Sunday, 23 August 2020

ALS: 'Mijn tante'

My aunt

Si vous n’aviez la mort, vous me maudiriez sans cesse de vous en avoir privé. J'y ay à escient meslé quelque peu d’amertume pour vous empescher […] de l'embrasser trop avidement et indiscretement. Pour vous loger en cette moderation, ny de fuir la vie, ny de refuir à la mort, que je demande de vous, j'ay temperé l'une et l'autre entre la douceur et l’aigreur.
(Montaigne, Essais I, XX)

If you did not have death, you would endlessly curse me for having deprived you of it. I have advisedly mixed a little bitterness in it, to prevent you […] from embracing it too avidly and indiscreetly. To place you in this state of moderation, of neither fleeing life nor fleeing away from death, which is what I ask of you, I have tempered both of them somewhere between sweetness and bitterness.

There was a ring at the door and when I opened it, I saw a horse standing there. I was six years old and asked the horse: ’Who have you come to see?’ The horse asked if my aunt was at home. I knew that horses couldn’t speak, but luckily could see a man’s legs behind the horse. I shouted: ’Aunt, there’s a man with a horse for you.’ My aunt shouted back that she wasn’t at home. I conveyed the message, she wasn’t at home. I was staying with my aunt because my parents were on holiday for the first time since the war. It was 1946, they were spending three weeks in Switzerland and bringing a watch home for me. I wore it for a long while, but at some point in my life it got lost. I later also heard that my aunt had been married to a horse-dealer. She got divorced when she noticed that he had lady-friends. She was against infidelity, she recalled that at the wedding ceremony this had been mentioned, they had promised to be faithful to each other. The horse-dealer felt that a little adventure on the side from time to time was the icing on the cake, and after the divorce sometime came to try and explain this. Always in vain, she never wanted to see him again. She didn’t loathe men, she wasn’t vindictive. She had remarried, this time with a lion-tamer. He travelled through Europe with a circus. He was very strict with his lions, but gentle and caring with my aunt. Anyone reading this is aware that existence can be hard and empty, and that fate knows no justice. After three years, the lion-tamer was killed by one of his lions and my aunt left the circus. In our family everyone thought that this must have broken her spirits, but this was not the case. She discovered Montaigne, a French writer from the sixteenth century. He was a respected judge and for eight years was mayor of Bordeaux. In 1568 he fell off his horse and almost died. After this incident he realised the role death plays in our lives. He retired to his estate to write about himself. My aunt read everything he had written and a statement by him hung on the wall. I want you neither to flee life, nor recoil from death. She had a cleaning lady from Lebanon who dusted off these words every day out of admiration for her mistress – and also a bit for Montaigne.

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