Joy and sadness were inseparable. One would follow the other at some incredible pace. She would beam, laugh, talk without stopping, marvel at small things and hug us tight... we loved her most in those moments, she was fun and playful, our mother and best friend. She would chase us in the garden and in the streets in her sleeping gown, hair wild, eyes bright and mischievous. We would scream and run in front her her. Never mind the neighbours looking at us through their window, the old lady in the house with the red door nodding her head with contempt...we were happy and free and she was the most wonderful mum on earth.
Some other days, she would decide to bake a cake. She would call us her little bakers, my brother Tom, my sister Sarah and me, the youngest. She would give us assignments, we would make a mess, flour in our hair and yolk in the whites. We would sing songs and melt chocolate. We would dip our fingers in the chocolate sauce and she would not mind. She often forgot some ingredient and the cake would come out flat, a little burnt or tasting funny. We did not care. We were happy to see her happy. Our dad laughed and helped cleaned the kitchen. He, like us, wanted to see her in her happy: happy clothes, happy days, happy eyes. Smiling. As I recall those times, it seems most of the days were happy days. My sister Sarah tells me that this is because my mind has shut down the unhappy moments. She is the oldest and she was the most acutely aware that our mother was strange, even from an early age. Tom and I never really realised that something was irremediably wrong.
In sadness, our mother looked smaller and frail. Her head in her shoulders, her eyes grey and shiny like melting ice cubes. She would sit on a chair by the window, silent and lonely. She would not look at us and we knew that we needed to retreat in our rooms, play silently. She was no longer here for us and suddenly she seemed old. She would sit in the same place for a long time.
Our dad would gently approach her, caress her check, take her hand, talk to her, trying to bring her back to the family circle. It worked some times, she would sit with us at the diner table, with a slim smile, a shadow on her face. She would mutter a few works. She sat on the edge of our family circle. Observing quietly. Looking at us as if we were strangers.
I do not recall when things got worse. The sadness dominating her days and night. Dark skys. Cloud in Dad's eyes and the wrinkle on his brow deep and grey.
Sarah, Tom and I would go to see grandma so we did not mind at all. Grandma had a large garden and rabbits in an old pigeon house. We could feed them and pet them and give names to the new babies. They were soft and warm and a little smelly. In season, we could pick tomates, peaches and raspberries. There were neighbours our age and lots of places to hide. A pond of cold marshy water where we could swim when it was hot, grandma watching on the side, reading a book or doing crochet. Our grandma was tiny. If not for her thick blue grey hair, anyone from afar seing her little silhouettewould have mistaken her for an 8 year old. I overtook her in height when I was 7. Her eyes were of a strange golden colour and her gaze piercing and judgemental. She always knew when we were up to something. I smell the "bêtise dans l'air" she would say in French.
The summer I turned 12 is the summer my mum left. My dad drove her somewhere. She had a small suitcase. Before she got into the car, she told us she was giving each of us a special treasure, some part of her heart and she made us swallow it like one of those pills we hated, pressing her hand hard against our mouths and whispering softly in our ear. "I am giving you my stories and my songs" she said to me.
Sarah and I always shared our secrets. That evening, I slept in Sarah's bed and she told me that mum had given her "her travels and adventures". We fell asleep in the same bed, and I dreamt I was in my mothers bed and that she was whispering to me, her breath a warm breeze in my ear.
Tom refused to tell us what she told him at the time. He kept asking my dad when she would come back. Sarah and I did not ask. We knew there was no point. Only make the frown on my dad's brow grow deeper.
We never saw her again. She sent a post card from India, a sepia Taj Mahal picture, and became silent. After a couple of years my dad no longer talked about her. When Tom asked he just said that she was travelling very far.
After my father died, Tom spent a year trying to find our mother. He tracked her down to Tibet, met a monk who had spent some time with her, visited a small hotel in xxx where she had lived for a few months. He came back empty-handed and emaciated, and ready for to forget her. We had diner with him a few weeks after his return in a little Italian restaurant next to Sarah's appartement. Tom ate gnocchi and took all the parmesan before the waiter could take it back. Sarah and I laughed. Tom had done that since we were small. Tom smiled and said. Hi sisters, you know what Mum told me that night when she left and made each of us swallow a part of her heart: " I gave you the best part".