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 History Lessons columns of 2007

November 7, 2007

The traditional witch image – hump, warts, cackles and all – is the demonization of the Great Mother, the woman of beauty, wisdom and power who shows up in guises during the year but, for me lately, like clockwork on  

by Bebe Vaughan

        Since the birth of my granddaughter, almost four years ago, I have honored the sacred vigil of All Saints and All Souls – what we, in our ill-informed, unconscious culture blithely call Halloween, by dressing as a witch.

I do not identify with the traditional witch image, affecting the hooked nose, warts, hump and cackling laugh of the traditional witch image disseminated by popular culture.  Believe me when I say that there is a special circle of hell reserved for Walt Disney and his paternalistic cohorts on this subject.  In witch mode I stand on the threshold of Death: I know unpretty things.

        But enough about Walt Disney and his intellectually unkempt ilk. Let’s get back to me.

        My witch costume is one of indescribable elegance.  It comprises a long black lacy wool dress, as light as a spider’s web, and a long-sleeved, black woolen jacket with silky fur at the throat and wrists.  I wear high-heeled black boots, spider and ghost rings on my fingers, webby black earrings and lots of Vogue-style makeup, especially round the eyes. Then there’s the hat.  In the past I have worn a tall black-and-orange velvet hat, with a large black spider dangling on threads from the point.  Very evocative and appropriate, crying out as it did for a broom, that dreary emblem of toil, enslavement and desperate escape.  This year, though, I upped the ante: My hat was a flying wonderment of spangled black veiling fastened to the glistening pink body of a black-legged spider that perched astride my head secured with guy ropes.  Forget the buggy, bristly broom; dead glamorous, I looked, and you will pardon the pun when I explain.

        The traditional witch image – hump, warts, cackles, see above – is the demonization of the Great Mother, the goddess of death, the woman of beauty, wisdom and power that I have recently decided to honor, consciously, at this time of approaching winter.  And demonized by whom?  Well, by the male of the species, adherents, largely, to the nervous, insecure, unpredictable and much younger god, the Dad-in-Chief, who is so appalled at the idea of death that he preempts it, usually by hurling destruction from the skies but more recently by murdering his only son.  The Great Mother shows up in other guises during the year, constantly reminding us of our mortality: Mothering Sunday and Walpurgis Nacht, for example.  She is terribly old and devastatingly accomplished, a priestess, according to Barbara Walker in her wonderful book The Crone: Woman of Age, Wisdom and Power, of the final rites of passage, and also the “mediator between the realms of flesh and spirit and … funerary priestess and Death Mother, controlling the circumstances of death as she controlled those of birth.” And she has many titles, all regal, all evoking the beauty and usefulness that old women in our patriarchal culture are vehemently denied, Joan Rivers notwithstanding: Queen of the Shades, Goddess of the Underworld, Lady of the Night, and, from China, my favorite: “a beautiful old woman in red garments.”

        Well, I thought, my costume certainly illustrates this lot.  So, hat secured, I hurried downtown to a large department store to stroll through the lunchtime shoppers and observe, record and encourage comment.

        Nobody turned a hair.  There would be a flicker of a glance in my direction, and just as quickly a silent denial that a vision had been revealed.  My beautiful costume, in that restaurant, was a non-event.  Nothing much happened at the Lancome counter, either, nor men’s shirts.  The only positive response I received was from the gentle young man in Customer Service.  “Wonderful hat,” he said softly.

        I left the store and trudged back to my car, swinging my hat by its elastic and feeling very thoughtful about men.  About how they cannot question their learned beliefs, recognize their terror and rigidity, accept the truths of their own femaleness and evolve.  I generalize, of course – what else can you do in 700 words? – but perhaps this is the reason why I drop out when well-meaning friends start talking about friends of theirs, widowers, perfect for you…  Oh dear.  Let’s not do this clumsy, off-kilter dance.  I am a grandmother.  Apart from the creative energy I need for survival, for reading, writing and staying connected to my far-flung family, supporting my friends and heartfelt causes like Doctors Without Borders and Heifer International, my love interest resides with my children and grandchildren.  So my November Song to these beloveds, who, evidently, I will not be around to applaud when the leaves turn to flame twenty years from now, states unequivocally that I haven’t one moment of these few, precious days to squander on a skittish emotional involvement.

        Been there, gentlemen, done that.  Got the T-shirt.  Just do us all a favor and stay away from the bombs.
        So, my hat bravely restored aloft and my inner world illuminated, I drove to my daughter’s home to take part in the exuberance of the Children’s Halloween Parade – a beautiful old woman in black garments.

                            * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

October 24, 2007

“Bet you’re glad to be home!” cry my friends, and I flute indecisively

Home Sweet What? Where?
By Bebe Vaughan


“Be it ever so humble

There’s no place like home

And who needs a castle or showplace?

But this is the thought I must get through my dome:

Be it ever so humble, there’s no place.”

        Who wrote this?  Google is useless on the subject, and Wikipedia takes me through such astonishingly erudite lists, from The Humble Pie Band to the writing of Newton’s Principia Mathematica , that my head spins, but to no avail.  I’m sure it’s an American writer.   Maybe Ogden Nash?   Dorothy Parker, then.   No?   Robert Benchley?   Must be H.L. Mencken.   Or how about Groucho Marx or Bob Dylan?  Couldn’t find it in the Norton Book of Light Verse either, which was a surprise, considering it was edited by Russell Baker.

        And a disappointment, because I am much preoccupied by the subject of home at the moment; I have been since my return from France.   I had hoped that, by identifying the author of that terse little rhyme, I could latch on to a still point in a whirling world and from there work my way cautiously into a grid of coherent thought on the question.

        “Bet you’re glad to be home!” cry my friends, and I flute indecisively in response: “Erm…”

        I want to be honest in answer, but I don’t know what the honest answer is.

        Part of the problem is that I never made a decision, couched in what Theodore Sturgeon once termed “the unmistakable ritual of words,” to leave Europe – which for me then meant London, with Paris a brief hop away – and relocate forever in America.   I mean, there was no question of becoming an American citizen: The arrangement was temporary, involving my husband’s teaching job in Philadelphia and my completion of a degree.   But time intervened, as time is known to do, children were born, marriages evaporated, and life slipped slyly past.   Now, after almost half a century, just about everybody I love, with one or two exceptions, is here, in the U.S.A.   And home, as the saying goes, is where the heart is.  But France, specifically Provence/Var, almost my birthplace, also holds my heart in dry, olive-and-garlic-scented hands.
        Oh, the Frenchness of it all. (I don’t feel that way about England.)   French was my first language; today my French is not as elastic as it was in the Fifties (I wrote in French then!) but I love being surrounded by its exacting sonorousness, hearing its often marvelously funny – when literally translated into English – constructions.   And then there’s the regional aspect: the smell of the earth, the quality of the light, the chilly, worn, stone elegance of the ancient buildings, the tall pines and the sea, the lapis-blue, murmurous Mediterranean, beside which I know I’m home.

        Perhaps these were the same memories my mother had conjured that night, shortly after my brother’s death, when I heard her say, brokenly, to my father, “I want to go home.”  She never voluntarily gave up her nationality, either: She became a Brit automatically when she married my father, no decision involved (bureaucracy efficiently shuffles off the psychic layers as it deploys its rubber stamps).   And I wondered, too, if the American and British ex-pats who came to my sister’s cocktail party in Lourmarin that evening occasionally felt the same weepy way.

        There are regional attachments here in California, too, that I would miss desperately if I left and returned to Europe.   Two that spring to mind are the grandeur of the Pacific ocean at Carmel and the large flock of wild turkeys, their plumage glazed like tiles, that pace with such calm dignity along the brick path past my front door every day at the same time, talking quietly among themselves.   Perhaps the best response I can come up with is yes, I am glad to be home. I do wish, though, that home was not so awfully far from home. I’d like to go home more often.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

October 10, 2007

I thought about the power of the past as I watched my grandchildren play on

The Beach at Toulon

by Bebe Vaughan

      I think it was as I drove along the corniche at Le Mourillon, the classy section of the boisterous port of Toulon, that the realization struck.   In the car, with my sister, my daughter and two of my grandchildren, I carefully searched for a tall house overlooking the Mediterranean, set back from the road and fronted by a garden full palms: the Villa Rita.   I was looking, I realized, for the house that would communicate information covering five generations: my grandchildren’s great-great-grandfather’s house.

      It was the house to which I was brought shortly after my birth, when my mother rose determinedly from her accouchement , packed up her three youngest children, and made, unaccompanied, the trip from London to Toulon by train, boat, and train again to be with her mother, who was dying of a brain tumor.   We lived there for the next three years.


      It would have been wonderful to find it, and gaze at it as I had when I started visiting my grandfather again as an adolescent after the war, when he had moved to a smaller house on the Rue Ernest Renan.   But the Villa Rita no longer exists.   It has been torn down and replaced by an upscale apartment building.   So we went in search of the smaller house, carefully scrutinizing every white wall for the unprepossessing wooden door, marked with the number 25, that opened onto a sun-filled courtyard dominated by a sumptuous fig tree shading the glass walls of my grandfather’s studio, where he drew and painted his life’s memories in water colors.   My sister and I would walk down the hill and cross the corniche to the beach that was a strip of shiny black pebbles and swim all morning, emerging from the clear blue glass of the water to expose, dangerously, our fair, freckled Celtic skins to the merciless Midi sun.

        It was during one of these undistinguished swim sessions that my grandfather, accompanied by my mother, came to the beach to meet us.   He was horrified.

        “ Mais sácre bleu, Jeannot !” he said. “Are these my granddaughters?   They swim like a fruit salad!   I can only hope Madame de Quique has not already observed them.   She will be insupportable.   Il faut faire quelque chose !”

        And that’s how I became a really good swimmer.  My grandfather found M. Pierre Jacquemin, a former Olympic swimmer with the looks of a movie star, now an efficient remedial teacher of fluid swimming styles.  The jetty from which he taught is still there, backed by the ancient fort.  M. Jacquemin had no patience with nervousness about water and its denizens.  Our lessons started at 9 a.m., at which early hour the local fishermen dived for octopus, who liked the shallows and were known to attach themselves lovingly to morning swimmers.  I was terrified of them, but I was in love with M. Jacquemin and would never have dreamed of rebelling, so “ a l’eau!” he’d cry, and into the water I went, in a smooth racing dive, surfacing to stretch out in a businesslike crawl, and back to the jetty, and out again in the elegant backstroke that was my favorite and back and out again in the submerging breaststroke, and under water, there and back, all the while taking in his baritone cries of  allongez-vous dans l’eàu! Soufflez dans l’eau! Faites glug-glug-glug dans l’eau, Mademoiselle Bernadette!”  It went on until noon, when we crept back up the hill to the house on Rue Ernest Renan for lunch, and my grandfather’s self-congratulatory smiles.

        But the house has gone, too, to make room for another apartment building.  The beach has become wider and has white sand and only a few pale pebbles; three bays have been added, with a park, a children’s playground and a restaurant, La Cave du Lido, where a little shack used to sell cigarettes and Ambre Solaire.  I sat on the beach under a wide umbrella and watched my grandchildren play at the water’s edge, and I remembered the story about how as a two-year-old I smote my sister on the head with the sand shovel (hers) I had seized and knocked her senseless at that same water’s edge, and I wondered if one day they would bring their grandchildren here, to swim in the blue Mediterranean, and look back over the generations, and talk to them about the past.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

September 12, 2007

Traveling, Part III
By Bebe Vaughan 

        Ann’s father was a doctor.  In wartime England that meant that he had special dispensations regarding the purchase of petrol, which I now call gas, and was occasionally able, I’m not sure why but with an abundantly clear conscience, to load up his car with his daughter and one of her friends (like myself) from time to time and drive to the South Coast to spend the day.

        I loved these jaunts.  Ann’s mother would accompany us, having lovingly packed one of those nostalgically poignant picnic baskets in which a roast chicken featured self-importantly (everybody kept hens), along with sliced tomatoes from the ubiquitous and carefully-tended kitchen garden, and slices of sparingly-buttered Hovis – that quintessentially English, commercially successful, brown bread that looked like a hand grenade and was expressively maligned by my mother – and a blackberry-and-apple tart. (I’ve never been able to interest my American nearest and dearest in blackberry-and-apple tarts.  They just don’t want to know: Their eyes glaze over, they change the subject or, more often, let it evaporate.  It’s a continuing mystery.

        Once there, at Hastings or Rye or Brighton, we would leap from the car and race toward the beach, immediately falling silent as we slowed and confronted the immense rolls of barbed wire that repelled children from the seastrand as efficiently as they were designed to repel the potential invasion of the German army.  The Channel, even on a warm day, looked grey and forbidding, Occupied France was just over the horizon and, as we looked at the water, the possibility of the war erupting, hand-to-hand on quiet University town streets the way it did that time when gloved and hatted little convent girls, which included me, were strafed one afternoon in broad daylight, silenced us.

        My thoughts now veer off onto the subject of France and the edge of hysteria that Americans carry about that country, even without Freedom Fries.  And then I’m paddling at great intellectual risk on the fragile shoreline of Jungian thinking, such as the concept of the Shadow (the dark, unaddressed, unfinished images that prowl the peripheries of American life), and I marvel at how the Past has its elbows pinioned to its sides and is stifled and blinkered as energetic patriots resolutely turn it toward the Future.  And then I think how I just don’t get it, patriotism.  Although I pay American taxes and live here because I could not it bear to live far from my dear ones, I am in truth a woman without a country.  I speak four and a half languages, and I still don’t know where I belong, and I am fearful, though curious, that somebody stern and forceful in Homeland Security might get peeved about this and demand an explanation, and I won’t have one.  Oh, dear.

And now Homeland Security brings back the memory of September 11, and I realize that I shall be traveling in France on the anniversary of the day that turned America into a place of fear.   And fear takes me back to childhood, and those shiny blue-and-grey days when I traveled to the seaside with Ann and her adoring parents and was able to observe and record the actions of parents who unequivocally and generously loved their child, admired her, and wanted her to be happy.

        And she was happy, I think.  Certainly I was, in that company, and I forgot to be afraid.  And that was a lasting blessing.

        I think these day trips made it possible for me to lay down for a while the crippling weight of my parents’ distress, their shame and anger, their determined blaming, their clumsy ineptitude in comprehending what they were supposed to do about their children.   Here with these different parents, I found normality, bright, uncomplicated and untinged by looming darkness.   Much later I discovered that my friend was adopted, and I remember being unsurprised by the news.   Ann’s parents brought her life journey to the forefront of their understanding of what it meant to be a parent; her future was their investment and their glory.   I was dumbfounded by the devotion, and the intelligence, that they demonstrated, that I was too young to name. 


August 29, 2007

Traveling, Part II
By Bebe Vaughan

        So, with August sprinting toward its finish line and my departure date graven in Air France pierre as September 10, I’m turning slowly in the direction of Getting Ready.  A tremendous amount of invisible energy goes into this process.  Haphazard actions materialize, all with attendant questions such as, Is This             1) Getting Ready To Go, or
            2) Getting There, or
            3) Arriving?

        I remember that I bought an elegant pale-blue carry-on bag, big enough to accommodate overnight necessities (heavy emphasis on makeup – can’t arrive in Marseille looking like a piece of chewed string), books, some woolly socks for padding noiselessly around the cabin, and extra toys and videos for the grandchildren, because rumor has it that Air France says only one carry-on bag, and no dismissing your purse, madame, as sans importance.  Well, I wasn’t raised by French nuns for nothing: un sac seulement?  You’ve got it.

        This suggests I’m concentrating on #2 (see above), although it could mean #3 (also above).  And now I notice my passport lying on my desk, in its trade paperback, European Union form, alas for the distinguished, now defunct, hard-back editions of the past.  Ah! Those were the days, mes amis!

        Or were they?

        Suddenly, I remember my attempts, years ago, to secure British passports for my children.  I wanted them to have joint nationality which, at the time, did not exist.  If you were born in America, as my children were, you were automatically an American citizen – even if your parents were misguided enough to maintain the nationality to which they were born.  The Brits smiled with benign superiority upon this position, and calmly said Rubbish!  If your parents are British and eccentric enough to have you born in a foreign country, you are a Brit, and so you will remain, no matter what absurd stand the questionable alien government maintains.

        Clearly, then, my children were going to have to make a choice.  And for them it was a poignant one.  But not for me: I have a very garbled attitude toward patriotism because I’ve never been sure whether I’m English or French.  My mother’s murmurs of “ mon dieu, que ces Anglais sont idiots!” frequently directed at my father, coupled with her blithe erasure of any aspect of his participation in the creation of her children, tended to make me suspect I was French but, as we lived in England surrounded by climate and other matters English, there was a chance I could be wrong.

        So for me it wasn’t so much a matter of patriotism as it was of pragmatism: Corrugated statements came juddering from the White House with unsettling frequency and, as the already war-torn mother of a soon-to-be-draft-age son, I was preoccupied with the question of survival.

        So I started my research into British citizenship for my offspring.  And I promptly discovered that a mother alone could not assert the child’s origins.  No, British law required the staunch word of the father.  Now.  In hospital records covering the birth of my children there is documented evidence of my validity: That really was me there, great with child, twice.  Every contraction was recorded, every centimeter of dilation and every drop of blood was measured, every Lamaze-induced puff, gasp and blow noted.  Nothing doing, said Her Majesty’s Government.  What we need for citizenship, madam, is to hear from the male parent.

        At the time I believed that the father in question had spun off the edge of the world from Ken Kesey’s bus, never to be heard from again.  Actually, he was in Wales, in Dylan Thomas’s town by the sea, but I did not know that then.

        But during one of many frustrating conversations with British officials on the subject of The Dad’s whereabouts, an important question arose: “Why,” I asked, “was any man the father of his children?”  Well, because their mother says he is, correct?  His name is inscribed on the birth certificate because she gives her word.  But the legal requirement under discussion implied that maternal units were feeble-witted, devious and morally unfit to carry guts to a bear in a leather apron, despite the two women then running England.  So, at the end of the day, why did our word carry so much weight?

        A moment of shocked silence followed.  Then, icily, the official said: “You forget yourself, madam.”

        And I lost it. 
“No!” I screamed.  “I am not forgetting myself! I am remembering myself!”

        Today the laws have changed, and we have DNA testing.   Still, just in case a fun-loving paternalistic blague seeps from the Chambre des Députés while I’m basking in the Midi , I do wonder if I should reacquaint myself with the Napoleonic Code.  Perhaps it’s published in paperback, sponsored by Air France.  I could read it while I’m Getting There.
        It might fit into my single carry-on bag.

August 8, 2007

Traveling, Part I

By Bebe Vaughan

    I’m leaving for France soon, for a holiday at my family’s house near Avignon. The purpose of the trip, for me, is to glean further insights into my parents’ history, and bolster the fragile clues that have so far emerged from my research into my father’s sudden appearance during the Great War, in Provence, where he met the fourteen-year-old schoolgirl who later became his wife. I shall go with my daughter and her family, which contains two small, energetic and articulate children and, together with my sister, who lives there part-time, we will drive down to the Mediterranean coast and gaze at the facade of the Villa Rita in Le Mourillon, at Toulon – the house where, at the age of two, I first met my father, then politely gave him congé. It will be an interesting and rich time, requiring the protection of preparedness alongside the raw vulnerability of openness.

    No step in it, I am persuaded, can be taken lightly or inadvertently, right from the beginning. And right now, I am at step one, pondering the actual airplane voyage.

    Our last visit, two years ago, was booked on the same airline, Air France. We traveled first class. At least in its translation from the French, I became a prompt devotee of that form of air travel, which I had only done once before, years ago, by unedifying mistake, and on a domestic flight. But let’s get back on Air France. I remember that before the flight so much attention was paid to one’s well-being: a luxuriously comfortable lounge equipped with soft leather recliners, hot coffee, cold wine and thick shiny reading material dealing exclusively with prohibitively expensive clothing, houses, decor and decorators. All this solicitude, presumably, to ensure that, by the time one embarked on the plane and found the appropriate seat, one was not completely unraveled by travel stress. And in the unlikely event that one was, there was the immediate solace of very good champagne, tiny delicious chocolates and chic flight attendants tucking cushions behind one’s head with murmurs of “Ca va mieux maintenant, n’est-ce pas? Voila le menu! Faites vos choix, madame.” 

    Such blandishments make one feel almost obligated to succumb to une crise nerveuse even of the most evanescent kind, just so one can recover from it and thus keep everything in the Universe in balance. But one’s faintness rallies: There’s a movie, a superb dinner and then the discovery of the Air France travel donation – pajamas designed by Christian Lacroix with matching mules and a small bag of expensive toiletries and other tokens of commercial gratitude à la Française. And then the bliss (to a career insomniac like myself, especially on airplanes) of sleep. Not twisted into pretzel shapes like those pathetic masses piled unesthetically on top of each other in that other part of the plane, but stretched out on a marvelously comfortable transformation of one’s seat, until Europe emerges from the night mists.

    This year will be a little different. Air France, it appears, has erased first class. Now they offer business class, then economy, then get out and push. Getting to France will once more entail an overnight flight, which means that the twenty-one-month-old grandson might be asleep for most of it. He’ll probably wake up in time to walk cheerfully among the stained economy-class travelers, generously offering to share their moribund breakfast croissants and paper cups of coffee and whatever juice the Gallic powers-that-be deem appropriate, while up ahead in business class, the proper people, les gens comme nous, will be preparing to breakfast on scrambled eggs with saumon fumé or ommelettes aux champignons et jambon, with brioches and hot fragrant coffee thick with cream – all served on china, with real knives and forks and none of your pedestrian plastic, please. (I know nothing of business class, so I hope I’m not making wildly inaccurate assumptions couched as a world class case of first class hiccups.) Then, his energy revived, he will probably discover a business person deep in work on a laptop! He will be delighted and climb into the preoccupied business lap; he will probably seize the cell phone and start pushing buttons. He will have to be intercepted, extracted, redirected – all these maneuvers imposed by Daddy, he of the great height and calm assumption of victory (the first attribute was present in my daughter’s father and the second dramatically absent. “Darling, suppress your child!” I remember him trumpeting). Apologies to the stunned, speechless business person will be profuse and probably bestowed by the hovering distaff side while the perpetrator of disturbance is carried off under his father’s arm. The three-year-old will probably experience a surge of sibling exasperation; there will doubtless be a rebuke in the form of a blow from her book, followed by tears, roars, some kicking and the rapid deployment of heavy artillery in the shape of Thomas the Tank Engine in various media guises and Angelina, Ballerina, ditto.

    Yes, this trip will be different. It will be like a Jacques Tati movie, full of expectation, surprises, hilarity, and sudden silence. And I can’t wait to live every moment of it.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

July 25, 2007

England Expects, Part III

By Bebe Vaughan

    At some point in the long war that was my parents’ marriage, my mother decided (probably unconsciously) to ensure that my father was never included in the word “family.” That word meant her family, the French side. I know a tremendous amount about certain individuals – my great-grandmother, the opera singer, comes to mind. She was leaving France for the United States, perhaps permanently, and on the eve of embarkation, went to her son’s army barracks (his superior officers would not let him out to say goodbye to his mum; that’s the army for you) and sang her farewell to him from across the street. It’s a wonderful story, full of moments of high drama and heartbreaking in the retelling. There may be a story to match it in my father’s history; if there is, I can be sure it has been expunged.

    My father’s family is largely a mystery to me. I’ve recently learned that his mother was Welsh and his father English, expatriated to Wales, where the children were raised. I do not know my paternal grandmother’s name, nor my paternal grandfather’s; I don’t know where or when or of what they died. My father had a younger brother, who did something with tea in what was then Ceylon, and I met him once, with his two sons.  Sometimes, my father’s sister, Gwyneth, would visit, much to my mother’s fuming annoyance, and there were occasional visits from an Aunt Margaret, also deeply despised, who I think was my father’s great-aunt.  She was a very lively old lady, well-read and amusing, as was Gwyneth, who was also very pretty.

    These people fascinated me. I wanted to know all about them, go and visit, see how and where they lived. They were the other half of the photograph of my life, and I harbored – do still harbor – an abiding wish to know more about them. I mean, for heaven’s sake! This is my DNA I’m talking about. I have a profound right, equaled only by desire, to find out more. Once, a couple of years ago, I was watching the BBC news on television and it occurred to me that the newscaster bore an unusual resemblance to my father, especially around the eyes, which is where I resemble him most, as well as the same name. I was filled with a kind of yearning joy: that I had found my missing family and a reunion, at last, could be arranged. I immediately e-mailed the BBC to inquire if the newscaster was a member of my family and, while I waited to hear, I started to write an appropriate scenario. Obviously, the man (younger than I by a good many years) was the son of familial offspring – the grandson of my father’s tea-tasting brother, clearly. That made the most sense. Alas, it was not to be: Some weeks later I received a letter telling me that the information I had communicated rang no family bells.

    I was dreadfully disappointed.

    One of my mother’s favorite put-downs was: “You are teepically English,” a sort of disgusted, all-purpose reprimand, a reminder, with a French accent, that there was a better way to be. Now, I have no intention of abandoning my Frenchness. I glory in it, and the frustration and anxiety the very existence of the culture causes the less evolved of our governing representatives (may “freedom fries” encumber your tonsils and tie them in nautical knots, espèce d’Andouille, and may your colorectal plumbing plug up, yea, extravagantly, with monstrous bubbles, rank green leakage and putrefying exhalations, and challenge every tube, flashlight and pump deployed by a battalion of G.I. experts) fills me with purring gratification.

    All I want is to give my English side equal weight. And, deserved or not, my father his place in my trajectory.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

July 11, 2007

England Expects, Part II

by Bebe Vaughan

My parents were married in Wales when my mother was nineteen years old (my father was twelve years her senior). Her flight from France occurred shortly after my grandfather removed her forcibly from the Art Institute in Marseille, having appeared unexpectedly and discovered his youngest daughter intently drawing the human form – in this case, a male nude – under the critical gaze of her teacher, whose gender, in my mother’s retelling of the sad, startling tale, somehow evaded recognition (I have found that tiny details such as this were often missing in my mother’s retelling of a family event: She tended toward the Big Picture, drawn in primary colors). She didn’t dwell on the immediate repercussions, but I can safely assume that there was hysteria, tears and high-pitched rebellious responses – punctuated by heavy-palmed slaps to her face – to my grandfather’s stentorian and militaristic denouncements. Terrified even in fantasy, I always see him striding into the class in full French army regalia, ramrod straight and comminatory, his splendid moustache upended and crackling with fury, berating his child, her teachers and the entire administration of the Institute as though they were the troops who, under his command, repelled the jungle and laid railway lines in Madagascar and Indo-China. My mother spent her childhood in these colonies, and these same troops, stone criminals to a man and now accepted members of the French Foreign Legion without a Beau Geste among them, served as her tutors and caregivers.

    My imaginative vision of my grandfather says a lot about the emotional charge my mother brought to the story each time she told it. And she often told it. It was one of many, along the same general lines. Her repertoire was spattered with recollections of her father’s violent reactions to his children’s mistakes, or just youthful high spirits, so much so that when, after World War II, we were able once more to travel from England to the South of France to visit him, I had difficulty identifying the gentle, soft-spoken, slow-moving old gentleman, patiently, in the long, hot Midi afternoons, committing his memories to water color in his courtyard studio, with the fire-breathing dragon my mother had described as her guardian during her most impressionable years.

    So she went to Paris and took a job as a lab girl at the Institut Pasteur under the watchful scrutiny of her brother-in-law, a scientist whose son later became a surgeon of such ferociously high professional standards that women who worked as his nurses years ago still shudder at the sound of his name. From there she went to England, to Cornwall, and took a job as a Mademoiselle in a girls’ boarding-school.

    And then she married my father. They barely knew each other. He was her savior; she was his fantasy – the requisite British army trophy made famous by the saucy “Mademoiselle from Armentieres, parlez-vous?” song brought home from the trenches at the war’s end. The only written record that I have seen of their wedding – a sweet note from my father to his bride – came with a diamond necklace that she never took out of its box. She called him the formal vous , the distant, polite-to-the-point-of-coldness form of address, rather than the familiar, second-person singular tu. The only time I ever witnessed tenderness between them was when my father read aloud the letter written by his father-in-law following my brother’s death in 1946. I remember looking up and seeing that my parents’ hands were clasped and wet with their joined tears.

    I think, sadly, that whatever unaddressed pain, revulsion and terror my mother’s soul stored from her father’s treatment of her was neatly encapsulated, then transferred to her husband. Thus, her male parent was left free to wear the halo she ignited around his head, its refulgence deepening as the years, and the memories, passed. She found an unassailable method of survival, drove her children to distraction and lived into her early nineties. My father’s method was less successful.

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July 4, 2007

England Expects, Part I

by Bebe Vaughan

    I’ve been reading a biography of the English poet Robert Graves. I must confess that reading Volume 1 of this book, written by his nephew Richard Perceval Graves, has put me in a truly vile temper. In fact, I had just hissed “Talk about a sense of entitlement!” and “What were his parents thinking?” followed by a muttered “A job, perhaps, is the answer” and was preparing my arm to hurl the book across the room when it slipped from my fingers and fell open at a photograph of a young man in full British Army dress uniform. The year is 1914, when what is still referred to, with all the sadness and solemnity conjured by its memory, as The Great War broke out in Europe.

    There he stands, erect, gallant, supremely confident, in his riding breeches, Sam Browne belt, sword, puttees, cap and boots – the quintessential English officer, representative of the ruling class, getting ready to sort out this tiresome mess and be home by Christmas.

    I thought it was a photograph of my father.

    It isn’t, of course; it's Graves, before trench warfare with its gas and deafening noise and stench and sickening sights like that of the dead Boche, from the poem of the same name, who “scowled and stunk/With clothes and face a sodden green,” destroyed his lungs and tipped a psyche already unbalanced by the rigors of the English public school system into a fragile no-man’s land of recurring near madness. (Perhaps his parents, subsequently, were not quite as co-dependent as cousin Richard Perceval reconstructs.)

    I have a photograph of my father, Graves’ contemporary, in the same get-up. Handsome, debonair, superbly batman-buffed, he gazes serenely beyond the photographer at visions of – what? Glory?Hmm. My father did not take part in trench warfare. He spent the entire duration of World War I in Mesopotamia, trailing the columns of mules transporting something essential to the war effort from point A to point B across the desert. I never found out exactly what, but I accepted my father’s vague explanation: Materiel, he said. Guns. Explosives. It sounded excruciatingly boring, so I dramatized it, with generous seven-year-old artistic enthusiasm: Daddy astride a mule at the head of a charge, sword free of its scabbard whirling wildly over his head, yelling like the exasperated Indians who often materialized in the Hopalong Cassidy movies I found so gripping.

    At some time during the hostilities, my father found himself in France, in Marseille, where he met the lively, black-eyed daughter of Colonel Lucien d’Herbez de la Tour, comrade-at-arms at Verdun and lifelong friend of General Philippe Petain. He married her after the war, when, at eighteen, she skipped off to England to work as a Mademoiselle in a girls’ boarding school in Cornwall.

    I know very little about my father, and to remedy this ignorance I have joined the Great War Society. I plan to start here and work my way back. Then forward. I believe that the King’s Own Regiment, in which my father was a captain ( Graves, interestingly, was a captain in the Royal Welch Fusiliers) will fill in some of the missing picture. Then, perhaps, I shall begin to fit together the pieces of the broken puzzle that is my family history. Certainly he was not as exalted in his family connections as Robert Graves, who had enough titles fluttering from his helm to jeopardize his aim in a firefight, but he was certainly a snob.

    And he might have been a poet. Graves, though, was a devoted father, a pioneer house-husband to his feminist wife Nancy Nicholson (she refused to change her name when she married him). They had four children. Graves said the domestic tasks attendant on having a family calmed him, restored his soul and nurtured his muse. My father had five children and, for him, the adage “Children should be seen and not heard” was a statement of faith.

    I wonder if I would find compassion less evasive if I found out that he actually committed his muse to paper.

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June 27, 2007

Power Tools

by Bebe Vaughan

    I have lived alone now for a little over four years. And I love it. I love the exquisite tinyness of my cottage, the way it balances the breathtaking psychic vista of the freedom that, finally, is mine, making me mistress of all I survey.

    I love the stillness, the quiet. I love not having to talk if I don’t want to, for fear of bruising a fragile co-habiting ego. I love not having to cook if I don’t feel like it. I love the recognition that I can make plans that suit me, like maybe leaving the house at 3 a.m. and driving to Monterrey and spending all day at the Aquarium. Well, on second thoughts, perhaps not 3 a.m: A mountain lion has been sighted in my neighborhood, and the species tends to be nocturnal. I would rather not encounter a representative as I approach the carport, even if I am carrying a large white umbrella and singing “Nessun’ dorma” fortissimo – to increase my menace-factor and generally discourage attack by ravenous brute creation. Hasn’t happened yet, but ...

    Mountain lions aside, I own my life.

    I think I’m a member of a demographic that Madison Avenue either hasn’t noticed yet or has filed impatiently under the medical profession’s depressing rubric of People Most Likely To Die Soon: females of a certain age, living alone. Where on earth do they find this addled information? What research? Nobody has ever asked me how I respond to living alone. The answer is: ecstatically.

    Except for one problem, which I have recently identified: the things in the house that involve male-style muscles – pictures to hang, screen doors to adjust, hooks screwed in, nails yanked out, furniture arriving, departing – the sort of thing that one’s son routinely addresses when he visits. Only my son lives in Michigan, and it takes a whole day, meticulous planning and dizzying expense to make the trip.

    Doing it oneself, then, is the obvious solution, and it was while pondering my destitution of this kind of expertise that I noticed, in my Working Assets telephone bill, the list of books recommended for summer reading. Among the political and environmental publications, I saw The Dads and Daughters Togetherness Guide: 54 Fun Activities to Help Build a Great Relationship, by Joe Kelly. From baking a cake to “messing around” with power tools, this, said the blurb, is an essential guide to dad-daughter symbiosis.

    Good Lord! My father, baking a cake? That never happened. Papa, messing around with power tools, showing me how it’s done? No, I don’t think so. (I recollect his familiar admonishment: “Dammit, darling, it’s just not done!”) I do recall that every two or three years, in the Spring, he would put on a battered Wurzel Gummidge hat and, clearly bewildered, paint a wall, perhaps two. Then he would take to his bed, deathly ill with lead poisoning, and stay there for about three weeks, while we all tiptoed around the house speaking only in funereal whispers. What my father demonstrated under my silent child surveillance was that perplexity, swiftly followed by divine retribution, was the expected result of any kind of practical involvement in the domestic arena.

    Thank God he stayed out of the kitchen.

   What he successfully accomplished, for me, was the expert sharpening, with his monogrammed silver pen-knife, of the pencils I needed for my endless drawings. He did this beautifully, and what I remember most vividly was that he never minded being asked this favor. I knew I could count on him.

   With the memory came realization: I will not be doing these practical household things, with or without power tools, any time soon. Probably never. These are activities that hold no excitement, no promise of joy or pride for me; they bore me to distraction, exhaust me, make me wish I’d never been born. Just, I think, as they did my father.

    I’ll hire Michelle. She is a power tool genius. She will fix it all. Because, like my father, I do not walk that road.

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June 20, 2007

Field of Play

by Bebe Vaughan

    My father did not play with his children. I realize as I type these words that we are dealing with the Olden Days, when the mores of the times inhibited the notion that children might be fun. I sometimes wonder what happened to those dads who loved fatherhood, found it restorative, like fresh air, who could not wait to get home from work so that they could play with their children? Dads rather like my own son, whose father didn’t either – and now we’re in the ’60s, when being a father finally began to be tentatively acceptable on the fun-front – but who adores being a father and sees it as a divine gift of laughter and discovery that heals the wounded past, salutes the future and completes his circle.

    Not much is known about these sad men – my father, my son’s father – and their peers, in this regard. They died disappointed, not really knowing what they had missed when suddenly their lives were jarred by the arrival of their offspring and they stayed separate, not knowing that they could join in, make a difference. They moved resignedly into the role of distant disciplinarians, dispensers of advice and punishment, chilly observers rather than joyful participants.

    I am still moved to stillness when I see a dad playing with his children and their friends. There was one in Trader Joe’s today. I stood transfixed, two bunches of broccoli and a potted orchid clasped to my bosom, gazing with astonishment and familiar longing as a young dad – well, he must have been in his late thirties, but to me that’s young – wheeled a cart full of small children and groceries at high speed through the aisles, laughing and attentive, answering questions, offering explanations, listening to commentaries. I was struck, too, by the interest, the respect, the humility that informed and directed the young man’s radiant leadership. Here was someone, I concluded, who understood that the object of the exercise was fun.

    I am someone who needs fun as much as I need air. I am addicted to laughter; I love to play. And I don’t mean tennis, either, or baseball or cricket, or hockey or lacrosse or blackjack or poker or monopoly. I hate games like that, full of the dreary potential for loss and bitterness, stiff with the dismal possibility that someone will be outraged, or feel diminished, that there will be tears before night. And since being widowed, I find that my need for play, for laughter, for fun, is suddenly much more intense than it was during the years of my marriage (I did not, alas, do marriage well; I didn’t “get it”; somehow, some essential grasp of the marriage idea failed to take. I consider James Joyce, who commented wryly that he was baptized and innoculated on the same day and “neither took” – but that’s another story). I am fortunate indeed in my women friends; the time I spend with them is incandescent, precious: it warms and uplifts me, smoothes my pelt, reweaves my soul.

    But the playing field, I see, is tilted. At this late stage, I would like to try my hand at friendship with a man, just to redress the balance.

    Here is where my father’s refusal to play (when I’m feeling compassionate, I say “inability”) has had lasting effects. I have never perceived men as friends. With a friend, you can speak your truth without fear of mockery or disdain or instruction; you don’t have to worry about how wrong you might be. My understanding was that this is a risk better not taken. Forget equality: Finely tuned antennae and the frequent profering of plates of delicious food make a much safer bet – an attitude, of course, deriving from the absence of practice at playing with males, of trying on the role of adversary or partner. At the convents I attended, boys were accepted until the equivalent of seventh grade, at which rambunctious point they were hastily transported to the boys’ college across town. But while they were in class with the girls, co-ed playtime was absolutely ruled out. Sometimes a courageous scofflaw broke the rule, then “She’s playing with the boys!” came the cry, and hue followed in swift, giddying, black-veiled succession.

    One learned how to tame men, one married them, one adapted to their foibles and sometimes found contentment, but one didn’t seek them out as friends, equals, with whom one could have fun.

    That’s why I was so overjoyed to run into Henry at a party recently. Henry, recently widowed, gentle, brilliant, courteous, caring, whom I hadn’t see in years; Henry bringing me food; Henry dealing firmly with the recalcitrant window, with the arctic, force-nine blast howling from the air conditioner, with the crumbling wine cork.

    “Henry could be a friend!” I said joyfully on the phone to my daughter. “He was married for 99 years so he’s not looking for a wife. It’s perfect. Oh, we’ll have such fun!”

    And it was a lovely thought, it nested in my brain like a rare, endangered bird until I met Henry a month later, at a different party. He was disquiet, intent on breaking, as quickly as possible, the news that he was in love. That’s what he said: in love.

    Now, according to The Week, Italian scientists at the University of Pisa have found that people in love demonstrate the same biological and emotional symptoms as people suffering from a psychiatric condition. Like, for example, people with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Both groups, it turns out, have low levels of serotonin, a brain chemical that affects mood.

    In other words, they’re nuts. And as far as I’m concerned, no fun at all.

    And my interest in Henry as a friend evaporated, poof!, leaving nothing behind, not even the tail feathers of a regretful sigh. I was impressed by the speed, and the thoroughness, of the turn-off.

    “You need a dance partner,” said Mary. “Someone really good, who will challenge your muscular memory, force you to stretch.” What a splendid idea. I am a very good ballroom dancer. I have won prizes, and I have no patience at all with the solipsistic idiosyncrasies, fantasies, really, sometimes revealed in partners of a certain age, like the one who told me earnestly that while he admired my poise and command of the steps, he couldn’t bring himself to dance with a woman who refused to perch atop stiletto heels. Barking mad, obviously, but worth another go, for lunacy like this aside, the dance floor is the perfect place to play with men, because I am there to create my own fun. My partners, bless ‘em, are there for me. Woo-hoo!

    And, of course, I never danced with my father.

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June 6, 2007

With a Song in My Heart

by Bebe Vaughan

A Frog he would a-wooing go,
Heigh ho! said Roley,
A Frog he would a-wooing go,
Whether his mother would let him or no
With a roly-poly, gammon and spinach,
Heigh ho, said Anthony Roley!

    This is the first verse of a song my father used to sing when I was very young. There’s a lot going on in it, and I would love to be able to declare that my research has yielded results that prove, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that the words have solemn, possibly portentous, political meaning, rather like Humpty Dumpty, or L’Histoire de Babar. Or that it is the origin of the story, so exquisitely arranged by Burl Ives and his guitar-playing cohorts, of the Frog who went a-courtin’ and he did ride, hmm hmm, to Missy Mouse’s door, confronting en passant the jeering Rabelasian chortles of Uncle Rat, he of the fat sides. And, after all that, and I’m talking about a wedding breakfast in a hollow tree and a sail across the lake and all manner of earthy animal merriment, for what? Nothing, if you exclude the insensate greed of a big, black snake. (It’s like Hamlet: Everybody dies.) What on earth was that all about? A bleak nudge reminding us that the Universe has a heart of polar ice? A dire warning that too much store is set by happiness? Or perhaps more proof that, as my children’s father once gloomily remarked, the Almighty has a Gallic sense of humor and a Lucullan sense of tragedy.  You just don’t know what to expect with these children songs.

    I consulted Google, earnestly typing in as much of the Anthony Roley verse as would fit the space.  I hit Return. Nada. My search, said Google gravely, did not match any document.  So, I think we can safely assume that the song is pure nonsense, something my father recollected from his own childhood -- which, I am startled to recognize, occurred in the latter part of the nineteenth century.  Cor blimey.  But the child part of me that just wanted to listen to him sing did not receive it as nonsense, and still does not. Plainly, though, it requires examination.

    My father had a beautiful tenor voice.  He was a Welshman and singing, as everybody knows, is a natural expression of Welshness. (I sing absent-mindedly while waiting in line at the supermarket checkout, sometimes in my dentist’s waiting room, frequently on the Down escalator in Nordstroms.)  He sang the Serenade from The Fair Maid of Perth with enough artistry to bring me to ten-year-old tears.  He particularly loved Gilbert and Sullivan, and would learn the tenor parts of the operas, just for fun, so when the famous D’Oyly Carte Company, on tour, arrived in his hometown with the tenor mysteriously incapacitated and no understudy in sight, someone mentioned my father.  He showed up and was chosen to sing in The Mikado.  His performance, I’m told, was rewarded with standing ovations.

    And now, suddenly, I remember that on the inside of his left arm he had a tattoo of a geisha, picked out in blue ink and flashed with green and red.  He had run away to sea when he was seventeen, and he explained that he acquired this embellishment in a Japanese port.  I wonder now if that was his halidom, his reminder of his fifteen minutes of fame on stage in The Mikado, when he did something that he loved, and did it well, despite the fact that it did not fit his parents’ expectations of their first-born.

    I have always been vaguely, uneasily puzzled, rather than saddened, by his lack of interest in my love of singing. The convent in England that had charge of my education (it was run by a French order of Irish nuns) had a wonderful music program, headed by one religious and one lay person, Sister John of the Cross and Miss Bailey, respectively. We studied Plainsong and sang like angels, as girls do. One year -- it was the Christmas before the accident that shortened my father’s life -- I was selected to perform two solos in the annual carol concert and I asked him to come and hear me sing. I had the feeling as I watched his face that he wanted me to withdraw from the concert. He refused to attend.

    And right here hops back the Frog who would a-wooing go -- I don’t think his name was Anthony Roley -- he was audacious.  He was bold.  He was going to do what he wanted to do, no matter how nervously his mother croaked her misgivings.  And his father, I bet, was just as nervous -- actually, every tadpole in the whole dysfunctional pond, probably, was nervous.  They infected each other.  That is the folly of families.  But that Frog ... heigh ho!  He was a hero.

    It was while I was pondering the underlying upholstery of this fragment of musical furniture that I began to recognize my father’s fear: that paralyzing, resident legacy that triumphantly makes dwindling cowards of so many us, causing us, as Auden said, to “forfeit the beautiful interest.”  His success with the D’Oyly Carte had shown him the possibility of a life rich in the rewards of the attentive love that enriches the heart, the intellect and the soul, expanding, honing and burnishing them to the peak of their powers.  He was a success on stage that night; the audience loved him.  But his parents were not on his side.  He was not trained to think of himself as a success, to take risks and exploit his gift, his beauty, his irreplaceable essence, so the brass ring glowed and beckoned but he turned fearfully away, imploding, I think with despair, into obscurity, safety and lasting littleness.

     The prospect, then, of his youngest daughter prowling these dangerous peripheries as she sang her solos at the Christmas carol concert must have been a vehement, and vertiginous, reminder of what he had lost. He forgot that children are not extensions of their parents, and that he might fearlessly consider letting history repeat itself.  All that was needed was that he show up, listen and applaud, with no expectation attached, and perhaps the course of another life might change. But that’s another story.

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May 30, 2007

The Tongues of Men and of Angels
by Bebe Vaughan

        I did not meet my father until I was two years old, living in the south of France with my mother, my aunt and two of my sisters in my grandfather’s tall, cool villa, overlooking the Mediterranean at Toulon.  In my mother’s version of the story, my father materialized one day and introduced himself to me.  I politely repudiated his advance, informing him that he was mistaken.  He was not, as he imagined, my father, because my father lived in the salon, on the mantelpiece.  I pointed to the silver-framed photograph of my parents: You see, monsieur?  That is my father.  Not you.  The protestations of this mild-mannered pretender were met with steely two-year-old rejection.  The subject was abandoned and, before my father left, he expressed his gratification at my precocious command of language.

        My father was a stickler for language.  Some months after his visit, my mother packed up her three youngest children and headed for Dakar, to join her husband.  They established a rule that English would be spoken, with elegance and distinction, at lunch in our house on Sundays.  It was partnered in importance by manners: Any child overheard murmuring “That’s not pudding, that’s green slime” was summarily banished to her room.  Manners and French, my father reasoned, were taken care of with exemplary thoroughness by the white-wimpled nuns at the convent that educated us.  And he was right: I think the last time I curtsied to an older woman was when I was in my thirties.  Later, back in England, my sisters and I used to hang out at the local recreation ground (we called it “going down the rec,” watching with delight as my father winced) just to try on the wild, glamorous, exciting speech patterns, all shot about with shiny, shocking colors, that the village kids used, and see how they draped our self image.

        My father’s influence has been ineradicable.  After almost 50 years in this country, I still have what is known as a “cut-glass” English accent, an old-fashioned, probably quaint way of speaking that doesn’t sound a bit like Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect.  It is also, I now learn, incomprehensible to Americans.

        “Where are you from, with that cute accent?” asked the friendly saleslady recently.  “I know you’re from somewhere!”

     I asked her where she thought I was from.

     “Australia,” she said.  Australia ?!?!  Perhaps I turned purple, certainly I was stunned.  Here I travel 6,000 miles from the country that exacerbated the whole mess, to California where, in the dotage I thought would be dignified, I am identified as a member of the group that once indignantly referred to me as “a bloody little Pommy bastard.”  I sound like an Australian!

     “Or South Africa,” said the saleslady, defensively.  “New Zealand.  We don’t hear many accents.”  And she briskly wrapped my selection of sale-priced camisoles and avoided my eye as she handed me the bag.  I took some deep breaths and remembered that I did almost marry an Australian, once.  It was back in the ’50s, when London was a popular post-war goal for clear-eyed, curious, intrepidly globe-trotting antipodeans. 

     And my oldest nephew is an Australian. 

     And wait, we were on our way to Australia, aboard that little collier in Dakar harbor in 1940, when the flower of the French navy, the battleship Richelieu, was disabled by the foux Anglais.  British sailors, naked and slicked with engine oil to repel the sharks swimming ravenously about the moored vessels, dived into the night water and placed by hand the deadly depth charges that blew the battleship’s propellers apart and ensured the ship’s temporary withdrawal from Vichy France’s war effort.

      We never set sail for Australia.

     So perhaps it’s some kind of cultural osmosis; something unconscious, some errant strand of unconsummated racial memory that entangles me abruptly and trips me into speaking like an Austral?!?! .... an Australian, from time to time.

     But I don’t think so.  In America I have preserved my English accent for 46 years, like a bee in amber, and I will not relinquish it.  My father’s intensity on the subject of speech was -- is -- too powerful.  Had he been a less evasive parent, perhaps, I would have quickly adopted the speech of my new land, rather as Madonna has; it would have been a psychic expression of healthy, trustful rebellion.  We would have addressed the unfinished business of our souls, my father and I, crossed swords, set limits and agreed that love, as Einstein declared, was the only rational act.

     I think my way of speaking, my posh, pre-war, virtually obsolete cadence, keeps my father alive.  I think it gives me hope that this act of homage to a conceit that was, for whatever reason, terribly important to him, will finally persuade him to continue the conversation we started that day in the salon, to stay until he convinces me that he is, indeed, my father.  And that I am his verbal treasure, and contribute to his joy.

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I Am Bebe Vaughan

by Bebe Vaughan

    I am the product of an uneasy detente between the Welsh (my father, blue-eyed, strawberry-blond, musical, literary, sartorially stylish, often missing and, when present, largely remote; he died when I was fourteen) and the French (my mother, from the Midi coast, black-eyed, garrulous, gifted and unstable, present in my life with an intensity that caused me later to decamp and head for America).  I was born in England and educated in France, Senegal (in what was then French West Africa), and England, so by the age of four I could speak three languages.  Unfortunately, I never learned the alphabet in any of them and, to this day, I consult dictionaries only when no one else is around to stare aghast at my chaotic thumbed hunts through the listings as I murmur "M ... let's see, M -- is that before Q? Oh no, it's after L: KLMEnno. So it's before N... Oh, look! R!"

    Despite this drawback, I am remarkably well-read, say my children, and I have been writing since the age of nine.  I have written a lot.

    I am a member of the Kensington Ladies Erotica Society and contributed to all three books as both author and editor. The emerging KLES oeuvre was published by Ten Speed Press in 1984, 1986 and 2002.  The first book, Ladies Home Erotica, stayed on the Bay Area Trade Paperback Best Seller List for 26 weeks and propelled us, as part of a national book tour, onto Fresh Air with Terry Gross and Oprah, before she was Oprah.  She was the Oprah Winfrey Show in those far-off days, and we were Those Masked Ladies.  Well, it was 25 years ago, before Madonna and AIDS, and things were far less, er, frank.  We all had jobs and nervous husbands; the word modesty was still in use.  The prospect of being sidled up to at the water fountain, or in the supermarket parking lot, and assailed by the sibilant graphic whisperings of furtive Lotharios was unnerving.  We raided the mask collection gathered by one of the Ladies and hid behind papier-mache, shells and feathers as the publisher's photographer took our group pictures.  Our success caused the Ladies' Home Journal to panic: They ordered us shrilly to cease and desist, because we were a) encroaching on their intellectual territory as they apparently own the words Ladies and Home when they are right next to each other in a sentence and b) confusing their readers -- all of whom, you can bet your bra, were over eighteen.  But, as Tony Soprano said at his mother's funeral: "Whaddya gonna do?"  We changed the title of the first book to Ladies Own Erotica, and there it has stayed.  None of the books has ever been out of print.

    I am an award-winning journalist (to my surprise, the American Sunbathing Association awarded me the Non-Nudist Printed Media Award for Best Magazine Article in 1988.  They gave me a plaque which, as we speak, hangs resplendent above my computer, and $100, most of which I spent on lunch with my editor, who assigned the piece).

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