Our relationship to our mother is almost always complicated. It can be as arduous as a trek up a mountain or as effortless as a stroll through the French countryside. It can be loving, turbulent, affectionate, estranged, doting or impossible to please. It can be fortified by time, diminished by resentment, magnified by tenderness, undone by rejection, bound by magnanimity, spoiled by neglect, buoyed by boundless love, or blighted by strife.
This profound relationship between mother and child is what great French writer Colette explores in Earthly Paradise, her stunning autobiography which Robert Phelps called a “vivid, year-by-year revelation of a long, eager, courageous life.” A rare writer who can glimpse the transcendent in the mundane, Colette finds as much poetry in the concrete details of the physical as in the philosophical. In her signature lush, evocative prose, Colette pays tribute to her mother, a passionate woman whose fervor for flowers comes to symbolize her unceasing commitment to growth. Much like the flowers she lovingly tends, her mother possesses an instinct to blossom and- even in old age- refuses to wither. Despite her own personal failings, Colette finds consolation in the fact that she was born of such a remarkable mother:
“Whenever I feel myself inferior to everything about me, threatened by my own mediocrity, frightened by the discovery that a muscle is losing its strength, a desire its power, or a pain the keen edge of its bite, I can still hold up my head and say to myself: ‘I am the daughter of the woman who wrote that letter- that letter and so many more that I have kept. This one tells me in ten lines that at the age of seventy-six she was planning journeys and undertaking them, but that waiting for the possible bursting into bloom of a tropical flower held everything up and silenced even her heart, made for love. I am the daughter of a woman who, in a mean, close-fisted, confined little place, opened her village home to stray cats, tramps, and pregnant servant girls. I am the daughter of a woman who many a time, when she was in despair at not having enough money for others, ran through the wind-whipped snow to cry from door to door, at the houses of the rich, that a child had just been born in a poverty-stricken home to parents whose feeble, empty hands had no swaddling clothes for it. Let me not forget that I am the daughter of a woman who bent her head, trembling, between the blades of a cactus, her wrinkled face full of ecstasy over the promise of a flower, a woman who herself never ceased to flower, untiringly, during three quarters of a century.’”