19

Where the author frustrates her mother by giving power of attorney to an estate lawyer.

When we're back in Normandy I hope for some rest and quiet although I fear boredom. The peaceful little river that flows at the foot of the hill, the gently rolling landscape, the misty mornings and the bright sunshine in the cool air, nothing in the visible realm reflects the sense of muffled terror that constant- ly gnaws at my gut. Only a full-blown thunderstorm breaking through a queer rusty fog one late afternoon is concordant with my mental state.

There's not a book, magazine or newspaper in the house I want to read; everything is religion-oriented: Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Rene Clavel on the bookshelves, "Prier", a monthly, "La Vie Catholique" a weekly magazine, "La Croix", a daily. No contemporary literature whatsoever. I settle for "Les Aventures de Tintin" comics and feel transported to the innocent time of my youth.

I've finally vanquished my repugnance and checked out what's that dark shape at the top of the bookcase. It is Agns'Teddy bear from when she was one year old, which means that the Teddy bear is forty-one years old. And he looks his age too, his fur matted, his face mangled, his eyes unsettled. I've never seen an uglier, scarier Teddy bear, and he was looking down at me while I slept all these nights! It's like he's a surrogate for my sister, keeping the spot at the top warm for her, a pathetic assertion of power from a big sister full of self-doubt. I leave the bear where it is.

I also overcome my scruples and take a look at the papers strewn on the desk. I recognize Agns'choppy handwriting and start reading. It's a contract between her and my father whereby she borrows from him two hundred thousand francs, interest-free. Although the language is legalistic, this doesn't look like a bona fide loan contract. If it had been, it would have been typed at least and anyway, where is my father's signature?

Between the money that's on the books and the money that's off the books, the money that belonged to Dad but was in the name of Elisabeth Geisel, the money owed by Guignard, and the fact that Mother uses shorthand terms to speak of large amounts ("hundred" means hundred thousand and "three" means three mil- lion), whenever she speaks of the estate I get totally confused.

She says that all my siblings have given her power of attorney to be the executrix of the estate and she implies that I'll do the same without question. But after she has made this statement for the third time in as many days I say "Wait, wait, wait!" and remind her that I'm free to chose who will represent me in this matter. In a blink she's lying of the sofa, her neck is arched back, her hand holds her forehead, her hair makes a halo around her head, and her face is deep red as if she had sustained a violent emotional shock. It seems that she counted on me not to make difficulties, to go along with her plans, to trust her, and I have the unenviable duty disabuse her. But I'm within my rights and she doesn't have convincing arguments to dissuade me, no proven track record of standing up for my rights.

The next day she wants to go the notaire in Rouen and wants me to go with her. On the road I understand that she wants me to sign some papers. With great reluctance and sorrow for disap- pointing her I say that I have retained a lawyer in Paris and I won't sign anything without my lawyer's advice to do so. At the notaire's office, another notaire shows me a power of attorney to fill out and sign. I say that I want to speak to my lawyer and call her in Paris. I have her agreement to write her name in the blank space and the formality is over.

Then Mother asks if I wouldn't like to go to Brittany visit my father's side of the family. "You could stay at your god- father's!" she suggests. I agree and we call my godfather. He says that he's about to leave on a one week vacation to Ibiza with his wife but he'll be happy to see me when he returns so I postpone my travel plan one week.

In the meantime Mother and I move around in the region: she wants to send a fax from a lady-friend of hers and I go with her. The woman lives in a castle. She invites us into a parlor whose walls are covered with mounted pairs of exotic horns, all the way up to the very high ceiling. I'm appalled by the carnage all these represent and ask where they come from. She explains that her husband is a game hunter and goes on safaris in Africa. I also ask what is this adorable little house farther up the alley. "That's where my son sleeps when he visits," she answers airily.

She offers us tea and puts a plate of cookies on the table. She passes them around once then puts the plate in front of me and gets into a conversation with my mother about somebody I do not know. I'm left out like a small child, required to be quiet while the grownups talk about serious matters, and show good manners by not eating the cookies tht are under my nose unless they are offered to me.

I feel like the lady put the cookies in front of me just to tempt me because she's not offering them any more. There's nothing to look at except all these differently shaped pairs of antlers on the walls. I'm oppressed by the thought of all these deaths, all these beautiful, innocent animals killed for the vainglory of a rich man and his cruel wife.

When the tea is finished mother asks to send her fax and it's done in a minute.

Ten days after calling my godfather Mother calls again and after hanging up tells me that he and his wife have signed up for an extra week's vacation in Ibiza. I feel humiliated that my godfather is in no rush to see me.

At my suggestion we go re-visit a castle in the region. Mother knows that the public entrance is not the castle's main entrance in the front yet, although it's raining and I'm limping, walking slowly with a cane, she lets me walk the long alley to the front door. Once inside we visit the grand rooms with splendid furnish- ings and gigantic chandeliers but what really attracts me is barred to the public: the network of small stairways and narrow passages that the servants used to move quickly around, which even then was not for public display. Oh, how strong is the temptation to open these unadorned little doors that bear the sign "Interdit au Public" and explore the bowels of the castle! I'm not into daintiness.

In some salon there's an exhibition of antique books. "Oh, please!" I think and tell Mother that I have seen enough antique books for the rest of my life. We're walking down one of the huge stone stairways when she stops and starts to gnaw compulsively at her thumbnail. She's absorbed in her thoughts. I wait a moment and ask her if she's ok, then we resume our descent.

Another day she shows me a 12th Century underground church which was built under a farm at a time when the Christian Church persecuted heretics. The ground floor of the farm is now a crafts store and a concealed stone stairway leads underground. This is more to my liking. The ancient church is vaulted Gothic style and very bare, and of course it doesn't have any stained glass windows. It is a blind church.

It's poignant to think that the faith of the builders was so strong that it moved them to erect this huge edifice in a reverse process and in total secrecy. Now the church is an annex to the store, filled with quality items handcrafted by neighboring artisans, and a passageway leads into another room where more handicraft is on display, which leads to another room and another and another. The rooms branch into each other now north, now south, now east now west.

The variety of offerings distracts me from keeping a sense of orien- tation and from noticing that we're getting farther and farther away from the farm. The temperature is comfortable and constant. After we've walked underground for about one hour, the objects d'art become sparse until we reach a dark gallery that is barred to the public and looks like one side of a cloister, a blind cloister opening on a cave. We have reached the end of the excavation but obviously much work remained to be done. So we retrace our steps and I feel anxious to see the light of day.

From one room to another we turn again in all the directions of the compass. Unbeknownst to me we have covered a great distance. Every time we enter a room I'm sure that it's the last one before the church but I'm wrong. I have lost all sense of time and space, I'm completely disoriented. However I don't voice any anxiety, Mother is very calm and I keep calm too. No need to panic but I walk a bit faster.

Finally we reach the church and climb the small stone steps into the fresh air and the farm building. I ask the owner a few questions. He answers sounding defensive and displeased by the interest I show but at the same time as if he expects me to beg him to let me work at the site! Mother is all ears and has a knowing smile. She knows that since I was a child I've been fascinated both by speleology and archaeology.

The owner says that when he bought the farm he and his wife knew that there was an underground church and network, and that their goal was to excavate it all the way to the end. I ask how far the underground passage went. I forgot the answer. Mother offers me to pick a present for myself. There's a great variety of items in a very wide price range. I want something small that I really like.

I hesitate between an oval and a round pewter box, reproductions of 18th Century originals, bearing the date "1792" in endearing script. I prefer the round one but it is considerably more expensive than the oval one. I settle for the round one, thinking that if I take the oval one I will always miss the round one and hate myself for my stupidity. After all it costs only four hundred francs, less than one hundred dollars. When I tell Mother what I have chosen, she doesn't say anything for what seems like an eternity. Does she think that I'm abusing her generous offer? Finally her silence is so unbearable that I say: "Listen, if it's too expen- sive for you, I can pay a part of it myself." She says that it's ok in a weak voice but she remains silent, like stunned by an emotional wound, for long minutes afterwards.

And then we return home. As always I'm impressed by her intimate knowledge of the back roads and the shortcuts in the norman countryside. Many times she turns resolutely into a narrow country road that bears no sign and proceeds with total confi- dence into the dimming daylight.


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