Monday April 22
My last morning in Paris, I walked to Rue Berthollet the first place Mayotte Capecia lived in Paris. It’s Easter Monday, so the streets were empty. The walk from Rue Irelandais goes along Rue L’Homond, passes a small garden, turns down Rue Retaud adjacent to yet another garden. Paris is like that, places of unexpected green and rest.
Yet, where Claude Bernard intersects with Rue Berthollet, there is little greenery.
15 Rue Berthollet, Mayotte Capecia’s first home in Paris
What was it like for Capecia to land here coming from a small island surrounded by the sea, alive with verdure? In Je Suis Martiniquaise, her first person narrator, also named Mayotte, describes an idyllic childhood:
Why did I decide to write? I had just arrived in Paris….. It was cold and snowing and the gentle whiteness falling from the sky that I was seeing for the first time both fascinated me and caused me pangs of homesickness. That is when I wrote down some of the childhood memories about my country.
Each day for me was different, each day brought it’s own revelation, each day was like a net that brought strange fish to the shores. But I think that my favorite moment was the evening when all the village children gathered on the endless beach. We rolled in the sand, still lukewarm, flecked with tiny stones, clear as glass in which the last rays danced, and which I thought, were like dead stars fallen from the sky the night before. On our half naked bodies we felt the voluptuous caress of a fresh breeze. The sun set slowly and, minute by minute, the colors changed. The ocean horizon became yellow, then orange- I do not remember ever in my life having seen a more beautiful spectacle.
In 1905, my grandmother faced the same contradictions coming from the small town of Soufriere, Saint Lucia to Hoboken, New Jersey, then, onto Washington Heights in Manhattan. Perhaps she was not so disconcerted. Her father had sent her and a few of her sisters to school in England, so she knew a different “lieu” or place. Perhaps, she looked forward to leaving the confines of a small island where there were few surprises.
Hoboken Ferry to Manhattan, Early 1900’s
Soon after arriving in Paris, Capecia became a cook for a family in order to make ends meet. She was alone, her children left behind in Martinique in the care of her twin sister, Reine, who later joined her. My grandmother was eventually brought to New York by a sister, her older sister Yia. What greeted her? Aunt Yia lived above a store front. Even in the 1960’s, she had to be called from the street in order to enter her apartment. In the early 1900’s, she had access to the cellar where she put up boarders, each bed separated only by a sheet. One of those boarders was my Greek grandfather. Was this a shock to both grandparents, one from Saint Lucia, one from the small village of Kastellia in Greece?
Women Playing Cricket, Saint Lucia 1905
Kastellia, Fokida, Greece
My Greek grandfather, Efstadiou Zinis, (middle, top row), early 1900’s shortly before he left for America
Capecia had to work most of her adult life. She wasn’t a stranger to supporting herself. And my grandmother? She certainly had it better in Saint Lucia than Capecia in Martinique. She had been abroad to school, she and her sisters played instruments, traveled first class to America, and like good Victorian women, they knew how to sew. After her sister Yia threw out her husband, she earned her living as a dressmaker or as Yia, always aiming high, described on her card, a dress designer, not merely a seamstress.
Another commonality between Capecia’s protagonist and my grandmother, Germaine, was a preference for white men. When the local priest in Je Suis Martiniquaise offers to help her learn her catechism lessons, she writes:
He looked at me with his bright blue eyes. Oh, how I have loved to be blond like him!
Later when the character learns that she had a white grandmother, she wonders if her mixed race mother had married a white man instead of her black father, would her life have been easier. She ends the chapter with this declaration.
I, who was still thinking about the Father (the priest), decided that I could love only a white man, a blond with blue eyes, a Frenchman.
Although in the early 1900’s when my grandmother married my Greek grandfather, he wasn’t exactly considered “white.” This possibility was pointed out to me at a coffee I was required to give as a Marine Corps officer’s wife. The women were discussing the marriage of Jackie Kennedy to Onassis. “How could she marry that dirty Greek?” one woman decried. The others clucked in sympathy. After a few minutes of decision making, I told them, “My grandfather is Greek.” That was the end of the coffee. Unlike my grandmother, I didn’t hide my heritage, at least, not what I knew of it. But I wasn’t in danger of being lynched for the color of my skin. Between 1882 and 1968, almost 4000 African Americans were lynched. And it only took “one drop” of Africa heritage to fall into that category.
My great grandmother’s death certificate. She is described as colored
Years later, while visiting my grandfather’s Greek village, a cousin said to me, “Oh your grandmother’s name was Mary.” No, I told him that was my grandfather’s second wife after my grandmother Germaine died. His disdainful response, “Oh, yours is the black grandmother.” Did my grandfather have the same contempt for his wife. It seems he did: he told his Greek family Germaine’s secret with his white Irish wife on his arm.
And this prejudice or preference runs deep. My daughter’s Greek professor when meeting me said with pleasure, “Ah you have the blue eyes of the north.”
What is it this desire to be white, to be blue-eyed? Was my father pleased I had blue eyes even if my skin didn’t quit meet his standards? Not always. Too dark.
I planned to uncover the experience of being a mixed race French West Indian living in Paris trying to get closer to my family’s experience of passing. I’ve only scratched the surface. I will come back, come home as my family and I seem to view Paris.
View from my room, my last night
As Jean Rhys, that other creole, says to a companion at the end of her novel Good Morning, Midnight
Well, there you are, Paris, and this is a good-bye drink….