When my parents moved to America from France in the early 1950’s, Maman was eight months pregnant. She left behind her large, boisterous and close-knit family in France and followed Papa because he wanted to start a new life in the New World. In those days, French people didn’t just pick up and leave and cross the ocean, especially not with a baby on the way. But Maman followed her heart. Maman raised six children in a country where she had no relatives, and at first no friends to help her, and where she didn’t speak the language or know the customs. But she learned them.
Maman must have deeply loved Papa to leave all that was familiar behind, and Papa was no ordinary man. Take camping. Camping for my dad meant spending the three summer months in a cow field in Kentucky, sleeping in tiny pup tents, using a stinky wooden outhouse, and cooking over a campfire. We cleaned ourselves by bathing in the river below, and my mom had to trek into town to a Laundromat while papa went to work during the day. Some of us tykes were still in diapers, and it wasn’t easy taking care of us with no running water (other than the river below). At night, Papa would take us frogging in an old rowboat on the river, and we would eat froglegs for breakfast cooked over the open campfire. It wasn’t till I moved to France as a young adult that I realized that the French did in fact eat frog legs, but not for breakfast, and usually not cooked over an open fire.
My family moved often, about every three years because that was how long it usually took for Papa’s construction projects to be completed, and then it was on to the next one. Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Rosebank on Staten Island, Portsmouth, Stapleton Heights on Staten Island, Altadena in California, and so on – Maman took it all in stride. Think of all the moving and organizing that meant Maman had to do; the number of boxes to pack and unpack, all the stuff six children and a few pets can accumulate. The new school enrollments, finding new doctors and dentists, and acclimating to a new small town or a new big city, trying to find babysitters and make friends. My mother’s French accent was so think, that everywhere we moved people thought Maman had just moved from France, and would comment, “So, you’re from France; how do you like America?” Once Maman had obtained her American citizenship, she would respond “I am an American, what do you think?! I have six children they are all born here!”
When people see what life with my son, Jeremy, entails in terms of energy, and organization, advocating, resource-finding, they often ask, “How do you do it? How do you handle raising a child so impacted by autism, besides having Rebecca?” I think of Maman, raising the six of us (ok, none of us have autism but we had our share of neurodiversity in the family) in different cities every three years, and I realize where my resourcefulness came from. “I had a great role model,” I reply.
Happy Mother’s Day, Maman!
This blog first appeared on Huffingtonpost.com, May 10, 2009