Parts of Aubazine would stay with us forever. A need for order. A fondness for simplicity and clean scents. An enduring sense of modesty. An insistence on craftsmanship, of stitches perfectly made. The calming contrast of black and white. Fabrics, rough and nubby, of peasants and orphans. The rosaries the nuns wore around their waists like chain-link belts. The mystical mosaic designs in the corridor of stars and crescent moons that would reappear as bijoux de diamants, as necklaces, bracelets, and brooches. The repeating patterns in the stained glass of interlocking Cs that would become a symbol of luxury and status. Even the old monastery itself, so vast and empty, that gave us room to imagine, to let possibility soar.
All those years on the rue Cambon, in Deauville, in Biarritz, people thought they were buying Chanel, glamour, Parisian sophistication. But what they were really buying were the ornaments of our childhood, memories of the nuns who civilized us, the abbey that sheltered us.
An illusion of riches sprung from the rags of our past.
In later years, I would think back to that cold March day in 1897 at the convent orphanage in Aubazine.
We orphelines sat in a circle practicing our stitches, the hush of the workroom interrupted only by my occasional mindless chatter to the girls nearby. When I felt Sister Xavier's gaze, I quieted, looking down at my work as if in deep concentration. I expected her to scold me as she usually did: Custody of the tongue, Mademoiselle Chanel. Instead, she drew closer to my place near the stove, moving, as all the nuns did, as if she were floating. The smell of incense and the ages fluttered out from the folds of her black wool skirt. Her starched headdress planed unnaturally toward heaven as if she might be lifted up at any moment. I prayed that she would be, a ray of light breaking through the pitched roof and raising her to the clouds in a shining beam of holy salvation.
But such miracles only happened in paintings of angels and saints. She stopped at my shoulder, dark and looming like a storm cloud over the sloping forests of the Massif Central outside the window. She cleared her throat and, as if she were the Holy Roman Emperor himself, made her grim pronouncement.
"You, Antoinette Chanel, talk too much. Your sewing is slovenly. You are always daydreaming. If you don't take heed, I fear you will turn out to be just like your mother."
My stomach twisted like a knot. I had to bite the inside of my mouth to keep from arguing back. I looked over at my sister Gabrielle sitting on the other side of the room with the older girls and rolled my eyes.
"Don't listen to the nuns, Ninette," Gabrielle said once we'd been dismissed to the courtyard for recreation.
We sat on a bench, surrounded by bare-limbed trees that appeared as frozen as we felt. Why did they lose their leaves in the season they needed them most? Beside us, our oldest sister, Julia-Berthe, tossed bread crumbs from her pockets to a flock of crows that squawked and fought for position.
I pulled my hands into my sleeves, trying to warm them. "I'm not going to be like our mother. I'm not going to be anything the nuns say I'm going to be. I'm not even going to be what they say I can't be."
We laughed at this, a bitter laugh. As the temporary keepers of our souls, the nuns thought constantly about the day we would be ready to go out and live in the world. What would become of us? What was to be our place?