Friday 19 April 1974

Dear Mama

It has been close to three and a half years since you died, at the age of ninety-one, and perhaps it’s only now that I’m beginning to understand you. Throughout my childhood and adolescence I lived under one roof with you. I lived with you, but when I left for Paris at the age of nineteen, you were still a stranger to me.

Come to think of it, I never called you Mama; I called you Mother, just as I never called my father Papa. How did that come about? I don’t know.

I went back to Liège now and then for short visits. The longest was the last, when I spent a whole week, day after day, at the Hôpital de Bavière – where as a boy I served at Mass – looking on at your death agony.

That expression, to be sure, hardly applies to the days that preceded your death. You lay in your bed, surrounded by relatives or persons unknown to me. There were some days when it was all I could do to get near you. I watched you for hours. You were not in pain. You had no fear of dying. And you didn’t tell your beads from morning till night, though there was always a black-clad nun sitting there, day after day in the same chair, in the same place.

Sometimes you smiled; often, in fact. But when I speak of you, the word ‘smile’ takes on a rather special meaning. You looked at us, at these people who would survive you and follow you to the graveyard, and now and then a widening of your lips gave you an ironic expression.

It seemed as though you were already in another world, or rather, in a world of your own, your familiar, inner world.

Even as a child, you see, I had known that smile. There was melancholy in it, and resignation. You endured life. You didn’t live it.

You seemed to be waiting for the day when at last you would be lying in your hospital bed, resting, before going to your eternal rest.

Your doctor, who had performed the operation, was a childhood friend of mine. He told me you would die slowly and peacefully.

It took about a week, my longest stay in Liège since I had left it as a boy of nineteen. After visiting hours I couldn’t resist the temptation to renew such pleasures of my youth as mussels with French fries and eel au vert.

Is it shameful to mingle gastronomic recollections with my memories of your hospital room?

I don’t think so. They go together. Everything goes together to form the whole, which I am trying now to unravel and which, to judge by the way you looked at me, with an expression of mingled indifference and tenderness, you may have understood before I did.

As you are well aware, we never loved each other in your lifetime. Both of us pretended.

Today I believe that the images we had of each other were both false.

Can it be that the knowledge that one is dying makes one more lucid than ever before? I don’t know yet. But I am just about certain that you classified the people who came to see you, the nephews, nieces, neighbours and so on, very accurately.

At the moment I arrived, you classified me as well.

But it wasn’t your image of me that I looked for in your eyes and calm features: what I was beginning to see was a true image of you.

I was anxious and unnerved. The day before, I had received a phone call from Orban, my old schoolmate, now head surgeon at the Hôpital de Bavière, who had operated on you. I had to drive with all possible speed over Swiss roads, the German Autobahn, and a bit of Belgian highway.

I suddenly found myself facing the big, varnished door of the Hôpital de Bavière, where as a child I used to pull up panting, especially in the winter, after a breathless run through the deserted neighbourhood, keeling to the middle of the street because I was afraid.

I found your pavilion right away. And then your door. I knocked and someone called out, ‘Come in’.

It gave me a shock to see at least four or five people in your little hospital room, not to mention a nun all in black, who seemed to be on guard, like a sentry.

I made my way through to your bed to kiss you. And then you said very simply, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to say, ‘Why have you come, Georges?’

That little sentence weighed on my mind, and I thought about it later on. Maybe it has told me something about you.

I kissed you on the forehead. Someone, I don’t remember who, stood up and gave me his chair. I looked at you intensely. I think I had never in all my life looked at you in that way.

I had expected to find you moribund, in a semi-coma. I rediscovered your eyes, which I have tried to describe but which I shall have to describe again, because it was some time before I began to understand them.

Were you surprised to see me? Did you suppose I wouldn’t come to be with you in your death agony and attend your funeral? Did you think I was indifferent, even hostile?

Was the look in those pale-grey eyes one of genuine surprise, or was that one of your tricks? I can’t help thinking that you knew I’d come and were expecting me, but that since you had always distrusted everyone, and me in particular, you were afraid I would not come.

The people around you didn’t have the tact to leave the room. I had to put them out by telling them I wanted to be alone with my mother for a little while.

The nun didn’t budge. She stayed there in her chair, as motionless, as impenetrable and, I’m certain, as indifferent as a statue. She never said a word of greeting when I came in. She never said goodbye when I left.

It looked as if she had the keys to the gates of death, heaven and hell, and was waiting for the right time to make use of them.

For a long while you and I just looked at each other. There was no sadness in your face. There was no emotion I could identify for sure.

Triumph? Possibly. You were the thirteenth of thirteen children. Your father was ruined before you were born. You were five years old when he died.

That was your start in life. You were left alone with your mother. Your brothers and sisters had all gone off, some to the graveyard. You lived in a modest, extremely modest, apartment, in a poor neighbourhood in Liège, and I’ve never known what you and your mother lived on until you were nineteen and went to work as a salesgirl in a department store.

I have a bad photograph of you, dating from that time. You were pretty; your face still had the roundness of youth, but in your eyes I see an iron will and distrust, dis-
trust of the whole world.

There was a shadow of a smile on your lips, but there was nothing youthful about that smile; it was full of bitterness, and your eyes, fixed on that camera lens, were hard.

‘Why have you come, Georges?’

Perhaps those few words are the key to your whole life.

When we were left alone except for the nun, you couldn’t think of anything to say to me, nor I to you. Your emaciated hand was resting on the bed sheet, and I took it. There was no warmth in your hand; it seemed lifeless.

Would you really have been disappointed or grieved if I hadn’t come? I wonder.

You knew those people who were cluttering up your room when I arrived; you knew, in a manner of speaking, what each one of them expected of you. Money, one of your two dining-room cupboards, linen and so on.

Because you’ve never had illusions. You’ve never trusted anyone. As far back as I can remember, you’ve suspected everyone of falsehood, of ulterior motives.

I wasn’t six yet, I’d just started school at the Institut Saint-André, when you first thought I was telling you lies. You’ve thought so ever since. The last time you came to see me was at Épalinges. I’d invited you to spend a few weeks with me. You were already very old and infirm, and I was secretly thinking of sending you to one of the excellent rest homes in the region.

Épalinges, which I put up for sale two years ago and haven’t sold yet, is an enormous, rather luxurious house. It required a large staff. You spent the better part of your days in the garden, in the dancing shadow of a birch tree.

Your main worry was not how you would spend the last years of your life. When you managed to corner a member of the staff, an anxious look came into your eyes and you asked, ‘Had this property really been paid for?’

You’d had the same worry when I invited you to La Richardière. La Richardière was an estate with a big pond full of ducks, an enormous vegetable garden, a forest and a few meadows. There too you spent a good part of your time out of doors in an easy chair. I seem to remember that I had three horses at the time. They required a groom. A gardener took care of the garden and barnyard. There too, in short, I had considerable help. That was in 1931.

You observed their comings and goings. You kept your eye on them. And once, when you were alone with Boule, you asked, ‘Has my son a lot of debts?’

In fifty years I’ve never been able to convince you that I work and make a living.

Your distrust wasn’t confined to me. It was innate in you. The fatherless five-year-old, left alone with her mother, couldn’t believe in miracles.

But, at bottom, I was the main object of your distrust.

Was it love? Fear that I’d get into trouble? Were you afraid that I was mixed up in some shady business?

No one but you knows the answer, Mother. I can only conjecture, and there perhaps the days I spend at your bedside have helped me.

I have just called you Mother rather than Mama. You see, I’ve been accustomed to calling you Mother since my earliest childhood. I have a good many childhood memories, more than most people. My memory of recent events is often sketchy, but I remember the first years of my life very clearly.

I wonder if you ever took me on your lap. If you did, it left no trace in my memory, which means that it didn’t happen very often.

I don’t believe that the ‘Father’ and ‘Mother’ I was taught to use originated with you, and I can’t hold it against you. My father was a soft-hearted man, but like all the Simenons I’ve known, he was not expansive.

I remember a trifling incident that may be significant. One day, in a moment of discouragement, you said to him, ‘When I think, Désire, that I’ve never heard you say: “I love you.”’

My father answered – with tears in his eyes, I’m sure: ‘But you’re here.’

Is that what hardened you? Can it be that you felt torn between your own family, the Brulls, and the Simenon tribe you married into, and that this feeling threw you off balance?

I shall try to understand all that, Mother, and tell you about it.