I called myself. I called my cellphone from the landline to hear what my message sounds like when someone calls and I don’t answer. And then I left myself this message:

Hey Caroline, it’s me Caroline. En fait, c’est Caroline. J’t’appelle pour te dire que je t’aime, puis, j’pense à toi, puis, euh, ben, ça serait cool que tu m’apelle de temps en temps, tu sais j’tattends, je t’aime toujours. Voila, c’est tout. Je voulais juste te dire ça. Bisous.

While I was leaving myself this message, I realized that my Mom could’ve left me the same message, with almost the same wording, intention, and tone, except for a slight variation: She would have used a more Parisian French to replace my franglo Montrealer French. She wouldn’t have used the word “cool.”

Je m’entendais pour la première fois et je trouvais que j’avais la meme petite voix, reservée mais pleine d’amour, timide de le montrer trop, par une certaine peur d’etre rejetee, mais finalement pas une si grande peur que ça. Finissant avec un petit bisous serré.

And then of course I thought to call her immediately, warmed as I was by the thought of our similarity, the resemblance in our voices, and this beautiful mother tongue she has passed down to me. And I thought to use the landline instead of my cellphone. This was, in fact, the most economical and practical thing to do, but at the time, I was thinking purely in aesthetic terms, feeling the warmth, the electrical static of the old telephone, attached to a landline, grounded in the ground, a telephone like the good old days, the days before cellphones and Iphones and webcams and Skype. The days, also, before long distance. The long distance between she and I.

Swept up in this Luddite nostalgia, I set the phone on the kitchen table and prepared to call, only to realize that I needed a phone card. I began to look for it and as I left the kitchen and searched through my things in my bedroom, then the study, I got distracted by my students’ assignments waiting to be corrected, the cables for various audio-visual equipment waiting to be organized, the stacks of CDs, the pictures, the papers… all these little piles of things waiting for my attention.

… how did I get to thinking about sewing again…?

Oh yes, my shoulder bag, with the torn strap. Then, the blue coat with the buttons fallen off. I saw them and decided it was primordial to find a basket, a box, some kind of container to organize these future things to sew into, and when I went back to the closet to find such container, I found only bags full of sewing scraps, old clothes to mend or alter, fabric to transform, these bags of multi-coloured scraps I’ve carried around from one apartment to another, never giving up the idea that one day they will be attended to.

Toujours des projets de couture et de décoration, à moitié accomplies, des aiguilles dans les coussins du salon…des aiguilles dans les coussins du salon, mais mon Dieux comme elle était folle! Non, et moi, suis-je vraiment moins folle? Me voici qui traine depuis des années avec mes sacs de petits morceaux de tissus multicolores, comme un genre de pauvre Josepsh ou peut-etre un futur cloune …

I do this a lot. Rummaging around, looking for, tidying, organizing my things. I think it’s some kind of procrastination technique. A control mechanism. A way to distract myself from the task at hand. Which originally, was to call my mother.


I decided against it. I was too weirded out by the ways in which looking for that long distance phone card made me go into a deeply, deeply nuts kind of frenzy of looking, tidying, organizing, compartmentalizing. It reminded me of how she always told me what a good little cleaner.

– Oh, comme tu ranges si bien la cuisine, ma chérie!

How this one case of unconditional approval has stayed so strongly with me, that I still do the dishes, dishes, all the dishes, in some hopeful exchange for love and understanding. And how I still cannot cook without apology –

-Non, pas comme ca, mais pas comme ca, attention, tu vas gratter la poile!

Mom’s controlling kitchen hysteria, my obsessive cleanliness, my shortcomings and unfinished projects, these still prick my conscience like the pins that used to surprise my back, sticking out of her unfinished home-made pillows.

Il y a toujours une lourdeur quand je pense a l’appeler. Une tension, une peur d’être décue et surtout, bousculée. Je veux tellement l’aimer mais je trouve ça difficle. Je pense qu’aujourd’hui c’est un bon moment. Elle vient de revenir de Paris, où elle a vu sa famille et surtout son nouveau petit fils. Elle a pu êre grandmère pendant une semaine et comme ca, elle a du sentir la joie. Ca s’entendait dans sa voix, dans le message qu’elle m’a laissé hier. Je vais l’appeler tantot. Un peu plus tard. Quand j’aurais fini de découvrir ce que j’ai à dire à son sujet.

Petite Maman. Ma belle, petite Maman.

– Elle n’a pas perdu sa tristesse.

C’est ce que son ancienne camarade de classe, Newine, me dit quand je visitai Tunis et lui montra une photo courante de Maman.

Sa tristesse refoulée. Son petit sourire serré.

Speaking with my sister the other night, over Skype, I told her I had recently realized, that Mom’s still trapped in some pain from the past and that maybe, this is what causes her to repeat the same irrational and frantic gestures, over and over again. The ever-present nervousness, the suspicion, the distrust in life.The exaggerated fears, the inability to relax and enjoy the present moment. The paranoia, the hysteria. Could it be that life has been hard to her and that she’s never taken the time to heal from her wounds? This luxury is not one she would easily acquiesce to. Taking time for herself, I mean. For she is a hard-working, serious woman. She does not lounge around.

Moi, j’aime bien ça rester allongée, longtemps. Je suis devenue si paresseuse. J’adore les journées que je ne travaille pas, que je ne suis obligée de sortir de chez moi. Je me prélasse dans ma chambre, je sirote mon café, je prends un plaisir des petites choses…

Un petit appel à Maman pourrait bien faire partie de ce rituel mais elle risque de me rappeler de tout le grand travail que j’ai à faire. Je préfère ne pas y penser tout de suite.

I told my sister how I’d been thinking about the trauma our mother endured in her life, in her early years, the years she rarely speaks of. Growing up in Tunis, half-French, half Jew, during the 40s and 50s must have been difficult. Being in-between, not quite Catholic, not quite Jewish. And not Arabic either. A young woman. I know very little about how my family members endured this time. Only that my grandfather was barred from practicing law during the war. And so, I imagine, that it was my grandmother, also a lawyer, who was the breadwinner, but then, she died of bone marrow cancer when my mom was only 16.

It seems the family fell apart after that.

Everyone left for France, one by one. Both my mother’s brothers estranged themselves from the family, refusing to see anyone anymore. One of them married, had a boy, divorced, never saw his son again, after asking him to choose between him and his mother. The other disappeared completely. My aunt, well, she was unwell from the start. To be truthful, I don’t know much of her story either. Only that she was sick for years, that she paralyzed herself with a first suicide attempt and eventually, succeeded in her mission to end her life, when she threw herself out of a hospital window, a second time. I was four years old. I still remember my Mom leaving quickly for Paris, at Christmas time.

How could you live through all of those things and not have scars? I’ve often thought that my mother’s very strong and very sane, considering. And that it’s to her credit that she founded such a healthy, happy home for us. But I wish that she, herself, could be happier.

J’aime t’embrasser, parce que t’as la peau douce … j’aime t’embrasser, parce que c’est le printemps…
That’s a song she used to sing me. I still sing it to myself sometimes.
J’aime t’embrasser, parce que j’aime, parce que …

I finally called her. After writing this, after more obsessive tidying, after making myself lunch in a relaxed manner, I was ready. I had my happy voice on. I called her in love. She responded. Her voice was warm, détendue.

Ah, c’est Caroline! Comment ça va, ma cherie?

We had a nice chat. I dominated the conversation, as usual. Control mechanism. But I listened too. I made a point to listen attentively. She had enjoyed seeing her grandson, as I had predicted, my brother and his wife, her family. But she was also having some stress, some troubles at a school where she had substituted. She claimed it had almost ruined her trip. I listened and sympathized with her plight. In this rare case, she was not exaggerating her troubles.

We spoke of my sister’s upcoming wedding and Mom told me Elisabeth had actually sewn a version of the bridesmaid dress she had considered for me and her two best friends.

– Mais tu penses, Maman, elle ne va pas se taper de nous coudre toutes les trois une robe! On s’est entendu pour aller magasiner ensemble à Toronto, c’est beaucoup plus simple! Par contre, je l’admire pour ses compétences de couturière! Moi je n’ai toujours pas encore apprise a coudre avec la machine, que j’ai acheté l’annee dernière!

And so, we mutually admired my sister’s sewing abilities, I spoke to my Dad a bit too and then, we said goodbye, chaleuresement.

Elle est plus heureuse, détendue que je me rapelle. Des fois je pense que c’est moi, pas elle, qui reste traumatisée par le passé.