Marcelle-Sophie Poirier was born in Rosendale. The city of Dunkirk was not far away, and she went to live there with her grandmother and older sister. Some time before the war her sister died of tuberculosis, notwithstanding all of Marcelle’s attempts to save her. Once the war began, 18-year-old Marcelle went to work, sewing tarpaulin covers for railway stations.
27th May 1940 the Germans bombed Dunkirk, Marcelle and her grandmother sought refuge in the cellar. When they went back up, they saw only ruins... Some time later her grandmother had to be hospitalised, while Marcelle lived in poverty, like many others.
In September 1940 her grandmother dies. Marcelle tries to find her mother and goes to the café where she used to work, but doesn’t find her. The mistress of the café employs the young woman to look after her son, whose mind has been damaged by the war: he is afraid of people and daylight. Marcelle becomes attached to the toddler, and attempts to return him to normal life. In 1944 the bombings begin again, and the owner of the café moves in with her cousin in Avignon, taking Marcelle with her. In Avignon the mother looks after her son herself, and Marcelle has to find a job. Responding to an advertisement, she is employed in the city hall, filling in bread cards. After one and a half years she begins to be bored with the work, as the cards are withdrawn and there is nothing much to do. But quitting is impossible - she has to earn her living, as she still lives with the former mistress of the café, who takes all her earnings, giving her only 20 centimes on Sundays. Marcelle saves even this, dreaming of collecting enough to buy a wedding dress. She has fallen in love.
It happened one September at the ball in the city square. A young man called Roger Mathieu, the son of the stonemason, asked her to dance. The pair began to talk, she told him of her life in Dunkirk in the years of the war...
They never parted after that. Marcelle went to work at the paper factory. She often visited the workshop of Mathieu senior, where he laboured with the stones that he carefully picked out himself. The profession of stonemason had been passed on in the Mathieu family from father to son for many generations. Roger, who had a wonderful tenor voice, once spoke about trying out in opera, but received a stern rebuke from his father.
In April 1946 the young couple happily said ‘yes’ before the mayor and the priest, and it happened even later than it should have, as Marcelle already bore her first child.
Mireille was born on the 22nd of July.
Relatives exclaimed over how such a diminutive woman could produce a strong and healthy child, but her mother-in-law had her own recipes, passed down from her ancestors over hundreds of years. And Marcelle needed to be in good health. The war had left its mark on her husband. He was there when Saarbrücken was bombed, and he received a concussion. His arm bent only with difficulty, and he found it hard to turn his head. When he already had a wife and child, he found that the work of a stonemason was too hard for him. He became depressed, so that his wife had to simultaneously look after him and little Mireille, and do work around the house, which was less than comfortable: the walls had moisture seeping from them, water had to be fetched from the courtyard outside, from the water pump, the way to the lavatory lay through the neighbours’ garden...
Winter was especially hard - it was cold, damp and gloomy. Roger was very weak, he didn’t even go outside. Christmas approached, and Marcelle really wanted to celebrate it, the first Christmas of her married life.
- ‘Celebrate? But how?’ wondered her husband. ‘We have no money.’
- ‘Let us say, we have a little... ’
And she sold her earrings. They were all she managed to save in Dunkirk. The gold earrings with small pearls had been the confirmation present from her grandmother.
- ‘Using this money,’ said Marcelle, drawing out five hundred franks, ‘we can hold a Christmas dinner for the whole family. We’ll invite your parents and sister Irene, serve roast meat with vegetables, and with the remaining money buy clay figurines of saints.’
Here Roger smiled for the first time in a long while.
- ‘A wonderful idea!’ He cried. ‘And I’ll make a Christmas crèche.’
And he went to work at once, forgetting all about his illness. He had a steady eye and hand - he quickly drew cottages, a sheep pen, bridge, horse stalls. He cut, fitted, glued... up until then he had only hewn gravestones, but now he showed the talent of a miniature artist: from pieces of bark he folded stone walls... he made a chapel and then a windmill... Leaving the house for the first time in three months, he went to the forest, bringing moss and lots of small sticks to make toy trees.
When everything was ready, there was plenty of space for the clay figurines. Neighbours and relatives came to admire the crèche:
- ‘Well, Roger, it looks like you’re on the mend!’
- ‘It’s one thing to work with cardboard, and another - with stone!’
Nonetheless he began to regain his health and in the spring was already able to take up his hammer and chisel.
- ‘We owe this miraculous recovery to the Christmas crèche,’ claimed Marcelle. ‘The crèche, linked to our little Mireille! We will put it up every year.’
In forty years Mireille Mathieu came to Avignon for Christmas. Much had changed there, but the crèche had survived. Everything that her father had made from paper and cardboard was intact. His windmill, houses and stalls still bring delight - this time to Roger Mathieu’s grandchildren.
Mireille tells the story
The first celebration of Christmas I remember was when I was four years old. By that time Papa had completely recovered, and he had regained his customary cheerfulness. He sang at home and in the workshop, and listening to him, I stayed still as though under a spell. Whenever I heard him sing I copied his tone and words, like a canary. This delighted him, and eventually he declared that I must participate in the singing celebrations.
This was another local tradition. After the solemn mass, amateur choral singers who lived nearby gathered in the hall of the charity society, which adjoined the church Notre-Dame de France. Dressed in traditional costumes they acted out different scenes, sang and danced. I understood almost nothing of what was happening, but Father stubbornly insisted that I should also sing something.
- ‘She is much too young,’ disagreed my mother. ‘And she is so shy and scared that you will make her a clown in front of everyone,’ she added.
- ‘A clown!’ Grumbled my father. ‘I’ll make a nightingale of her, not a clown!’
They sewed me a charming dress. At rehearsal I sang well, just like at home, and didn’t move my eyes from my father, who stood down by the stage. But in the evening...
I panicked: the hall was full of people, those who knew me spoke to me... I sang, but already in the fourth bar I stumbled. In despair I sought Papa with my eyes. He began to prompt me, I didn’t understand anything, as though my mind had switched off. But he didn’t abandon his efforts, and, to everyone’s happiness, I came out of it. And for the first time I experienced excitement, emotion, true anxiety, as I had for the first time performed in front of an audience and earned my first applause. Papa gave me a lollipop. No one knew that it was my first earning as a singer.
When Papa stayed home - whether because he was sick, whether there was no need to carve gravestones or work in the cemetery, whether my mother was in the hospital or the birth house - what a thoughtful father he was!
Our parents never hit us. We never knew what smacks and slaps were. These words served as punishment:
- ‘You make me very, very disappointed, my daughter. I cannot trust you anymore.’
And after that no one looked at me for hours, no one spoke to me, as if I wasn’t even there. It tore at the heart. Things were much more scary than when Grandmama tried to frighten us with the bogeyman. These threats worked only on babies. And in the meantime, I had almost imperceptibly reached that age which is called conscious. For a long time I remembered kindergarten and its mistress, Mme Ober, with sadness. I never came to love my school teachers. I cannot even remember what they were called.
My first unhappy memory of school is linked with writing classes. I tried so hard. After observing how carefully my father and grandfather hewed gravestone inscriptions in their workshop, I drew letters just as carefully in my writing book...
The teacher stopped behind my desk, and suddenly I heard her sharp voice:
- ‘Mireille! Don’t write with your left hand!’
I stared at her in surprise. I had tried so hard, I had even bitten my lips so much they bled. My letters were so neat... but I had been left-handed from birth.
- ‘Give me your hands,’ demanded the teacher.
I innocently extended my hand out to her... and smack! She slapped me with a ruler. From then on I always tried to be on my guard and hide my fingers, but she got to them anyway and hit me harder each time.
- ‘You are so stubborn! Write with your right hand!’
I would have been happy to, but nothing came of it. As soon as I took a pencil into my right hand, it stopped moving they way I wanted it to, and however much I tried, all I ended up with was unintelligible scrawls. My teacher didn’t understand this, and she soon took against me. Her harsh order constantly sounded above my ear: ‘Write with your right hand! Your right hand! You are so stubborn!’. And after that, a slap with the ruler.
In the end I learned to somehow write with my right hand; and my left one was often bruised... those hits with the ruler!
After that I became dyslexic. Possibly, it was because I tried so hard to write with my right hand and not the left, that I began to make mistakes. In my speech the consonants changed places, moving from right to left and vice versa.
My dyslexia entertained my friends considerably, but it worried me more each day. I almost tried to chase after the words coming off my tongue, attempting to catch them (I stumbled over sounds the way others stumble at the threshold of a door). Therefore, when reading out loud, I always hesitated. And the teacher decided: since I don’t pay attention in class... my place is at the bottom! She achieved my indeed ceasing to listen to her explanations. I did not understand her at all, and she didn’t understand me.
My mother, of course, guessed that I had some problems, but she had enough of her own. We lived in cramped quarters, and so I knew of her troubles. More than once, I heard her say:
- ‘The landlady came today. I gave her five hundred franks for the house... and now I don’t know how we’ll last till the end of the week.’
Another time she complained:
- ‘We need to buy a pair of shoes, but even if we put together all the money we have, then... ’
And sometimes there was this:
- ‘No, we’ll be unable to stay within the budget again this month.’
In front of my eyes there now appears a small room on the first floor, which served as a kitchen, dining room and bedroom (before going to bed my parents moved the table to the wall and unfolded the sofa-bed), my mother is sitting and peeling potatoes, it is getting dark, my father comes home from work. He says, ‘today I couldn’t buy any meat again... ’ - ‘My poor Roger,’ replies my mother, ‘I am sad most of all because you won’t eat properly... ’ She knew very well how difficult his work was! Stone is hard to work in any season, whether during cold or severe heat. A lot of strength is needed. And Mother was always afraid that he would fall ill again.
Potatoes, lentils, stale bread and garlic soup - that is what we usually ate... but we felt happy, because we were all together.
At home we always found spare food for those who were worse off than us. Occasionally in winter there would come a knock at the door.
- ‘Ah, that is Charlot!’ My father would say.
And it would be Charlot.
I never found out his real name. No, he did not at all resemble Charlie Chaplin. Of course, like him he was a tramp and carried all his belongings in an old children’s pram. His venerable patriarch’s head was graced by a long beard, he wore an old beret and never let go of an ancient umbrella, which had long ago lost its original form.
- ‘Come in, warm yourself a little,’ invited my father.
The old man sat next to the stove, and Mama gave him a plate of soup. Sometimes he would bring with him an old tin can: it would serve instead of a pot.
- ‘Take this with you,’ my mother would say, filling it with lentils or peas...
- ‘Why does he come to us, Mama?’ I asked later. ‘Doesn’t he have his own house?’
- ‘No, he does have a roof over his head. But it would be better if he didn’t. His own brother stole everything he had from him. Before, Charlot had money and land, and now the poor man has nothing left at all.’
- ‘Isn’t he a little bit crazy?’
- ‘You would be a little bit crazy too, if you had lived through something like that. His brother is acting like a lord, and his sister-in-law is a real witch. They gave him a shed to live in and don’t let him in the house. And once, when poor Charlot forgot his gate key, he had to crawl through the fence, regardless of his old age, risking cutting his stomach open.’
We children loved Charlot. He spoke little, but sometimes told interesting stories, helping himself by gesticulating; he always looked at us kindly. He always ate with such enjoyment... he left, then returned to our happiness, since he liked our family. And then once...
- ‘Have you heard what’s happened to Charlot? He was found on the side of the road, curled up under a tree. He must have died last night, it was so cold... ’
That night I could not sleep for a long time. I kept on thinking about Charlot, who died alone in the icy darkness of night, while we all lay warm together, heating each other.
- ‘We should have kept him with us, Papa... ’
- ‘Of course, we could have put a mattress for him in the corner. But he had his own pride, do you understand, my daughter?’
No, I did not understand at all. Why didn’t his brother, who had robbed him, end up in jail? And why couldn’t Charlot have lived in his nice warm house, where he wouldn’t have suffered from cold?
For some time everything went well with us, but that year the winter was especially harsh. The cold insistently entered the house through various cracks. And illness also came knocking at the door. Mama’s legs began to seep blood.
- ‘My dear little quails,’ she said to me and my little sister Matite. ‘You’ll have to replace me, take on my work around the house... ’
This was not easy, we were still so small. Although I was already six and a half years old, I had not grown much. To put a basin of water to wash the dishes on the stove, I had to climb onto a bench... and the basin was heavy, very heavy. I could not lift large pots and had to wash them with cold water. And the water in the pump was icy. The winter was so severe that people avoided going outside. We felt very lonely. Then, our grandmother did not live with us, but in the country.
The cold plagued the house mercilessly. The stove stood in the middle of the lower room, but upstairs our teeth chattered hard. Papa really tried to warm us up. He put bricks on the oven, and when they heated, he brought them to us in bed; when we undressed at night, he lit spirits in a bowl, but there was only ever enough heat for two minutes. When Christiane began to cough, I understood at once that we wouldn’t escape illness either. Families with many children share everything, even microbes.
Christmas approached, the most difficult of my life... to lift our moods, Papa once again began work on his crèche.
- ‘These are the hardest times for us,’ he’d say. ‘Mama will return soon, and things will be better. In the meantime, we have to hold on.’
More bad luck: Grandmama fell ill, and it was a long distance from her village to the hospital where Mama lay. Papa visited sometimes his wife, sometimes his mother, walking both ways. Our poor Papa: what did he look like now!
On that unlucky Christmas night he was also trudging along a dark road.
Matite had a fever, she was sick too. Now I was totally alone.
- ‘Mireille is a brave little soldier!’ our doctor Monoret would say often. This was because I was the most sturdy of the children. I had already had chicken-pox and whooping-cough, but I always became sick last and recovered first.
That night I wasn’t ‘a brave little soldier’, but ‘a lonely warrior’, exhausted and without the spirit to fight any longer.
I thought that in a minute I would just die there, in front of this heavy basin filled with dirty water, which I had no more strength to lift. In front of this oven, which had no coal left in it, I lost my courage and let shuddering sobs wrack my body. To escape from the cold, I inserted my poor feet into the entrance of the extinguished oven. And I prayed to God:
- ‘Lord, you cannot leave us! We are in such need. Everyone is ill. What will happen to us? I don’t know what to do, I am so small, but you, Lord, please do something for us; make a miracle! I beg of you, make a miracle!’
And then I understood that prayer brings relief. Papa found me sleeping: I had fallen asleep of cold and fatigue, my head drooping on the bench. But I became calmer. I believed that Mama would return soon. And that a difficult part in our lives, as Papa said, was coming to an end. No one impressed this belief on me, I did not pick it up from anyone. I found it myself, on that dark Christmas night.
And now in Easter Mama returned, with two bundles in her arms!
- ‘Congratulations! Twins!’ grumbled Grandmama, to whom sarcasm had returned with health. ‘And that idiot doctor didn’t see anything!’
- ‘He’s not at all an idiot!’ Mama disagreed. ‘He doesn’t take any money from us.’
Papa was satisfied. Finally some boys!
- ‘Now you have seven of them, that’s a good number, it brings luck,’ declared Grandmama, looking at my father. ‘Isn’t that enough? I hope you’ll stop at this!’
My poor Grandmama... she could not even imagine that just as many more children would appear in our family!
Life went on. With the arrival of spring things eased a little. But nothing changed at school: there, as before, I was awaited by the sour expression on the teacher’s face and a desk in the last row. I was not alone there, there were other girls from large families around me. I was always late for the first lesson, because as the eldest I had early chores: go to get milk, wake up the little ones, clothe and wash them, wash myself - Mama had enough to do with the babies. Before school I took the little ones to kindergarten, and it was situated away from my school.
Moving from class to class, I continued to sit at the last desk as before. And gradually I began to think that for poor people school was one thing, and for the rich - another; the former didn’t learn things well because at home there was no one to help them, and the latter did better because their families helped them prepare their homework, as well as because they received more attention from the teachers.
After the birth of the twins we now slept seven people on one big bed. The three eldest Mama settled in near the top, and the four younger ones - at the bottom, across the bed.
The quarter Malpeignes
I had not yet turned eight years old when the eighth child appeared in our family.
- ‘Let’s call him Roger, after you,’ Doctor Monoret told my father. ‘And I will be his godfather!’
The kind doctor had grown very attached to our family. Visiting his godson, he paid attention to us all.
When Mama recovered after giving birth, she decided to go to the town hall, where she was remembered as a model worker.
- ‘We can’t live like rabbits in a small cage any more!’ she would say indignantly. ‘Imagine: eight children and only two small rooms!’
- ‘We know this very well, Madame Mathieu, but… ’
There was always a ‘but’. And post-war problems also reared their heads…
- ‘Building new flats is not an easy task in these times. But we can promise you one thing, Madame Mathieu, you will be moved first… ’
And we waited, though every week Mama grumbled:
- ‘Today I’m definitely going to go annoy the mayor again… ’
Finally one beautiful day she returned home beaming:
- ‘Everything’s all right! We’ve got it! That is, we’ll soon have it! A home in a new block!’
- ‘That’s not possible!’
- ‘Yes it is! The mayor promised me, and I saw with my own eyes: we’re first on the list.’
It is hard to describe what feelings filled us at the two words ‘new block’. We were elated, anticipating the end of our troubles.
- ‘We’ll have four rooms! What luxury!’
Those four rooms already stood before our eyes: their own room for the elder children, their own – for the younger, the parents’ room, the dining room…
- ‘And in addition to everything there’s plumbing!’
Water in the house! What a wonder! Water flowing at your command! All you have to do is turn on the tap – and there it is, running on your fingers!
- ‘Where will the toilet be, Mama?’
- ‘Also in the house!’
And so, goodbye to the garden of Monsieur Foli, which we had to run through, clutching at the stomach!
This important event took place in November, when little Roger was seven months old. Packing up didn’t take long. Our parents didn’t have many belongings. But they had eight children!
And now the last ‘journey’: we were loaded onto a cart with the remaining boxes and our only real treasure – a record player (or electrophone) and LP’s with the recordings of Piaf, Tino Rossi and opera arias. When we drove onto the stone road of Malpeignes, this ‘new block’ came before our eyes, and Mama immediately observed:
- ‘There was an urgent need to build these houses, which is why they were raised so quickly… ’
Papa explained that they used large panels, out of which the house is swiftly assembled. And now appeared a grey row of houses, somehow flattened – totally identical, squat-looking buildings, as though they had been stuck to each other. They seemed to me almost hostile, perhaps because there were no sounds at all to be heard.
- ‘Other families with many children will move in later,’ explained Mama. ‘We are the first tenants. We’ll move into the one on the edge. Behind it we’ll be able to see the fields.’
Ah! Then, in the back there’ll be fields? I immediately brightened. And for a moment forgot that in front of us there was dug-up earth.
- ‘They will probably put concrete over in soon… ’
I especially liked that at the entrance of each house there were three low steps. My sisters and I jumped up them with both feet together, and immediately went round all four rooms.
- ‘Look, everywhere there are real windows, not little shuttered squares!’ admired Mama.
Then everyone rushed to the sink: the tap worked!
- ‘Yes, it works! But here you’re not allowed to play with the water.’
The water running from the tap was holy. There was no question that we couldn’t splash about with it like we did in front of the pump at our previous house. Here, in the quarter Malpeignes, there was no water-pump in the yard. But then, there was no yard either, there was only empty ground.
On the other hand, soon there was rather too much water…
The extent of the catastrophe became clear on the first day. The whole family had gathered to see how we’d settled in. And then it started to rain.
At first this was not given due attention. When we returned from school, it seemed as though the house stood on a lake. We found this very entertaining. But the adults didn’t think so. Notwithstanding the three steps, the water entered the house from everywhere. And everyone bailed water as if from a leaky boat.
- ‘Everything because they still haven’t laid down the concrete!’ grumbled Papa.
The water flooded in mercilessly, flowed over the threshold, seeped through badly-fitted window frames, searched and found various cracks. It had already reached ankle-depth. Everyone took their shoes off.
- ‘Come on, children, climb higher. Slapping on the water, you’ll all catch cold.’
Yes, the beginning was ordinary, but the continuation wasn’t much better. Two or three families had already moved in next to us. Mama said of them: ‘Well, these aren’t a present.’ They were just as poor as we, but very badly brought up. Therefore swearing and yelling hung in the air…
At school there immediately appeared a difference between the children from Malpeignes and everyone else. And amongst the pupils from Malpeignes the most good-for-nothing were those sitting on the bottom desks. My desk neighbour was also called Mireille. But although we were called the same, we lived very differently: her father beat her nearly every night. He constantly returned home drunk. Her screams hurt my heart. In the morning she, like me, was late for school – she also had to look after all her small brothers. The poor things was so afraid of getting bad marks, for which she was beaten even more, that she was often afraid to return home. On such days I accompanied her home, also trembling from fear.
- ‘Well, what does your mother say?’
- ‘She keeps quiet, or he’ll hit her too.’
Mireille was often amazed:
- ‘Does your father really never hit you?’
- ‘Well, then you are very lucky.’
So, thanks to little Mireille, I understood that I really was lucky. At home we all sat to eat together, Papa on one end and Mama on the other. But Mama often didn’t sit, either because she wanted that we children eat better (even if we had only potatoes in the house, Mama managed to cook different dishes from it so that there was some kind of variety) or because she had to feed or change yet another baby.
The walls of our houses, stuck together, didn’t so much stop sounds as conduct them, so everyone knew what was happening at the neighbours’. Now in the Malpeignes block there was not a single uninhabited house left. And who didn’t live here!
There were among the inhabitants of the block gypsies, good people who loved music. And I loved to listen to them. I didn’t understand the words, of course, but there was always and old gypsy woman who would tell me the content of the songs:
- ‘He is singing that those who love to dance live like free birds’… ’ or: ‘"Tears like large beans are flowing down his cheeks because his beloved’s left him"’… or: ‘"Your eyes have captured my heart, and the lashes behind which they hide remind me of luscious grass"’…
We sang often. And this allowed us not to take notice of the drunk opposite, who broke glass when enraged. But he cried three days in a row when his son was taken to the hospital after he had beaten him.
Not a week went by without a scandal or a fight, when it was necessary to call the police. So quite soon the Malpeignes quarter received the nickname ‘Chicago’.
The fields were a real refuge for the mothers from our quarter. They sent us to play there and in those hours were calm. For us, these ‘endless’ fields seemed paradise. Once I, who Mama thought was so shy, climbed a tree, but couldn’t climb down again; my head began to spin. Christiane went for help.
- ‘Mireille is up a tree?’
- ‘Yes! On the very top!’
- ‘Such a timid thing as she! You’re wrong if you think I’ll move from here.’ Mama believed what happened only when Youki came running and pulled at her dress, barking. Youki was the name of our dog.
More accurately, he was a stray. He had followed Matite when we were returning from school. And so we came home, and right behind us came a dog.
- ‘I hope you don’t want us to feed a dog as well?! We don’t have enough meat for ourselves!’
- ‘He’ll eat whatever we give him. Look how hungry he is, the poor thing.’
And then it began to rain. Mama, of course, didn’t have the heart to throw the dog out.
- ‘We’ll wait for Papa to come home, and then see… ’
The happy Matite winked at me.
But Papa was angry:
- ‘What dog!’
- ‘You were regretting yourself that Grandpapa has no one to go hunting with since he lost Pelette!’ cried Matite. ‘I’m sure that Youki has a good nose.’
- ‘How do you know his name’s Youki and he has a good nose?’
- ‘I called him Youki, because the name suits him, and he definitely has a good nose. And here’s the best proof: he followed us, while he could have followed little Mireille (my desk partner, whom her father beat), there he would have received plenty of kicks!’
- ‘But wait! The dog must belong to someone. And his little master’s probably crying now, because he’s lost… so tomorrow I’ll go to the police and say we’ve found him… ’
That was an unforgettable night: Youki slept exactly in the middle between Matite and me. We were very warm and comfortable. And on the next day we awaited Papa’s return with impatience. It turned out that no one in our quarter had lost a dog. But he could have come from further off…
- ‘Leave him with you for the moment, Monsieur Mathieu,’ he was told at the police station. ‘And if no one misses him after a year and a day, we’ll do as we would with a wallet or jewellery: the dog will remain with you!’
Papa returned, leading Youki on a leash. The dog was obviously happy: he already considered our home as his. Soon I noticed that Papa had slightly changed his phrase about having many children.
- ‘Oh well,’ he would now say cheerfully. ‘Why would I get fat now if I have ten children and a dog to feed!’
The thing was that after five girls, there appeared in our family five boys: the twins, Roger, and Rémi and Jean-Pierre, born after the move to Malpeignes. Equality had been asserted.
Papa decided to test Youki’s behaviour on the hunt. He took us girls with him, as the boys were still too young. On the first day Youki acted crazy, it seemed as though he had never hunted before. He behaved like a city dog on a country road, or an escaped school-boy, who has just found himself on a plain and is breathing in the intoxicating scent of flowers.
To tell the truth, I didn’t like hunting at all. The sound of gun shots scared me, and I couldn’t eat game, shot in front of me. I only confused our Youki…
But he made progress. One day Papa triumphantly declared, ‘this dog is probably better than Pelette!’ This is why we awaited the passing of a year and a day with some alarm. Papa and Youki went to the police. Agitated, we waited for them to return. Finally on the road leading to our quarter, two silhouettes appeared: Youki ran in front and by habit pulled his master behind him. From now on the dog belonged to us. We hugged him like a hero.
We loved accompanying our father to his workshop. He sat us in the cart, put his tools next to us and soon we would appear by the cemetery wall.
The cemetery of Saint Veran is one of the remarkable sights of Avignon. If there weren’t any graves, it would resemble a pleasant park, where one can take a walk. Of the old monastery there was nothing left except an apse.
Papa taught us to use a brush to whiten stone. It was our favourite activity. We whitened stone so often that we grew quite skilled with a brush. And Papa decided to buy paint for our room.
- ‘What colour would you prefer, girls?’
Matite, Christiane and I unanimously chose pink. Papa brought home three cans of pink paint and big painting brushes.
- ‘Let them do something useful,’ he said to our mother. ‘And let you get some rest from them on Sunday, too!’
The great hour came. Papa moved the wardrobe from the wall and left us to it.
- ‘Do it yourselves, girls. You already know how to use paintbrushes, so forward march!’
The bed and the chairs were covered with newspapers, Mama put old aprons on each of us. When after a little while she risked looking in, she was horrified:
- ‘My God, everything’s covered with paint!’
- ‘That’s good. They were supposed to paint everything.’
- ‘Yes, they were supposed to paint the walls. But not themselves!’
Having dirtied ourselves, we resembled multicoloured lollipops. We had lots of fun and sang ‘The Three Bells’ as loudly as possible.
It has to be said that Piaf was like a member of the family. I can’t describe what I felt when I heard her voice on the radio for the first time - or perhaps I can. She herself tells of such a feeling in her song ‘L’Accordéoniste’ (‘The Accordion Player’): ‘ Ça lui rentre dans la peau, par le bas, par le haut, elle a envie de chanter, c’est physique… ’ (‘This entered all his skin, from bottom to top, it was a physical longing to sing... ’).
At school I was notorious for being unable to remember anything, but all the songs of Edith Piaf I remembered at once, without trying. Thanks to our ""’phone"" (Mama never said "‘electrophone"’), which was far from perfect, I delightedly repeated everything I heard on the records, like a parrot.
Once my father triumphantly brings home the cart, with a large box in it.
- ‘Mama! Come look at the surprise!’
- ‘What is it? What a huge box!’
- ‘You, my dear wife, have no time to go to the movies. So I brought them to you!’
It was a television set.
We all gathered around it, like around a golden calf.
- ‘How did you manage to buy it, Roger?’
- ‘On credit. Are you glad?’
- ‘More like worried. How will we manage to pay for it?’
- ‘I told you – little by little. Do you know what the salesman told me: ‘You are the eighteenth person in Avignon who has a television!’ Did you know that? We could say we’re among the first!’
We were the very first in our quarter, anyway. All the neighbours watched TV at our house. They posed many questions we were unable to answer. For example, they asked:
- ‘How is it that we can see a person in Paris from here?’
- ‘You just plug the fork in the socket, the set begins to work, and that’s it,’ Mama explained.
But it sometimes happened that the fork was plugged in, and the TV didn’t work.
- ‘That’s because the cables downstairs are flooded with water,’ explained the repairman. ‘And the electricity shorts out.’
In that sense nothing had changed: water still entered the house as before. The concrete still hadn’t been put down, and when it rained hard in the rainy season, you could float to the house on a boat!
To pay for the TV we had to tighten our belts. But everyone was happy. It was a real miracle: now in front of us there appeared pictures of what was happening in different corners of the world.
Whether our TV worked or not, curious people always visited us. We had never had so many friends; not mentioning those who had become dear to us through the little screen. Catherine Langeais and Jacqueline Caurat were closer and dearer to me than my school teacher. I even saw Edith Piaf, once – only once. I had not even imagined that she was so pale, so fragile, so worn out…
- ‘What a kind person he is, your husband!’ said Mme Vergier, our old neighbour from our previous house, who had come specially to ‘watch home movies’. ‘He invites over anyone who wants to watch… ’
That was very true. Even we children invited our friends on Thursdays. We lived no more lavishly than before, but we felt like princes with the TV.
The television changed many things in our lives. Now the harshest punishment was being forbidden to watch TV shows. In one thing Papa was relentless: at eight o’clock the children must be in bed! Therefore we watched mainly weekend shows. And it occurred to none of us that on one fine day, which was still so far off, a certain Mireille Mathieu would be born on just one such show…
The "brood" of little Mathieus
But at the moment I was just little Mimi, no different from my brothers and sisters.
Mama always dressed us in the same clothes.
- ‘I don’t want you to look like the children of the poor, dressed in the old clothes the rich give you out of the ‘goodness’ of their hearts!’
She dealt with the situation by going to shops such as Nouvelle Galerie and Chaussures André, where they recognised her as a mother with numerous children. They sold her low-priced goods, and sometimes gave her a discount. And we didn’t look bad at all in identical children’s coats and identical little boots, all of the one colour.
Our parents were proud that we were always so well-dressed, and Papa was proud also of the fact that he was the father of ten children.
Only one dress was passed down year after year from one sister to the next: the first confirmation dress. Of course, by my right as eldest, I wore it first. Mama had acquired it on credit from Nouvelle Galerie. This ceremonial dress seemed to me wondrous…
Drawing on white petticoats and putting on the white hood, I felt like I was entering a world of wonders, and I zealously readied myself for the solemn event.
Three days before taking communion was a ‘day of rest’. In the morning, taking breakfast with us, we would go on a picnic, and on the eve of the confirmation, in the evening, a ceremonial procession took place. Something similar occurred on Easter Sunday as well, when we walked, holding olive branches; but before confirmation everything looked much more impressive, because we marched in the dark with lighted wax candles in our hands.
And on the day of the first confirmation it was so nice to visit relatives and friends in a snow-white dress, giving religious pictures. In return we received a coin – alms for the poor. This was the tradition.
First confirmation was a no less important and festive occasion than marriage – the whole family attended the ceremony. In the church everyone sang together, and Papa’s beautiful tenor stood out in the choir. In these moments all pain and troubles were forgotten.
If I was asked which day in my childhood was the sweetest, I would name this one. Even our previous neighbours took part in the celebration. And Papa, as though doing something holy, hung a small rosary on my wrist.
I never parted with it.
The next year, on the 10th of May, I helped Matite don the snow-white dress. Her turn had come… we prepared for this day with the same happiness, the same diligence, the same excitement. Jean-Pierre’s baptism was on the same day – it was to be a double celebration.
In the morning we went to church, leaving the baby, who had just turned four months old, under the care of my great-aunt Julie, the sister of our grandfather. We were still praying in the chapel when an alarmed neighbour ran in… the praying was disturbed, Mama left church in a hurry, Papa followed her, leaving the priest totally confused… Jean-Pierre was unconscious, the rumour went down the rows of prayers, completely quashing the service.
The ill-fated Julie had never had children, and she decided, after feeding the infant, to give him a bath. And she suddenly found that she was holding his breathless body, his eyes glassy and expressionless… the poor toddler was immediately sent to the hospital. My parents, distraught with grief, spent the whole day there. The baby didn’t return to consciousness.
Poor Matite, what a confirmation she had. No one even touched the feast prepared. Naturally, there was no christening nor any vespers.
I firmly refused to leave the church. Left alone, I prayed and prayed, my face awash with tears. And Jean-Pierre was saved. But my sister Matite didn’t experience the bliss I had last year.
My little brothers were constantly the cause of much worry. Not because they were fidgets and troublemakers, on the contrary, they were among the most obedient boys in our quarter. But their health was not as good as ours. Or perhaps, they were less lucky. Guy, one of the twins, was continuously tormented by otitis from three years of age. It was so pitiful to see how he suffered, pressing his pillow to his ear. And we heard again and again the terrifying words:
- ‘Let us hope it doesn’t develop.’
That is what happened, and Guy became deaf for a long time. Only later, much later – before his wedding in 1978 – he managed to have an operation.
And how much dread and fear did I go through because of Rémi! He was then three years old. He looked like a blonde angel, even when he slept… it was Regis who raised the alarm:
- ‘Mama, Papa, come here quick, Rémi is suffocating!’
The toddler had convulsions, but at first this didn’t disturb Mama:
- ‘Almost all little children get convulsions!’
But relief didn’t come. Rémi’s convulsions didn’t stop, which horrified me and my sisters, and in addition to everything the little boy had a high temperature.
At first Papa thought that the problem was biscuits, of which Rémi had had too many… this was probably why such continuous convulsions had begun. But suddenly, realising that the temperature wasn’t falling and that Rémi’s eyes were rolling back in his head, Papa cried:
- ‘I’ll go get Doctor Monoret!’
And left, although night had fallen. We sat around Mama, trembling with fear.
- ‘I’m afraid he’s going… ’ whispered Mama, wiping the toddler’s damp forehead.
Rémi’s body was slowly stiffening up, and this made us fear the worst.
Papa wasn’t returning, he didn’t come back for a long time. He searched everywhere for the doctor… but our doctor Monoret was very handsome and very popular with the ladies… the anxious Papa spent half the night with Mama at Rémi’s bedside. And at dawn went to another doctor. Having barely glanced at the patient, he declared at once:
- ‘To the hospital, immediately! And you children aren’t going to school!’
- ‘We’re not going? Why not?’
- ‘Because the disease is contagious!’
I asked, was it more dangerous than mumps?
- ‘Much more dangerous!’
In my time I was very afraid of mumps, because everyone’s glands swelled up enormously. First the twins’ gums began to hurt, then they began to complain that everything in their mouths was burning, and in the end they couldn’t eat or speak… we waited, what would descend upon us now? People. Some strange people with large atomisers, ‘to disinfect the house’. And they sprayed not only all the furniture and clothes, but us as well. The acrid, nauseating smell followed us for several days.
- ‘You don’t want to infect everyone in the quarter with meningitis of the spinal cord, do you?’
We couldn’t even visit Rémi in the hospital. And we missed him so much… Mama explained that even she could see him only through a window… meanwhile her legs began to seep blood again.
- ‘Soon the eleventh will come into the world!’ She told the neighbours.
Mama went to the hospital just before Christmas.
- ‘My poor little children… you’re left alone again, to look after the whole house! Take care of Papa and Jean-Pierre.’
That toddler was only a year old, and I was twelve…
One February morning Papa declared:
- ‘My dear children… you have another sister, Sophie-Simone! Quickly get ready and we’ll go to the hospital!’
But on that day this successive wrapped-up baby didn’t interest me much. All my thoughts were on Rémi: he lay in another wing of the hospital, and could only be seen through a window. Everything in me was indignant. What unfairness! Our poor little angel…
Mama tried to calm me down:
- ‘My dear Mimi… families with many children never go without crises. They are in much more danger, but you know yourself that in such families there are also many causes for joy… ’
And an unexpected joy awaited me at school. I moved to another class, and to another teacher – Mme Julien.
This cheerful woman immediately made you like her, she never used the ruler and when she talked she waved her arms as though they were wings. Her forehead was dotted with small freckles, and her already grey hair she put into a bun at the nape of her neck, crowning it with a splendid chignon. Her chignon intrigued me: she must spend so much time on it each morning! Of course, unlike me she didn’t have to bring home five large loaves of bread and two jugs of milk for my little brothers and sisters each morning before school! But she understood perfectly why I was late for class and stammered when trying to pronounce a word.
- ‘I know of your problems, Mireille. Your mother told me that you are having trouble with division. Do you even know what it is?’
- ‘That’s not true, you do! Now look… you bring home two dozen apples… that means there are twenty-four. The saleswoman is kind, and instead of each dozen she gives you thirteen, so there are now twenty-six apples. Isn’t that right? You have eleven children at home, add to that your mother, that’s twelve, and with your father – thirteen. And now divide the apples. Each will receive two. See, you have now divided correctly!’
What a victory! After that the bothersome word ‘divide’, which had made my blood go cold in my veins, didn’t scare me any more.
Mme Julien removed me from the last row, where I thought I was destined to be forever.
- ‘Sit down here, in the front… yes, here… at the first desk. And when we’ll be doing arithmetic, you’ll go to the board.’
To sit at the first desk! Like a good student! I felt myself coming back to life. From then on I started to enjoy numbers, adding and dividing…
Another happiness awaited me. Mme Julien knew that the houses in the quarter of Malpeignes had a tap only over the kitchen sink. And on one lovely morning she told us:
- ‘Listen, children… those of you who have no showers at home may use the one at school.’
The school shower, located behind the door that was always locked? And they would open it for us, the students from Malpeignes? This was simply unbelievable! All kinds of wild rumours circulated about that door. Matite was convinced that Bluebeard kept his wives behind it. And now by the wish of Mme Julien, that fairy godmother, the door was suddenly opened and everything made clear.
Our first shower was a sort of revelation, we could stand under the stream of water however long we liked. We felt renewed, strong, healthy, happy! For the rest of my life I have kept the memory of the pleasure I had then, and even now I still prefer a warm shower – caressing, invigorating, lifting fatigue - to marble baths with gilded taps. Of course, it was almost funny to compare the school’s shower to the watering can from which Papa poured water on us on warm days! Unlike it, the shower worked at any time of the year! Now I felt completely different about school, and was less and less often late for class.
Mme Julien had a daughter called Fanchon. She was much older than I… by at least four years. She had an enviable job: she danced in the Avignon Opera. And she often organised matinees at school. Tall, slender, with surprisingly slim legs (no wonder she was a ballet dancer!), she always came in elegant shoes, which delighted me.
- ‘Do you like my shoes?’ She asked me once, shaking out her voluptuous hair.
- ‘Oh yes!’ I cried involuntarily.
They were a bright red colour… the next day Fanchon came in different shoes and gave me a package. My dream shoes lay in it.
- ‘Take these shoes, I am giving them to you as a gift.’
Alas, a disappointment awaited me. The tall Fanchon didn’t have small feet, and I always wore size 33 shoes. What a letdown… the shoes were so wonderful!
A way out was found, however – I filled them with newspaper, which I kept to clean windows. So I managed to wear them, but I never achieved an elegant walk.
Fanchon, who still felt kindly towards me, always insisted that I participate in school festivals at which she danced: in my opinion, she danced magnificently, although I had no one to compare her with. When she performed ‘The Dying Swan’, tears always filled my eyes… I had become accustomed to singing publicly from early childhood, from the day I sang ‘Ma poupée cherie’, but Fanchon wanted me to perform with completely different songs, and I didn’t like that.
- ‘What is it, Mireille? Don’t you want to sing?’
- ‘I can’t. My throat hurts.’
I lied shamelessly.
- ‘That Mireille is simply unmanageable,’ complained Fanchon to her mother. ‘She is stubborn and lazy.’
This description wasn’t flattering, although it was fair in most things… but not all. Yes, I could seem stubborn when I did what I enjoyed, and lazy when I didn’t want to do that which I disliked. And since then I haven’t changed one bit!
I didn’t like the repertoire that Fanchon gave me, and I liked the songs of Piaf and Maria Candido more and more each day. But songs about passionate love were decisively rejected by Fanchon, who commented: ‘Piaf is not for little girls’. She had strict pedagogical principles. In fact, she later became a teacher.
The conflict between us was never resolved. My faithful allies were my two friends – Marie-Jo and Roseline.
- ‘You imitate them ‘to life’,’ they assured me. And unperturbed, I continued to sing ‘Mon legionnaire’.
Roseline, poor Roseline at first had a perfect childhood. She lived with her mother, who never refused her daughter anything; this was probably because her father didn’t live with them, and her mother tried to make it so that the little girl didn’t feel his absence. She was a seamstress, and sewed her daughter dresses that were so beautiful we could only dream about them. When Roseline invited me over, their table brought to mind a confectioner’s rich front window! My friend was always elegantly dressed, so that once I couldn’t stop myself from exclaiming: ‘You have such a lovely blouse!’
It was trimmed with lace, and the sleeves had frills. Roseline’s mother said to me kindly:
- ‘Well, since you like the blouse, I’ll make you one too!’
I almost bit my tongue. I had been put in a terrible situation: how could I own a thing which my sisters didn’t have? It went against the unbreakable rule which Mama had set down: ‘In the Mathieu family everyone must dress the same!’
But it was Mama herself who put an end to my doubts:
- ‘My dear Mireille, you are growing up. I hope that you’ll soon receive your school certificate. Then you’ll be considered an adult and you can dress any way you like.’
The beautiful rose blouse went into the closet, where it stayed for a year. Roseline never saw me in it. After the sudden death of her mother her life changed completely. The death was a big shock for my friend. She was utterly lost and couldn’t understand what had happened. Her grandmother, whom she barely knew, came and took the girl away with her. And then I thought that it wasn’t after all so good to be the only child in your family. I may not have beautiful dresses like Roseline, but I had other things: love and family warmth – the deep, strong feeling which had forever joined our parents, and also bound us children to them and to each other. All this I felt every day, especially on Sundays, and kept in my heart like a priceless treasure.
We gathered together every Sunday.
This day began with Mass. In the church we sang, Papa and I performed solo, and family and friends were the choir.
We, the Mathieu family, sang together also when we went for a walk to the Doms cliff. But in this case our repertoire consisted of fun, lively songs. We children ran and skipped in front, went ahead, returned, and everything ended with the little ones racing: each wanted to be first to the top, to the foot of a huge oak tree.
Our parents came slowly, not tiring of admiring the lovely scenery which opened to us from the cliff: below we could see the city and – most importantly – the Rhone.
There was another reason why we liked the Doms cliff so much. Grandpapa took part in restoring the ladder of St. Anne, which led to the cathedral. He had even helped to re-plan the old gardens.
Returning home from the walk to the Doms cliff we paused each time at the square before the Little Palace, whose window frames of stone had needed to be repaired for a while… it was at this square that the Avignon Festival was held in the summer. But it didn’t interest the locals much. Only Parisians and tourists came to it… all those whom Papa contemptuously called ‘those dirty people who write on walls’; here he warned us: ‘Take care I don’t see you dare to write on stone too!’ The mere thought of it made him shudder…
Only later, much later, did I find out that the young god of theatre lived in our city. I mean Gerard Philipe. I have never seen him myself; I was only five years old when he made his debut in Cornel’s tragedy ‘Le Cid’, and when he played his last role I was barely twelve. But I remember well how the older schoolgirls walked around during breaktimes with photographs of him in different film roles. I often stared at these photos, which showed the incredible glitter of his eyes, and dreamed. A long time afterwards, in Paris, I saw this wizard of the screen act in films such as ‘La Chartreuse de Parme’, ‘Le Diable au corps’, ‘Fanfan la Tulipe’… and when I now sing:
Il était un prince en Avignon
Sans royaume, sans chateau, ni donjon,
Là-bas tout au fond de la province
Il était un prince
Et l’enfant que j’étais
Cueillait pour lui bien des roses…
En ce temps le bonheur était peu de chose…
… the name of Gerard Philipe isn’t mentioned in the song, but the public knows well whom it is about. The applause erupts, they show their love for him; a love which I feel too, although we never met: I was born too late.
Too late also to meet Edith Piaf. I only managed to see her in Blistene’s film ‘Etoile sans lumière’ (and I was astonished to see how naturally she acted in it), and in the film by Sacha Guitry ‘Si Versailles m’était conté’ she sang ‘Ah! ça ira, ça ira’ – sang so well that it moved you deeply; I also saw her in ‘French Cancan’ by Jean Renoir, in which she played Eugenie Buffet, the diva of the beginning of the XX century.
I think that the cinematographers could have asked Edith Piaf to act more often. She was a born actress – comic as well as tragic – no less than she was a born singer. However, without doubt, she was chained ‘with an iron chain’ to the stage and passionately loved to sing: without songs she simply wouldn’t be able to live! Others were able to control this passion, and therefore became famous actors: I mean Montand, Bourvil, Raimu, Fernandel…
Fernandel! He was to us the most beloved of the renowned cinema artists, for which Mme Julien was largely responsible. She had the idea of holding film sessions under the open sky during warm summer afternoons. What gladness there was! We delightedly watched ‘Angele’, ‘Regain’, ‘Le Schpountz’, ‘Topaze’… nothing but films by Marcel Pagnol.
- ‘This is what I call truly our films!’ Exclaimed Mme Julien, who couldn’t stand American movies.
We really did enjoy Pagnol’s films. In them appeared our South, we heard our language, recognised traditions and habits familiar to us… then came the turn of ‘Marius’, ‘Fanny’, ‘Cesar’, and having seen this last film, I suddenly discovered that my father was… the embodiment of Raimu!
After Mme Julien had showed us ‘Manon des Sources’ with Jacqueline Pagnol (who made me daydream for a long time), she announced that we would now see ‘Les Lettres de mon moulin’. This picture was such a success with us that we watched it twice. Seeking to combine the pleasant with the useful, our favourite teacher convinced us to not only read those novels by Daudet on which the movies were based, but also all the other ones, including ‘Les Trois Messes basses’, ‘L’Elixir du père Gaucher’ and ‘Le Secret de maître Cornille’. I memorised them almost by heart. And tasted them, as though they were a delicacy. In those times that was all my literary baggage – a little Pagnol and a little Daudet.
- ‘She knows so little, my dear daughter,’ complained Mama. ‘Sometimes I worry whether she’ll receive her school certificate.’
I realised that the hour of reckoning was near, but I convinced myself that I still had time… that I would catch up when the school year began. After all, the summer holidays are the most wonderful. And the best festival of all approached, the 14th of July.
And after that was the summer camp. We went there thanks to the Office of Family Benefit. It all began on that memorable day when the town hall recognised and gave awards to mothers with many children.
It was an unforgettable ceremony: Mama received a very beautiful certificate (at home we hung it up on the wall, where it is to this day), and a medal. We children were more interested in the free lunch held after the ceremony, and then the show with clowns. Mama was in her turn interested in other things, namely, the presents she received: linen and a small sum of money. In a word, the celebration was very successful.
And a few days after that we set out for the summer camp called ‘Dragonfly’. It wasn’t situated far away, just on the other side of the Rhone. The place chosen for the camp was excellent, and its name suited it perfectly: it abounded in dragonflies… they were innumerable. The day went by imperceptibly… Mama and Papa took us home in the evening, and in the morning everything began again: at seven a.m. Mama put us on the bus at the square of St. Lazare (it was quite distant from our house). The day began with a light breakfast, then we took a walk, had lunch, rested, had tea, played. In those years there were no buildings nearby, we really lived at one with nature among dense acacias and pines. The instructor helped us make sketch shows and one-act plays. I always played the role of Cinderella. It was my favourite fairytale. It seemed as though this role was made especially for me. I didn’t forget about it for a minute, and clearly imagined to myself how I turned from a dirty serving maid into a princess. This role never tired me. I diligently scratched at the earth, while my sisters and friends laughed at me, playing the roles of Cinderella’s mean stepsisters… at the end of the play I proudly strutted about, as (in my mind) a princess should, dressed in a ‘magnificent’ dress made from leaves, held together with pine needles. And thus it continued without any changes. The fairytale turned into a ritual, it became part of our lives, so that everyone came to call me Cinderella.
On one lovely day Mama came with amazing news:
- ‘Children, you will soon see the sea!’
Up to this point we had only seen the sea on photographs, in the cinema or on the TV screen. Then Mama would remember that her childhood years had passed in Dunkirk. She confessed that she had always missed the sea. And now we were going to Marseilles…
- ‘You have been extremely lucky,’ Mama said to us. ‘Everything’s because we’re a big family. This is why we were allowed to take up the country house in Carry-le-Rouet.’
And all this thanks to the Office of Family Benefit. My sisters were delighted, Mama was also happy:
- ‘Just look how beautiful it is here!’
You couldn’t argue with that. A road, framed by pine trees, led to the beach. As usual, we held hands going down it, so as not to get lost; thus we arrived at the fish docks.
- ‘Here you’ll eat plenty of fish,’ said Mama. ‘That is very good for the bones… and you’ll learn to swim!’
But in reality everything turned out otherwise. I even lost my appetite. And, as they say, wilted completely. I was tormented by a deadly homesickness. This was our first long parting. Without Mama and Papa the world seemed empty to me. The sea didn’t replace family! It scared me. At the sight of this shoreless, agitated, rumbling, changeable, bottomless element I began to feel ill… and no force could make me even enter the water.
I still haven’t learnt to swim. All I dare do is have a dip right by the shore… of course, I sometimes have to make sea voyages and I don’t feel myself each time I do.
The instructor in Carry-le-Rouet must have the worst memories of the little Mathieus. Looking up to me as the eldest, my sisters also shed floods of tears. After two weeks our parents decided to visit us. At their appearance me and my sisters burst into tears. Trying to calm us, our parents set out on a walk on the road to the port with us. We reached a beautiful villa.
- ‘Look,’ Mama told me. ‘Here lives Fernandel… ’
‘Our’ Fernandel, the shared favourite of the whole family. But not then, nor on the way back, did we manage to see Fernandel: he wouldn’t show himself, as if on purpose! We burst into tears again and cried right until the departure of our parents. In a word, our month of rest in Carry-le-Rouet turned out to be a torment: our tears poured and poured, like a waterfall.
- ‘It looks like the level of the sea has risen because of you,’ commented Mama.
We gladly returned to our fields.
At school Mme Julien awaited me: in this year I was to receive my school leaver’s certificate.
I so wanted to achieve it… firstly because of her: she had helped me so much, she had spent so much time with me, I couldn’t fail her! But Lord, it was such a hard task! Having spent several years at the back of the class, I had a most stopped listening to the teacher’s explanations. I understood very well that I didn’t really know anything. I remembered something about Napoleon, because I had come to like this little man… a little more – about Jeanne d’Arc, I liked her, and I generally adored saints. But these heights of French history rose sadly above the ‘ravine’ of my ignorance, where you could dimly see – thanks to the pictures in the textbooks – some ‘city on the water’ or an ‘American Indians’ wigwam’.
With despair I tried to make up for lost time, but that is impossible, as is well known. Daily I sat, my nose buried in books, mercilessly testing my memory. I even stopped singing.
Things were hard, very hard! In the evenings I sat up late, and Papa hated that: he demanded that the lights were turned off at eight o’clock.
- ‘But listen, Roger, she is preparing for the school exams!’
Everyone in the house spoke about it. I lost sleep, although until then I had slept like a log. From time to time Grandmama would say indignantly:
- ‘You’ll turn her into an idiot! Why does our girl need this certificate? Will it help her have beautiful and healthy children?’
- ‘If I didn’t have my school certificate,’ disagreed Mama, ‘I would never have been taken to work in the town hall.’
- ‘That wasn’t what saved you, it was God! You know the saying: God helps children, the blessed and the drunk. So our girl is under his protection! She’ll receive your wonderful certificate!’
Alas, I didn’t receive it. I still remember in what confusion I looked at the blank sheet of paper in front of me. The question was about the Capetiens… I always confused one with the other. And they hadn’t even thought to ask about Jeanne d’Arc or Napoleon… Papa comforted me how he could:
- ‘Mimi, I think it is much more useful to mention the names of Jeanne d’Arc or Napoleon in conversation than some Capetiens!’
Mme Julien saw it differently. In a strict tone she told me that I had disappointed her very much. I had to stay back another year in the same class: taking into account my age (fourteen years!), it was my last chance. This time I left for the holidays laden with books. There could not even be any talk of a trip to Carry-le-Rouet…
We again found ourselves in the summer camp ‘Dragonfly’ in Villeneuve-les-Avignon. It was there that I met the fortune-teller.
She lived near the graveyard. One of our friends had overheard how her mother, a great believer in horoscopes, spoke about this woman. Many of us had bicycles, and so a large group of us went to the oracle, some sitting in the seats and some in the baskets. Before that we scraped all the loose change from our banks and came to the fortune-teller, amusing her with the fact that so many girls at once wanted to know their future. She spoke to us one by one. The first girl, exiting from the fortune-teller’s, declared:
- ‘I will marry and have many children.’
The second said simply:
- ‘I will have many children… ’
- ‘But you will marry before then?’
- ‘She never said anything about that.’
We began to argue, then everyone agreed that it couldn’t happen without marriage. My turn came. This woman didn’t at all look like a sorceress, unlike the horrible old woman I sometimes met when shopping: that one was all dressed in black and she had an awful hooked nose. Once she attacked me, screaming that I had stolen her woven bag. I stood, red from shame, because it was a dreadful lie, but passers-by were stopping, attracted by her accusations. Since then, walking to the drug store, I kept watch whether the witch was nearby, and if I spotted her – always dressed in a black dress, hunched and lopsided – then I hurriedly hid behind the plane trees. The fortune-teller from Villeneuve didn’t make you feel anxious. She was chubby, with bright blue eyes and a friendly smile. In her room there hung pictures of the sky, dotted with beautiful stars.
- ‘When were you born?’
- ‘22nd of July 1946.’
- ‘Ah, I see! Right between Cancer and Leo… you, my girl, are gifted with a lively imagination; let me just get my tarot cards out… ’
Grandmama had just such cards, but she used them only in secret. She never let me even touch them. With some fear I watched as the fortune-teller spread them out. Surprise appeared on her face:
- ‘How strange!’ She cried. ‘I see you surrounded by kings and queens… ’
- ‘That’s not surprising,’ I said. ‘I’m memorising the history of France for my school certificate. I have to learn all the Capetiens off by heart.’
- ‘No, this is different,’ she disagreed. ‘I see you in a circle of live kings and queens.’
- ‘What do you mean – live?!’
I decided that she had lost her mind, more so than the old woman at the corner of the drugstore…
- ‘And I also see that you’ll travel the whole world… ’
I left her room completely flabbergasted. My sisters and friends gathered around me, asking questions; utterly lost, I answered:
- ‘She told me such strange things… she said that I’d meet kings and queens… ’
What a story! The fortune-teller had told no one else anything like that. I didn’t give any weight to her prophecy, deciding that she was simply crazy. Matite and Christiane were with me that day and remember everything well. And many years later, when Christiane, having become a nurse, worked in a hospital, she looked after a patient who had just had a serious operation. And suddenly that woman told her:
- ‘You are Mireille Mathieu’s sister.’
Christiane doesn’t resemble me physically, and besides she doesn’t like admitting that she’s my sister.
- ‘You are mistaken,’ Christiane replied.
- ‘No, I am not mistaken. I am sure of it, and in my time I correctly predicted her future: she is travelling the whole world and meeting kings and queens!’
My sister told me of this incredible story when I returned from another trip.
- ‘I would like to see this woman,’ I said.
- ‘That’s impossible. She died the same night… ’
Since then I have never consulted fortune-tellers…
Mme Julien didn’t like my stories, which in addition had plenty of grammatical mistakes. I myself was very proud of the phrase:
- ‘Chrysanthemums in the snow resemble crystal balls.’
I found this sentence very beautiful and precise, but my teacher’s words were like cold water:
- ‘Everything you write, Mireille, is merely baby talk.’
To understand better what she meant I stuck my nose in the dictionary. It became probably my highest achievement. I searched the dictionary much more often than the other girls! Once Mme Julien spoke the word saugrenu (absurd, thoughtless) to me, I understood that it was far from a compliment, and for a long time tried to understand it. I began to look for it in the dictionary and lost heaps of time…
And at last it came, "‘the day of judgement"’. I lit a candle in church to St. Rita; her image was far from the altar, but Grandmama assured me that it was to her you needed to pray in hopeless cases. Having asked for her protection, I should very likely become one of the lucky ones who achieve their school certificate. And that is what happened. I said to Mme Julien:
- ‘You know, I think I received my certificate because I managed to include in my essay your word saugrenu.’
This important event was celebrated in our house with a party. It was held not only because I had received my ‘diploma’, but also because Matite had managed to pass her certificate from the first attempt. A family council was held at the end of the party. It was decided that there was no reason for Matite and me to go on learning. Mme Julien was of the same opinion. We had no special talent for mathematics, nor French, nor other subjects. In a word, no talent for the disciplines!
- ‘Mireille does only one thing well,’ said the teacher. ‘She sings wonderfully. How unfortunate that she has never seriously taken up music!’
This was my own fault. Mme Julien advised me more than once to attend classes at the music school, where they were given for free. And so that I could arrive on time she even let me leave school a little early…
Encouraged, I went to the preparatory music theory class, situated in the music school’s beautiful building on the square before the Papal palace.
Looking around, I understood at once that all twenty-five students knew their notes, whereas I hadn’t the first idea about them. In addition, I had bad luck: the next day I fell ill with influenza. When two weeks later I again appeared in class, I was of course seated at the last desk. In a word, everything repeated itself as it was at school!
- ‘This is all Chinese to me, why do I need to know it?’ I thought. And didn’t set foot there again.
- ‘We could help around the house,’ suggested Matite, who loved to cook and keep house. I confess that those kind of tasks weren’t attractive to me. To my great relief, Papa didn’t support my sister’s suggestion. Matite, of course, was still a little girl, but I had already turned fourteen, so he decided that it would be better to find me some kind of work.
- ‘It is necessary to learn some kind of trade,’ he said. ‘It will always support you in life.’
I eagerly agreed. I couldn’t wait to make my contribution to the family budget. The ability to earn my own living filled me with pride. From now on I wouldn’t be a burden to anyone!
- ‘Yes, Papa, I really want to work, and I’m ready to do anything.’
- ‘Do anything… do you realise what you’re saying?! I won’t allow you to do just anything!’
Everyone laughed. I though with satisfaction that my childhood had come to an end. I had now become a young woman and could help my family.
One evening my father, having returned home, said:
- ‘The thing’s in the bag! Tomorrow morning you can start at the envelope-making factory!’
- ‘What will I do there, Papa?’
- ‘What will you do? Glue envelopes, I suppose.’
And because happiness doesn’t happen once, Mama in her turn arrived with astounding news: we were being moved once again.
- ‘We’re going to live in the quarter Croix-des-Oiseaux, they have built some low-priced apartments there!’
Croix-des-Oiseaux… it was a real palace! At least it seemed so to us: there we had four rooms, and above all a shower! And an unheard-of luxury: hot water flowed from the tap. Our parents had a room with a balcony. And in the room which Christiane, Matite and I shared was a washstand; one other room was given to the boys, and the other – to the youngest girls. A drug store and a book shop were situated on the ground floor of the house.
- ‘I think we’ll live well here, my little quail,’ said Mama, ‘and then, with your help, it’ll be easier to make ends meet!’
She said this to encourage me, because I brought home only 350 franks. To tell the truth, there was nothing else to pay me for. But the name of my position – stock operator - sounded solid enough. All in all there were twenty of us workers; I worked in the packaging section. On one side lay a pile of envelopes, and on the other – boxes in which they were to be laid. A simple enough task… as the youngest, I was placed to help two experienced workers – Mme Jeanne and her husband Louis.
- ‘Didn’t you start working a bit young?’ she said.
- ‘Not at all! I’m already in my fifteenth year!’
- ‘Do you want a lolly?’
Mme Jeanne showed me how to fold cardboard to make a box. I would give her one, she’d bind it with clips using a machine and hand it to her husband, who packed the envelopes into it.
- ‘This job isn’t hard at all!’
- ‘At your age everything seems a game,’ she observed, not without some surprise.
On the factory
I sang constantly, and our workshop became much more lively. Once, the owner of the factory came in; I shut up at once.
- ‘Keep going, keep going, my dear. With your arrival the work goes faster!’
After that he would occasionally look in:
- ‘How are things, Mireille? Has something happened? Why aren’t you singing this morning?’
He was very friendly. I didn’t want to disappoint Mme Jeanne and her husband, who still gave me sweets, but I dreamed of moving to the workshop where they made the envelopes. This work was paid a little better. Everyone sat behind a small machine which cut the paper, folded the envelopes and smeared glue on them. The job demanded attention: if the machine wasn’t stopped in time a hand could get caught in it. Therefore there could be no talk about trusting such work to a girl not yet fifteen. But I wanted to earn even a tiny bit more, and I bravely asked the owner whether I could work extra hours.
- ‘Could you arrive here by five a.m.?’
- ‘Of course, monsieur!’
- ‘But you’ll have to get up at the crack of dawn. You won’t manage without a bicycle… ’
He offered that I take a bike and pay for it gradually, out of my wages. The instalments, I have to say, were very modest, but having acquired a bike I could leave home at dawn and return late at night, saving time. Of course, not everything was that easy… both early in the morning and late at night I had to take out or return the bike to the cellar of our house, and darkness reigned there. Just in case, I armed myself with a broom, because I felt very cowardly. But my aim to bring home 500 franks a month instead of 350 helped me to conquer my fear. Mama guessed that I was very scared, and reassured me:
- ‘Don’t worry, my darling, I’m standing on guard.’
The next year Matite turned fourteen. I asked the factory owner whether he would take my little sister to work. She took my place in the package area, where I had helped Mme Jeanne and her husband, and I finally moved to the workshop with the envelope machines. Every shift, about seven thousand envelopes were made on each of them. I handled them playfully. What if the machine was set to work just a little bit faster, wouldn’t it then make more envelopes?! For that I only had to change my repertoire and sing the songs of Trenet instead of Piaf!
Pride filled me at the thought that I now also earned money, and heard much less often how Mama complained that ‘this month it will again be impossible to buy the things we need’; this helped me bear certain inconveniences more easily, for example, days when the mistral blew. Raging, it burst into the alleys between houses with such strength that each time it threatened to flatten me and my bike against a wall. Then I had to get off the seat and, clasping the handles tightly, slowly creep along in total darkness… but now Matite went to work with me, and whatever they say, together things are not so scary!
We both got up at four o’clock, trying not to wake the others. But Mama and Papa were always on their feet by then, making coffee for us…
There were often engagements made at the factory, and things usually culminated in a wedding; in such cases the owner sent around a glass of wine for everyone, and I was invariably asked to sing.
- ‘It is about time you took part in the contest!’ said one of my girlfriends once.
- ‘And she’ll win, of course!’ said another.
- ‘With her wondrous voice!’ Added Mme Jeanne.
They meant the contest ‘They sing in my quarter’, which was organised by the city hall, aiming to revive musicianship in Avignon: it was a contest between amateurs, who sang songs at each crossroads!
Returning from the factory, we went past the ‘Beer Palace’, where teenagers who lived nearby gathered eagerly. Occasionally someone had a glass right by the entrance. As is known, I wasn’t particularly brave, and hurriedly tried, unnoticed, to slip inside. Some of my girlfriends scheduled meetings with their admirers here. Me – never. Flirting didn’t attract me. And besides, in my mind a secret idea slowly ripened, gradually taking over my whole being: I dreamed of becoming a singer. Does there exist a more wonderful occupation in the world?! It gives you joy all year round. And you give happiness to everyone who listens to you. Because as you sing, they forget about their problems, their pains… I had observed this in our house, when we listened to Edith Piaf.
As they day of the competition approached, the inhabitants of each quarter became more and more passionate defenders of the one who was to uphold their prestige. And then I gathered my resolve. Matite and my girlfriends from the factory from day to day persistently tried to convince me that it was about time I spoke to Mama.
- ‘I am already thinking about it,’ she said. ‘I just don’t know how your father will react to it… ’
Our Papa – so kind and yet with that so strict… we were never allowed to leave home in the evenings, so there could be no talk about being late for something, even by ten minutes… on Sunday, when we could without hurrying sit down and chat, I, exchanging a meaningful look with Mama, began to talk about the contest.
- ‘A great idea, this contest,’ observed Papa. ‘You know, were I younger, I would take part in it myself, in a suitable section.’
- ‘In what section? As a performer of comic songs?’ Said Mama scathingly.
Papa threw her a withering look:
- ‘Comic songs? Me?! I would have performed as an opera singer, and you know it very well! But our Mimi here can perform in the contest as a variety singer. And she can do it well.’
The idea about my participation in the contest was expressed by Papa himself: I had won!
Perhaps not quite yet, however. I still had to prepare for the contest. I dared take the first step: Mama and I went to the city hall, where I entered myself as a competitor.
- ‘In which section do you intend to perform?’ Asked the attendant.
- ‘As a variety singer!’
- ‘What? But you are still so small!’
- ‘However, I have a strong voice!’
For the first time I, so naturally shy, defended my rights. Mama looked at me with undisguised amazement. Then I did not realise it, but later, remembering that incident, understood clearly that just at that moment the insurmountable desire to be a professional singer had been born in me. I felt, though not quite consciously, that not for anything would I agree to spend my whole life at the factory, gluing envelopes or making boxes, like poor Mme Jeanne. That night I tossed and turned in bed for a long time.
- ‘Aren’t you asleep?’ Said Matite surprisedly.
- ‘No. How do you think: what if I really do become a genuine singer?’
- ‘Like Edith Piaf or Maria Candido? That would utterly change our whole lives!’
I imagined Mama, who works hard even just before giving birth… she awaited then her twelfth child. One more mouth to feed…
- ‘But look: not a word to anyone! Let this be our secret.’
- ‘I understand. After all, it is still just a game.’
The next day everyone argued hotly which song I should choose. Myself, I liked ‘Mon légionnaire’ best of all, but here Mama firmly disagreed:
- ‘This song is too old for you!’
We voted with a simple show of hands, and the majority went for the song ‘Les Cloches de Lisbonne’, which Maria Candido’s performance had made famous. I successfully passed the preliminary sortings in the presence of the contest’s organisers. The committee was headed by Raoul Colombe, the deputy mayor, president of the Co-ordinating Committee of Avignon Activities. He was helped by Jean-Denis Languet, previously a reporter at the Dauphiné Libéré. I fulfilled all the criteria set down for the contest: I was a full fifteen years old (soon to be sixteen) and I wasn’t a professional actress.
The important evening came; it was June.
- ‘Are you scared?’ Asked Matite, brushing my hair before the performance.
- ‘Yes, a little bit… ’
- ‘But it’s… still a game… ’
She looked at me meaningfully, as if reminding about our agreement.
And it began! I stood on a raised platform… just like at school fetes, with the sole difference that before me were not my friends, but a real public. A public that had come here to enjoy themselves, compare and discuss the singers, and maybe whistle them off the stage. Some listened very attentively, because they were on my side, others, on the other hand, made noise. I decided to do whatever it took to achieve success. And trilled out my song. In those minutes I vowed to myself to overcome all obstacles and become a singer!
- ‘Dear God, I was afraid that you’d lose your voice!’ Mama admitted to me later in the evening.
I qualified for the semi-finals. My sisters were more anxious than I was myself. My brothers, grandfather, grandmother, Aunt Irène, my cousin, great-aunt Juliette – all stood right behind me… only poor uncle Raoul, whose hump brought good luck, was absent. Seemingly, that was the charm I needed but lacked. In a word, this time ‘Les Cloches de Lisbonne’ did not announce my triumph. The winner was a pretty blonde, who had performed in another quarter, far from the centre! It was unthinkable… simply unthinkable…
- ‘Don’t cry, my dear,’ said M. Colombe to me kindly. ‘You are so young. You still have lots of time! Use it to work on your voice, and… till next year!’
Only Matite alone understood the depth of my despair. I had suffered a defeat… and like the story with the school certificate, I had to take another shot at success. But her swollen veins made it necessary for Mama to go to hospital again… I saw her suffering, I understood how worried she was about the constant demand for money, and so the need to wait another whole year seemed to me unbearable. And I had so hoped for success!
- ‘Monsieur Colombe is absolutely right,’ said Papa, ‘you really do need to work on your voice. For that you’ll have to have lessons.’
I was alarmed:
- ‘In the music school again, because they teach for free?’
- ‘No, since you didn’t like it… I was thinking about something completely different. You know Marcel, the collier?’
- ‘The one who lives near the cemetery?’
- ‘Exactly. He was a tenor in Toulon before you were born.’
I was amazed. A tenor… who suddenly decided to become a collier?
- ‘Well, yes, when he began to lose his voice… he had to take up selling coal. Never forget about this incident if you become a singer, my daughter!’
Really I didn’t take lessons from the collier himself, but from his wife Laure Collière. They had married when she was a pianist in the Toulon Opera. Later she became a concert master in the Avignon Opera. And once she retired, she began to give music lessons.
- ‘I won’t take much from Mimi,’ she said to Papa. ‘Is six franks per lesson all right with you?’
I had insisted that I would pay for my schooling from my own earnings. And, as a ‘brilliant laureate’ of the school certificate (let us not remember how I got it!), I quickly calculated that for two lessons a week I would have to put aside 48 franks monthly, and I could take them out of my pocket money, without affecting the family budget.
- ‘Yes, that is fine!’ I exclaimed.
I was proud of myself. I was happy also that Papa, albeit silently, supported me. Of course, he understood that now it wasn’t just a game for me… my future was at stake. But I never told anyone anything, I hid it all at the bottom of my heart. I didn’t even speak about it with Matite. Uttering words out loud touches the most inner, treasured part of you, and even a flower can wilt when touched. In that sense I was already becoming a performer, without even realising it – I was beginning to believe in omens!
My first lesson nearly ended in catastrophe. Mme Collière assumed that doubtlessly, I knew music theory.
- ‘You don’t even know the notes?’
- ‘No, Madame.’
- ‘That doesn’t prevent you from singing in tune, happily! All right, then, let us begin with vocals… ’
I really liked it. I felt true elation when I sang melodious vowel sounds in a loud voice. Perhaps too loud. Mme Collière had to temper my enthusiasm.
- ‘Mireille, if you’ll permit me to say so, you don’t sing, you yell! Learn to modulate!’
For me that was the hardest to do… but hadn’t I firmly decided to succeed? In my ears sounded the voice of Edith Piaf, whose torrent of a voice took up the listener and carried him away. Mme Collière stubbornly tried to direct me on the right path, but in my heart I didn’t completely trust her. In a word, as Fanchon had said once, I was as stubborn as a mule…
- ‘I am not at all sure that you’re doing the right thing in deciding to sing ‘L’Hymne à l’amour’ at the contest,’ she tried to persuade me. ‘You are still too young for that.’
I tried not to show it, but her words made me despair. Too young! When would they finally stop considering me a child? I paid for these lessons with my own money! Does a child have his own money?
- ‘Very well… you’ll see for yourself… ’ said Mme Collière.
Nonetheless we continued to work on ‘L’Hymne à l’amour’ twice weekly in the house on Rue des Teinturiers. And I still got up at first light to be on time for work at the envelope-making factory, which for some time now had been situated at Montfavet. Our master hadn’t managed to renew the contracts for the lease of the old building. I didn’t quite understand what had prevented him from doing so. But facts were facts: the factory had to move to what we called the country. In truth Montfavet was situated right next to Avignon. Now, when we had to daily travel a few extra kilometres, Matite and I acquired two Solex bicycles, the cost of which was taken out of our salaries. We agreed to this because rumours were circulating that our master was having financial problems. This became clear in winter. There was no money to pay for heating, and as once at home, we had burn alcohol when our fingers became numb from the cold.
Now my ‘fans’ from ‘The Beer Palace’, where I had begun to perform more often, kept up my spirits. Especially enthusiastic was Françoise Vidal (her mother owned the hairdresser’s in Montfavet). Françoise was my devoted follower.
- ‘Before the contest I’ll take you to Mama, and she’ll make you a wonderful hairstyle. I’m sure of it.’
Her mother let Françoise go to discos. This didn’t interest me much.
- ‘You’ll see, you’ll meet such nice boys there… ’
I shook my head, declining. I only had enough free time to help around the house a little, go to music lessons and dream about the future. Françoise insisted.
- ‘On Sunday after lunch, lets go have some fun at the ‘Bowling’!’
She meant the nearby discotheque. I persuaded Matite to go with me. I only agreed to go so that I could listen to the discs. However, Edith Piaf wasn’t particularly popular here. Here, they idolised the Beatles and Elvis… I met an acquaintance there – Michel, in his time he had played in the same school yard as I. Having matured, each time he met me with groceries in my hands he would take the basket from my hands and help carry it home; often he played football with the twins, who were six years younger than him.
- ‘It’s rare to meet a boy who likes to play with the little ones!’ Remarked Mama. ‘He must have a good heart.’
I don’t think that Mama didn’t understand why Michel so often hung around near our house. She had long ago guessed that he wasn’t indifferent to me. His bike, as though accidentally, constantly appeared in our way. Perhaps everything had to do with Matite, with whom I was inseparable; on seeing Michel she’d burst out laughing. He never missed a celebration at which I sang, but behaved very modestly. I think he was a little afraid of my father.
- ‘You protect your daughters so much,’ joked Mama, ‘that you’ll scare away all my future sons-in-law!’
Once Michel came with tickets to a football match; he was a big fan. He played himself, and went to matches in which his friends competed. But I was learning the song ‘La vie en rose’, Matite declared that she didn’t like football, and the poor guy had to deal with the twins again.
Michel told me that he would without fail come to the contest, to raise my morale; moreover, he declared that he’d penetrate backstage as well.
- ‘No, no, that’s impossible.’
He stared at me in surprise:
- ‘But I want to cheer you up… ’
- ‘You don’t understand… in those minutes I can count only on myself. No one can help me, not Mama nor even Papa!’
Then he declared that he’d sit in the hall, in one of the left rows. How could I explain to him that on stage, I couldn’t make out a single face in the public!
For the second time I suffered defeat. Mme Collière turned out to be right. I was seen, without doubt, to be too young for ‘L’Hymne à l’amour’, and I felt it at once. The public reacted condescendingly to the young songstress. I even received some applause, but I couldn’t fire up the auditorium. Victory again slipped right out of my grasp. All that was left to do was hide my disappointment, which I did, quietly swallowing tears.
- ‘It’s all right, it’s all right, everything’s not that bad,’ Papa tried to comfort me. ‘You did beat many of your rivals… ’
- ‘I might have beaten them, but someone else came first!’
I remembered for a long time the surprised look that Papa gave me. While I was still at school, even in the last year, when I had to achieve my school certificate, he had never heard me speak in that tone of voice. The decisiveness that had sounded in my words was something completely new. And I added immediately:
- ‘I will never accept this defeat!’
- ‘Are you going to continue taking lessons?’
- ‘Of course, Papa.’
He smiled. When M. Colombe kindly came over to comfort me, I said with unexpected firmness:
- ‘Till next year!’
The next day I was again with Mme Collière.
- ‘Now, my little quail, you sing more melodiously and soundly, but you are still too loud… it’s not that easy to become a real singer.’
- ‘It may be so, but I still want to be one. And only a real one.’
The lessons continued. Finally I had come to love them. They became my real refuge. There I forgot about my troubles, of which at the factory there were more and more, the atmosphere there became heavier every day. Not even speaking about the anxieties at home, of which there were more than enough. It was necessary to constantly worry about the health of my little brothers: they were quite sickly and fragile.
- ‘Oh! If only they had your health,’ said Mama, distressed.
On the day that Rémi turned seven, his temperature leaped up to forty degrees (the poor thing had often been ill in the past as well). His throat swelled up so that he couldn’t say a word. We urgently called doctor André. Just in case he took a smear, although he was sure about the diagnosis: diphtheria. And once again – the hospital. Finally, the tenth of May in the year 1964, which was to play such an important role in my life, Mama brought the thirteenth child into the world…
Thank God, it was a girl, we could hope that with her there would be fewer problems than with the boys. The same cheerful nurse said with a satisfied look:
- ‘I did tell you, Madame Mathieu, that you wouldn’t stop at a dozen and give us a thirteenth… ’
And Mama laughed and laughed… I had never before seen her so happy! She became serious only when she spoke with me about the singing contest. I had decided to again perform with an Edith Piaf song, whose style this time quite suited me; at least I thought so.
- ‘And what does Mme Collière say about it?’
- ‘She thinks that this time everything will go well.’
- ‘All the better,’ remarked Mama, ‘I do love that song, ‘La vie en rose’!
I knew that. And partly because of that chose it. Let it even deceive my true admirer Michel, convinced that I sang it for him…
Of course, I was very nervous. Even more so than the first time. I desperately needed a victory. This time I followed Mme Collière’s advice exactly. Mercilessly, I worked on my voice each evening; standing before the closet mirror, I painstakingly searched for the image I would present to the public. Papa asked Aunt Irène to go with me to the shop ‘Muguet de Paris’ and choose a dress there for me. That was the most chic shop in Avignon. The fact itself that Papa had decided to use up his small savings showed that he believed in me. Mama didn’t leave the side of little Béatrice, who had just turned a month old, and Aunt Irène gladly agreed to carry out the task. I told her that I needed the most simple black dress.
- ‘One like Piaf’s?’ She asked.
I nodded in agreement.
Edith Piaf had died only eight months before. This loss had shaken the whole of France, and for the first time I realised to what extent a country could love a popular singer. At home we read the newspaper out loud, where there was much said about her. We studied photographs, taken during the funeral. And mourned her death, as though she had been a member of our family. I was shaken, having understood that a person can be close to millions of people. I couldn’t even imagine that I’d dare to replace her. She remained the one and only. Even our father said:
- ‘This loss is irreplaceable… ’
And I was convinced of that. When I sang Piaf’s songs during her lifetime, it seemed to me that through that I express the highest admiration for her. And now, when she was no more, I wouldn’t forgive myself if I stopped singing them. We had to honour her memory.
- ‘There is nothing shameful in that… ’ said Grandmama, giving me Piaf’s last disc.
The dress, bought in the section of mourning clothes, had muslin sleeves. Edith Piaf would never have worn anything like that, but nothing more modest could be found. I needed shoes too, and I chose the ones with the highest heels: I wanted to seem taller.
- ‘You need to put insoles in there, and thick ones, or the shoes will fall off your feet,’ commented the saleswoman, barely hiding her disapproval. Aunt Irène took me also to Madame Vidal’s hairdresser’s.
- ‘Keep your fringe: it suits you very well.’
And when she saw my short cut, which barely covered the ears, she exclaimed:
- ‘You look so nice! The spitting image of Louise Brooks!’
- ‘Who is she?’
- ‘A famous film actress, but you haven’t seen her on the screen.’
This didn’t interest me much. Then, I thought only of Edith Piaf, whom I had seen onscreen just twice.
- ‘I think that this time you have a very good chance!’ Said M. Colombe to me after the semi-final.
- ‘In nature things go in threes!’ Added M. Languet.
Their certainty filled me with hope. In the final I performed standing on an elevation in the centre of the magnificent square of the Papal palace. Behind it could be seen the Doms cliff, which I had so loved in childhood. The weather was wonderful. The mistral, miraculously, had died down. There was no space for even an apple to fall on the square. And suddenly I felt an unusual silence, an almost religious anticipation…
Quand il me prend dans ses bras
Je vois la vie en rose… !
… and a sudden explosion, a storm of applause, I felt as though I was floating above the ground… never before had I experienced anything like it.
- ‘Dear God! Dear God! Make it so that it happens again!’
I cried. Papa cried. Mama cried. Grandmama cried. Matite cried. The whole family cried, except baby Beatrice: having cried all day, she now smiled innocently! The decision had been announced: this time I had won the ‘Critérium’ (song tournament)! Flashes of light, the running of photographers… poor Michel was overwhelmed by journalists, my girlfriends, the inhabitants of our quarter. His football skills didn’t help him much: the chaos that had arisen seemed more like rugby!
I have to confess: for a whole hour, even several hours, I thought that the course of my life was confirmed, planned out. Hadn’t I won the contest? Hadn’t my photograph appeared on the front page of the ‘Provençal’ of 29 June 1964? But life went on: the next morning I was already cycling along the road to the factory.
- ‘The owner will probably send you a glass of wine,’ said Papa.
He really did give me a glass, but after that everything didn’t go at all how I expected it. He wished all kinds of successes to ‘little Mimi’… and after that with an anxious look told us that that was the ‘farewell’ glass. He was forced to shut the factory down… thus, the rumours that had long circulated about his bankruptcy turned out true. Madame Jeanne cried. Her husband, not hiding his disappointment, stood with his eyes cast down. The turmoil the owner felt could be clearly read on his face. Thus I remembered those with whom I had worked at the factory.
- ‘What are we going to do now?’ asked Matite on the way home.
- ‘Now that I have become a singer… there is nothing to worry about! I will always be able to earn our living… ’
Alas, it didn’t turn out to be that easy… M. Colombe explained it to me. He believed that I could become a singer, and sent to a reputable company in Paris a tape on which the songs of my still-modest repertoire were recorded. But there was no point in hoping for a swift reply, especially since it was now the time of vacations and holidays.
Holidays… and suddenly it came to me. After a few days I told Françoise the following news:
- ‘To earn some money, I have gotten a job in the summer camp ‘Dragonfly’.
- ‘How did you manage it?’
- ‘Firstly, I myself have stayed there more than once, secondly I am the eldest in a large family, and in addition to everything I have good recommendations! It’s great! I’ll be teaching children to sing!’
Unlike the envelope-making factory, the Office of Family Benefit had all the necessary funds. Proof of that: that year a new summer camp was opened at Rochefort-du-Gard. It was there that I met with my little ‘monsters’.
That summer I hadn’t grown very much, and some of my pupils were a head taller than me. All of them had a steady reputation as problem children. But I understood very well why they were like that. They were growing up in poor families. Their problems were the same as those experienced by the inhabitants of Malpeignes: the need for money, unemployment, drunkenness, divorced parents, family arguments – in a word, all those difficulties which (except for the lack of money) had bypassed our family, where love always reigned. With us everyone had an equal right to express their opinions – both children and parents. I had to use the same tactic if I wanted to win the children’s trust and allow them to be frank with me… with Matite it was simpler: she had started as a teacher of the youngest group in kindergarten. I had to deal with girls and boys of ten to twelve years. They were called the ‘terribles’ of the school. Perhaps I wouldn’t have been able to deal with them, if I hadn’t been surrounded by a kind of aura as the winner of the ‘Song Criterium’. Of course, they refused to observe the siesta, asserting that it was only for babies. We dedicated this time to singing. I taught them the ‘canons’.
I had thirty students. They made up quite a good choir. The ice was broken, good relationships were established. I even heard some of their frank, sometimes dramatic tales: a violent father tormented his wife; a mother, abandoning her children, left with another man; someone in the family was seriously ill, and sometimes even died… others confessed in despair that they didn’t understand what there was to live for. I had little more life experience than they… but I could at least convince them that happiness does exist. And in the meantime I continued to teach them singing…
Many years later, performing on TV in Mexico, I met a French make-up artist; she was called Marie-José.
She asked me:
- ‘Do you remember me? I was holidaying in the summer camp ‘Dragonfly’…
That was one of my former pupils… she had come to her uncle, who had based himself in Mexico and made a career. Each time I now find myself in Mexico and again appear on television, I trust myself to her without fear: she is an excellent make-up artist.
Of course, in the beginning of my career I put on my own make-up. I feel true pleasure, ‘working’ on my face. They say that monks are recognised my their cowls; at first I thought that true artists were recognised by their make-up. Since then I have changed my mind… it seems that my adherence to make-up in my youth was a kind of childish protest against my father’s ban, who stubbornly refused to let us paint our lips and wear rouge. Now he was silent, understanding that I was grooming myself ‘for the stage’… his unfulfilled dream to become a singer was coming true in me.
The autumn of 1964 dragged on for me like a long winter. M. Colombe offered me participation in several gala-concerts in different places. Papa didn’t object.
- ‘It will help you to keep your voice… you mustn’t allow it to become weaker!’
At the mere thought that my voice could sound worse I was gripped by horror. Papa explained to me that a voice must be worked on constantly, it must be cared for and protected. And I firmly decided to do everything so that my voice wouldn’t worsen.
Before my appearance on the ‘Critérium’ Aunt Irène had given me her rouge and eyeshadow. Now for ‘my’ gala-concerts I bought my own make-up in the shop ‘Dames de France’. Here my eyes ran away with me. I hesitated over what to choose: bright red or pale pink rouge, light blue or ultramarine eyeshadow; I endlessly asked advice of the chubby blonde saleswoman, who could very well be part of the window display: her face was painted in all the colours of the rainbow. She was a dedicated fan of the ‘Critérium’ and therefore I became her favourite customer: she even addressed me by the personal ‘tu’. Now, when I returned home with a whole set of make-up, Papa didn’t make the smallest criticism: no one in the family doubted the success of my coming career.
However, on the second storey of the town hall, where I went almost every day to ask for any news, they were already worried. Monsieur Colombe phoned Roger Lanzac, trying to achieve my participation in ‘Télé-Dimanche’ – this was the most popular program, in which participated the best amateurs singers from all corners of France.
- ‘This girl, Mireille Mathieu, has had a brilliant victory in our city contest; she could also make a successful appearance at a national competition… ’
- ‘What did he say?’
- ‘He says that they can’t move from the number of those wanting to take part in the contest. So there is no hope to appear in it before 1966… ’
When Monsieur Colombe rang Roger Lanzac for the second time, he lost his composure:
- ‘I told you – nothing can be done till 1966!’
To wait almost two years more… it was a whole eternity!
A joyless, empty life, gloomy, like a dried-out river bed. And in addition all other glimmerings of hope were destroyed when the record company’s answer came. Unfortunately, the reply was also in the negative.
- ‘What did they write, Monsieur Colombe?’
- ‘It seems that they need something unusual… ’
Does that mean that in their opinion I was usual, common? This thought long poisoned my heart.
- ‘A little more patience, my dear Mimi,’ spoke M. Colombe. ‘For now you’ll sing in the park, where they hold shows… ’
I brought out my black dress and high-heeled shoes. I brought makeup to concerts in my school case. Mme Collière put up her music and sat down behind the piano. Mainly, those concerts were attended by youth. In the first row sat the whole Mathieu family, squashed like fans of a favourite football team. Without fail came my own fan Michel.
- ‘He won’t leave off!’ Said Matite angrily. ‘Do you really like him?’
- ‘He’s nice enough.’
Michel had a loud voice. He always yelled ‘bravo, Mireille!’ first, passing on his delight to the rest of the public, which usually was mainly interested in pop music.
- ‘What does it mean, this ‘yeah, yeah’?’ Said Papa in outrage. ‘It’s only a concession to fashion. All fashion goes out of date. But you, you sing songs that are un-for-get-tab-le!’
Once a tall girl called Mauricette came backstage. I hadn’t seen her after finishing school, where she had been the captain of our basketball team.
- ‘My dear Mauricette! It looks like you’ve grown even more!’
- ‘That’s not the point, Mimi! This time it is you who has thrown the ball into the basket!’
The basketball hoop… how I had dreamed about being able to reach it! I despaired of being so short, and of hearing the same words over and over: ‘She grows so slowly, your daughter! Is she suffering from anything?’ – ‘No, of course not, what nonsense,’ said Mama angrily. ‘Look at me, she’s taken after her mother.’ – ‘But no! You are much taller, Madame Mathieu!’ – ‘But I’ve already stopped growing, and she hasn’t!’ Mauricette comforted me more than once: ‘You know, it’s good to be of a small height! When they take pictures of us in school, you’re always in the first row! And when we play basketball it’s nothing for you to slip forward, grab the ball and throw it over to me, and I’ll get it into the basket!’
This manoeuvre worked every time, without fail. And I even came to terms with being small. Papa, having heard that night the boundless praise heaped on me by Mauricette, didn’t tire of repeating:
- ‘That’s my daughter: good things come in small packages!’
How could I doubt the future when everyone around me believed in me so much?!
M. Colombe gave me 200 franks, and Matite, her eyes round with amazement, cried:
- ‘Can you imagine it? Two hundred franks for four songs! As much as you used to earn at the factory in two weeks!’
- ‘Yes, that’s true.’
- ‘Then why do you look so worried?’
- ‘If I’m only going to give two concerts… I’ll earn less in a year than I’d earn in a month making envelopes!’
Luckily, after just two weeks M. Colombe invited me to participate in another gala-concert. And, as usual, in the front row sat my dedicated listeners: the whole Mathieu family, and in the back, trying to seem invisible, Michel.
I still didn’t want him to meet me backstage. How could I explain it? There it was very crowded, instruments lay or stood everywhere, people went back and forth. Because of my small stature I didn’t attract much attention, buttoned up, my hair neatly brushed and make-up in place – at least, it seemed so to me – and awaiting my appearance on stage with a motionless face, like a mannequin, trying to hide the excitement and fear that had filled me. To conquer it – I felt, I knew it – I couldn’t even turn around, I had to remain totally ready, not relaxing for a moment. The arrival of Michel, wanting to encourage me, even perhaps to give me a friendly hug, would do the opposite, make me lose my courage, firmness, stability. But how could I explain all this to him, without seeming spoiled and proud? Therefore I just told him that he must not follow me behind the scenes. After the concert I was surrounded and completely taken over by a thick circle of relatives, so poor Michel could only express his delight by gesturing wildly… I must admit that I picked out his voice when he – albeit not with hundreds, but merely with two dozens of friends – loudly yelled: ‘Bravo, Mimi!’
Once at the end of February, I as usual climbed to the second storey of the town hall, and there found out some amazing news.
- ‘Mimi! Everything’s all right, we’ve succeeded! You’re going to Paris! To participate in ‘Télé-Dimanche’! In the section ‘Game of Fortune’!’
- ‘When will it be?’
- ‘They decided to listen to you at the preliminary auditions for amateur singers on the eighteenth of March. So you’re leaving by train on the sixteenth of March.’
Easy to say, by train! I hadn’t once in my life travelled on the railway. We were taken to summer holiday camps by bus. M. Colombe explained to me that the town hall would buy the ticket.
- ‘And what about Aunt Irène’s ticket?’ (Mama was nursing Béatrice, who was only eight months old).
- ‘We don’t have money for the second ticket, but one of the inhabitants of Avignon will probably be taking the same train as you… ’
And in fact, my companion turned out to be a retired colonel: he was travelling to the assembly of the knights of the Legion of Honour. By the way, he was a member of our festival organisation committee.
- ‘Don’t talk to anyone on the train except Colonel Cruzel… and that only if he speaks to you first!’ Instructed Mama.
- ‘So you don’t get lost, take a taxi right by the Lyons Station,’ advised Papa.
- ‘Call us from Magali’s as soon as you get there.’
Magali Viaud, a young woman from Courthézon, near Avignon, worked in Paris in an advertising agency. Her mother was a pianist, and Mama had warned her of my arrival beforehand; Magali promised to lodge me in her two-bedroom apartment. I took several things with me: my black dress, a make-up set, the music for four songs and high-heeled shoes. Seeing me at the station with a large suitcase, the colonel asked, ‘Are you going for a long time?’ – ‘I don’t even know myself.’
I was going to sing, and who knows, perhaps I would be offered a contract. On the platform – the train left at thirteen hours thirteen minutes, which seemed to me a good omen – Mama, Matite, Christiane and everyone else cried so hard as though they had no hope of seeing me again. The colonel lifted my suitcase to put it into the luggage net, and cried:
- ‘My God, it is so light! There’s not much in here!’
- ‘If I need anything else, I’ll buy it in Paris!’
I didn’t yet believe that my name would ‘crown the affiches’, as Aznavour says, but it already seemed to me that my life would ‘unfurl like a beautiful fan’… Papa came into the wagon and hugged me hard, very hard.
- ‘You show them in Paris how they sing here in Avignon!’
Papa quickly jumped out, and then I saw Michel on the platform. He didn’t dare to come up to us… but he came to see me off with Mauricette and my girlfriends from the factory, and their mothers. There was Françoise Vidal and her mother, who had done my hair so well. Even my brothers’ friends came. A bouquet of flowers was handed from hand to hand, until at last it was thrust at me through the wagon’s window.
Near the train was even a reporter who had covered the song contest. ‘Well, are you very nervous?’ He asked me. The train was already moving, and I could only call out to him, ‘I swear, not at all!’
This was the truth. Even if I had had time, I couldn’t’ve said anything else! In my dreams I was being carried towards a great happiness, the even knocking of the train’s wheels lulled me, and the landscape flashing by outside delighted me…
And so, for the first time in my life I was by myself, free. I hadn’t yet turned nineteen…
The final stop… Paris. The Colonel said to me, ‘Goodbye, little Mimi, and lots of success to you!’ – and disappeared at once, surrounded by his colleagues. I was left to myself, and joined the queue for a taxi on the square before the Lyons Station, which seemed to me as huge as the Papal palace. I didn’t dare look around, fearing to attract attention. With the easy manner of someone who knows her way around I gave the address to the taxi driver: ‘Rue d’Aboukir’, and with surprise heard in reply: ‘You’re not from around here!’
Papa had insisted that I shouldn’t talk to people I didn’t know, but it couldn’t apply to the taxi driver, and so I asked: ‘How did you guess that?’ – ‘It’s not hard – by your accent!’ – ‘Do you speak with an accent too?’ – ‘Me? Nothing doing! I was born in Paris!’
I didn’t argue with him, remembering Papa’s advice not to enter into conversation with anyone. But the thought didn’t leave me that Parisians aren’t very friendly. That made me feel uncomfortable. I tried not to show how surprised I was by everything that opened up before my eyes. Along the banks of the Seine there were multitudes of second-hand booksellers. There, where we would have sold melons, Parisians sold books! Did that mean that they read a lot and were very educated? How would I look among them with my wretched school certificate! I felt very lonely when we arrived on Rue d’Aboukir. I don’t know myself why I had expected a wide avenue. In reality I found myself on a narrow road before a huge house; the chauffeur explained: ‘A popular newspaper is housed here… ’ – and took my suitcase. ‘Looks like there aren’t too many things in here! Why do you need such a huge trunk?’ – ‘So that I can fill it to the top here!’
I don’t know what had come over me, but I had shut up, like a clam.
The corridor leading from the entrance seemed to me dark and gloomy. I climbed to the fourth storey. I have to admit I was a little scared… happily, Magali, whom I had never seen, turned out to have an open, friendly face. She was twenty-three years old, but I imagined that the difference in our ages was much greater. She already had her own life, friends and a job, she had her own apartment, favourite books and closets full of possessions. And most importantly, she understood how to live in Paris, she was prepared enough for it! Whereas I – I only had a loud voice and a large suitcase, in which there rattled a dress, a brassiere, panties and a toothbrush.
The next day was a Sunday, and naturally I wanted to go to mass. The nearest church, Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, was located right after the intersection, where there was the beginning of a little street which served as the continuation of Rue d’Aboukir; its name – Rue du Mail – reminded me of the South. It ended in a small square, of which there were so many in the province; almost all of this square was taken up by a large church, and right across it was a little baker-confectioner’s, where, like in Avignon, one could go to have a sweet roll after the mass.
Inside the cathedral I just stood there, my mouth open. To the left of the nave stretched a small gallery, decked with the gifts of the parishioners… I had never seen such a large quantity of offerings… one would think that the Parisians had more troubles than us!
How many inscriptions thanking for a cure, for a prayer listened to, and simply words of gratitude to the Virgin Mary! Not far from the altar I saw the statue of my favourite – Saint Rita. I had with me the money to catch a taxi to the concert hall… but I risked using up a little to buy a wax candle. I lit it nervously. Too bad: I’d just have to forget about the sweet Parisian roll…
In our house we were so used to watching ‘Télé-Dimanche’ that the presenter, Roger Lanzac, almost began to seem like a family member. Sometimes we would say: ‘He looks a little tired… ’ or another time were glad: ‘Well, today he looks just magnificent!’ We noticed everything: bags under his eyes, how his voice sounded, how his costume sat on him, what tie he wore… Therefore, without any hint of fear, I came up to him and said naturally:
- ‘Good day, Monsieur Lanzac! I’m Mireille Mathieu from Avignon.’
- ‘Good gracious, it turns out you have a strong accent!’
I know it well myself, but when I am told about it my shyness threatens to overwhelm me. A pretty blonde woman kindly asked me for music…
- ‘Piaf again!’ Says the pianist expressively.
The blonde lady leads me to the microphone. There is no audience in the hall, and therefore both my songs – ‘La vie en rose’ and ‘l’Hymne à l’amour’ – fall into resounding, frightening silence. From nowhere a voice comes:
- ‘Thank you, mademoiselle. We’ll write to you.’
I am baffled. The pianist returns my music. And then I resolutely ask the blonde lady: ‘But… where will they write to me?’ – ‘Where? To Avignon, of course. You still live there, no?’ – ‘And when will that be?’
In answer, the lady merely shrugs. So many participate in the preliminaries… everything is full until 1966…
They didn’t like me. It is perfectly obvious that they didn’t like me. Otherwise they’d have asked me to stay. Magali tries to comfort me. Since M. Colombe gave me 500 franks, she suggests going to the shops. This time – no taxi. We descend into the metro. They do look unhappy, those who use it! It’s easy to understand them: the air there is dank, stagnant, the walls grey, and the people – like ants in an anthill! We visit the lower storeys of the shops ‘Printemps’ and ‘Galeries Lafayette’. They are, perhaps, even larger than the Papal palace! But nothing gladdens me, because I’m not really seeing anything. Magali tries to convince me to buy a grey sweater.
- ‘It sits well on you and goes with your black dress… ’
- ‘I have the feeling that I’m never going to wear that dress again.’
- ‘All right, stop it,’ Magali cuts me off. ‘I’m betting anything that soon you’ll again appear on Rue d’Aboukir!’
I had arrived on the train that left at thirteen thirteen, and I lit a candle for Saint Rita… why had everything turned out so badly? On the way back to Avignon the suitcase seemed to me much heavier than when I set out, perhaps because there was so much weighing on my heart.
Papa met me like a heroine. Mama was delighted with a colourful postcard which had a picture of the Eiffel Tower on it. I had chosen such an inexpensive present because it was all that I could afford. The 500 franks given to me by M. Colombe I returned in full, saying:
- ‘Nothing came of it. I think that in Paris, they didn’t like me very much… ’
I was still under the impression of failure. M. Colombe is shrewd, and it didn’t escape him that I was close to tears.
- ‘Listen, Mireille… they’re all a bit crazy over in Paris! They don’t know themselves what they’re doing. But one fine day they’ll realise their mistake… and then you’ll again go to Magali’s. But until then, keep the five hundred franks, and look after your voice: you’ll need it for the gala-concerts. And keep taking lessons – summer isn’t far off.’
Life went on at our house. So as not to distress me, no one mentioned Paris. And I – all the more so. Only once did I say to Françoise: ‘No one will be looking for me here!’
My former classmate Lyne Mariani, meeting me on the street, found that I didn’t look like myself: ‘Remember how happy you used to be! You just had to burst our laughing – and we’d all be infected!’
It was this same infectious laugh that had befriended the daughter of a businessman and the daughter of a modest stonemason. Wanting to lift my mood, she tried to persuade me to go out and have fun… but Papa’s views hadn’t changed: he didn’t think that an eighteen-year-old girl, having once visited the capital, had the right to change her way of life. The eldest daughter should act as a model for the others, and therefore – no dances, no late nights. Especially since at home there is always something to do: three-year-old Philippe runs around the house like crazy; the twins, who have already turned thirteen years old, constantly think of stupid practical jokes and cause unthinkable chaos; the most quiet of them all is Rémi, but he needs help with his homework; six-year-old Sophie is a little demon – who thought of dipping the dog’s tail into Papa’s can of paint and use it for a brush?!
No, nothing had changed in my life… and the mistral blew constantly, as before. Once, when I was riding my bike, the mistral came with such force that I fell over into a pile of cauliflower. Strange, why were all these cauliflower heads heaped in a pile in the middle of the field, it’s not the place for them! A few paces away stood a farmhouse. I risked knocking at the door: ‘Excuse me, Madame, why is there a pile of cauliflower here?’ – ‘It’s already spoiled a bit. So we threw it out.’ – ‘Would I be able to take it, Madame? We’ll find a use for it at our house!’
I rouse my sisters. We arrive there with bags. And carry away all the cauliflower. At home we thoroughly clean and sort it, and there is enough to make three different dishes for the whole family. Mama was very happy, since in keeping house she constantly met with difficulties about food. A careless attitude to it she thought a crime. Sitting down at the table, we didn’t say a prayer, as they did in especially pious families, but we made the sign of the cross over the bread, and often Mama repeated: ‘Thank God that he sends you bread, while so many people in the world starve’. Never will I forget this incident with the cauliflower…
And Monsieur Colombe, in his turn, didn’t forget about little Mireille. When it was announced that in July inside the building of the travelling circus there would be a gala-concert with the participation of Enrico Macias, under the aegis of the Festivals Committee, he went to the concert organiser with the request to allow the favourite of the town, who had won the contest ‘They sing in my quarter’, to perform in the first half. Permission was given without much difficulty. I again donned my black dress and high-heeled shoes, with already habitual pleasure laid down a thin layer of make-up on my face: it didn’t belong to me anymore, but to the public! The heavenly gates of my dream, which had opened up slightly before me and then slammed tightly shut, suddenly came apart again… my interrupted career went on. I was giddy with happiness. Rumour about this concert spread not only in our quarter, but also beyond its boundaries.
- ‘Mimi? She’s going to sing with Enrico Macias,’ informed Mama, not without pride.
One could, of course, say ‘with him’, but it would be more correct to say ‘before him’. And if really correctly – ‘much, much earlier’, so I didn’t even much hope to see him! I perform right at the start of the concert. Naturally, friends from Avignon and the whole Mathieu family see me off with applause. I return backstage, which seems to me the most wondrous place in the world – everywhere cables, dust, general excitement, cries: ‘Damn it! Give me some light! What the devil!..’ And above everything reign the bright light of the projectors, I overhear the standard compliments exchanged by actors and actresses: ‘How are you, coco?’ or ‘Darling, today you were sublime!’ The interval begins. I am still numb. The concert organiser meets a tall man coming in from the hall and warmly thanks him for coming, he replies that he sees nothing to thank him for: he promised, so he came… he goes to greet the artists. And then his eyes land on me. Two steps, and he is before me: ‘So you are the singing girl from Avignon? Well, you have a nice voice, but you need to work on it a lot.’ – ‘I know, m’sieur.’ – ‘And you really want to become a singer?’ – ‘It’s the dream of my whole life!’
He smiles at me, and I have to tilt my head back precariously to meet the glance of his blue eyes.
- ‘Excellent… I am called Johnny Stark. Wait for my letter.’
Well, I am already familiar with that tune! But for some reason I believe him. I am so shaken that I even forget to take a look at Enrico Macias. Returning home, I retell the conversation to Papa.
- ‘How did you say he was called? Johnny Stark?’
- ‘Yes, that’s it.’
- ‘He must be American.’
- ‘Probably, he looks like one.’
- ‘And he told you he’d write to you? Well, all we can do is wait.’
Every day I lie in wait for the postman, awaiting a letter from New York, but it still doesn’t come. Neither does the letter from ‘Télé-Dimanche’. The slim thread of hope that led to my dreams is snapped again. And reality intrudes in all its unsightliness: Grandpapa falls very badly ill. He is struck by paralysis, doomed to motionlessness and deprived of speech. This is what he managed to say to me at the last: ‘When you perform on TV, I’ll buy you a new dress!’ Now he resembles those saints that he used to carve out of stone. Only their faces expressed bliss, while his is one of suffering. Between the doctor and my parents there is the following conversation: ‘Are you able to pay for his stay in hospital? Is he insured or not?’ – ‘No, he’s not insured! He’s one of the old masters. And in those times labourers weren’t insured.’ – ‘So that means that you have no money for his treatment?’
Papa flares up: ‘So if you have no money, you can die without aid?! We’ll pay by the month.’ Here Mama intervenes: ‘Listen, Roger, this isn’t the way. He’ll be completely neglected in hospital. It’s better if me wove him in with us. Tell me, doctor, what would they treat him with in hospital?’ – ‘There’s almost nothing to be done… we’ll administer a massage treatment to relieve pain, give some medicines… ’ – ‘But we can do all that at home.’
Papa, moved to tears, cries: ‘You’ve always been the best wife to me!’
Grandpapa is moved in with us. He is allocated the girls’ room – it is closest to the bathroom. Poor man… he can’t go there by himself… but this way it’s be easier for my parents. Now they have thirteen children and an old man, helpless as a baby, to look after. Each morning Mama and Papa get up at five o’clock to wipe the patient and change his sheets. Everyone takes turns to feed him, and at first he tries to eat. But little by little he begins to refuse food. I don’t understand what the reason for that is: whether it is the body that doesn’t want nourishment, or the soul that cannot accept it. Only his eyes are alive. When we enter his room, he looks at us attentively, as if to say: ‘My poor children, I am causing you so much grief… ’ And we are all engulfed by deep sadness. Papa tries to cheer him up, lift his spirits. He speaks to Grandpapa kindly in Provençal, and I can guess the meaning of his words: ‘You’ll conquer this ailment! We’ll nurse you back to health! We need you, all of us!’ He tells the old man about what he does in the cemetery, and how he managed to repair the statue of Saint Anne, which stood in the corner of the workshop…
Sometimes I manage to make Grandpapa swallow a couple of times: feeding him from a spoon, I sing him a song, as though to a child. From time to time a large tear rolls down the sufferer’s face. I know that he will die soon. I light a candle for him in church, praying to heaven to ease his torment. I don’t dare to ask for him to live. And sometimes this still eats at me. My faith wasn’t strong enough to pray for the impossible.
He passes away on the 31 October. A month later they operate on Grandmama. And I understand that my childhood is over.