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I was born at four o'clock in the morning on the 9th of January 1908 in a room fitted with white-enamelled furniture and overlooking the boulevard Raspail. In the family photographs taken the following summer can be seen ladies in long dresses and ostrichfeather hats and gentlemen wearing boaters and panamas, all smiling at a baby: they are my parents, my grandfather, uncles, aunts; and the baby is me. My father was thirty, my mother twenty-one, and I was their first child. I turn the page: here is a photograph of Mama holding in her arms a baby who isn't me; I am wearing a pleated skirt and a tam-o'-shanter; I am two and a half, and my sister has just been born. I was, it appears, very jealous, but not for long. As far back as I can remember, I was always proud of being the elder: of being first. Disguised as Little Red Riding Hood and carrying a basket full of goodies, I felt myself to be much more interesting than an infant bundled up in a cradle. I had a little sister: that doll-like creature didn't have me.
I retain only one confused impression from my earliest years: it is all red, and black, and warm. Our apartment was red: the upholstery was of red moquette, the Renaissance dining-room was red, the figured silk hangings over the stained-glass doors were red, and the velvet curtains in Papa's study were red too. The furniture in this awful sanctum was made of black pear wood; I used to creep into the knee-hole under the desk and envelop myself in its dusty glooms; it was dark and warm, and the red of the carpet rejoiced my eyes. That is how I seem to have passed the early days of infancy. Safely ensconced, I watched, I touched, I took stock of the world.
My feeling of unalterable security came from the presence of Louise. She used to dress me in the mornings and undress me at night; she slept in the same room as myself. Young, without beauty, without mystery -- because she existed, as I thought, only in order to watch over my sister and myself -- she never raised her voice, and never scolded me without good reason. Her calm gaze protected me when I made sand-pies in the Luxembourg Gardens and when I nursed my doll Blondine who had descended from heaven one Christmas Eve with a trunk containing all her clothes. As dusk began to fall she used to sit beside me and show me pictures and tell me stories. Her presence was as necessary to me, and seemed to me just as natural, as the ground beneath my feet.
My mother, more distant and more capricious, inspired the tenderest feelings in me; I would sit upon her knees, enclosed by the perfumed softness of her arms, and cover with kisses her fresh, youthful skin. Sometimes, beautiful as a picture, she would appear at night beside my bed in her dress of green tulle decorated with a single mauve flower, or in her scintillating dress of black velvet covered with jet. When she was angry with me, she gave me a 'black look'; I used to dread that stormy look which disfigured her charming face: I needed her smile.
As for my father, I saw very little of him. He used to leave every morning for the Law Courts, carrying a briefcase stuffed with untouchable things called dossiers under his arm. He sported neither a moustache nor a beard, and his eyes were blue and gay. When he came back in the evening, he used to bring my mother a bunch of Parma violets, and they would laugh and kiss. Papa often laughed with me, too: he would get me to sing C'est une auto grise or Elle avait une jambe de bois; he would astonish me by pulling francs out of the tip of my nose. I found him amusing, and I was pleased -whenever he made a fuss of me; but he didn't play any very well-defined role in my life.
The principal function of Louise and Mama was to feed me; their task was not always an easy one. The world became more intimately part of me when it entered through my mouth than through my eyes and my sense of touch. I would not accept it entirely. The insipidity of milk puddings, porridge, and mashes of bread and butter made me burst into tears; the oiliness of fat meat and the clammy mysteries of shellfish revolted me; tears, screams, vomitings: my repugnance was so deeply rooted that in the end they gave up trying to force me to eat those disgusting things. On the other hand, I eagerly took advantage of that privilege of childhood which allows beauty, luxury, and happiness to be things that can be eaten: in the rue Vavin I would stand transfixed before the windows of confectioners' shops, fascinated by the luminous sparkle of candied fruits, the cloudy lustre of jellies, the kaleidoscopic inflorescence of acidulated fruit-drops -- green, red, orange, violet: I coveted the colours themselves as much as the pleasures they promised me. Mama used to pound sugared almonds for me in a mortar and mix the crunchy powder with a yellow cream; the pink of the sweets used to shade off into exquisite nuances of colour, and I would dip an eager spoon into their brilliant sunset. On the evenings when my parents held parties, the drawing-room mirrors multiplied to infinity the scintillations of a crystal chandelier. Mama would take her seat at the grand piano to accompany a lady dressed in a cloud of tulle who played the violin and a cousin who performed on the cello. I would crack between my teeth the candied shell of an artificial fruit, and a burst of light would illuminate my palate with a taste of black-currant or pineapple: all the colours, all the lights were mine, the gauzy scarves, the diamonds, the laces; I held the whole party in my mouth. I was never attracted to paradises flowing with milk and honey, but I envied Hansel and Gretel their gingerbread house: if only the universe we inhabit were completely edible, I used to think, what power we would have over it! When I was grown-up I wanted to crunch flowering almond trees, and take bites out of the rainbow nougat of the sunset. Against the night sky of New York, the neon signs appeared to me like giant sweetmeats and made me feel frustrated.Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter. Copyright © by Simone de Beauvoir. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Excerpted from Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir
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