Saturday, April 07, 2007

burning Mr. Winter

Easter's on it's way which means schools and communities are celebrating Carnivale. Colm and Tess got to dress up for Friday's parade and ritual burning of Monsieur L'Hiver to mark the beginning of spring and of course, Easter vacations! Tess wanted to be a butterfly so Beth outfitted her with some fancy wings.
Colm wanted to be a ghost. Colm's choice conjured some special childhood memories of my own. It was about 1962, I was maybe 8 years old. For Halloween I went out as a ghost. Details are sketchy but I remember going out alone, my brothers and sisters must have been too little, perhaps I was under orders just to go to the neighbors...I don't know. I do know that I couldn't see a damn thing through that sheet, and as darkness fell and closed around me I became completely disoriented and couldn't find my way home. I must have looked like a lost ghost because at some point some girls approached me and talked to me. I don't know what they said. The next memory I have is of being in a police car and then of being in front of my house.
I've told this story to Beth before, so when Colm requested a ghost costume, she interpreted it as some kind of family rite of passage and she put a sheet over his sweet little head. As he headed to the car he began moaning scary ghost sounds, very much in character. His mood continued upbeat all the way to the school parking lot and into the school where there were mostly princesses, pirates, policeman, fireman and superheroes. While everyone marveled at Tess's beautiful wings, they couldn't resist poking at or lifting up Colm's sheet to find out who was in there. One boy stabbed him in the gut with a sword.

Colm was completely defenseless...all he could do was moan.
The entire school then filed out to the courtyard where the elementary kids were also grouped along with their teachers. The older kids were costumed by themes. One group came disguised as recycling bins.

I was disconcerted to see a pair of elementary teachers, who put on black face and wrapped enormous amounts of padding on their butts as well as their bosoms, put scarves in their hair and then did an awful imitation of African woman sashaying their big butts around while beating their drums. No one but Beth and I seemed at all perturbed by it, and in truth the women I'm sure they intended nothing mean by it, perhaps they even considered it an homage of sorts - they certainly enjoyed pounding on the drums and dancing.
Still, the stereotype seemed obnoxious to me. It got me to thinking about stereotypes and costume ideas for representing French people. Imagine a women sporting high heeled leather boots, tight jeans with rhinestone patterns, tinted auburn hair, fake boobs bursting out of a pushup bras, pumped up pouty lips, low cut blouses, a cigarette dangling from the lips, a glass of wine perched just beneath an enormous roman nose and maybe with a message embroidered on a the lapel of a black leather jacket saying something like la belle France!...maybe nobody would have noticed it was a costume, I don't know. Or how about this one?... a very fat man in a tee shirt and trousers, he's wearing a three day old beard and a turn of the century beret, a baguette tucked under his arm, a bottle of wine in one hand, a mesh sack containing three steel petanque balls, a Gaulois cigarette in his mouth, singing the Marseillaise.
Maybe I'm oversensitive but it so happened that I saw these costumed women as I was standing next to Ginette who happens to be a stunningly beautiful African woman we met during the winter. It was a strange almost surreal moment when they passed by and I had in my field of vision both "realities" simultaneoulsy. Ginette as she watched them go by did not smile, she did not nod or wink at me in any kind of conspiratorial spirit of humor; to the contrary she seemed to go still as if retreating inside of herself. On the other hand, maybe she had been transported back to Africa in some kind of reverie. If I get the nerve, I'll ask her sometime.
The parade snaked it's way about three blocks to the mairie where there was some kind of skit that we could neither see or hear. The sun was blazing. Colm was begining to wilt. Beth had already "modified his costume so that where the two eye holes had been there was something that now made him looked like a veiled muslim woman.

He looked at me and I could feel his pain. I ripped the sheet so that it fell down around his neck almost the way a barber wraps a sheet around your head. Colm's face brightened.
"Thank you Daddy," he said, and smiled.
After a perfunctory burning of Mr. Winter, during which I couldn't help but contrast the hyper-organized French approach with the extremely anarchic Mexican approach to celebrating such events, we headed back to the school. It was only about a half mile, maybe less, but in the heat the kids began to take on the appearance of soldiers or POWs on a forced march. Even the parents had stopped taking pictures. The only thing sustaining everyone was the certain knowlege that at the end of the journey were enough cakes and soda pop to give an entire regiment a belly ache for a week.
We trudged into the courtyard and beheld at least seven or eight tables each laden with nothing but chocolat cakes (Beth's entry shown here, a yogurt cake, was a huge hit), pastries and cookies, not a piece of fruit in sight. Similarly, soda pop as far as the eye could see, sweetened juices, but water?...actually it was there but in such modest amounts and so well hidden as to make you wonder what was wrong with it. The French have a love affair with sweets, and they are not ashamed to indulge themselves or their children in it. If this were restricted to Carnivale I could see it, I mean everyone should let go once in awhile but scarcely three or four days go by without our kids being plied with cake and candy at school. Honestly, I don't get it.

When we got home Colm dashed in the house and went to the box that Kelly and Jane had sent us. It had come that day but we hadn't had time to do more than open it and appreciate that we'd been sent nice gifts. In a matter of moments Colm was strutting about the house, making fists in everyone's faces, pummeling everything and everyone in sight, posing in front of the mirror. He couldn't have been happier.
We chucked the sheet in the trash...


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