I didn’t tell them. None of them, except two of my best friends. And even then, my two rocks, didn’t understand. I could see it on their faces. Why couldn’t they feel what I felt? I wanted someone to get angry with me. I wanted someone to hate her with me. I needed someone to cry with me.
I remember sitting at the edge of a bed, after dinner. Both my hands were wrapped around my sides, giving me the hug I needed. I stumbled as I clasped my phone, fumbling to put my headphones in and send a text to my friend. I needed her to reply. I sent the text even though I knew she wouldn’t reply for another 12 hours. Typing the text cemented it into my reality. This was my reality.
The anger had hit my face hard and I felt nauseous. My two thighs bobbled up and down. I was shaking. How could I be so angry that I was shaking? Surely I had been angry before, but never like this. I never wanted to feel this way again.
The fall following that summer trip, my French teachers started speaking to us and her words still smacked me behind the eyes. “Your French isn’t good enough.” “You would never succeed in a French school.” “You are not a true French.” I had to get her face out of my head. I felt hesitant to speak and the French felt clumsy in my mouth. I worried that this whole time, I never really could speak. Like it was all a lie.
Whenever my brother and I fought my mom always got really upset. Not like she was mad at us but as if there was something she feared or worried about. My dad just shook us off with about as much care as we had for the world. Who really cares about a fight. It would be fine tomorrow. And it always was, we got over it.
My mom’s family was always broken in my mind, and for some reason, that seemed so distant to me. I didn’t have a relationship with my uncle, who always came off as my mom’s brother. She didn’t speak to Kiki and Monia anymore, her cousin and his wife. My papie was dead and my grand-mamie was dead. The geographical distance never made me feel like they were rejected me because they were my mom’s family. Some of them never even gave me a chance, they wrote me off by the time I was 6.
After she had left that night I watched some movie with my parents. I don’t remember the title. My brother and his grilfriend were upstairs watching another movie. My stomach ached and swayed and I felt drained. My body fiercely protested the anger that had filled me earlier and I was left with little energy. I remember watching about 10 minutes before I fell asleep.
When I first stepped out of the car after driving hours to get to Limoges, where my grandmother lived, I saw her across the parking lot. We all did the bise, three little pecks on the cheek, and she examined me. “Tu ne portes pas de bijoux?” You are not wearing any jewelry? It came out as a statement, rather than a question.
We walked up the stairs to her apartment, crowded with clutter, dust sparkled in the light peeking out from behind the closed curtains and a feint smell of urine filtered through the air. After a quick beverage we went to a restaurant to eat. I could already see the tension appear along the lines of my mom’s face. After mamie argued with the waiter, she had the chance to speak to her granddaughter, not having seen her for 4 years. Much of it went as follows:
Muriel, dit à Louisa ce que je viens de te dire….
Muriel, tell Louisa what I just told you….
Muriel, explique lui….
Muriel, explain to her…
I remember I had to excuse myself before I said something to her I would regret. Honestly though, everything I said to her on that trip, I don’t regret. The rest of the trip went pretty much like that conversation; either she assumed I couldn’t understand her or her words hurt. Every time she spoke I was glad my brother’s girlfriend couldn’t understand. No one wants to be a part of a broken family like that.
My grandmother struggled with close relationships, meaning relationships lasting longer than a month. So unsurprisingly, she wasn’t able to have a relationship with her grandchidren. Being 16 at the time, I felt like I was reliving those past trips that had been filtered by my adolescent understanding, with much greater clarity. I saw how I was no longer a shiny new toy. I wasn’t interesting anymore, I was old news.
My brother’s girlfriend on the other hand, she was new and exciting. The chocolate my grandmother bought was for her. Oh no, don’t eat the applesauce, that’s for her. My grandmother repeatedly discussed her beauty. It’s true she is beautiful, but it became a problem when it felt like a comparison.
The 3 days she stayed with us culminated in one night. After refusing to eat the majority of my mothers cooking. My mother, with her honey-like-food, simple and familiar, the food that grew me. Those acts in themselves were a rejection of my mother. After our meal, I left to clear the table and came back to catch a bit of conversation.
By this point she had switched to English, as she was speaking with my brother and his girlfriend.
You see, your mother, a French woman, is now the least French….
I remember my heart hit my chest and within a second I had hit her back with my words. My French was nearly perfect.
I think it’s better that way, I told her, based on what I see here.
She shot back that I wasn’t deserving of my French citizenship and that I was arrogant.
I told her I was fine being arrogant as I left the table.
Everything escalated from there, as if I had unleashed what everyone was holding in. Except my brother, he’s really good at distancing himself from what others say about him. It’s his coping method. I wish I could be that way. She left at midnight and I haven’t spoken to her since.
No one had ever made me feel as small as she had. Mamie had a way of making you feel like you were never good enough. As if simply existing wasn’t good enough for her to love me.
She won’t ever know what happened after she backed out of the drive way. She wanted everyone to feel as alone and desperate as she did. As she’s always felt. She didn’t expect that my family would grow through this experience and rely on each other because no one really could understand what we went through.
I have never felt more loved than during that night. When I saw my dad get angry, my dad who never raises his voice, because my grandma attacked her grandchildren. I have never seen my mom cry so much. These moments, as difficult as they were, enabled me to see my family as multidimensional beings. My mom and dad’s pain were visible to me then, and it was a moment of extreme vulnerability; a trait my parents don’t make visible often. And, I don’t believe every negative experience leads to growth, but whether or not I am still sore and my family, especially my mother, still swollen, we are still intact. We made it.
I am French and that identity isn’t connected to my broken family in France. My French culture stems from my mother. The woman who taught me of “unconditional” and shows me what French culture truly is.
’Cause my heart is full of no blood
My cup is full of no love
Couldn’t take another sip even if I wanted
But it’s not too late
Not too late for love
Not Too Late, Norah Jones