Ghosts and Chimeras
Perhaps because so many things disappeared in our family— records, memories, the rings from my mother’s two marriages, the wedding silver—my mother undertook many quests for the past. Not her past, or even our family’s, per se, but past lives, past selves, genealogical doppelgängers. Because of her quests, I know about several of these imagined pasts, which don’t quite make up for the evanescence of our tangible one but at least give us a sense of shared history.
For instance: we are said to be descended from Ambroise Paré. My mother— whose mother was a Paré—always said this was more than coincidence. Cousin Regis had us believe that this supposed forebear—“the doctor,” Regis called him—“invented” ether, the gas, or rather, discovered its usefulness in medical procedures. This family myth is perfectly suited to our family, given that ether is more weightless than air: misty, celestial, and smelling of lightheadedness. There is no coincidence, my mother also said.
It turns out Paré’s link to ether is probably not true, though it is true that before Paré, surgeries were performed without anesthetic. Paré discovered the use of local anesthesia for battlefield wounds, which made possible the discovery three centuries later of ether as a general anesthetic. In any case, it is said that Paré’s battlefield innovations transformed medicine and brought it into the modern age. Before Paré, men wounded in battle often died of shock from pain, in part from the cauterizing of lost limbs. Paré also outmoded this practice.
Paré was chief surgeon to four kings in sixteenth-century France as well as to Catherine de Medici. His other “discovery”—hermaphroditism—formed the basis for his opus On Monsters and Marvels and earned him the moniker “demonologist.” It was published in 1575 and reissued in the nineteenth century—and then by University of Chicago Press in 1982 as a touchstone for sexuality studies. His book is often cited in the same breath as Michel Foucault’s Abnormal.
I like to believe there are ancestral teachings to be gleaned from our presumed forefather’s work on monsters as well as on anesthetics. Rather than to hide, or deny, what didn’t belong, Paré gave it a place in the taxonomy of the known:
There are several things that cause monsters. The first is the glory of God. The second, his wrath. The third, too great a quantity of seed.
The fourth, too little a quantity. The fifth, the imagination.
Rationality and the intangible play against each other in this passage, as if Paré can assure us that the uncomfortable or inexplicable is actually acceptable, a thing to observe and deconstruct—which is perhaps my own task. “Do you know who your daughters are, Michele?” The home care aide, Veta, shows my mother two portraits, of Gina and me. “Do you know their names?”
“No. I don’t know. But don’t worry.” My mother turns to me. She takes my wrist and smiles. “I don’t know my name either.” “Really?” I ask her. “What is it?” “Meephu, something like that. But don’t worry, I won’t—” She cuts off, searching for the words. “Forget me?” “Forget you.” She flits off in a dance, humming and pacing with a red carnation between her teeth. Her lipstick is red to match her scarf, which she draws wide across her arm span. Then she shifts to sashaying, like she used to do when she was a model on the Seventh Avenue runways. She frowns, then brightens, then moves back across the apartment in a dance-like stride. She was never one to dwell on the negative.
Later, out for a stroll in her neighborhood, we walk arm in arm. She lives in Long Island City, in the shadow of the Empire State Building. “You’re so pretty,” my mother says, ignoring my questions, or maybe just hoping they’ll dissipate. “I love you. You should be so proud of yourself. Good for you!” she adds, apropos of nothing. “Don’t ever get old!” She leads me in a skipping motion, and then, walking, she says, like she always says, “The beauty of the situation is—” she directs me, but with hesitation now, down her block, “everything is always new. Beethoven’s piano concertos. A dove on the sill. You can take pleasure again and again. Every time is the first.”
And in a crisis, I think, all you need to do is pause, until the knowledge returns, of where you are and why. That’s what she was doing the time she got lost—ten hours after she went out to the store for milk. She was discovered pacing back and forth in front of a guard station at the Queensbridge housing projects, about two miles from home: waiting, waiting until it might come back to her, what she’d gone to the store for, where the store was, where was home. It was 3 a.m. Ambroise Paré was also a dabbler in alchemy, a more than passing interest for my mother over the course of her life. After she gave up modeling, my mother
became a professional astrologer while also holding a day job at the C. G. Jung Institute of New York. Until about 2005, she coedited and sometimes wrote for a journal called Urania: The Journal of the Uranian Society. One of her publications in the journal was a translation from L’astrologie et Les Sciences Occultes, “an examination of early Hermetic works on astrology, magic and alchemy,” according to my mother’s preface. Other parts of the original, she wrote, treat “the Corpus Hermeticum, the religious and philosophical documents of Hermeticism.”
Hermeticism and the occult suggest a sort of a hiding that was always in character for my mother ( hermetic: reclusive; occult : secret), so I’m surprised when I receive an e-mail seeking further information about her translation. The e-mailer attaches a PDF of my mother’s published piece from the journal, an act that in itself seems to defy the very tradition her translation describes. My mother’s now twenty-year-old preface went on to explain that the French text, dated 1942, was a translation from the classic Greek, from a larger work focusing on the historical figure Hermes Trismegistus. “Who was Hermes . . . this mythological figure to whom is attributed the foundation of Western occultism?” my mother asked, as if to suggest things hidden or kept from light. Earlier scholars, she posited, “fastidiously dismissed the body of Hermetic ‘magical’ texts as unworthy of consideration.”
Not so anymore. The e-mailer is a publisher of esoteric astrology books, and he asks me to pierce my mother’s files seeking background on L’astrologie and hopefully further translations from the French. If I succeed, he will bring forth an edition of the entire project; he will bring it to light ( published: public).
I agree to help, in part because of what happened over the spring—her getting lost. I’ve already shifted my mother’s files to my apartment across the East River to prepare for her inevitable, imminent move to an assisted living with full-time care. The files have pointed me to my own quest of sorts, for a past I perhaps somehow missed. She is losing hers, ours; I don’t even know if she had hold of it to begin with.
But if a history resides in her documents, so far they reveal a muddle. Their beguiling suggestion is that a past is right here for me, so easy to reconstruct, or that I might, even, locate an origin story for this illness. The very existence of these papers belies their confounding vagueness.
The items fall in no particular order: Gina’s and my report cards from when I was in first grade and Gina third; photos; notebooks and bills; pamphlets and mimeographs on esoteric astrology that are not the sought-for French one; charts with makeshift financial planning. Binder notebooks are jammed across the diagonals. Snapshots line the bottoms.
Presences mask absences. My mother was a collector of things that did not require collecting.
I toss into the discard pile credit card offers from over a decade ago, one with a Post–it: “New credit cards? Check out”; notes from conversations with tech support; used envelopes with information scrawled on the outside about Gina’s
health; handwritten tables tracking electrical use in our mother’s apartment in Long Island City.
Modeling shots turn up, talismans for the quest. I create a makeshift gallery using my bookshelves, floorboards, kitchen counter. The photos are from sixties Boston and seventies and eighties New York. I put one on my desk from the early sixties before Gina and then I came along, in the kitchen a more candid shot from the era when our mother worked for Pauline Trigère—a seventies doyenne, my mother’s then-protector and supporter.
Snap!— my mother is on a runway in a satin-crépe and velvet evening gown, smooth as champagne. Snap!— she is an Eastern princess in lace appliqué bridal gown beneath a wedding cake chandelier and waterfall marble stairway. They are merely records of single moments. Where are the moments in between?
The clutter masks elisions. So much missing. On autopsy, the brain of the Alzheimer’s patient can weigh as little as 30 percent of that of a healthy brain. The tissue really does grow porous. That brain has been described as looking like a loose, hooked crochet. It is a sieve through which the past slips.
Alzheimer’s is about vacancy. But what excuses these files, which ostensibly predate the Alzheimer’s?
There is little trace of my father, only hints. A photo of my mother thin and lanky with a big belly rising out of fashionable capri pants reveals a person carefully scissored along the outline of her profile: nose, chin, gigantic belly. She is nose rubbing with that person. It looks like a vase, the empty space where my father should be.
He also exists, through indirection, on a bundle of airmail sleeves to “Mish and Pete” from my mother’s then-best model friend, Marty, in 1962 and 1963. There are hundreds of dispatches from Marty’s life in Italy during the early days of Milan mod. Marty eventually becomes a traveling model to Emilio Pucci. She portrays her cohort like artists in ateliers. Fashion ingénues were treated lavishly but earned barely a cent. She was so poor she often couldn’t afford a postage stamp. Her employers put her up in the fanciest hotels and delivered gifts of flowers and gorgeous designer dresses and sometimes stalked her and demanded “Italian marriage,” aka sex with no commitment. Her accounts are vivid and alive and lurid with color, thick between the seams. This is a life.
She’s also irate, insistent. My mother is absent.
Miss you sooo—ache to see you again—let’s hope that it’s soon. I love you all sooo . . . still could murder you for not writing—what’s up—don’t you love me anymore??? . . . Please write. Miss you both like mad.
Just returned from Torino fashion show with all Roman designers—they flipped—i’m IN!! Hope you’re both okay—how about a letter you miserable wretch—love you both.
Have sent you one letter & 8 post cards and I’m glad I didn’t hold my breath while waiting for an answer. Can’t stay angry at either of you for longer than a second. So now that I’ve blasted off—how the hell are you??
Why was my mother always dropping out? No one has ever explained to me exactly how Ambroise Paré is related to us. I suspect my mother never probed the connection, its apparent rightness having ipso facto proved its validity for her. This can’t explain the ardor of my mother’s cousins—regis and the others—who drop references to “the doctor” at every opportunity and in most cases keep On Monsters on the shelf if not the coffee table. It’s nice to have a famous ancestor, one who helped along the evolution from dark ages to enlightenment. As for our family’s precise connection to Ambroise Paré, the cousins say, while squinting: We are vaguely related . . . We have a dim connection ...
My mother’s family goes back to the settlers of Québec, this is more clear. The family is, as is said in Québec, pure laine, 100 percent wool. The line is easily traced on my mother’s maternal and paternal sides. Being pure wool is a point of pride for many French Canadians, who boast one of the world’s most active genealogical cultures and who constitute one of the earth’s most insular genotypes. According to one genetic study, 90 percent of Québecois people can trace genes to the seventeenth-century French founders, a group only about fifteen hundred strong.
One night, parsing the documents, I discover a family tree in a file of my mother’s marked paré. This past clearly once meant a lot to her, though I’m not sure exactly why. She wasn’t close to her immediate family, so why such pride of place for her ancestral one? It documents our Paré line going back to the French settlers, originating with one Robert Paré of France. I wonder if this Robert was, like Ambroise, significant to my mother for a reason. But, no, he was not an alchemist but simply a carpenter. Perhaps his usefulness to my mother was only to connect us to Ambroise, so I set about bridging genealogies between the two men. Ambroise was admitted to the Royal College of Surgeons in Paris in 1554. According to my excavations on geni.com, Robert, my great grandfather to the ninth power, was married in a chapel in Québec City in 1653, a century after Ambroise’s admittance to the College. An obstacle arises: there are five generations missing between Robert’s first trace and Ambroise’s last.
Ambroise’s On Monsters so ardently pursues other mysteries that I wonder, fancifully, if perhaps it can illuminate this one. I reach for my mother’s copy, extracted from one of the boxes. The cover depicts a one-legged, ostrich-clawed, winged and horned angel-like creature with a third eye in its knee and mermaidlike scales bedecking its torso, a drawing of the sort Ambroise commissioned for his research. “Winged monster,” it is labeled.
According to its preface, Ambroise fathered nine children, four of whom died as infants. Among five girls and four boys, the fates took all the boys. The longest surviving son lived nine months. Ambroise had no heirs by the name Paré, in other words. His connection to our family is at best . . . tenuous. It is intangible.
Deeper in that same box is a sleeve containing my mother’s travel documents from a trip to Mexico with Grandmaman in 1984, including my mother’s visa, a mimeograph of the travel agent’s flight information, and a letter from Grandpapa. Paid for by Grandpapa, my mother and Grandmaman went to Club Med in Acapulco. “It will keep [your mother’s] mind occupied,” Grandpapa explained to my mother, about his funding the trip.
Occupied to avoid what? I wonder. Why this family habit of secrets, denial, sidestepping?
I do remember the trip. On her return, my mother told a story of going for a walk in the early morning by the violent surf. She tore off her clothes and flung herself in. She was never a strong swimmer. A wave pummeled her to the sand; she couldn’t pull herself from the water. She survived. I wonder what trajectory our lives might have taken had she succumbed, as people famously do in the Acapulco swells. Maybe it was around this time I first noticed she seemed absent in other ways. Perhaps she returned from the trip a ghost. The story of New France is thick with fairies and angels and prophecies— perhaps it’s this magical component that made it resonant for my mother. We know from genealogical records that Robert Paré, Grandmaman’s great grandfather to the sixth power, joined a slow trickle of pioneers who followed after Samuel de Champlain, whose first journey to the New World took place in 1603. The record documenting the plight of colonists such as Robert tells of much the same warfare and much the same push and pull as most every New World settlement tale: famine in the homeland (failed crops of wheat and other grain) set against commodities in the promised one (fish, wood, mines, beaver fur, cattle, and farmland), promoted by royals eager for taxes (the Bourbons: Henry IV, then Louis XIII and XIV) and national export operations eager for lucre (Rouen and St. Malo). There is an anointed navigator (Champlain), a man with moxie, megalomania, and misfortune enough to instigate several ship voyages and medieval-style warfare with maces and bludgeons to subdue natives (Iroquois Mohawks).
A genealogical website in Montreal devoted to the thousands of Québec Parés describes Robert Paré as “enigmatic.” He was one of eleven born to Mathieu Paré in a town in Old France called St. Laurent. But, because there are several St. Laurents, no one knows which it is. Several genealogists on the website speculate it is near Orleans. More easily documented is the fact that Robert got on a ship and washed up near the rocky breakfront near what is now Québec City sometime around 1650.
The record gives details of another Generation One ancestor of our family, from my grande-grandmaman Léa’s paternal line, born in Chambois, Normandy, in 1623. So begin another 1,024 genealogy stories with the same broad outlines. For in a well-preserved settlers’ genealogy, if every line is traced the eleven steps
to Generation One, the yield for one mixed-breed, twelfth-generation amateur genealogist such as myself is necessarily 1,024 ancestors. That is simple math.
The purpose of genealogy may be only to flatter one’s mortality—or, alternatively, to tell ourselves stories with which to distract ourselves from weightier problems.
My mother saved acres of genealogy files but nothing from her own childhood. I am fond of the following ancestral story for its numinous aspects: François Leroux—grande-grandmaman Léa’s great grandfather to the fifth power— sailed into the rocky shoal of Canada’s coast one middle of the night in a cool September, 1665, as a conscript for King Louis XIV. A salty mist tangles his thick black mane and scrubby sailor’s months-at-sea beard. He is feeling a bit ship-sick, but he is bold, trained for combat—and don’t forget love—dressed in sweat-acrid, coarse-woven, blue-white sailor’s naps. He pukes anyway. There is a lusty future awaiting him on the land side of shore.
The ship is the St. Sebastian. His regiment is the Carignan-salières, and he is a member of an esteemed twelve hundred dispatched to give backup to the missions, which have been beset upon by uncooperative natives. François is among four hundred and fifty from this contingent who will later answer a plea from the king to stay on as settlers; that the king promises a transport of French wives makes this attractive.
The purpose of François’s regiment was summarized in a letter by the Ursuline nun and mystic Marie de l’incarnation. “The ships have all arrived, bringing us the rest of the army, along with the most eminent persons whom the king has sent to the aid of the country. They feared they would all perish in the storms they braved on their voyage . . . [W]e are helping them to understand that this is a holy war, where the only things that matter are the glory of God and the salvation of souls.”
It is true the storms nearly spiraled those soldiers to the sea bottom. However, certain sailors had a vision on deck: Saint Anne came to them. The sailors begged her for help. Shipwreck, otherwise, was certain. The sailors promised to build a chapel in Saint Anne’s honor should she bless their journey and rescue them. She complied. Magic—the intangible, the evanescent—is in our French-canadian blood. An ocean of documents—birth certificates, marriage licenses, death certificates, liens, citizenship papers—shows, first, where sex was had; next, whence progeny sprang; third, where a grave was dug. But the charts get away from us anyway and transform to snarls, like balled up yarn undone by a cat. Trace two paternal lines and there is a cogent human tale lurking beneath this timeline, of love and
pathos and yearning. Then add one maternal line, then a maternal line for each maternal line. Then cousins marry cousins and nieces uncles. Two brothers Paré marry two sisters Lessard. One of the sisters is grande-grandmaman Léa. The other is her sister Aurore. The offspring will be what the family calls “first-first cousins” or “cousins on both sides.” Two of the Paré first-first cousins marry men with the last name, Roy, so they are Madeleine Paré Roy and Marguerite Paré Roy.
Should genetics have been a field during the times of Ambroise Paré, such freakish intermarriage would surely have interested that distant relation and student of marvels. When I look at the names on the charts, though, aberrance doesn’t come to mind for me, in spite of the prolific intermarrying. I imagine each ancestor a perfect child, pink and soft and dewy-bright, with the proper number of limbs and fingers and a healthy sheen to the skin. Examining those archives, every time I discover a relation I feel a small thrill, a burst of aliveness. Each affirms my vibrant presence in this world. Each name represents a hero. The records are silent about illness and other mishaps of the sort documented by Ambroise, the “demonologist.”
Our ancestor Marie Renaud was great grandmother to the great great great grandfather of Marie Jacques, my great great grandmother. From St. Marceau, Orleans, Marie Renaud was a mail-order bride, though speaking more elegantly she was something called a fille du roi— daughter of the king. Louis XIV recruited her and 699 others, women fifteen to thirty years old, future wives-of-someone, someone not yet known to them. Recruit is a euphemism for what likely drew Marie, as coercion or desperation or force was probably part of the tale. Marie was an orphan, or a widow, or both, we could say. She sailed nauseous with hunger and longing and regret. I imagine there was a family back in Orleans whom she missed—perhaps a man or boy or girl. She ached for the musty scent of dirt and hearth. In the mist out in the open ocean there rose angels and the Virgin and Saint Anne, speaking to that ancestor in tongues, words mysterious and gurgling like waves slapping a ship deck, whispering salves and wordlessly humming.
We have a high tolerance for confusion in this family, for inaccuracy and forgetting. There is a mirror staring us down from the ceiling reflecting on a glass table top that is pitched at an angle to reflect both a window and a mirror on the wall, which, in turn, reflect inside each other. We are in a looking-glass tunnel boring through history. Maybe this is why, in the files, there is a problem not only of elision but of too much information. We can’t keep it all in our heads, so it gets twisted and jumbled and we throw up our hands. We are vaguely related, we say. The listener probably has no idea how complicated this really is. We can’t say exactly how we are related, because to do so would give us a headache. But we know things are not entirely coincidental, and that everything happens for a reason.
I am back in Long Island City with my mother. We have lunch. I ask about the hidden or lost Hermes Trismegistus files. I can’t find them. “Yes,” my mother says. “I can’t exactly recall,” she adds, squinting. She doesn’t like questions. “I don’t know, honey. You talk.”
I tell her about the stories I’ve uncovered from our genealogy, and she nods and says, “Really!” and “Wonderful!” and “You’re so good at this!” About the venue, where we eat a meze platter and grilled calamari at least weekly, she says, “What a great place. I’ve lived upstairs all these years and never been.”
I say goodbye and get on my bike and pedal fast toward the housing projects where she got lost, then up to the Queensborough Bridge. Up top I can see across the river to Manhattan. Our old home is visible, where I grew up starting at age nine, after my mother’s second divorce: a white brick high-rise on East Seventy-seventh and the river. I remember the night we moved in, and how my mother installed new lamps on the walls with an electric drill. Once the long laborious process was completed, one of the lamps blew. The lamp rained black soot all along the new wall. I offered an illogical interpretation to appease my mother—“maybe it didn’t burn?”
“Of course it’s burned! It’s soot!” She’d fritzed, just like the electrical cable. She wielded the drill at Gina and me.
“Don’t you threaten me,” Gina gave back. She walked out the front door and slammed it behind her.
I stormed after Gina but missed her at the elevator, so I went down on my own. I wandered through the new neighborhood and then over to the East River with its effluvium of sewage and everyday discards—a Mad magazine, bubble gum wrappers, a cotton ball with orange nail polish, wrappers from Stella D’oros and Stouffer’s. Walking south along the river drive that night, I’d closed that very same expanse between our building on Seventy-seventh and the bridge on Fifty-ninth where I am riding now—from our history to our future, past selves and past lives colliding with present ones.
As I ride now, a mist rises off the water and cools my face. I see ghosts of old relations in that brume. I see my mother and Gina and myself, our past selves and our current ones. Each of us is a doppelgänger for an invisible or imagined ancestor, and each forebear is in turn whole and healthy, with ten fingers and ten toes. Ambroise studied aberration. Could he have predicted what would become of our small family, what became of my mother, her lost memory or the self she perhaps left behind in Mexico? How would Ambroise have made sense of this version of her, the woman meandering in the projects? I think of her wandering her neighborhood, drawing routes and then losing them before she can trace them back. Was Ambroise even one of us? Like so much about our family the answer is ineffable, weightless. We are ether.