You Were the Bird

Petite Maman and the axis between mother and daughter

Georgia Cloepfil

Joséphine Sanz and Nina Meurisse in Petite Maman. © Liles Films, courtesy NEON

In the opening scene of Céline Sciamma’s film Petite Maman, a young girl named Nelly moves from room to room saying goodbye to a series of unnamed women, all gray-haired residents of a senior care center. Behind the last door, Nelly finds her own mother, Marion, tidying up in her recently deceased grandmother’s all-but-empty room. Her mother takes a seat and overlooks the grounds of the facility. There is a gulf between the threshold of the door, where Nelly stands, and that of the win­dow, where her mother contemplates the reality of her new role as a motherless mother. The movie’s title pans across Marion’s back. Perhaps for the first time, Nelly is glimpsing the ocean of her mother’s grief and experience—and she can’t quite stretch across it.

One of the movie’s strengths is its ability to lay bare a moment of realization that all young people have at some point: our par­ents were people (with loves, grief, ambition) before we came into the world. They had mothers. We watch as Nelly recognizes that her own life overlaps with Marion’s, but it will never run parallel; the procession of generations marches onward. When they finish packing up her grandmother’s room and drive away, Nelly reaches toward her mother around the headrest of her seat and feeds her cheese puffs one by one as she drives. Then a little sip of apple juice. Then a hug.

The tender opening scene reminded me of a passage I read (and underlined) in Anne Truitt’s Daybook long before I had any plans to have children:

Mary’s son was born early this morning. After hearing the news, I lay back in the predawn dark and, as the tide of happiness receded, I saw that it had pulled out on some long, bare inner shoreline of myself and had made the slope glisten for the last time: Both my daughters are now mothers and in the proper nature of things more mothers of their children than they are daughters of their mother.

We reside on an axis between mother and daughter until birth, death, or another dramatic event threatens to tilt us abruptly in one direction or another. There is a sense of inevitability but also a deep melancholy to this sentiment, and I worried for a long time about making my own mother feel its truth.

I discover that I am pregnant on an August morning. The test sits on my dining room table, its two decisive blue lines bisect­ing. The news is not a surprise, but it still brings with it a feel­ing that life has unexpectedly accelerated. To me, the passage of time has always felt like a fierce wind. It’s something to take shel­ter from, something to brace myself against or evade. If I am not careful, everyone I love might be taken up by a violent rush of air and carried forward with me. The novelist Samantha Hunt once said that it makes sense to think of mothers as makers of death. She meant that we make our children’s deaths. But I’m not there yet. What’s inside of me barely feels alive, is barely felt. Embryonic and invisible, the pregnancy still seems like the impetus of some other change. Even if it is “the proper nature of things,” my becoming a mother means that my own mother is, suddenly, a grandmother. I have the sense that by becoming pregnant, I am singlehandedly ushering my mother toward the next phase of her life and then toward her death. My worry hardens into fear.

I am overwhelmed by the thread of our bodies unspooling from a distant and indeterminant place. It is impossible to distinguish a beginning.

The week after I tell her that I am pregnant, my mother’s mam­mogram reveals a tumor in her right breast. She waits weeks for news, for surgery, for a plan. In the silence she can barely sleep, and neither can I. Rationally, I know that the impending birth of my child has nothing to do with my mother’s someday demise. Either way, my mother will approach her own death, as we all do. Either way, I will become more of a carer and less cared for. I will still have to live in a world without her. But I can’t seem to shake the feeling that I am responsible. The timing of her illness is uncanny, and it urges me toward an old habit of believing in cause and effect, in my own power to change the course of time.

When I was a young girl, I believed I could outwit the changes that time’s progress brought—and these changes were often physi­cal. My body marked time decisively: the scars of a pierced ear, hard lumps of budding breasts, the sharp stubble of shaved legs, a first period, pencil marks inching higher and higher on the wall in the dining room. Womanhood was in front of me, and my girlhood threatened to leave. I was the youngest of three daughters, and my father often implored me not to grow up, not to get bigger. So I resisted in any way I could. I remember sliding my body through two posts of a wrought-iron gate at my grandparents’ house. Each time I visited, I squeezed back and forth through the cold metal bars, moving in and out of their garden and noting to myself that the time had not yet come in which I no longer fit. Of course, it must have come, eventually. It always does.

Pregnant, I am prone to similar habits. I try to shrink myself to stop time. In my second trimester, I don an oversized T-shirt that conceals my swollen stomach and sign up to play with a rec soccer team whose season runs up to and past my due date. The parcel of time in which I exist is 40 weeks and ever-shrinking. An app on my phone counts the weeks for me as they pass. Even though I know it is impossible, I challenge myself to break apart the trajectory of my pregnancy. I want to interrupt its expectations, to overcome my body and its inevitable changes by the force of my will. I’m strad­dling both motherhood and daughterhood. I’d like to stay here for a while longer, to step out of the narrative pull of my life.

Most of Petite Maman takes place in a state of unaffected time-travel. While Nelly and her parents are packing up her grand­mother’s home, Marion suddenly leaves, going back to the city to be alone. Shortly after her departure, Nelly runs into the woods chasing a lost toy and finds a girl her age busy making a hut out of sticks. It is her mother she has encountered. The two spend the rest of the movie together playing and reconciling the course of their lives. Eventually, Nelly divulges her identity to Marion. I am your child. I am your daughter, she says, as they stand together in the forest. You come from the future? Marion asks. The two girls coolly accept their fantastical circumstance in the way that only children can; their lives are still short, have not yet been confined by a com­pulsion toward narrative or the stiffness of a life’s story. I come from the path behind you, Nelly replies, quite literally. I admire and covet her answer. I think of it as a subtle refusal to distinguish between past, present, and future. Who can say whether Nelly has walked back in time, or if her mother has emerged from the past? It doesn’t matter, she seems to tell us, we can meet in the woods either way.

I often replay a scene in my mind. It’s a summer morning. A bird flies in the open window of my childhood bedroom. It’s a jay or a crow, I am not sure. The bird circles around my bedroom in a flash of wings, beating pulses of air, panicked and determined against the plastic starry night of my blue ceiling. A rose bush has grown up the side of the house and edges its way between the gaps of the window frame. When I ask my mother about this moment, she confirms the event but says I wasn’t alive when it happened. In moments like this I am convinced that we are born with some access to what came before us. When I insist that I remember being there, she tells me, Maybe you were the bird.

After she reveals who she is, Nelly leads Marion to her grand­mother’s house, a version of the home in which Marion’s mother is no longer alive and where her someday husband now sits, packing up bookshelves. How old am I? Marion asks. Thirty-one, Nelly says. Marion takes a moment and then reflects: She dies when I am thirty-one. It’s meaningful to me that the daughter is the one to share this knowledge with her mother. It matches the fear I have about my unborn child.

At my first appointment, the doctor reminds me that all of the eggs in my ovaries have been present since before I was born. The fate of their viability was written long ago, before I had even taken a breath. In this way, even the fetus doesn’t feel like something that I made, but something my mother made, and in turn, her mother. I am overwhelmed by the thread of our bodies unspooling from a distant and indeterminant place. It is impossible to distinguish a beginning. Even the most obvious narrative (we are born, we live, we die) unravels at the slightest pull. Together, the doctor and I look at an image. If the fetus inside of me is a girl, at twenty weeks she will be the size of a banana and filled with close to 7 million eggs.

In her travels through time, Nelly gets the chance to see her grandmother again. When they meet, the elder wistfully mentions she hasn’t said the name Nelly in a long time. Young Marion clari­fies: My grandmother died last year, too. She had the same name as you. Nelly’s presence in this house doubles as a window into both the future and the past, and she conjures both child and mother at once.

I think of my own family; to her future grandchild, my mother wants to be known as Nonna. It’s the same name we used for my Italian grandmother, who died five years ago. Alone at home, I picture my mother’s face and practice saying aloud: Nonna, Nonna, Nonna. I reluctantly map the name onto its new person, the force of my life coaxing a new generation into being. The wind howls.

The night before her surgery to remove the tumor, I have a dream that I am sitting with my mother on a steep, rocky cliff. We are dangerously close to its edge and everyone around us gives speeches about our love. I want to enjoy myself, to listen, to share a story with the crowd. But I can’t seem to take my eyes off the deep bottom of the canyon below us.

I have the habit of looking at adults unknown to me and try­ing to imagine them as children. The man across from me on the bus, the two women gossiping in the corner at the café, the univer­sity administrator in the too-big suit. It’s easier for some than for others. In my mind, their faces fade into a black-and-white photo: toothy smile, unblemished skin, clear eyes. A wave of compassion pours over me. What age do you feel? I want to ask their adult selves. To mark time’s passage in years feels arbitrary and insufficient. It limits us to the perpetual present moment. Isn’t it possible that past, present, and future are not only touching but experienced all at once?

As each vial fills, I picture the invisi­ble, woven strands as a patchwork of my life; within each one is everyone who has ever known or loved me.

I open the pregnancy app on my phone: 23 weeks gone; baby now a small squash.

Petite Maman is in part a movie about the commonly shared desire to know our parents as they were before we were born. But more than that, the movie is a window into the ambiguous contin­uum of time, the presence of which Nelly has just begun to sense. In a later scene, Nelly and her grandmother sing happy birthday to Marion, who is turning 8. When they finish the song, Marion asks them to start over again so she can prolong this beautiful moment, so she can remain amongst this impossible triptych, its particular arrangement being something she knows will never happen again. So many expanses of time are alive in the same moment, the way it is in our bodies.

At my next appointment, the doctor draws blood to test the fetus for genetic abnormalities. Looking at the sample, they will be able to separate and distinguish the baby’s DNA, which is already coursing through my body. As each vial fills, I picture the invisi­ble, woven strands as a patchwork of my life; within each one is everyone who has ever known or loved me. It’s late fall and the baby will come in the spring. Nine months whittled away by the wind. But no. Time stretches and folds, welcomes us into its woods.

In an early scene, before she has traveled through time, Nelly joins her mother while she sleeps on the couch. I’m sad too, Nelly whispers.

Tell me why?

I didn’t say goodbye to her, she says of her grandmother.

You always said goodbye to her, her mother says.

The last goodbye wasn’t good—because I didn’t know.

She didn’t know either.

We can’t know, Nelly observes.

You’re right—we can’t know. How would you have liked to say it? Marion asks, giving Nelly another chance.

Nelly sits up, serious. She says adieu in a focused and tender tone and, as they hold each other closely, her mother says it back.

It’s cold in late December, but I crack the window of my room in the morning, inviting an over-wintering starling or dove to slip through its opening. Our time as mothers, daughters, as both at the same time, is precarious and short. We don’t know when it will end. I recline on the bed, rest a hand on my stomach and close my eyes. I imagine that I hear a flap of wings beating circles above us.

Georgia Cloepfil is a writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, n+1, and Joyland. Her debut nonfiction book is forthcoming from Riverhead.
Originally published:
March 27, 2023


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