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!

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