We'd been at the convent for two years and by now were used to the nuns' declarations in the middle of choir practice or as we worked on our handwriting or recited the kings of France.
You, Ondine, with your penmanship, will never be the wife of a tradesman.
You, Pierrette, with your clumsy hands, will never find work with a farm woman.
You, Hélène, with your weak stomach, will never be the wife of a butcher.
You, Gabrielle, must hope to make an adequate living as a seamstress.
You, Julia-Berthe, must pray for a calling. Girls with figures like yours should keep to a nunnery.
I was told that if I was lucky, I could convince a plowman to marry me.
I pushed my hands back out of my sleeves and blew on them. "I'm not going to marry a plowman," I said.
"I'm not going to be a seamstress," Gabrielle said. "I hate sewing."
"Then what will you be?" Julia-Berthe gazed at us with wide, questioning eyes. She was considered slow, "touched," people said. To her everything was simple, black and white like the tunics and veils of the nuns' habits. If the nuns said it, we would be it.
"Something better," I said.
"What's something better?" Julia-Berthe said.
"It's..." Gabrielle started but didn't finish.
She didn't know what Something Better was any more than I did, but I knew she felt it just the same, a tingling in her bones. Restlessness was in our blood.
The nuns said we should be content with our station in life, that it was God-pleasing. But we could never be content where we were, with what we had. We came from a long line of peddlers, of dreamers traveling down winding roads, sure that Something Better was just ahead.
Before the nuns took us in, we'd been hungry most of the time, our clothes torn and dirty. We spoke only in patois, not French. We could barely read or write because we'd never gone to school for long. We were savages, the nuns attested.
Our mother, Jeanne, worked long hours to feed us, to keep a roof over our heads. She was there but not really, her eyes turning flat over the years so that they seemed to look through us. They searched instead for Albert, always Albert. Our father was usually on the road, peddling old corsets or belts or socks. He was incapable of staying in one place for long, and our mother, a fool for love, was always chasing after him when he didn't return when he'd promised, pulling us down country road after country road with her whatever the season.
They were together just enough that our mother was always pregnant, Albert leaving us for months at a time to fend for ourselves with no money. She was a laundress, a maid, whatever she could find until she died at thirty-one from consumption, overworked and brokenhearted.
When she died, no family members wanted us, especially not our father. That shouldn't have been a surprise. How could he travel from market to market—and bed to bed—with all of us? Still, weren't fathers supposed to take care of their children?