I’m always seeing my father among the gaggles of urchins who invariably garnish old pictures of Quai de la Batte or Ruelle Bodeux or the Trô Navai. It seems that every time a postcard photographer disposed his equipment in the working-class districts of Verviers, the factory town in southern Belgium in which both he and I were born, three or eight or twenty kids would materialize and stand in front of the lens, poking each other and making faces, and he would have the task of herding them into a picturesque grouping slightly to the side. Adults are infrequent, and in the bourgeois neighborhoods there are usually no visible humans at all.
My father always seems to be in those crowds of rascals, somewhere toward the middle, the smallest kid but clearly a ringleader, effortlessly exuding personality. Never mind that all the pictures I am looking at were taken fifteen or twenty years before his birth, and that Quai de la Batte and Ruelle Bodeux and the Trô Navai had all been erased by progress by the time he was old enough to run around outdoors unsupervised. The earliest pictures I have of him are in the same spirit; they are in fact mostly postcards, as are nearly all the pictures in my album between the age of the formal cabinet card and that of the snapshot, and they were taken by street photographers.
In the earliest one he is no more than a year and a half, maybe two, his blond hair in a raggedy pageboy, wearing a one-piece garment that looks like jersey but was inevitably wool, holding on to his sister Armande’s hand. She wears a flounced dress that may have been white and proclaims itself unmistakably as Sunday best, with midcalf boots, possibly buttonhooks. She’s nervous and doesn’t know how to pose: mouth screwed up, shoulders hunched forward, free hand pinned by the exposure in midcrawl along a flounce, resting all her weight on her left leg, which slants so far right it appears she will soon have to cross the other leg over so as not to topple. I recognize my father by his stare, already then skeptically alert, prepared for the worst, not declaring himself but maintaining reserve. He is a little waif, un petit bout d’chou, with the eyes of a grizzled and unflinching witness to the spectrum of human folly and deceit.
They are standing on a diamond-cobbled pavement in front of some official or at least prosperous-looking edifice with deep windowsills and, right behind Armande, a cavernous rectangle formed by the eyebrow of a basement window looking up from its underground business. It is manifestly not their house. My father grew up in a tenement on Rue de Mangombroux, a narrow thoroughfare that appears to wind endlessly, in part because for much of its length it is unencumbered by side streets. It presents a solid panorama of elderly three-story houses, cyclically unspooling like the landscape that accompanies the racing Huckleberry Hound, with the same small shop recurring at intervals, the logos of Ola ice cream and Le Jour-La Meuse timed to appear every four beats. Its distinction resides entirely in the old slaughterhouse (now a brewery depot), as solemn as a Victorian train station, that appears near its mouth at the site of the Porte de Heusy, the medieval gate whose dismantled stones were in 1863 used to enclose the final terrors of innumerable doomed cattle and swine.
That was my father’s formative atmosphere: a working-class district that in the nineteenth century must have passed for airy and enlightened in contrast to the warren of alleys and tunnels and impasses around the Canal des Usines, where his ancestors had lived. He was baptized, ten days after birth, at St. Joseph, just up the way on Rue des Carmes. The announcement is pink—blue was for girls there and then—with a swaddled infant in relief extending an arm, hand spread, the other crooked and ending in a fist, as if it were performing a soliloquy from the last act of Phèdre. His father was Lucien Louis Joseph Sante, his godfather Mathieu Lavergne, his godmother Amélie Lambrette—the name composed itself: Lucien Mathieu Amélie.
At perhaps eight years old, he is standing on a diamond-cobbled pavement outside what might be the very same self-important building that formed the backdrop for his first appearance before the lens, captured by a photographer who has, on a sunny day, chosen to frame him within the single available curtain of shade, with only the tips of his shoes taking the spotlight. He is wearing a coat and scarf and a beret pulled down to expose just the ends of his bangs, along with the short pants and high socks that gave generations of boys all-weather knees by the time they were twelve. He is even more himself in this picture, staring guardedly through hooded eyelids under arched brows, with an apparently stern and unyielding cast to his mouth that you’d know only if you knew him well is actually a studied theatrical parody.
It takes no imaginative energy on my part to hear this mouth intoning with mock gravity his favorite alexandrines from La Fontaine or Victor Hugo: “Mon père ce héros au sourire si doux…” (“My father, that hero, whose smile was so sweet…”). Looking at the picture I know that he has begun collecting the vast stock of allusions to obscure boulevard comedies and punch lines of forgotten vaudeville wheezes that will figure in his speech as reliably enigmatic punctuation, like the Latin tags in Sir Thomas Browne. “‘Aha!’ s’écria l’ouvrière” (“‘Aha!’ cried the working woman”) he will say upon realizing that he has forgotten to shut the garage door. Having traced the cause of a clogged sink to a blob of soap choking the pipe elbow, he will assume the orotund vowels of a doctor in a farce to pronounce, “Voilà pourquoi votre fille est muette!” (“Here is why your daughter is mute!”)
My father’s thimble theater always came in handy in a crisis. An outrageous reversal could be parried with, for example, “tout se paie en ce bas monde” (everything has its cost in this fallen world, more or less), because chance and ritual balanced each other, and because mildewed verities revealed the footlights and prompter’s box present at any scene, and because the turn of phrase was the most elegant of life preservers. After all, my father always noted, Cyrano’s panache was more than just his literal plume.
My father’s panache was such that he could make the basketball team at the Athénée even though he was the smallest kid in the school (or maybe the second smallest, after André Blavier, who went on to become municipal librarian, poet, novelist, editor, etc.). This mettle is visible in the chronological third photo, in which he is possibly nine or ten, affectionately manhan-dling his friend Pol Dosquet, who looks sheepish in a Fauntleroyal smock featuring a lace collar, of all things. My father’s clothes are rougher, and his attitude is pure Spanky. Pol has at least two inches on him, maybe three, but you sense that the difference would be meaningless in a tussle.
My father’s nickname wasn’t Spanky, though, but Tintin, after the short blond boy reporter then making his debut in Le Petit Vingtième, the children’s supplement of Le Vingtième Siècle. This right-wing Catholic paper could find its way even into Socialist households such as my grandparents’, in the red city of Verviers. Tintin was an immediate sensation. Even in the crudely drawn and schematically written early stories it was clear that the Belgians had at last been given their hero, their metaphor, their twentieth-century heraldic emblem more convincing, not to mention unifying, than any Flemish lions or Walloon cocks rampant.
In French the adjective “petit” is extraordinarily versatile, festooning random nouns much the way “old” at least used to in American, but this is a small country whose citizens hoist smallness as a banner, calling themselves not Belges but petits Belges, so that even some overgrown galoot, challenged by truculent Parisians and perhaps fortified by a drink or two, might boast, “J’suis un p’tit Belge, moi.” The boy reporter—who did no visible reporting and was only notionally ascribed an age group—embodied every wishful reflection Belgians sought in the mirror. My father, who at the height of his height attained maybe five feet two inches, always enjoyed the gravitational power of being small and tough and smart, which can make taller parties feel weedy, insubstantial; his son, unnaturally elongated by American Grade-A milk, knew well the sensation of having one’s brains and one’s shoes separated by half a mile of slack.
My father’s communion solennelle pose is standard, resigned. The white gloves he carries in his left hand fool no one—he can’t muster a bit of the insouciance required for the gesture. His family’s financial circumstances are perhaps revealed by the announcement, which is handwritten in contrast to every other such I possess, all of them printed. Could he have written it himself? It’s a schoolboy hand that gives a bend to the upper loops like poplars in the wind, and looks nothing like the penmanship of his adult life, in which flatly ovoid capitals lead strings of corrugated furrows that might be letters in some other alphabet, maybe Sumerian or Hittite. In the last picture of his childhood, he is at least twelve, old enough to be wearing his first adult suit, featuring a broadly double-breasted jacket with lapels on which you could dispose the setting for a light lunch for two, along with plus fours that plunge to his argyle ankles. He is grinning down into his collar, gazing up impishly, pointing his left leg out as if he were beginning a dance step, partnered by his mother, who is holding his arm flat-palmed. On his other side his father sways gently. They are standing in what looks like their back court—the faded sepia is stingy with details. His parents are wearing their everyday clothes, Marie in a patterned housedress with a matter-of-fact V neckline and rolled-up sleeves, Lucien Louis Joseph in a shapeless cotton jacket, white shirt, necktie, horizontally striped sweater vest and vertically striped trousers.
It is, beyond any doubt, the picture of a happy family. My grandmother gleams with love and pride, which you know is a constant even as you know that the picture-taking represented a brief interruption of her scrubbing or peeling or stirring. My grandfather looks a bit abstracted, as if he were just then thinking of how to word a phrase. He is barely taller than his wife, only about five feet. He was a handsome man, with darkly gentle eyes and a perfect triangular mustache and deep vertical creases in his cheeks. He worked as a foreman on the weaving floor chez Voos for at least forty years, and was the only person allowed to smoke on the premises. He acted in Walloon theater companies and was known for his singing voice. He sang at home and he sang at gatherings; he sang the Walloon standard “Mame” to his wife (Mame cè-st-on grand no/Qu’a-st-on ptit gos’ di låme: “Mom is a great name that has a little taste of…”—the word means both “tears” and “honey”) and he teased his son by making up songs about the girls the teenager had crushes on. He kept a fiercely loyal flock of chickens in that back court. He was—somehow I find this hard to register; he seems so much more ancient—an exact contemporary of the first generation of modernists. I feel an obscure but stabbing hurt that I never got to know him, although he is vivid in my father’s memory and in his speech, and I grew up with a sense of him almost present in the room, and I felt especially bad when I did mean or petty things, thinking he could see them.
Since I didn’t long know my grandmother, either, I can only vaguely guess how my father’s inheritance of character was apportioned. It seems obvious he got from his father his showman’s turn and his fireside philosopher’s love of the polished bromide, perhaps also his ear for the music of sentences. On the other hand, his humor could have come from either parent—you can sense his mother’s sly deadpan mischief, his father’s timing and benevolent sense of the ridiculous just from their faces. He could have also gotten from either of them his antlike capacity for labor, which is maybe one part duty, one part stubbornness, one part pride, and one part fatalism: a nearly biological imperative of bending to the task because that is what fate has decreed, but that could have been leached from the very air of Verviers, or transmitted through countless generations of drudgery without reward. Unresolved are his diplomacy, his compassion, his inwardness, his generosity, his adaptability, his tenderness, his suspicion, his custodianship of what must be vast and encrusted archives of emotions that have never been let out to breathe. And one other thing: his unforecast ability to cast off, at the age of thirty-seven, into the trackless unknown.
If my father was Tintin, my mother was Little Lulu, whom she startlingly resembles in a studio portrait taken at about age five, signed by Lucas & Bédart of Brussels, although I tend to doubt the session actually took place in the capital. She wears a cap of straight black hair with an enormous bow, knee socks and a soft wool dress in some dark shade, and a purse-lipped, droopy-lidded expression that says “Phooey.” She was born and then still living in Ster, a village of no more than a couple of dozen houses that on my Taride map, published for automobilistes and cyclistes, is shown as having a single fine line—meaning a path inadvisable for vehicles other than horse carts—leading through it. Since the map was printed before World War I, the German border lurks not more than three kilometers to the east, although by the time my mother burst on the scene a decade later the margin had been extended considerably. After the armistice Belgium was awarded territory that though historically linked to Wallonia was claimed by Prussia after Napoleon’s defeat, largely German-speaking but including such a fortress of Walloon culture as Malmédy, the nearest substantial town. Her parents did some minor and scarcely remunerative farming in Ster (the name is a suffix, the same one that appears in Munster or Winchester or Manchester, so that the place might as well have been called Burg or Ville), where her father had moved with his brothers as a young man, later importing his bride.
Such villages, Fraiture and Odeigne, Malempré and Sovet, Ster and Viville, among hundreds of others, were assemblies of ten or twenty or thirty houses around a church. They were made of stone whose color varied according to the predominant geological stock of the region; driving through the Ardennes you can see the shift from gray to blue to red to yellow. The houses, which could cluster along the side of a through road, or huddle in a recess, or gather in a loop described by a stream, or straggle partway up a hillside, were backed by fields, frequently owned by the inhabitant of the nearest château, and which the villagers worked on a percentage basis.
The system, in sum, was not far removed from the feudal era. The church was the center of communal activity, and until the beginning of this century was also the home of the only literate resident, who thus functioned as the de facto government as well. There might also be a bakery and some sort of general store, the latter often informally worked out of someone’s kitchen. Routine was fixed by the agricultural calendar and enlivened by religious feasts, whose celebrations were hardly distinguishable from the pagan rituals they had begun as. Not much outside news filtered into the villages, which were often a hard journey from the nearest railway, although matters improved somewhat in the late nineteenth century with the inauguration of the trams vicinaux—rural streetcar lines, which formed a web of connections. Even so, populations were less stable than you might think. The scarcity of land drove young people, who were not about to inherit anything more than a bedstead, a coffeepot, and a crucifix, from village to village in search of work and living quarters. Many of them, of course, ended up in the cities, more and more of them as the twentieth century gathered steam. My maternal grandparents, for example, accomplished this journey—from native village to other village to rural suburbs to city—over roughly twenty years, in the space between the wars.
My grandfather had briefly dipped his toe into city life during the war, when he worked as a streetcar conductor in Liège and assumed the solemnity accruing to that office, at least in pictures. My grandmother was country in the gravest sense, absorbing all the moral certitude of life ruled by God in the guise of weather. The city must always have seemed remote and savage for her. Since she was a determined traditionalist in most spheres of life, it is interesting that she was radically modern in her naming practices, eschewing allusions to the departed. René, born in 1920, and Denise, three years later, were given flashy monikers that might have hung on Parisian boulevardiers. My mother is puzzled by her name to this day, commenting recently that she still can’t quite imagine it belonging to an old lady.
The only cultural reference any of us can ever come up with is to Denise Darcel, née Billecard, star of Tarzan and the Slave Girl and Seven Women from Hell, but as it happens she is my mother’s near-exact contemporary. In the family the choice was considered mildly scandalous, but any hard feelings were soothed by the freight train of middle names, hitching Lambertine (after her grandmother-godmother, Lambertine Eloy) to Alberte (for her godfather-uncle Albert Remacle) to Marie and Ghislaine for their protective auras. My mother makes her first photographic appearance quite nude, looking very much like a kewpie doll as she supports herself with both hands on a damask-covered pouf, or maybe a pile of boxes that when damask-covered could pass for a pouf, and looks to the right of the lens at some truly amazing phenomenon, perhaps a talking sock. The astonishment in her eyes persisted; it’s still there.
She grew up in circumstances that antedate the twentieth century, in a jot of a village where there were few neighbors, and some were her relatives, and life was determined by family, church, and crops, in that order. Nevertheless, the Francorchamps racetrack, within a short walk, retailed flash, not to mention roar, and radiated dazzle. Parties of champagne-guzzling cosmopolites descended in open cars to watch the Grand Prix events and the twenty-four-hour races. My mother and her parents and her cousins were the countryfolk they may have fleetingly noticed, the local color. In a photograph taken when she was maybe five, in her Little Lulu period, she appears in a beautiful courtyard, with moss growing between the cobblestones, the old stone wall of the house to one side and vines or hedges to the other, standing shyly among a group of adults sitting on low stools drinking glasses of milk. They are city people on a walking jaunt, as is evident from the boaters and cloches they have removed and set on their leather hiking cases on the ground, and they have stopped by the house for refreshment, as people did then in the country even when the house carried no sign. They thought she was as charming as the house and the foliage and the village and the hills—how rustic—and maybe they took her picture in turn, artistically composed, Une petite ardennaise.
Her parents gave up on the perpetual long odds of farming around the time of the worldwide crash, moving to the outskirts of Verviers and to the logical next phase in the urbanization process. They started a business of collecting milk from farmers and carting it into the city to sell, putting in arduous workdays that began around two or three in the morning. It is a quite different and somewhat less picturesque yard that appears around that time in the picture of my mother’s dog Blackie—he was light brown, but somewhere she had picked up what she thought was a good name for a dog (it was an earlier dog, however, who ate his meals out of a German helmet, fastened to the ground by its spike). The place names then succeed each other pell-mell. My mother underwent her solemn communion in 1935 in Wegnez (with the cap of her long white veil falling over one eye she looks like a befuddled child bride). Several shots taken outside an imposing suburban apartment house in 1936 are captioned “Tribomont” (my grandmother proudly displays her bicycle; Denise and René are yoked in feigned togetherness, both their hands resting on the handle of a shovel in the garden). A portrait of my grandparents identified as set in Andrimont shows them in Sunday dress, standing in a field, hunched and slack-armed and drawn-faced, like people who have never posed before and are intimidated by the box and its operator, but probably they’re just exhausted. They look like subjects of an FSA picture from Alabama.
After approaching the city by degrees they succumbed to Rue Robert Centner in 1939. Both parents got jobs at the Aiglon chocolate factory, my grandfather eventually winding up in one of the textile plants. My mother, however temperamental as a tot, grew up to be a good girl, that much is clear. As time draws on in the stream of pictures she recedes from them, fulfilling a duty but swallowing her personality in the process. I recognize her in her strained formal mode, trying to oblige company by wearing a half-smile of the sort that signifies virtue rather than pleasure, not quite knowing what to do with her hands, standing meekly while attempting to guess what is required of her even as she boils inside. I can only surmise at the tensions that ruled in her family, the accommodations she had to make and the drudgery she was assigned because she was the girl. Just underneath her skin I can make out the stinging intelligence and wild humor that she has spent much of her life suppressing. She is a labyrinth of serpentine hallways and false doors and hidden staircases, easy to misconceive and difficult to negotiate, and yet somewhere along the line she adopted the belief that both she and life ought to be simple, with clearly marked paths and boundaries.
She drew from her childhood a love of nature, a fear of catastrophe, a yearning for the cozy interdependency of the extended family, and an absolute submission to the laws of the Church. Those four constants have stayed with her all her life; she has, in other words, taken her village with her to an America she still experiences as utterly foreign after thirty-five years. In the sad and harsh first few years abroad, her sole consolation was watching the squirrels, because although they differed greatly from the small, black, pinch-eared Belgian variety they were nevertheless creatures of a woodland she could imagine as running continuously from here to there, also because while they looked defenseless they were tough and fast and resilient. America was for her a puzzle of hidden correspondences. Under the foreign skin there had to be particles of the known, and her probing was sometimes rewarded with a bird (the swallow), a flower (the lily of the valley), a tree (the willow, the rare poplar), a shrub (boxwood, which in Belgium served as a proxy for the unobtainable palms of Palm Sunday), or even a whole landscape (the Poconos at first, eventually Vermont). They became coordinates in a grid of defense she had to erect amid the storm of confusion and fear that overtook her on the new planet.
Catastrophe was in her blood, probably, from whatever inherited memory of failed crops and sudden frosts and famine and epidemic, and its hold on her was reinforced by war and job loss and deaths and the constant threat of destitution. She is fascinated by disaster, has made a study of it. It is for her the forbidden book she can’t help looking in even as she fears to do so. Any phone call from her will begin with an often impressive recital of cardiac cases and suspected tumorous growths and children born with dire conditions, not to mention sudden deaths, matters affecting a variety of people ranging from her New Jersey neighbors to distant collateral relations I’ve never met and never will. This is not a matter of sadism, but it is not without prurience, and above all it constitutes the only kind of information she has ever really believed: bad news. In the family there is safety, but that is not news until it falls apart.
The family is her oasis; for her the world is a succession of concentric rings in which our three-person nuclear unit forms the center, her cousins and their offspring the next circle, all Belgians the circle after that, and so forth. Her cousins who are her contemporaries have been her friends since infancy. She has had other friends, even close ones, but they almost require a different word, so distinct is the difference in intimacy. She is apparently innocent of social forms that she perceives as “American” (even though they have now become the norm in Belgium, perhaps even rural Belgium). Once, when I was already grown and living away from home, I mentioned that I had gone to a party the previous evening. “Oh, whose birthday was it?” she asked.
She observes, and she analyzes, but she refuses to adapt. In part this is due to fear, and in part to obstinacy, but above all it is due to an idea of class that for her is an article of faith. The relative fluidity of American life unanchors her. She addresses the majority of her contemporaries as Mr. or Mrs. this or that, and when they eventually beg her to please call them Madge or Don, she concedes with difficulty and reluctance. Whenever she has cause to refer to a friend or colleague of mine who is superior in age to me, she says “la dame” or “le monsieur,” even if she has met them. If I happen to mention an upcoming meeting, even a casual event, she instructs me, “Fais-toi bien propre,” make yourself clean, because people will judge you on the shine of your shoes and the sharpness of your creases. I imagine that my life is a mystery to her, until she surprises me with her insight into some aspect I’d thought she hadn’t noticed. The American system that I have grown into is for her appalling chaos, an ongoing carnival of misrule that can only end in disaster. People behave as if there were no up or down, but eventually gravity will reassert itself, and everyone will crack their skulls on the firmament.
She is desperate for order, and in the chaos of her life only the Church has ever given her any. She has no interest in theology, only in observance. She has never read any part of the Bible other than the excerpts included in the proper of the mass, but she says many hours of prayers every day, prayers printed or sometimes handwritten on the backs of holy pictures, which she keeps in a stack, many of them ragged-edged and mended with tape from decades of daily manipulation. There is a crucifix in every room in her house other than the bathrooms, and pictures of the Virgin and the Sacred Heart scattered liberally, and statuettes in the car (although the magnets will no longer stick to the dashboards, nowadays padded, so they are relegated to a tray just north of the gearshift), and a Virgin in a shrine my father built in the front yard, and scapulars between the mattresses and their box springs, and a holy-water font by the bedroom door.
She wears several religious medals and so does my father; I wore a gold St. Christopher medal that had been given to me at birth until I lost it while going off the high dive at thirteen. It was probably around the same time that I finally rebelled against the little cloth sack that I wore pinned to my undershirt that contained bits of linen or paper that had touched the bones of various saints. For her these objects are immanent; they are not symbols or reminders but aspects, material forms containing an actual franchise of the divinity. She is a believer—with la foi du charbonnier, the faith of the coal heaver, my father will say, himself citing Pascal’s wager in apologia. Doubt is a temptation to which my mother has never succumbed.
But doubt has afflicted her continually concerning every other part of life. She sometimes moves as if afraid that the floor will open under her, does not seem to know from one day to the next whether everything solid will crumble—this between bright flashes of canniness, so that I am often left wondering to what degree her meekness and hesitation constitute a pose. She is in the water, staring incredulous at the shipwreck, clutching her few constants as she would a spar—or else she is in the clutches of the secret police, protesting that she is harmless and knows nothing, hiding within herself.
She once collected pictures of the royal family in a scrapbook, dreamed of playing the piano and speaking Italian and riding horseback. She taught me how to eat an orange, an apple, a banana with a knife and fork, should I someday allow her vague dream to be fulfilled vicariously—to consort with des gens comme il faut. Had she ever come into money and security I suspect she would have been a strict arbiter of behavior and taste; instead she feels herself relentlessly judged by others. Growing up in meager farmland and then on a sooty factory block she imagined various gilded or sordid futures for herself, extremes of fortune reconciled by immutable laws. She never figured that she would grow old in a lawless world kept in motion by dice.
January 15, 1998