Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Cup of Redemption

October, 2001

The autumnal breeze turned chilly as it swept over the village cemetery of Evaux-les-Bain and cut through the tombstones where the three adults stood before their mother’s grave. No one spoke. No one cried. Sophie swallowed hard. Grief, she thought, is a private matter. She knew how to contain her emotions, as did her brothers. Their mother, Marcelle, had taught them well.

A blue silk scarf slid off Sophie’s head and onto her shoulders. Her short brown curls, touched faintly with grey, appeared to have sprouted wings as the wind buffeted her bird-like body. She felt her brothers sway on either side of her, as swirling dead leaves lifted up and around them. Thierry, the oldest, breathed in hard, and then gasped. At sixty-four, he already had heart problems. She feared their mother’s death would push him over the edge. Sophie looked up at him, his face tense and taut as a mask. Has he ever forgiven Maman for abandoning him after the War? Over fifty years of her explanations should have helped, but had they? Does anyone ever get over being abandoned?

Slowly, she turned toward Jacky. Her youngest brother stood tall. He had taken their mother’s death in stride, although his experience with her had been altogether different. He’d always known their mother’s love. No, she shook her head, the loss of Maman will hit Thierry the hardest. She reached over to squeeze Thierry’s hand, but it was stuffed tight into his pocket. “Are you all right, Thierry?” Sophie softly asked.

“Wha? What?” he stammered. He cleared his throat and something incoherent slipped out. She didn’t catch it; she didn’t ask again. Pain seemed to eke out through his old leather coat, only to lie in puddles around his feet. She longed to wrap her arms around him. Instead, she clutched her own wool cape closer to her. Her small frame began to shake. Every part of her wanted to wail; to howl. Why now, Maman? She wanted to cry out. Why now?

Once again, she swallowed her anguish. Repression was her ally. The trees creaked and whined with the wind. Dust rose from the open grave. Her scarf took liberties and fled from her shoulders. After the heartbreaking suicide of Gérard, their brother, fifteen years ago, she had closed off her heart. Even when her father’s death followed three years later, she deigned not to weep. Why would she? She stifled a sob. But with the loss of their beloved mother . . . . ? Why, these two brothers were all she had left of her immediate family. She gritted her teeth, and once again, held tough. Thank God for anti-depressants!

Jacky scooped up her scarf, knocked off a dried leaf and handed back to her. A smile crossed her lips; her shoulders slackened. Tying her scarf about her neck, she skillfully executed a French knot as thoughts of her mother softened. Her mother’s death had come so suddenly. Although eighty-three, her mother had been in excellent health, or so she had said.
“Do you think her doctor expected this,” she asked her brothers. Sophie thought of the last call she had made from her home in California to her mother’s doctor in Fontanière. Had she misunderstood his words? A pall of guilt pressed down on her.

“He never mentioned anything to me, Sophie,” Jacky replied. They both looked at Thierry; he remained mute.
“Thirty years ago I promised Maman I would be here for her. Did I fail her?” Sophie’s voice was barely audible.

“If so, then we all failed her,” Jacky said. “We live here in France and still didn’t know the seriousness of her illness. Besides, that was a promise you made when you married Jerome and moved to the States. We were all happy for you, Sophie. We all knew you needed to get away from Papa . . .”

As if openly bidden, an image of their father’s scowling face floated through her mind. Unresolved rage followed, and then spread down through her body. She shuddered, blinked her eyes and focused on the grave once more.

When she had received the call from Jacky to come immediately to France, the realization that her mother’s life was ending was startling. It had been a wild flight from the States to reach her mother’s bedside in time. Only a few weeks before, the World Trade Center had fallen in New York and the world was under high alert. She shook her head again, as her nerves strained at the memory. Much of the world she had once known and trusted had ended. But the crowning blow came when she arrived at the hospital, just in time to say goodbye. Her mother died within hours, but with her last breath she hoarsely whispered to Sophie, “Cherchez moi; cherchez Pourrette,” “Find me; find Pourrette.” At then, as if Sophie had not been shaken enough, her mother said, “China” and died.

(To be continued . . .)