Yvetot is a cold city, built on a plateau exposed to the wind, between Rouen and Le Havre. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was the commercial and administrative center of an entirely agricultural region, in the hands of large landowners. My grandfather, a cart driver on a farm, and my grandmother, a home weaver, settled there after a few years of marriage. Both were originally from a neighboring town, three kilometers away. They rented a low house with a corral, on the other side of the train tracks, on the outskirts, in a rural area with imprecise boundaries, between the last cafes next to the station and the first fields of rapeseed. My mother was born there in 1906, the fourth of six children. (Her pride when she said: “I was not born in the country.”)
Four of the children never left Yvetot in their lifetime, my mother spent three-quarters of hers there. They moved closer to the center, but never got used to it. “We were going to the city” for mass, the meat, the money that had to be sent. Now, my cousin has a flat in the center, crossed by the national 15 through which trucks circulate day and night. You give your cat a sleeping pill so that it doesn’t come out and get run over. The neighborhood where my mother spent her childhood is highly sought after by high-income people, due to the tranquility that reigns in it and the old houses.
My grandmother ruled and was in charge, with shouts and blows, of “straightening” her children. She was a tough woman at work, not easy at all, with no other time off than reading serialized novels. She knew how to draw letters well, she was the first in the region to obtain a primary school certificate and could have become a teacher. The parents had refused to let him leave town. Then there was the certainty that getting away from the family was a source of misfortune. (In Norman, “ambition” means the pain of being separated, a dog can die of ambition.) To also understand this story that closes at eleven years, remember all the phrases that begin with “at that time”: at that Back then, they didn’t go to school like they do now, they paid attention to their parents, etc.
He ran the house well, that is, with a minimum amount of money he managed to feed and clothe the family, he sent the children to Mass without holes or stains, and thus they approached a dignity that allowed them to live without feeling like jerks. She flipped shirt collars and cuffs to make them twice as long. She kept everything, the cream from the milk, the stale bread, to make cakes, the ash from the firewood for laundry, the heat from the stove to dry the plums or kitchen towels, the water from the morning toilet to wash her hands during the day. He knew all the gestures that make it possible for one to cope with poverty. That knowledge, transmitted from mothers to daughters for centuries, stops in me that I am only the archivist.
My grandfather, a strong and loving man, died at the age of fifty of angina pectoris. My mother was thirteen years old and she adored him. My grandmother, as a widow, became even more severe, always alert. (Two images of terror, the jail for the boys, the natural child for the girls.) As home weaving had disappeared, she was working as a laundress and office cleaner.
At the end of his life, he lived with his last daughter and son-in-law, in a barracks without electricity, the old dining room of the factory next door, right at the foot of the railway line. My mother took me to see her on Sundays. She was a small, plump woman who moved quickly despite having one leg shorter than the other from birth. She read novels, spoke very little, abruptly, she liked to drink brandy that she mixed with a rest of the coffee, in the cup. She died in 1952.
My mother’s childhood is more or less this:
an appetite never satiated. He devoured the crust added to the heavy bread when he returned from the bakery. “Until I was twenty-five I would have eaten the sea with fish and everything!”
the common room for all the children, the bed shared with a sister, sleepwalking attacks during which they found her standing, with her eyes open in the corral,
The dresses and shoes inherited from one sister to another, a rag doll for Christmas, teeth pierced by cider,
but also the rides on the draft horse, the skating in the frozen pond during the winter of 1916, the games of hide and seek, the slurs and the gesture of contempt – turning around and slapping his ass with firm hand – destined for the “young ladies” inside the private school, an entire existence abroad, typical of every country girl, with the same skill as boys, sawing wood, shaking apple trees and killing chickens by sticking scissors into them until the bottom of the crop. Only difference, not to be touched “the piggy bank”.
He went to the village school, when the agricultural tasks and the illnesses of the brothers and sisters did not prevent him. Very few memories other than the teachers’ demands for good manners and cleanliness, showing fingernails, shirt collar, taking off one foot (you never knew which one to wash). The teaching passed through her without awakening any desire. Nobody “pushed” the children, that had to “get out of them” and school was nothing more than a time that had to be spent waiting to stop being a burden for parents. You could skip class, you didn’t miss anything. But not to the mass where, even in the last rows, those of the poor, one had the impression, when participating in that wealth, beauty and spirituality (embroidered chasubles, golden goblets, chants), of not “living like dogs” . My mother showed, from an early age, a pronounced taste for religion. Catechism was the only subject he studied with passion, memorizing all the answers. (Later, still, that panting, joyous way of answering prayers, in church, as if to show that he knew them.)