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I never met you or even thought of you existing in my life ever. But you existed and because of your existence, you hold the secret missing piece of my life and so many truths.
I know you aren’t alive and I’m writing out my innermost thoughts of my soul on this simple piece of paper, but it reassures me that I’m not fully incomplete and that a part of me was here, but isn’t anymore.
If you hadn’t left my life I wouldn’t be questioning my purpose and yours because I know we are connected in some way or the other, but we are surely connected. But had you not left I wouldn’t be this way, confused and lost. And I would be an ordinary girl who would have lost a lot of knowledge. But because I am not that ordinary girl, that brings me to my point.
With you missing in my life, I feel as if God has given me a mission in life, to discover my purpose here because you are gone, but that makes it an even bigger challenge. But I ask you, Maman who are you and why did you leave me alone on this earth and for what purpose? But sadly, I am the one to answer that because it is my own mission, my own life, even if perhaps I may happen to fail and not know.
I finished the letter with a flourish and folded it. I opened the little box made of the finest red wood, newly polished, and set the letter inside. I had poured out my soul onto this piece of paper and yet I feel not whole. There was void in my life, in my heart, and it’s there because of my mother’s death.
I sat back in my chair, and thought about my mother. I had never thought about my mother until I turned sixteen. She had passed a few months after I was born from an undiagnosed heart illness, so I had never known her. Growing up, I had always even thought it was normal to live without a mother, just raised by a father who bought your love and sent you to nannies as he traveled to France, Italy, and England to do his business. Work was what he loved, and shall always come first in his life, no matter what.
I think the reason why I had actually thought of her was because of my sixteenth birthday, which was exactly six months ago.
Antoinette had lit the candles and set out with pÃ¢té and steak, two plates, one for me and one for my father. As usual he wasn’t there, but Antoinette patted my back in sympathy. She left and a little while later, she came back with the pink petit fours for after the dinner. She also came back to tell me that my father was running late from a meeting, but I should start eating without him.
Already habituated to this, I dutifully picked my fork and sighed, eating my birthday dinner. Happy birthday to me, I thought sourly.
The steak was a little too sweet, the wine too bitter, and the pÃ¢té dry. Ironic that those were the emotions filling inside of my heart. Sweet and innocent, but hurt and bitter. Dry and numb from what my father causes almost all the time.
Just then, the doorbell rang and I knew it wasn’t Papa, because he comes from the back doors by the laundry room. But our butler, Gideon, opened the door, and then called my name.
I rise from my chair and go to the door, my vision feels blurred. There’s a man in a uniform with a trunk. I don’t know what he’s saying, but I hear the words, will, left over, and your mother, and for you. He thrusts a piece of paper and my shaking hand takes the pen in his outstretched left hand and I sign it. The reason why I felt so nauseous as if I was slipping under the earth was because my mother hasn’t been mentioned in years. And to think that she left something behind for me felt like she was still alive and to me, that was a mysterious thought.
I leave the foyer and Antoinette calls my name, but I run upstairs to my room, slam the doors, and collapse on the bed. This was my life, just running away or staying silent, being numb. But a curious thought comes to my mind and I get up and walk to my armoire. I find a little treasure box and open it. There, sits the black and white photograph of my mother and father. It was the day of their wedding and no one knew that she was pregnant with me. She added ruffles and lace to the dress to hide her four-months-along baby inside because it was against my father’s Catholic family to having a baby out of wedlock. She was beautiful, with black curls and blue eyes, an elegant pointy nose, and a magnificent smile. I have straight hair, like my father, but my hair was the color of a shiny black pearl. I also have my mother’s nose and her sapphire blue eyes.
I once had a mother, Once in my life I was not motherless, I thought with a bit of excitement. They say that eyes are the window of your soul. When I looked into my mother’s eyes, beneath the creases of the photograph, having looking at it so much, and I saw my own soul in them. I saw everything there was in me.
I put it away when I heard someone knock on my door. I shut the doors of the armoire and went to sit on my chaise. I smoothed the skirt of my dress.
“Enter!” I called, noticing my voice was a bit shaky.
In came Antoinette and she told me my father was home. I looked out the window to see a shiny black car at the gates of our home. She told me to finish my dinner. I shook my head. I had lost my appetite. Inside, I was frantically biting my nails, digging my fingers in a silk pillow, questioning what was in that trunk left from my maman, and why was it here?
In the end, after my father came home, he had the trunk sent to the attic. He didn’t even want to look at it. The worst part was, he acted as if everything was normal. He hugged me, wishing me a happy birthday. He had bought me a pink dress with lace and a flower pin. It was probably the most beautiful dress in the world. But I hated it.
When the clock ticked midnight and everyone in the mansion was asleep, I lit a candle and crept up to the attic. In the far back corner, filled with cobwebs and dust, I saw the trunk. I ran my fingers across the deep brown of the wooden trunk. Carved into the beautiful brown was, A.C.S., Adelaide Clousseau Sondheim. My mother’s name. There was no lock on the truck, so there was no need for a key. I reached to open the trunk, but my hand withdrew. The candlelight flickered, almost with amusement at my fear and angst. But my curiosity overwhelmed me and I slowly opened the trunk.
I dug inside the trunk like a wild animal tracking down its prey. There were so many photographs and I was going to waste all the time I had to look at them. There were a few of Maman in her childhood, with little black braids. There were more wedding pictures, and there was only one picture of Maman and me. Even though the picture was black and white, Maman’s pride shined like a rainbow as she held me in her arms. I didn’t see her eyes, because they were looking down on me and a big, triumphant smile was on her face. Down below said, Adelaide and Guenevere, 1930 in fanciful script.
There were a few clothes, a wedding dress, a nice black dress, but one dress was particularly colorful and stood out from the rest. I took it out and blew the dust off. It was a bright pink color, a little wrinkled, but beautiful. I recognized it as the flapper fashion that was popular in the 1920s, especially in America. I didn’t know my mother wore things like this. But that just made me more curious.
There was also a stunning violet amulet in a small black box. A note said, “To my dear, precious wife—I will cherish our first anniversary forever—your loving husband. December 1929” I put the amulet back, for it didn’t belong to me. It didn’t belong to anyone. I found something particularly interesting as well—it was a piece of crinkly paper. It was my mother’s will. I felt my heart beat quicken and I put it back in the trunk. I wasn’t ready or curious enough to read my mother’s handwritten will. As I sat back and looked at all the photographs, I found one with Maman and a man, a dark-haired, handsome man. They were dancing and there was a saxophone player in the background. The man seemed to be a soldier. He looked playful and fun, and he was not my father. He was no relative. He was a stranger. Had my mother had an affair? I looked on the back of the photograph and I saw in faded ink, it said, Danny and I, New York, America, 1928. According to Antoinette, before they married, my parents were dating since 1927.
I looked into the face of Danny. He was very handsome. He looked almost too perfect, strong and muscular, tall with trusting eyes that could fulfill a thousand promises for you—everything a woman could want in a man. Meanwhile, my father was a serious man—you couldn’t have a comical conversation with him. It has to be about philosophy, business, and the world today. My father hardly laughed or smiled and when he did or at least tried to, would be on a holiday or, for instance, my birthday. But this Danny man…even his eyes seemed to laugh.
My father never talked about my mother. In my entire life, I had only known a few things about my mother, and that was less than enough. Antoinette had been with us even before they married, so she knew almost everything, but seldom spoke of it. But judging on what she’s told me, my mother wasn’t a serious person. She laughed, sang, and liked to have fun. And judging by this picture, this so-called affair was an escape for her, to find someone who had things in common with her, who, it seemed, was her perfect match. I felt sad for my papa, and my heart when out to him.
I didn’t want to see the picture anymore, of my mother’s smile, Danny’s hands intertwined with my mothers, and the happiness and chemistry between them. It squeezed my own heart and it just didn’t feel quite right.
The last thing I found was a magazine. It was bright and colorful, and was titled in German and had a picture of a beautiful young woman in her early twenties, wearing a little pink dress and a matching band around her head of pitch black curls with a feather. She had red lipstick and ivory skin, slightly pink cheeks. Her pearly smile shined and almost reminded me of my own smile. Then it hit me. That beautiful girl on that magazine with my mother.
The questions swarmed in my head. Really, who was my mother? What secrets did she have that seemed like the whole world knew, but me? I put back the magazine and closed the trunk and went back to my rooms as silent and as fast as I could. I blew out my candle and lie in my bed, confused.
Since that day, I had been curious about my mother, but I never told a soul, not even Antoinette or my father. I think of it as my own personal journey and quest with myself—to find out about my mother, would be to discover who I was. I kept the magazine in my armoire, as a reminisce of the secrets my late mother holds in her grave. During the months between the present and my birthday, I did find some courage to go Antoinette and ask her about the trunk. Her face had turned slightly pale and I could see the defense building up inside her. She told me it wasn’t right of me, as a child, to interfere with grown-ups’ business, however she did tell me that a friend happened to have something of my mothers, the trunk, he was referring to, and had kept it for all those years, and finally had the courage to speak up and return the trunk, which he thought was rightfully ours. Antoinette did not tell me who the friend was.
It was June, school was over, and summer had begun. Summers at the mansion were dull. I normally sewed needlepoint, knit quilts, read poetry, and had small talk with Antoinette. That was my summertime life. During the rest of the year, I am sent to Chiddingstone Academy, a boarding school of young ladies up in Lille. With France being so close to Belgium and it was the obvious choice to send me there.
A little after teatime, while Antoinette was hanging up the washed clothes in the garden and I was lying on the wooden rowboat in the pond next to her, she brought up the subject of Maman.
“She used to do that to, you know,” Antoinette said, as the gentle wind breezed through slowly. “Your mother, I mean.”
“Lie in the rowboat, staring up at the skies, daydreaming of life. Before, you know, she became famous,” she replied. She started singing a French lullaby. Antoinette has the most beautiful, angelic voice I have ever heard.
“My mother was famous?” I asked with a slightly quivering voice. I thought about the magazine.
“Guenevere, did you snoop in the trunk?”
“I…yes,” I admitted.
“Well then. You might have seen the things in there. Of course, she was famous.” Antoinette started singing again.
Antoinette stopped singing and sighed. “She was an actress. She was in so many movies—silent, ones of course, because back then they didn’t have sound—and every boy in Europe pined after her.”
I didn’t reply right away. I stared at the clear azure of the sky. Only two or three small white clouds were in the midst of the perfect blue. The wind blew by again and the leaves of the weeping willow swung side by side above my head. Everything was so peaceful. I thought about Maman, filled with intrigue and curiosity. My mother was a movie star and her picture was painted on so many magazines.
“Even while shooting movies, she would perform in operas,” Antoinette went on, shaking out a white dress before clipping it onto the clothesline. “She had a beautiful voice—even better than mine. It was just perfect. She had done plays and operas before movies, you know. And she loved it.”
“What was she most famous for?” I asked.
“What was she most famous for?” Antoinette repeated. “How do you mean? She was famous for so many things. She had sung a twenty-minute solo before. She was famous for her charm and her beauty, of course. She was famous for the parties she went to and hosted. Your mother, Guenevere, was a little piece of everything in one. There was something about her, you know, something unique and special that divided her from the rest.
“She was a good listener, your maman,” Antoinette added thoughtfully. “Adelaide…she gave the most perfect advice to help anyone. She had a way with words. I think that’s where you inherited from.”
“Me?” I asked, surprised. “How so?”
Antoinette clicked her tongue twice. “Perhaps you don’t understand. Ah, well, at least you know. Guenevere, you have an exquisite way with words.. Somehow, whatever you say, comes with magic, just like your mother. Exactly like your mother.”
She started humming. “Do you miss her?” I asked.
“Yes. I do. But births and deaths come and go as the wind, so it should be perfectly natural,” Antoinette said.
“When she died of that heart illness…I wonder how that could have happened…”
Antoinette was silent. “You don’t need to know that, Guenevere. Just know that she was a lovely young woman who did not deserve to die,” she said very softly in a low voice.
“But you had just said deaths are natural.”
“Deaths are natural, but no good heart deserves it so young,” she replied. She picked up the basket she had woven herself. “Come inside, Adelaide, it might rain soon.”
With that she walked away, not even realizing the fact that she had called me the wrong name. My mother’s name.
Antoinette seemed to know so much more about my mother than she appeared to be. Even though I knew she had the answers I was looking for, I did not press on with questions. She was my au pair since before Maman died.
Of course, I could not just ask her straightforward. She’d make excuses like finish up your needle point or she was busy now, go practice piano. She, unlike my father, would talk about Maman, but not too often. Therefore I had to figure out things by myself.
Most of my answers were in the trunk, of course. However, I quickly learned that my father knew about me snooping in the trunk. I found out that he had a lock installed to the attic door after my second trip to the attic. Of course, with my cleverness I soon figured out where the key was and since then I continued going into the attic.
My first trip to the trunk was simply just exploring the secret mysteries about my mother and just how much I didn’t know about her. My second trip was about two months later and did not last long because as soon as I had just opened the trunk, my father called me down to help him rearrange the books in his study. This was the third trip was about three months later and this time not only did I discover so much more about her, but I found something deathly and chilling..
It was half-past twelve that night and I remember the attic being eerily cold although it was summer. I found magazine articles, newspaper clippings which gossiped about movies with exotic titles such as, Sinister Romance, Clarisse and Jean-Pierre, and The Broken Parisian Window Adelaide Clousseau would be starring in.
I found so many photographs of her, where she was at glamorous parties and premieres, photographs of her conversing with famous people, and close-up model photographs. It seems as if my mother had the perfect celebrity life, a life I had not even known up until a few months ago and it is still boggles my mind that I ever once belonged to her, that I was her child. In all of these photographs my maman seems so happy, so careless, so free, and complete. However, when I looked at her close-up model photographs, even through the blurry black and white, I saw that her eyes seemed dissatisfied and unhappy. As if there was something incomplete or missing in her life. I can understand because when I look in the mirror, my own eyes are quite similar, though not identical to hers. I thought to myself, how could she look so sad when she has the perfect life?
I didn’t understand anything, especially who Danny was and what role he had in my mother’s life and how he had ever affected her…and did my father know about him?
I couldn’t understand how my mother had such a life I had no idea about. Why had my father and Antoinette hid this from me? Adelaide was my mother. I’m sure all children have this one special corner in their heart that just desires for a mother. To have the misfortune of having one’s mother taken away by an illness is one mystery I’ll never understand.
I was thinking of this as I looked at the photograph of me and my maman. Just the way she looked at me evoked so many emotions in me as I watched my tears carefully slide onto the photograph. I couldn’t bear it anymore, I set the photograph back down to the bottom of the trunk where it would lay nice and flat.
When I set it down, I quickly pulled my hand out and I had felt something sharp brush against my skin.
“Ouch, a paper cut,” I muttered to myself, as I brought my hand to my mouth and saw the red blood quietly oozing out. I used a lace handkerchief I found in the trunk and dabbed it a bit, but I went to see what pricked me.
It was a yellowed small envelope that was sealed tightly with no name on the front. I pulled it out and held the envelope up to the light of the flickering candle. I could vaguely see a white piece of paper inside. I set candle back down, and started to slowly open the envelope. It was surprisingly easy to open, as if it was opened once before, but then sealed shut again.
I pulled out the folded paper. It had a small tear at the corner and I slowly unfolded the paper.
Do you remember that day? That day when we were sitting in your chamber, just you and me, when I was pregnant with Guenevere? Do you remember that conversation we had, the serious one, after all the laughter died away? Well, I’ve finally realized that you were right and I was wrong. This life really isn’t what it’s made out to be. When I thought I was living for everything, I was living for nothing. Over the years I had been pondering this decision, but I finally came to a conclusion about a few weeks before Guenevere turned one. In fact, the day you find this note will be Guenevere’s first birthday. I’ve decided to end it once and for all. I’m saving Guenevere for living by herself with the burden of having me as her mother. Antoinette, you know all of my secrets, you know everything I’ve ever done. I’ve done so many terrible things, and I’m so tired. Let Guenevere have hope. Please, I beg of you, sister, give Guenevere a life that I could never give her because I wasn’t good enough. Give her a life without any regret, let her be happy and fulfilled. Don’t let her fall because I know if she were in the hands of Jacques, well…he never really could be trusted. Just remember, never let Guenevere know about me and my death. I want her to be happy and have the life I never had. As you’ve said, Antoinette, you really only do have one life to live so make the most of it. If I’ve messed up this one life, this only chance I’ve had, then never let my daughter, my only remainder of me, ever follow in my footsteps. Guide her so she will never be like me and be ashamed of the failure that I am.
Goodbye my sister, and may you take my secrets to your grave as I have taken yours,
PS Give this to Danny Rogers
4652 Thirty-second Street, Apt. N1204
New York, New York, United States of America 10027
Antoinette lied to me. Maman didn’t die of a heart illness. She committed suicide.