With the help of my next-door neighbor, Florence, who had heard about my unconventional wishes, I was led to Monsieur le Docteur. His cabinet was in the center of Versailles, and he assisted births in various facilities in town, including the clinic closest to our home, Le Clinique du Château de la Maye.
Monsieur le Docteur had a slightly different approach from his Norwegian counterpart, Doktor Ø.-N. This Frenchman was a balding intellectual with spectacles on the tip of his nose, and his cabinet was a converted maison parictuliére with a grand stone entrance through which horses and buggies would have once passed. Once through the main portal on the street, there was stained glass at the end of a shadowy corridor and wrought iron fixtures indicating a one-man elevator installed, probably, in the early 19th century. There was a huge walnut door on the right with the brass plaque giving le Docteur’s name. The door was decorated with ornate carvings, and its burnished brass knob was, as is the case with these old world door knobs, right in the middle. The door weighed even more than I always managed to weigh at full term, which means I had to lean in on that brass knob with all my force just to enter.
As you walked into the practice, you stepped from the 17th into the 20th century, but still a 20th century of the old France that was cramped and randomly geometric, and narrowed into what felt like what might have once been servants’ quarters. A receptionist behind a modern desk set at an angle sat straight ahead under a framed Picasso sketch of Mother and Child. Le Docteur’s office itself, once I was invited to enter it, had a massive leather-topped walnut desk, deep embossed carpets in rich hues, surrounding bookshelves, gilt-framed paintings of La Chasse and low mood lighting. I was in Sherlock Holmes’ library, not a medical facility.
“Please, Madame. . .Madame Braaaaaaaadford, tell me first about yourself.” The Docteur smiled from his side of the desk toward where I sat in a 19th century curve-backed chair with burgundy and gold petit point upholstery. His grin had something of the Cheshire Cat to it, which caused me to feel something like Alice; teenaged, blonde, perched on a mound of ruffles and scratchy petticoats, shrinking and slipping into a hole.
So I played the expert. I was prim but relaxed, The Mother in Control, dotting my French i’s and crossing my legs tightly.
“Alors, Monsieur,” I said, motioning to the stack of papers I’d handed him, “This you should immediately note is my fourth child, as I have explained in the papers there. I’m no debutante.” I smiled coolly and straightened my spine, trying not to hold my handbag too tightly on my lap, as if I needed a prop or a shield or a weapon or anything.
“Ah! Une mêre d’un certain age! Charmante, charmante,” he was scanning my papers, but kept grinning and staring up at me, as if awaiting something. A mother of a certain age? And this was charming? I’d written in bold black Bic that I was thirty-seven, still very young in my book, hardly worth a comment. For heavens sake, coltish, right?
The doctor raised one brow and smiled at me, leaning back in his leather chair, hands crossed over his middle. Something about the setting made me feel as if the next thing that was supposed to happened was I was to jump up and sing my eight bars from “Oklahoma!” then tap dance or something. Or was I supposed to start listing my GPA and extracurricular activities for this administrator interviewing me, it seemed, for a college scholarship? I kept my school bag – I mean handbag – on my knees. I heard myself swallow.
“And you are. . .” he ruffled through the big stack of forms I had spent more than a whole hour filling out in the small red and peacock-blue waiting room with four chairs and five patients, “You are. . . an American citizen, vraiment charmante, and will deliver in April and, oh! I see you are the woman I’ve heard of, the one who wants to deliver à la scandinave. Charmante, charmante.”
“Yes, I would like to deliver as naturally—“
“Now, tell me, Madame, where did you learn to speak your lovely French?”
“In the streets, frankly. Now, to the birth: I hope to deliver with as little—“
“In the streets? Charmante! Vraiment charmante.”
And so on.
Throughout the exam that required what all prenatal gynecological exams require, there was no privacy screen, no paper gown, no nurse in the room, no professional distance. No fig leaf. No Geisha fan. No strategically placed standing fern, even. Just your typically invasive examination performed on a vraiment charmante pregnant woman by a gentleman in a burgundy wool cardigan and a perpetually sleepy grin.
Pregnant and at the gates of the Château de Versailles with two of my best Norwegian friends ever
I got home and called a whole list of French girlfriends to ask if what I had just experienced could have possibly been standard practice. Every last one of them was surprised by my concern:
“Ah, Mélissa, it’s nothing to worry about. I know you Americans tend to be a bit touchy about your bodies. But really, wouldn’t you rather get random compliments from your doctor than insults?”
“So, you’re telling me that even in Norway, they give you a gown for the exam? But . . but why?”
“You could do what? File a lawsuit if some nurse is not in the room with you? But I don’t see why she is even necessary.”
“A little room behind a screen? To change your clothes? Never heard of it. Charming concept, though.”
“Listen, I’d be flattered if my doctor told me I was beautiful when pregnant. My husband doesn’t.”
I began to understand that this was a cultural oddity, evidence of the deeply calcified gender roles and the ever-present tension between the male and the female that is more a part of French culture than any other place I had ever lived or spent significant time in. Yet, in spite of that sometimes creeping Alice-and-the-Cheshire-Cat feeling, and even when he told me at six months gestation that I now had to go on a strict diet (!?!!) because I had reached the official 12 kilo weight gain limit, I kept le Docteur.
Why? Because he was a fabulous discussion partner about everything besides just obstetrics; Soviet politics, Sub-Saharan water initiatives, Patagonian turtles, art, music, literature, cuisine, philosophy, world religions including (or especially) mine. I almost –-almost – looked forward to our visits if only because I knew I’d be able to enjoin him in some sort of debate. He could not hear enough about my Mormonism, not just because of his interest in theology or my personal commitment to abstaining from alcohol and coffee and nicotine, (which he said he admired and wished his other patients could take a lesson from), but chiefly because of my belief in chastity before marriage and fidelity afterwards. Now, I was not naive; I knew that was the hottest button I could probably push, and more than once he shook his head and laughed, convinced, as he probably was, that I was lying or in denial or was living under some onerous threat. I laughed back, and the difference of opinion on that particular topic never squelched my fervor during my chats with this Frenchman.
More than for the lively conversation, though, I stuck with le Docteur because, all corporeal concerns aside, he was competent, gentle, worked right in this town, and, frankly, he was the one and the only doctor I could find after months of searching daily who vowed to let me deliver my baby as I wished.
Which meant, incidentally, without much of his help.
Under a full moon, Randall and I arrived at the looming doors of the Clinique du Château de la Maye, just a couple of blocks from our home. We drew up the heavy cast iron doorknocker, and let it drop four times, announcing our arrival. Christine, our sage femme (or, literally, “wise woman” or earth mother or midwife) answered. She was, as fate would gift us, a native German and the one sage femme we had already met on a previous tour of the facilities. On that day two months previous, we’d all spoken German together, Randall, Christine and I. We’d spoken and laughed and mused about how unlikely but wonderful it would be were she to happen to be on call the very hour we would come in for the birth.
And there she stood. White frock and orthopedic sandals and a warm hand extended, she swung wide the door, “Einen recht schönen guten Abend, die Familie Bradford! Hinein treten!” I knew right then it would indeed be a “really beautiful and good evening”, and so I did as she asked; I wobbled right in holding Randall’s arm.
Please appreciate the silk scarf, lipstick and up-do. I was having some significant contractions in this very moment. Randall, my love, this is where we kick in. Ready. . . ?
True to her role as a sage femme, Christine wisely escorted us through the quiet modus operandi leading up to birth. With only one exception to what I’d done in Norway where I birthed kneeling on the floor next to my big bed, I birthed here exactly as I’d requested. Granted, French law said I had to have an I.V. drip. So I rolled my eyes and let Christine poke it in and tape it down. And according to French law I also had to be on top of the birthing bed. So Christine, the resourceful German, had hiked up the one end to a full sitting position, I’d knelt on the bed facing that upright part, grabbing the back with both arms, and then closed my eyes and began humming. My wise woman let me do as I wished – sing, chant, rock back and forth, crochet little booties (No, I didn’t. I cannot crochet) – and afterwards, she asked me for a copy of the French hymn/lullaby I’d sung as Luc – The Luminous One – was entering the world:
Souviens-toi, mon enfant: Tes parents divins
te serraient dans leurs bras, ce temps ne’st pas loin.
Aujourd’hui, tu es là, présent merveilleux,
ton regard brille encore du reflet des cieux.
Parle-moi, mon enfant, de ces lieux bénis
car pour toi est léger le voile d’oubli.
Souviens-toi, mon enfant des bois, des cités.
Pouvons-nous ici-bas les imaginer?
Et le ciel jusqu’au soir, est-il rose ou gris ?
Le soleil attend-il la neige ou la pluie?
Conte-moi, mon enfant, la couleur des prés
et le chant des oiseaux d’un monde oublié.
Souviens-toi, mon enfant : A l’aube des temps,
nous étions des amis jouant dans le vent.
Puis un jour, dans la joie nous avons choisi
d’accepter du Seigneur le grand plan de vie.
Ce soir-là, mon enfant, nous avons promis
par l’amour, par la foi, d’être réunis.
Remember, my child : not long ago,
your divine parents held you in their arms.
Today you are here, marvelously present.
Your gaze still shines with the reflection of heaven.
Talk to me, my child, about that blessed place,
because for you the veil is still thin.
Remember, my child, the forests, the cities.
Can we down here imagine them?
And the night sky, is it rosy or gray?
Is the sun waiting for snow or rain?
Describe to me, my child, the color of the meadows
and the birdsongs of a forgotten world.
Remember, my child: at the dawn of time,
we were friends playing in the wind.
Then one day in joy we chose to accept
the Lord’s grand plan of life.
That night, my child, we promised through love,
and through faith, to be reunited.
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.