Remi, my father, would complain about how his children were not servile. Eva, his wife, said he was jealous of each one of them. School promoted good feelings toward parents. We children adopted submissive behaviour. Some of us practised the humility that is fitting for inferiors. We put on acts of gratefulness. “Thank you” and “excuse me” came to our lips at the slightest instance. Our mother tamed us, as she put it. Our father expected us to be ready to help the moment we returned from school. We obeyed him on the spot. No one pulled a face, or muttered. As his children grew older, they became his little servants, docile, patient, malleable.
Remi owned a business. Eva worked in it, energetic, good-humoured and polite. Our mother’s life with the customers monopolized many hours of her day. She mimed respect, cultivated indulgence at the counter. The customer was always right. She was conciliatory; she made up for her husband’s indiscretions. Which was no use since he just committed more. She was obliged to accept the unacceptable behaviour he displayed, which would have been severely sanctioned in the children. The father resisted training, or retraining. This ran counter to her feminine aspirations. She expected him to be the head of the family. He was, and he wasn’t. The family economy, its wallet, those were the exclusive domain of her husband. She was concerned with the principles that give a family direction. On this topic, Remi did not meet requirements. He made fun of his wife’s decisions, her intense desire to raise the family’s level of education above that of the street, as one expression had it.
She seemed harder to get to know than her husband. The customers who came to the store all lived on the same street. She addressed them all formally, including the children. Her demonstrations of deference were mere obsequiousness. Behind closed doors, Eva would judge the people on their most reprehensible behaviour, when children insulted their mothers in public, or on their most ordinary behaviour, when they didn’t pronounce their words clearly enough. She issued judgements on people for their poor-quality clothing, their uncleanliness, or the grubby hands and faces of their youngest. The poorest were treated to severe comments.
There were countless rules in our family. It was a good idea to learn them by heart. School also had its rules. The classes in good manners taught us many of them. For instance, the nuns would instruct us on the ranking in an official ceremony: who was the first man or woman in the hierarchy to utter a greeting, and what exactly were the official and formal rules guiding the relationships between the bishops and the civil authorities. When should we shake hands, or bow our heads, or curtsey if we were given the honour to approach the dignitaries. Our teachers, all women, were preparing us for adult life. We were learning how to greet eminent people, a school director, a cleric, the parish priest, a government representative. Women had responsibilities; their domain was etiquette. When it came time for conversation, they would fall silent. Custom demanded this.
Our mother insisted that good manners were a necessity. She added that her husband had no manners, something she would announce loudly almost every day. She did not consider our father a role model.
My mother said that obedience was a good lesson for life. She never changed her mind on this. She let nothing go, scrutinized every detail of our behaviour. She would detect every single little fault. She assumed her role as a mother absolutely. She trained us, and retrained us. She taught us how to behave in view of our future lives. We should be able to adapt to any situation, even the most humble. We should be employable in any kind of work and have respect for those who were in charge. I got used to not being treated kindly.
As soon as we could count, the business became our responsibility too. My mother, always thinking of our education, saw this as an initiation for our future lives. Our father used our help to offer more diverse services and earn more money. They were in agreement on this. We would be employees, docile, clean, likeable. And so we would learn to face difficulties, and put up with anything.
We lived packed into two cramped double rooms. No one had any personal space. I’d never had any, and so I didn’t miss it. Having space to yourself — the idea was disturbing, almost dishonest; it implied secretiveness, something to hide. In our family, everything was done in the presence of the others. No one had a secret from the other members of the family. Everyone’s life was open to everyone else. This did not apply to the parents who continued their day once the children were in bed. In fact, it was them, and it was us.
The store that came with the living quarters had the same limited dimensions. The double room overlooking the street was the snackbar-grocery store. The backroom held the stock: crates of supplies, sacks of potatoes to be peeled, cut, tossed into a bucket of water, and the meat fridge with the hotdogs and the hamburgers. That was where my education continued, with the public. It was hard to imagine there could be so much work in such a small shop.
Remi’s business was doing well. The customers were loyal, the profits regular. There were unexpected windfalls, notable surpluses. The stability of this enterprise required the services of the children, a labour force that was fed and housed and that my mother referred to as the slaves. Eva’s language would slip into exaggeration when she was angry with Remi. Normally, she agreed with the demands he made on the children. That was an integral part of economic success and family equilibrium.
I liked the city, the streets, the sidewalks, the rare trees, the wooden palisade along the railway at the north end of our street, the fenced-in spaces left vacant and abandoned in front of the triplexes, the lanes with the sheds covered in sheet metal that cast shadows over the dirt backyards.
I would hurry home from school, always taking the same, the shortest, route. The door to the apartment was out of bounds, I would come in through the store. My father, alone behind the counter, had a bar of chocolate in his right hand that he was stuffing into his mouth. I noticed that the mouthful was too big and might choke him. That scene was often repeated. I did not ask him for chocolate. I pretended not to see, out of politeness. He never gave any of his children chocolate.
My taste buds woke up; the chocolates with caramel, or peanuts, or cherries that my father ate made me imagine the sweet tastes I craved. I practised indifference and forgetting, out of respect. I behaved as though I didn’t notice. I wouldn’t have dreamt of telling anyone. I did not want what I did not have. I didn’t know yet if I wanted what I did have. It was out of the question to dream of material possessions; that was the surest path to frustration.
I would hear them say we were a middle-class family. This meant we lacked nothing, we were like most of the others. We were normal, and so we had and would continue to have the right to a normal life.
My mother believed in a middle-class future. Her daughters would get married at the age when women have children. They would have husbands who were employees with good salaries, and they would have a house. Eva insisted on their owning a house, which she did not. But the house that was so necessary did not arrive on its own, it required a man, a man who brought home the money. Eva did not offer details about this husband; what interested her was the house, the house she didn’t have because her husband was inadequate. My mother summarized a woman’s world in terms of her house. In the meantime, there was an age and a time for everything. Out of opposition to her husband, she enrolled her daughters in elocution lessons.
I told no one I was taking elocution lessons; that would have been very ugly, seen as putting on airs, pretending you were someone you weren’t. No one knew. Our mother would have liked piano or ballet classes. Given our situation, they were not possible. An actor came to the house to teach us pronunciation. Whenever he walked through the snackbar-grocery store, my father would mutter, here’s professor “pick-a-pocket.” I would feel a shiver of shame, and hoped the actor didn’t hear. The lesson took place in the narrow space between two beds. The teacher sat in the rocking chair, I stood near him. I couldn’t go anywhere because I had to be available for work in the store before and after the lesson. Elocution lessons made me feel I was having a privileged childhood. I believed my mother when she said we were not like the others, we were special.
If my mother liked someone’s style, a woman’s for instance, she would say: “She’s good like that.” This meant that the woman in question was reproducing the good manners she had learnt. Whenever my mother sent me off somewhere, she would remind me: “Be good like that.” By this she meant I should show respect, to the very lowest level of humility. She taught us not to fear our baseness. If we were very base, we would be accepted.
My father was sure his children were very happy since we lacked nothing. He liked comparing us with each other, and he made fun of our weaknesses. We were his objects, intelligent little animals. Opening the cash register required strength and coordination. It was a dangerous exercise. The cash drawer would spring open with a clang at the level of the trachea. He would let out an evil chuckle at his children’s awkwardness. Fingers slammed in the door of the fridge or a cupboard would set him off laughing. If kids our own age slapped us, it made him giggle for days.
He was the one who dictated the rules for his store. Everything revolved around how to behave. He would proclaim that we were his subordinates, and that we were happier than he was because we had no responsibilities. I obeyed out of habit, for lack of will, and especially out of weariness. I learnt not to want anything more than what I had. That was the central lesson. I was low on inventiveness. I controlled my imagination; imagining things mad me useless for work. This was how I avoided potential conflicts with the outside world. Which is why I didn’t let myself see beyond. I didn’t have the right to talk about what I discovered, or what I noticed. “There’s no point seeing beyond,” my mother would say. My daily life, however restricted, or measured, or structured, was beyond comprehension. Despite my best efforts, first of all my humility, then my feeling of inferiority, then my blindly polite obedience, and the frequent pain of being crushed by deserved or undeserved criticism, I was still terrified at the thought of not having parents. It was better to suffer confinement than the wanderings of an orphan.
There were no books in our home. I was ten when my mother bought Grolier’s big Encyclopedia for the Young. We were invited to sit down at the kitchen table with her. She had extracted the first volume from its double wrapping of beige cardboard and kraft paper. She opened it at the first page, and then chose pages at random. There were pictures with the texts. We moved in closer to better see the illustrations. We were silent and motionless. I was moved.
The smell of the brand-new book went to my head. My mother kept it in front of her. I didn’t touch it. She said our hands were too dirty to touch the great book. She announced that we’d be getting the encyclopedia later. Till then, the volumes would be stored at the back of the closet. My mother returned the first volume to its beige cardboard box, put it back in the original box with the others, and threw out the kraft paper.