27th Thread: An ambitious mother
We often went to visit my godmother. Mother had my hair curled, she dressed me in chiffon, she made up my face with what she thought was sobriety. When we entered the beautiful house of our patroness, we were shown the lobby. It was full of other courtesans each with their own expectations. I had to sit down, be silent and keep still. To pass the time, she complained about everything. Nothing was good enough. Slaves were rude, the food over priced, the citizens were poorly protected against rebellious natives. Our father’s position was not high enough. He deserved better. We deserved better. She launched into a foggy story about our patrician origins: – Your grandmother knew a clerk in the government who had dug up a very interesting case. Listen carefully, it all took place before the crushing of the rebellion. A young woman from a patrician family had run away with an indigenous rebel. He had been caught and put to death, but a baby had been born, a little girl, who had been taken away from hermother and brought up in poverty. And that young noble woman had the same first name as I have. Do you understand? I am working hard on recovering our rank. It is essential that we marry you properly. We will make sure to sacrifice to the gods regularly, we will have your body massaged into shape, will have you learn crafts and skills and demeanor. And I will fight for you to retain control of your dowry. Luxury is important to happiness, trust me. Ah, it’s our turn now. Please remember what you rehearsed so well this morning.
Once introduced in my godmother’s living room, my mother began.
– Your furniture is so elegant. Where do you get these wonderful fabrics?
– They were part of a consignment from the East that a ship in our fleet has carried. One of the few to escape pirates, storms, customs!
She chuckled. My mother imitated her.
– What else did your ship bring? asked my mother.
– Clothes, spices, perfumes, fabrics, precious woods.
– It is true that your fragrances are exquisite, but then your tastes are infallible.
My mother bent over me, shaking my arm. It was my turn. I sputtered:
– Dear godmother. How beautiful you are and, and, and distinguished and graceful. Your language is … your, uh …
– Yes ? said the lady.
I knew that, inwardly, she mocked me and my mother. I was ashamed.
– Your language has …
– Has the eloquence, whispered my mother.
– Your language has the loque… eloque… elosquence of, of, of the most beautiful poems of the poet. All pearls. And shiny diamonds.
I had made it. My mother stroked my head. The lady burst out laughing.
– How well you recite, my goddaughter. I hope you can pride yourself with other remarkable gifts, they will help you find a good husband.
She turned to her maid:
– Please give some treats to the child. And a piece of muslin.
– How good you are, as good as beautiful, offered my mother, tireless. If you could intercede on behalf of my husband, as you are connected to the powerful leaders of the earth, we would be so grateful.
We toured the city to offer our worship to the aunt of my father, and then his brother-in-law’s uncle. All day, smeared with makeup and fragrances, she dragged me from house to house, with our gifts, our praise, our garish clothes.
Yet it worked, I have to admit. She managed to have my father invested. We moved to the official residence. We had more slaves and servants, visitors brought us gifts, and made hyperbolic compliments. She held court. She gained even more weight. She got the highest office for my father, eventually. At the time, and as long as she lived, her behavior caused me shame and resentment. Now I think of her fondly, especially of her foibles. She was lively and cheerful, too. And amidst all this welter of ambition, frills and trinkets, there was a loving heart.
Her happiness did not last long because she became worried that my father might lose his rank. The emperor did not admit, it was well known, that a governor should not control absolutely his province. When my father returned at night, dead tired, instead of letting him unwind, my mother assailed him with questions, advice, recommendations. I do not know if her meddling was of help or distressing to your grandfather. His rank, which required strategy and diplomacy, did not suit him, he would have preferred to stay in his subordinate position where he did not have to fear every morning to be sacked or murdered before sunset. Fortunately, your father is not as involved with the government. Trade is a more stable activity when the economy and political situation permits it, and does not require as much servility. We can enlighten ourselves by reading, and by listening to the poets and musicians who are about to arrive.