I may be one of the only people I know who had a governess. Her name was Suzanne and she came from a small town in Brittany. At the time she came to live with us, I knew nothing about her story — only that she was there to teach me French. I was five years old. We had just moved into a large and, to me, very ugly house in Sands Point, a peninsula sticking into the Long Island Sound. There was a farm across the street with cows that sometimes got loose on our property. And there was the beach that we accessed via a private lane filled with berries and black-eyed Susan’s. There were fabulous cliffs on this beach, and huge rocks that reminded me of elephants that disappeared under the water at high tide. The Sound was swimmable then (now I believe it’s polluted) and so entire summer days were spent in the water or racing up and down the cliffs.
My sister had warned me not to like Suzanne or be nice to her when she arrived. But she had brought me a doll, so I was torn between going along with my sister, whose advice was often dubious, or being polite to this new person. In the end, of course, good manners won out. Suzanne was beautiful, soft, kind, gentle. Her English was good, but heavily accented. She was twenty-nine years old. She would remain in our household for the next twenty-two years until my parents gave her away in marriage to a prominent doctor.
But that’s jumping ahead. Sands Point, where we lived, was outside a town called Port Washington, about seventeen miles from New York City. Back then it might as well have been fifty miles. My father commuted every day on the train, leaving and returning along with a multitude of other businessmen in fedoras (think Madmen when Don was married to Betty). Suzanne commuted into the city twice a week, Wednesdays and Sundays. I was very curious about where she went and why. She had the grand and slightly ominous title of governess. This meant that she was totally in charge of me and my sister, spoke to us only in French, took us to school, to dance and riding lessons, doctors appointments, and shopping for clothes. As far as I was concerned I belonged to Suzanne and she belonged to me. However, since she continued to be my governess until I left for college, this also meant that while I was fluent in French, I was pretty dysfunctional in most other areas of my life. (Seriously: I didn’t buy a dress on my own, let alone a bra or bathing suit until I was in my early twenties.) I think it was a little this way for my mother, too, since Suzanne became her best friend and confidante, knew her secrets and accompanied her on adventures I was too young to even guess at.
So who was Suzanne? I believe she worked as a stenographer during the war. She was married and had a son, but the marriage didn’t last — I never learned why. She was Catholic, but not religious. Life could not have been easy for a single mom right after the war. Suzanne made up her mind to emigrate to the United States where there were more opportunities. This must have been a very difficult decision because she left her son behind with her own mother to raise. (He came to the States ten or so years later, when he was eighteen and went into the U.S. army.) She had enormous chic, wore beautiful clothes, hats, gloves. I used to watch her dress. She would zip a special net bag over her face and head to protect her hair and makeup when she pulled on a dress or sweater. She had a vanity table that was total magic: perfumes, pearls, lotions, potions, face creams. And she staunchly protected me — from my defiant older sister, from various school bullies, and from my mother’s geese who roamed the property and loved nothing better than to attack frightened little girls. When I was sixteen we moved into the city, and I began to learn some of Suzanne’s secrets.
To be continued…