Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Read an Excerpt from Marguerite Andersen's The Bad Mother

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Marguerite Andersen (Photo Credit: Gregory D Y Misumi)

Marguerite Andersen's The Bad Mother (Second Story Press), translated from the original (La mauvaise mere) by Donald Winkler is an autobiographical novel both brutally honest and revealing about the pressures and expectations women face when they become parents.

Based on Marguerite's experiences as a young bride moving from Germany to Tunisia with a French lover, The Bad Mother tells the story of an abusive relationship, a mother torn between conflicting needs and society's reaction. When Marguerite fled her abusive husband, she left her children behind for a year and a half, drawing scorn from strangers and friends alike. In her poetic prose, she examines her fictionalized experiences, her love for her children and the conflicting pressures parenthood exerts on a woman's identity.

We're thrilled to present an exclusive excerpt from this Trillium Book Award-winning text, courtesy of Second Story Press.

Excerpted from The Bad Mother by Marguerite Andersen

MAKING MY WAY

That means making the impossible possible
supporting the children

while studying

earning enough to live
to give them shelter
to feed them

to laugh with them
sometimes to cry
to clothe them
to take them
to school

to the doctor
to the dentist
later
elsewhere

to pay for their education
in whole

in part

to attend to their needs
since
their father desists
Oh!

sometimes the mother
is tired
exhausted

in debt

but she finds a way
each day

because she must.

BERLIN

In Berlin, my children unlearn their fear. There are no more
cries, blows, threats, or punishment. The grandparents are
patient. As am I. Oh, the grandfather grumbles when the
little Frenchmen, for whom he has bought French bread,
don’t finish the crusts they’ve torn off to wipe their plates.
But it’s not serious. We explain, and then we laugh. It’s not
much fun either when his grandsons, rather than contenting
themselves with the sweetest of fruit from the large plum
tree, pluck from the lattice unripe pears he’s been cultivating
with great care. But in the end, the old man always has a bit
of chocolate for them in one of his desk drawers. And they’re
allowed to interrupt him when they have a question. They
just have to knock at the door, and wait for his
Ja?
and the typewriter goes silent.

A curious business, this writing about which he says
nothing, but that makes a strong impression on them.
A question, an answer, a piece of chocolate.

A kiss?
“You know, mama, the Germans don’t kiss all the time,” says Michel.

“They shake hands,” Martin explains.

They’re adapting, my two Pieds-Noirs.
I enroll them in the French school.

At the ages of eight and ten, they travel alone, on the
subway, every day.

Am I asking too much of them?

I imagine them strong and joyful, laughing at all the serious
commuters who are telling them to keep quiet.

Ah, the French, it’s obvious, they don’t know discipline.

I pursue my studies, work as an interpreter, translator,
teacher.

Martha, my good mother, is there for the children when I
am not.

At school, Michel is well behaved, as good as gold, they say.
Martin, writes the headmaster in March, plays the fool.

A meeting between the principal — a nervous fellow who
can’t stop chewing his fingernails — the grandfather, and the
mother, while the child waits alone in the corridor for his
fate to be determined.

“A restless child,” says the principal.

“An intelligent child,” says the former professor.

“A difficult child,” admits the mother.

“I won’t be stupid any more,” he promises.

Three months, twelve weeks...

Finally, I’m authorized to enroll my two sons for the
following year.

But what will they do during the long summer vacation?
Four weeks in a summer camp recommended by the French
consulate will pass quickly.

Shortly after the two children have returned, a young man
rings the doorbell.
“It’s Stéphane, the counsellor,” cries Martin as he lets him in.
Why does Michel look so uneasy?

The young man has arrived with an accusation.

“Your sons damaged their tent,” he says, “we ended up
throwing it away.”
“How...”

“Well,” says Michel, “it was raining hard, and we just
wanted to see what would happen if we made a little hole
in the canvas where the rain water was gathering, with our
beautiful Swiss knives. You should have seen!”

“We couldn’t have known it would flood like that, the
sleeping bags all got soaked,” adds Martin.

I slip the intruder a few bills. My parents won’t know
anything about it.

I’m getting a bit tired of my sons’ antics. I send them to
their room under the roof. Would not a good mother have
punished them?

I go up a few minutes later to tell them that in fact that
was quite amusing, my two little North Africans under
Normandy’s summer rain... When I arrive, I see only my
older son’s hands hanging onto the windowsill:

Martin is suspended over the stone terrace!

Silent, Michel looks at me, as if to say: Do something,
mama.
I run down to Theo, explain what’s going on, quickly drink
the cognac he’s holding out to me, go back up with him.
Martin obeys the order, firmly delivered by the grandfather,
to come back in.
I’m exhausted.

My parents could use less drama in their lives.

ALONE WITH THEM

I rent an apartment in town.

I go on with my studies.

I teach French, part time, in three schools.

I love teaching, even if sometimes, leaving in the morning, I
don’t know which direction to take.

We’re surviving, I say to myself.

Michel, the wise child, is always serenely happy. He reads.
He writes. He makes up stories.

Martin reads, too. When he runs out of books, he steals
them from a French-German used bookstore near his school.
A child thief?

Should I punish him?

“André Gide did the same thing,” Theo tells me.

I love my father, who knows so many things.

I laugh. I love my son who steals books.

My difficult son.

A good mother would have made her son apologize to

the merchant, would have believed that the humiliation
would constitute a lesson for this young person who thinks
anything is permitted him...
But had not Gide, the famous Gide, said that humiliation,
on the contrary, makes one all the more arrogant?

A bad mother, I place my confidence in the young reader’s
development.
I visit the shopkeeper, I reimburse him. The man laughs
with me:
“Let’s hope he’ll keep on reading!”

I teach constantly, I lack money, I give private lessons.
Always good, my mother pays for a cleaning lady.
Sunday morning, we cross the Grunewald, spend the day
with my parents, return to the apartment, our bellies full,
backpacks stuffed with supplies for the days to come, and
laundry washed in the maternal washing machine.
Once a week, the difficult child sees a psychoanalyst.

“He doesn’t talk much, but he’s extremely polite,” the doctor
tells me.

Because sometimes I go too.

After all, perhaps I’m the difficult one.

Marguerite Andersen is an accomplished writer and lecturer. She has taught French and translation (English, French, and German) at several universities and has also worked as a translator and interpreter for diplomats and writers. Dr. Andersen was the editor of Canada’s first feminist anthology in the 1970s, Mother was not a person. She has written several novels, short story collections, and plays. She lives in Toronto.

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