What glory can there be in snapping green beans? A few weeks ago, I was given a large bag along with the inherent task of discovering just that. The beans were dirty, and more numerous than I hoped. They also had some spots that would need pruning before the whole bunch could be washed and prepared on the stove. Thinking about a plate fully laden with freshly cooked and delicately seasoned green beans, brimming with potassium and shell outs, impelled me to begin the task, made longer by the hems and haws of getting started.
That afternoon I wondered about the lack of celebration for the mundane. It seems we all want to kick ass in a specialty of one sort or another. We want to be stellar, even singular, at something good and praiseworthy. Then, we all want our plate of steaming vegetables for dinner. Perfectly prepared, but perhaps by other hands. Whose are the hands who mend, cook, and call the children? And how can they possibly be represented in such a way that captures the wonderment of the domestic life’s immediacy, its experiential quality, its very pulse?
Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, in 1922 and 1929 respectively, published an homage to her mother’s haute housewifery as My Mother’s House and Sido, two very impractical novels of recall. The first, My Mother’s House, is simply about the goings on in a French provincial village, Saint-Sauveur, in the years circling the advent of the twentieth century. In the midst of the village, the short, round figure of Sido towers over her garden and the worlds of her children. Colette writes winsomely of her mother’s lifelong care for creatures, children, and plants, tending them all with joyous solicitude that renders their growth and survival of utmost importance.
Have you ever heard tell of Pelisson’s spider that so passionately loved music? I for one am ready to believe it and also to add, as my slender contribution to the sum of human knowledge, the story of the spider that my mother kept — as my father expressed — on her ceiling, in that year that ushered in my sixteenth spring. A handsome garden spider she was, her belly like a clove of garlic emblazoned with an ornate cross. In the daytime she slept, or hunted in the web that she had spun across the bedroom ceiling. But during the night, towards three o’clock in the morning, at the moment when her chronic insomnia caused my mother to relight the lamp and open her bedside book, the great spider would also wake, and after a careful survey would lower herself from the ceiling by a thread, directly above the little oil lamp upon which a bowl of chocolate simmered through the night. Slowly she would descend, swinging limply to and fro like a big bead, and grasping the edge of the cup with all her eight legs, she would bend over head foremost and drink to satiety. Then she would draw herself ceiling-wards again, heavy with creamy chocolate, her ascent punctuated by the pauses and meditations imposed by an overloaded stomach, and would resume her post in the centre of her silken rigging.
It was that sort of household. The chapter titles themselves are peeks into the world of Colette’s mother. “Where are the Children?”, ”My Mother and the Books”, ”My Sister With the Long Hair”, ”My Mother and the Curé”, and ”My Mother and Morals”, to name a few. The language is sensual, and the 1953 translation of Una Vicenzo Troubridge and Enid McLeod brings to the English a sprightliness and playfulness that reminds me of Paris in gold light on a spring morning. Or, more to my turf, clothes whipping on the line in a stiff prairie breeze.
My mother smelled of laundered cretonne, of irons heated on the poplar-wood fire, of lemon-verbena leaves which she rolled between her palms or thrust into her pocket. At nightfall I used to imagine that she smelled of newly-watered lettuces, for the refreshing scent of them would follow her footsteps to the rippling sound of the rain from the watering-can, in a glory of spray and tillable dust.
Everything about Madame Colette is tillable in her daughter’s reminiscence, the groundedness and humor of a woman in harmony with her physical world, if not always perfectly attuned to the persons who accompany her, excepting one, Monsieur Colette. The Captain, Jules-Joseph Colette, was in thrall to Sido and the two shared a quiet passion portrayed simply and unforgettably by their daughter.
Only once, on a summer day, when my mother was removing the coffee-tray from the table, did I see my father, instead of exacting the familiar toll (a kiss), bend his greying head and bearded lips over my mother’s hand with a devotion so ardent and ageless that Sido, speechless and as crimson with confusion as I, turned away without a word. I was still a child and none too pure-minded, being exercised as one is at thirteen by all those matters concerning which ignorance is a burden and discovery humiliating. It did me good to behold, and every now and again to remember afresh, that perfect picture of love: the head of a man already old, bent in a kiss of complete self-surrender on a graceful, wrinkled little hand, worn with work.
When I thought about it, I decided that not too much can compete for glory with chocolate-drinking spiders and the fragrance of crushed verbena leaves in a dress pocket. There was no particular kicking of any particular part I needed to do that day. I picked up the bag of beans, not, as it were, for life, but for the long, sweet afternoon.