The Poetry Project

The House of Death and Life

Elisabeth Sauvage-Callaghan

People swore that the house was haunted - “something ain’t quite right,” they’d say, and they would go on spewing a litany of gripes about that damn place. Never mind that all that was said in French, since the house in question was mine, the one in which I had nearly died as I was being born. But, for the sake of this story, I must keep on going in English. The street address was 41, rue Gabriel Péri in Marcq-en-Baroeul, an affluent suburb of the city of Lille, in northern France. Except that, far from being bourgeois, “Marcq Bourg,” my family’s neighborhood, was staunchly working-class.

What the hell haunted that house? Nothing is so close to death as life, and I cannot think of any place in the world where life and death mingled in such an utterly weird symbiosis. And that symbiosis haunted our house.

Death kept that house alive. My great-grandfather, Étienne, was a grave digger. His wife, Sophie, ran a café that flanked the cemetery where, dispensing death by genièvre* and other alcoholic beverages, she made a fortune that she invested in real estate. She bought the “41,” as we called it, which became the locus of her daughter Valentine’s numerous miscarriages, and of her suicide by hanging in the attic. Valentine was a talented milliner whose business supported her husband’s dissolute ways and sartorial dandyism. In return, Émile expressed his gratitude to Valentine by philandering, which soon led him to father a bastard child. That baby’s birth killed Valentine.

Living at the “41” with Valentine was her sister, Agnès, who was her devoted housekeeper. Agnès’ s heart kept on beating until 1968 but, for all intents and purposes, all life had been sucked out of it ca. 1914, when The Great War took her fiancé away for good. The official story was that he had been killed in combat, but the truth was that he had found another woman along the way. To Agnès, he might as well have been blown to pieces in a trench. Her sentimental life came to an end, and her sex life died too, most likely before having ever been born.

Death continued to be the life of our house. My father had taken over his dad’s tombstone-making business, and he and my mother had moved into the “41.” They built a flower shop that my mother ran, right next to Sophie’s old café, by the cemetery. Gravestones and funeral wreaths put on our table the food that sustained us, that kept us alive.

My father died, in a clinical sense, while we lived at the “41.” He went into a coma following a complex herniated disk surgery. A prompt resurrection ensued, but he had crossed that ghostly line between life and death. And my mother experienced four non-births of babies/fetuses who died before they were even alive. By the time my brother was born, he was deemed a living miracle. As for me, I was nearly one of those babies who had died before living. I came out of my mother womb two-and-a-half month prematurely, and my birth nearly killed her. The attending physician – a callous family doctor - considered me moribund, put me in a towel and threw me into the arms of my parents’ neighbor, who swaddled me and held me by the kitchen stove all night long, to keep me warm and alive.

I was the miracle baby whose birth had broken the symbiotic mayhem between life and death at the “41,” which we left in 1959. The house may still be haunted, but nothing was ever the same again after that.

*Genièvre is a hard liquor akin to gin, made with juniper berries, a favorite of blue-collar workers in Belgium and northern France.

Work from Boo: Ghosts and the Unconscious for Utopian Dreaming with Claire Donato & Adrian Shirk