Sunday, 29 January 2012

The Depression

       Whilst we were living our peaceful lives in the tranquil village of St-Jacut-de-
la-Mer, the rest of the world was going through more turbulent times. It was the time
of the Great Depression. In 1929 the Wall Street market crashed in New York;  shares
tumbled and companies went out of business. There was massive unemployment and
great poverty.  Long queues of men lined up seeking work, and there were equally
long queues for the soup kitchens.  Canada was almost as badly affected as America.
As a small child I naturally knew nothing of all this, but my mother must, of course, have been aware of it.
During all this time I was having long conversations at nighttime
with a beautiful being dressed in beautiful clothes: was he one of the monks or
my Guardian Angel, or simply a figment of my imagination?  I do not know.  I have no
recollection of this, but my mother told me years later that I would tell her all about
our conversations, word for word. (In those days I told her everything).
             One of the things he said to me was that: “everything will be
all right in the end.” I smile now as I think of it.
I must have been 4 years old by that time. I used then, it seems, to tell my
mother how much I loved her. I would demonstrate:  deeper than the sea,
higher than the sky, wider than the earth!  I would stretch my arms out wide.  Did I
ever tell her that again?
Shortly afterwards we left the Abbaye for a while and went to stay at a
boarding house in Dinard. My mother said that we had no more money. A
week later we went back to the Abbaye. As we left the boarding house, my mother
told the landlady we would return for our luggage:   “mais maman, nous n’avons pas
d’argent” (we have no money), I blurted out.  As we could not afford the bus fare,
we walked the 16 kilometers back to St-Jacut.  I can remember being terrified when a
car veered off the road and seemed to be coming straight for us.  

All my mother’s money had gone and we were penniless.

                                    * * *

       Back at the Abbaye my mother is talking to Mlle Abilly, the Mother Superior.  Her
kind eyes are full of compassion.  She is saying: 
       “We will look after your little girl for you, Madame. We will keep her for nothing, until 
you can afford to pay us.”

      I am left alone with the nuns.

     My mother found a job at the English Tea Rooms in St. Malo, making cakes and scones. She had always been a very good cook. Looking back to that time, I am struck again by my mother’s resourcefulness and courage. She had not been raised to earn her living:  she would have been expected to marry.  But life had turned out differently for her.

                                               * * *

     Life was very different with the nuns.
    A young nun called Yvonne was put in charge of me.  She was a sturdy Breton girl of 24, with brown hair, brown eyes and rosy cheeks.  I slept in the same room with her.  We would get up about five in the morning, and go to the chapel for early morning prayers.  This was followed by breakfast, which consisted of vegetable soup, and a bowl of milky coffee and crusty bread.  The nuns would dunk the bread in their coffee, so I did the same.
  Yvonne was in charge of the cooking and I would often be in the kitchen, watching her roasting meat, making puddings.  I was given little tasks to do, running and fetching, and I was allowed to roll out little bits of pastry and cut them into rounds.  Yvonne was a happy young woman who laughed a lot, and I became very fond of her.

         I still have a letter I wrote to my mother when I was about six, in French, as I no
longer spoke any English.:  

        “My darling Mummy, I love you very much.  I am at the Abbaye.  I went to St. Malo for a walk but I did not find you. Francoise is cleaning the stove, her hands are all black. Yvonne is doing the cooking, she is turning the roast and making the pudding.She is making Floating Island. (This was an egg custard with meringue floating on it} Goodbye Mummy.  I send you a thousand kisses.  Daphne” followed by 38 crosses.

        There was also Joseph, the gardener, a kindly man, who would pick me up and carry me on his shoulders.  In the autumn the granary was filled with apples, which he would then turn into cider.  The smell of fermenting apples pervaded the kitchen, which was just over the granary.  A tiny nun, Marie, used to help Joseph in the garden.  She did not wear black, like the other nuns, but an old grey serge skirt, with an apron.  She used to make the ice cream, and I watched her with great interest as she turned the ice making machine until the liquid became hard and frozen.

        Not all the nuns were kind.  Marguerite used to bathe me:  she would bathe me in my combinations, as they were not allowed to see the naked body, in a big tin tub.  Her sallow face would bend over me;  she had thick lips and a large mole on her chin with a long black hair sticking out of it, which I remember very clearly.  I hated these baths and she frightened me.

       On another occasion. I was sitting in the toilet, on a large wooden throne-like affair, when the door opened and one of the nuns walked in. She gave a little shriek and throwing up her hands, she backed out hurriedly.

       All these events must have left me with very peculiar ideas about the human body.
My doll that I loved disappeared.  I searched everywhere for her, but I never found her.  I suspect now that the nuns took her away as she had no clothes.

I had to go and see Mlle Abilly, the Directrice. There was a parcel from my mother.  Inside it was a beautiful little pinafore dress, bright blue, with a divided skirt.  This was taken away too, as little girls were not supposed to wear trousers.

       I was given a little rosary and I would walk with the nuns round the garden beds and the vegetable garden as they recited their Hail Marys.  We would process along the tree shaded walk leading down to the sea, called the Monks’ Walk, where the monks used to pace and tell their beads.
Strange as it was for me to have been suddenly thrust into the life of a convent, I often wonder how the nuns must have felt at having this little girl in their midst.  I think most of them looked on me with great affection and called me their “petite Daphne.”   It must have been difficult for them to know what to do with such a young child, and this is why, I think, I shared their lives to such a large extent.  I cannot imagine such a thing happening today!

Monday, 16 January 2012


         (Before I go on,  I would like to mention  an Englishman, Colonel Walter Tuck, who was living in the south of France.  My mother met him after I was born and he was to become a very good friend. He had been in the First World War, and was some years older than her. He had a small Citroen car, an open two-seater, in which he used to drive us round the French countryside. I would be parked in the back in my pram;  they would take a picnic lunch and find some shady spot to eat.

-  I am lying in my pram. Walter Tuck is talking to my mother.  He is telling her about his theosophy beliefs.  Theosophy is an esoteric philosophy based on Eastern wisdom which was brought to the West by Madame Blavatsky at the end of the nineteenth century.  My mother is not listening. She is not much interested in religions of any kind.  - 
I have no memory of this, of course, but my mother told me about it afterwards. We know that all our early impressions are stored in our subconscious minds.  I find it interesting that many years later I was to become very influenced by all the Eastern philosophies.
           I am glad to think that my mother had the support and friendship of this kindly man at what must have been a very lonely time for her.)

          We soon settled down in our new home. My memories of it are very happy, though its history had been an eventful one.  L’Abbaye, as it was called, was an ancient monastery which had been there for over a thousand years.  It was founded by Saint Jacut, a Celt who sailed over from Cornwall, according to tradition, in a stone boat.  He was a kinsman of one of our early English kings, and for his holiness and good deeds in Brittany he was canonised and became a saint.

        For hundreds of years l’Abbaye remained a monastery, but during the French Revolution it was attacked and pillaged. These were stirring times for the village of St Jacut - there was even a guillotine set up in the village square. Many of the monks were murdered and others were driven into the sea. Legend had it that some managed to escape to a nearby island through an underground passage.  It was said that the souls of these dead monks still haunted the Abbaye.
       At some point during its chequered career, the monastery became a convent of the Order of the Immaculate Conception.  When the French government ostracised the Catholic Church and took away their revenues, the nuns were obliged to earn their living.
The Abbaye had been a 'convent pension’ for many years by the time we arrived there. In those pre-war years it was very popular:  many English and French families came, year after year, in the summer and at Christmas time;  there were also full time residents, like ourselves. Amongst these were members of the impoverished French aristocracy, a few Americans, as well as other nationalities. The whole atmosphere was very cosmopolitan, and I think the nuns must have closed their eyes to much that went on there.
          L’Abbaye stood at the end of a small peninsula.  Facing it across the bay were the resorts of St. Brieuc and St. Briac.  There was a small, secluded beach which belonged to the Abbaye.  I used to love going down there and jumping off the steps which led to the beach, into the soft sand below.  The sea was clear and calm, and very shallow.  It was an ideal place for children.  My mother knitted me a pair of bathing costumes, which, when I went into the water, soon sagged down to my knees.  The cliffs on both sides tumbled down into rocky promontories, creating pools with seaweed, barnacles and limpets.  They were perfect for scrambling over, armed with fishing net and a small wicker basket.
My mother made friends: she sat in the shady garden, gossiping, knitting or playing bridge. She made me beautiful little smocked dresses. Sometimes she walked into the village - there was one long rambling street full of shops - the dairy, the bakery, the butcher. There were shops which sold Breton ware, lace and everything for the ‘plage’; there were several cafes, and there was the Post Office, which was in the Place where a fair and market took place every week.
         The Post Office was run by an American woman called Bridget:  she had a large goitre in her neck.  She took a great fancy to my mother and she would invite us there for tea;  we would sit in a room above the Post Office looking out onto the Place.  I took a dislike to Bridget, even though she plied me with my favourite chocolate “petits fours”.  She was very intense, with large protruding eyes. Of course I had no idea then that Bridget was a lesbian, as my mother later told me.
I marvel now at how my mother adapted to her new life. She had been accustomed to the vast Canadian landscapes:  in the wintertime she would go snowshoeing with her friends over the snow covered fields and skating on the frozen lakes.  She must have kept in contact with some of her friends, as many years later I went over to Canada to arrange for some of her furniture to be brought over.  A friend had kept it all in her garage for over forty years !
I made my own little friends. One was a boy called Tom, about my own age.  He lived in the hotel at the end of the village with his American mother.  His father was Russian, and, like mine, was not around.  Tom had blond hair with a pudding basin haircut.  He used to teach me rude words.  I have a clear memory of standing in front of some old ladies and saying “kaa-kaa”, and of my mother taking me up to our room to give me a good spanking!  My other friend was called John, but he was not there all the time - only in the holidays.  He was taller than I was and possibly a couple of years older.  I have a photograph of him, a very good looking boy with tousled fair hair.  I suspect I idolised him.
We would play on the beach, making sandcastles, going in and out of the sea - the sun always seemed to be shining then - when the tide was out we went shrimping with our little nets and baskets. We walked over the ridged sands, poking about to find whelks and cockles.  We would take a picnic, with my mother or some other adult in charge, and walk out to the Isle des Ebihans where the monks had fled in years gone by.  It was covered with coarse grass and wild flowers.  I can remember the sense of infinity when I looked out over the flat sands to the horizon – there was a blue haze where the sky met the land.  It seemed like the edge of the world.
The Abbaye was a large building which could accommodate over a hundred people. It was L shaped, with an Annexe which had been added later on. We lived in the older part of the building.  Our bedroom looked out onto the garden, which was laid out in a formal arrangement of flower beds separated by gravel paths. There was a pond with a statue of St. Christopher in the middle carrying the child Jesus.  Wisteria covered the grey walls in the Spring;  it was hundreds of years old, with roots like a tree, reaching right up to the upper windows.
Inside the house there were long dark corridors with wooden floors, kept highly polished by the nuns.  They were very slippery and as children we would have fun sliding up and down them.  We would play hide and seek - there were many places, under the stairs, little cupboards, where we could hide.  The many religious rituals gave us scope too. My mother wrote in an article:  “I found my young daughter and a friend, dressed up in trailing robes, parading the corridors of the Abbaye and kneeling down every few steps to gabble away in some strange language of their own.”
So time passed, very happily. The year was 1932 and it all came to a very abrupt end.  I knew that something was wrong.  My mother seemed suddenly worried and unhappy.  About what, I wondered.
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