July 1976. Montréal. The 21st Olympic Games. A tiny Romanian gymnast stands on a mat and waves to the crowd. For thirty seconds, she swings back and forth between two wooden bars, defying the laws of gravity. Her landing is perfect. She even manages a smile, and gambols away from the blue mat as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened. With the whole world looking on, she gets a perfect score. Ten. Nadia Comaneci, the child who had been getting by on an egg a day, had just revealed to Québec’s metropolis the possibilities of weightlessness. Of this impressive demonstration of grace, courage, and agility, history would remember her smile most of all—the one thing she hadn’t worked on and that came to her naturally. If you walk by the Olympic Stadium in Montréal today, you’ll see a monument in honour of the medal winners at the Montréal Olympics. You can’t miss it. It’s right by the entrance to the Biodome. Look for Nadia’s name among all the others. Look up and you’ll see the Romanian flag. I remember it like it was yesterday.
That summer Radio-Canada changed its schedule so we could watch the Romanian angel fly beneath the flashbulbs. In 1976 thousands of Québec babies were named Nadia in memory of this visit of grace personified to Montréal. Her Holiness wore a white leotard with two blue stripes down the side. On the other side of the screen, three hundred miles northeast of Montréal, sprawled on a warm orange and yellow carpet, my sister and I watched Nadia perform the feats that we would later practice on our very own parallel bars: our father and mother. So, in the beginning, there was this little Romanian cat.
Our mother—the lower bar—loved her children, Elvis Presley, and cats (and had an impressive collection of the latter). Our father—the upper bar—loved his children, Jacques Brel, and women (and had an impressive collection of the latter). From a very young age, I knew that Love Me Tender and Ne me quitte pas were just two versions of the same song. Our mother could find intelligence in a barking dog. Our father suspected every living thing of blatant stupidity. Our mother would consult the oracles to see what the future held. Our father would regularly make a clean sweep of everything and start over. Unlike our mother, our father was always itching for a fight. In a largely federalist village, he would fly the Québec flag in front of our house. Whenever the priest visited the parish, he would wait for him, just to send him packing. He tried to grow tomatoes on the Gaspé Peninsula. In Spanish literature, he would have travelled on a donkey and battled windmills to the death. My mother conjugated verbs in the past that my father knew only in the future. My parents epitomized Québec society in the 1970s. Staying home and seeing the world. Yin and yang. First inseparable, then alternating with each other, these parallel bars once rent asunder by the Family Court would never meet again. My sister and I, the two children condemned to swing back and forth between them, put on an admirable display of family gymnastics for all the world to see.
In old photos from the 70s, my father looks a little like Jack Kerouac, with the indefinable charm of a man on the road. The rebel looking for a cause. He made separatism a way of life. As far as I know, he remains the only person who managed total separation from everything. The day he no longer had children or a wife or a country to separate from, he started drinking to separate from himself. To his parents’ despair, my father become the family’s version of Elizabeth Taylor; or to give you an even better idea, imagine a wholly convincing reincarnation of Henry VIII, King of England. Our mother, a believer who was faithful to the teachings of the Church, was moved away from the throne by various ruses and should therefore be imagined as Catherine of Aragon, the forlorn first wife of a king who wasn’t going to be pushed around by some pope or other and who collected wives like others collect cars. In order, Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard, and Catherine Parr filed through the king’s life, with unconvincing cameos from a series of mistresses in between. And these are only highlights from the gripping skirt-chasing contest that became my father’s life. My sister and I occasionally look back on the past, using these women as milestones. “Don’t you remember, it was still under the reign of Jane Seymour in August 1986?” All the trees in Canada will never produce enough paper to adequately describe the king’s love life. And even with what remains of my life, I would still run out of time before I could ever do it justice.
When we came home from Sundays with my mother, prisoners were exchanged quickly. Nothing else was exchanged. Not a look, not a word, not a sign. My mother stayed in her car, my father in his trailer. We had to spin around a few times on the lower parallel bar to build up the speed and momentum we needed to reach the upper bar. The twenty steps between us and the door served as a buffer between the two bars. Readers who would like to try it for themselves at home must first understand that all you have to do is build up enough speed and grab the bar with both hands so as not to fall flat on your face on the blue mat, which happens often enough all the same. You have to grab the upper bar as you fall back. Forget about the lower bar to make sure you don’t miss the upper bar. And above all else, never mention the lower bar. Forget all about it until the next Sunday. In Henry VIII’s home, heated to 17 degrees, the pure light from my mother’s face slipped away. With the king, thoughts turned to plots, the court, and decorum.
After one such Sunday I once dared, in the home of the king, to utter my mother’s name before Anne Boleyn. I don’t know what came over me, at six years of age, to talk about such unseemly affairs. I had understood I should mention her only when absolutely necessary. It must have taken a moment of madness for me to say my mother’s name out loud. It was sheer provocation. Fortunately Anne Boleyn was on the ball! Censure was sharp and swift in a rasping voice just one degree above absolute zero. “I never want to hear another word about your mother again. She abandoned you. Don’t ever talk to me about her ever again.” It was at this precise moment, I remember, that I understood the touching precariousness of those who have been given the benefit of the doubt. The start of Anne Boleyn’s reign had brought the Great Terror to an end. God bless her. As soon as she tried to wipe my mother’s name from my memory, doubt set in. I also remember that my sister had one day, in order to get into her good graces, dared to call Anne Boleyn “Maman” and that the outcry had been even more vociferous. “What’s wrong with you, you little nitwit? What do you still need a mother for at your age? You’re seven years old! Kittens are weaned at seven weeks. They don’t care where they come from.” And so “Maman” became a hammer blow, a word that made a lot of noise and drew disapproving looks. These are practical because you can use them to drive nails home or pull them out, but they should be used sparingly.
From that moment on, I took pity on Anne Boleyn for thinking that she could win, that for her things were going to turn out differently. I took pity on her because everyone dreams of being No. 1, but she could only be No. 2. Think about it: if Nadia Comaneci had won the silver medal in Montréal, would anyone remember her name? Do you really think so? So go on then, who came second on the parallel bars in Montréal in 1976? Not easy, is it? It was Teodora Ungureanu. She wasn’t a bad gymnast, far from it. She was far better than you or me. Her only flaw was that she wasn’t Nadia Comaneci. That she wasn’t No. 1. There you go. Québec’s registry offices have precious few Teodoras. And I guarantee that most Nadias in Québec who are turning thirty this year are secretly thanking the Romanian champion for giving her all. That’s the problem in a nutshell. Everyone wants to be a Nadia. No one wants to be a Teodora. Anne Boleyn never stood a chance. The day when, after stripping Catherine of Aragon of her royal titles, King Henry VIII had Anne Boleyn crowned, the new queen got a hostile reception as she passed by. When out boating on her decorated barge on the Thames, Anne Boleyn couldn’t make Londoners forget that the real queen was still alive. She was booed by the people, who preferred Catherine, a devout Catholic. For the rest of her reign, Anne Boleyn was despised, first by the people for whom she was nothing more than a crown grabber, then by the court because she had too much influence on the king, and finally by the king himself, who wound up having her executed. Hence the importance of never being No. 2 and always eating your hamburger with your eyes closed.
Little Nadia wasn’t the only one making the news back then. In 1975, somewhere in England a certain Margaret Thatcher had been elected leader of the Conservative Party. Britain’s education minister from 1970 to 1974 had made a name for herself by putting an end to free school milk, earning her the unflattering nickname Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher. But she didn’t stop there. She was elected Britain’s prime minister in 1979, transforming England by giving the country its productivity back. For Mrs Thatcher, self-satisfaction could only come about by putting all thoughts of laziness to the back of one’s mind. Often hard, she was blind to the social dramas her austere policies caused and didn’t think twice about criticizing public opinion, declaring war on Argentina, breaking the unions, or imposing unfair taxes—in short, the Iron Lady deserved her nickname. “If you want something said, ask a man,” she remarked. “If you want something done, ask a woman.” London’s Saucy Seventies—a golden age when rock singers still choked on their own vomit—gave way to Thatcher’s implacable England.
I had never heard of Margaret Thatcher when I lived in Friendship Park. It was only when reading her biography years later that I had the impression of meeting an old acquaintance. Under Anne Boleyn, trains came and left on time. Life in the court was as regular as clockwork. Two and two always made four. The roars of laughter and the sheer madness that had marked the reign of Catherine of Aragon were now in the past. The time had come for education and reason. It was a new age in which women were worth more than men, mothers were interchangeable, and anything was possible as long as you applied the right mathematical formula. We had quickly learned that poetry, hugs, and kisses would get us nowhere in a court where knowledge, science, and cleanliness would be rewarded. Thanks to Anne Boleyn and her books, I could see the chance to walk towards the future a new man. Memories would be of no use to me. They compromised my relations with the crown. Before monarchs, it was simply a matter of feigning approval of all their dreams and projects, all the while imagining their disappearance behind their back and the day Henry VIII would come to his senses. I learned as I waited. My every progress was noted. Unlike Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn believed that a meritocracy could deflect from the gentle chains of filial attachment. In the face of family relationships that stubbornly perpetuated ignorance and mediocrity, Anne Boleyn put forward a new model free from all sentimentality, by which everyone could save his own skin using what they knew.
It was in this spirit of discovery in the fall of 1976 that I was sent to school in Notre-Dame-du-Portage. The first day, Henry VIII or Anne Boleyn (I can’t remember which) came with me and talked for a long time with a little round woman with short black hair who wore a small cross and was going to take care of me. I think they talked about Catherine of Aragon, the Thénardiers, and my big sister. Sister Jeannette Jalbert worked to deliver children from their inner prisons by teaching them to read. Strangely enough, literature speaks very seldom of the women—because they usually are women—who give birth to us for a second time. In the world’s great squares, there are no statues in honour of these armies of teacher who, every September, recreate the miracle of Pentecost all around the world. No chain of mountains has been named after the schoolmistresses who lay the sword of knowledge on the shoulders of millions of snotty-nosed kids each year and say, “Here is the world. Do with it what you will.” Sister Jeannette Jalbert, a teacher in Notre-Dame-du-Portage, Canada, would free me from the shadows of illiteracy. She started by giving us little illustrated books, with no more than a sentence on each page. It was, all in all, simple enough. Someone had drawn on the pages, and the drawings were called letters. These letters, grouped together in a certain way, had a given meaning. This meaning was called a word. By putting a, i, g, h, h, n, r, s, and t in the right order, you got “thrashing”. It was simple enough. The words could then be put together to form sentences like this one: “You have to hide—Madame Thénardier is looking for you.” The system could also be used to ask questions like: “Does it still hurt?” There were infinite possibilities: “Here you go, little one. Now you can write what once was, what is, and what you want there to be.” This was Sister Jeannette’s message in a nutshell. I drank in her words like a precious alcohol. I remember that the first time I managed to decode a word, I heard something like the long whistle of a rocket taking off. Something had built up a head of steam. I moved on to decoding sentences in no time at all.
To track the progress of the twenty-odd illiterates she was in charge of, Sister Jeannette had put a chart up on the wall, where our first and last names appeared in a vertical list. There were fourteen reading levels. The goal was obviously to reach the fourteenth level as quickly as possible. Every week she would have one of us stand up and read beside her desk. If she was happy with our reading, she would give us a little star, which we stuck beside our names. The first stars were blue, the next were red. The second-to-last stars were silver, and the very last ones were gold. Gold like Nadia. This gave me an idea of the speed at which I and the rest of my classmates were progressing. After a few weeks, head held high, I was the first to proudly stick a gold star in the very last box. Far behind, other children were still struggling to put together two or three stars. Without bothering with humility or subtlety, I discussed my success with the others. I waited for them to shower me with honours and make me an idol. My hopes were dashed. One day after recess, I was admiring the glorious chart when I realized that someone had clumsily taken three of my stars and stuck them beside their own name, no doubt believing that this lamentable larceny would conceal their reading problems. I lodged a complaint with Sister Jeannette. Following an investigation that lasted all of seventeen seconds, the guilty party owned up to her misdemeanour. With everyone watching, she was forced to put the tiny stars back in their rightful place. I derived no satisfaction from this exercise, which had been humiliating for all concerned. It wasn’t like other cases of theft when another child stole a teddy bear, candy, or a meal. Truth be told, the star thief had taken nothing from me—to do that, she would have had to make me forget everything I had learned. And you can’t force anyone to forget. You could burn all the star stickers in the world in a great big pile, and nothing would ever erase what they represent. Everything we know, I told myself, will stay with us forever. All we have to do is remember it from time to time. And to do that, we need to know how to read. If we write “My mother’s name is Micheline Raymond. She is a professional cook.” on a scrap of paper, a rock, or a plank of wood, we are not likely to forget. Provided we don’t lose the piece of paper, provided the plank doesn’t go up in smoke, provided we don’t forget where we put the rock, we will remember it forever.
Being able to read put me in Anne Boleyn’s good graces, which gave me access to her collection of comic books. On the other hand, despite my keen interest in reading, my dealings with Sister Jeannette were somewhat distant. The nun’s apparent coolness towards me probably had something to do with the pencil incident. One day, one of the illiterates stole my pencil. Just like that, right under my nose. He left with the pencil, without so much as looking at me. There was nothing special about the pencil. Its only quality was that it belonged to me. It was a crime against my property. I stood up, paying no heed to the fact that Sister Jeannette was in the middle of teaching us a song about Jesus. The tune was straightforward enough: “The Lord is my shepherd, Alleluuuuuuuuia!” Sister Jeannette was first and foremost a nun. Nuns are never done talking about Jesus. Jesus is the son of God and our shepherd. Nothing less. That’s the way it is. This wasn’t going to get me my pencil back, and I wasn’t going to wait for kingdom come to get it back either. So I got up and reclaimed my pencil, punching the crook so hard on the chest that he fell back on his ass. There then ensued a fight to the death accompanied by the cries of seals lost on the ice pack. Sister Jeannette cut her hymn short and, just as I was about to strangle the little louse, grabbed me by the hand and lifted me up off the ground, dragging me out of the classroom to the stairs. The stairs of the elementary school in Notre-Dame-du-Portage, if stairs could talk, would still have plenty to say today about the scene they witnessed that day. She held me by the shoulders with the grip of a lumberjack. I yelled that she was crazy, which made her laugh. I tried to hit her, which made her laugh even harder. I said crisply that I didn’t like her, then burst into tears. Tears tend to calm a nun down. We stayed there for five minutes on the stairs, me resting my head on her chest, until I opened my eyes and saw her cross right up against my nose. I asked her why she was wearing a cross, when neither I, the king, my sister, nor Anne Boleyn had one. She replied, “Everyone has one. You do too.” The incident was closed. The pencil thief trembled every time I walked past until June.