Would I Be as Sweet? The Day I Received My Nom de Plume

"Perhaps the only misplaced curiosity is that which persists in trying to find out here, on this side of death, what lies beyond the grave."                                                                                                                    ~Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette

By any other name
"What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." - Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

In the grand tradition of Mark Twain, George Eliot, and Dr. Seuss, I have chosen to use a nom de plume. I did so not only to preserve some modicum of privacy in our Instagram world but also so as not to embarrass my grown daughters, who might not want their friends to know their mother could write a love scene. (By their estimation, I have had sex exactly twice since two of them are a set of twins.) Often I am asked how I chose the name "Colette," so today I will tell you how the name was bestowed upon me. These events occurred over twenty years ago, and I promise, they are all true.

As with most stories, mine began when my ex-husband went to a party. He called me early the next day in a highly excitable state, which in and of itself is not so unusual except in this case he wanted to tell me about the psychic he had met the night before. By this point, I had known the man for several years, and although at times he could slide into mild paranoia – and I never have been able to convince him that Oswald acted alone – he had never struck me as someone to give credence to fortune tellers, horoscopes, or the like. In this case, however, he insisted that the woman had been spot on with everything she had said about him and me and our girls, although he refused to elaborate. Instead, he said I would have to go talk to her myself. I took her information more to get him off the phone than for any interest on my part of actually seeing her.

A day or two later, I mentioned this in passing to the guy I was seeing – No, he was not my “boyfriend” because, for one thing, he was a DKE, and for the purposes of this story, I shall refer to him as "Leo Bolt." Well, Leo listened in rapt fascination and was quite keen to meet the psychic; so the next thing I know, I’m calling and making an appointment for a “reading.”

The next day we drove for two hours to an old, broken down mobile home in rural East Feliciana, which only served to validate my low expectations. Why would a truly gifted psychic not get the winning lottery numbers – or at least the trifecta at Evangeline Downs? The septuagenarian who opened the door looked more like my grandmother than Marie Laveau. After offering us coffee, she had us sit down at her vinyl-topped kitchen table and took our money. (I believe it was $40 each, which I am embarrassed to this day to admit I paid.) Then she pulled a well-worn deck of playing cards wrapped in a rubber band from the pocket of her duster. (For $40, I would have at least expected Tarot cards!)

Now to say “I am a skeptic is an understatement” would be an understatement. I was the first from a long lineage of Missourians not born in that state, but I still have that “show me” DNA. When I called her and even when we arrived, I would not give her my name. I told her nothing about me or how I had heard of her or anything about my relationship with Leo. For all she knew, he could have been my brother. And so, with no prior history or information, she began my reading by turning the cards over face up on the table with precision and staring at each one for several moments. And it was completely underwhelming.

She said I had children (she could easily have seen the child seat in my car) but couldn’t say how many. She said I was divorced (having children but no wedding ring – not a bad guess) but I would remarry (I was still in my twenties - no stretch there). Then she said in such a derisive tone that I almost burst out laughing, “But not to him!” pointing at Leo. Well, I certainly knew that; and perhaps my body language indicated to her that he was, uh, not my type. She said I would marry a man with dark curly hair and that he was someone I already knew. I wracked my brain but could think of no one fitting that description, and I told her so – and she argued with me! “Yes, you do!” “No, I don’t.” “Yes, you do!” “OK, moving on…”

I think even a non-psychic could have sensed my impatience at this point, and she sighed and turned over one final card and made this pronouncement: “You were a writer in your last life. You were the writer Colette.” That broke the bounds of all plausibility. Why is it only famous
people are reincarnated? You never hear of someone going to a psychic and being told, “You were one of the thousands of serfs who died in the plague,” or even, “You were my granddad’s dentist.” I wanted to walk out right then, but Leo still had to have his turn. Fortunately, and not surprisingly, it didn’t take him long.

I must confess, at that time I knew virtually nothing about the author Colette except that a writer by that name did at one time exist, and I thought she might have written Gigi – my least favourite movie musical. I had never read anything she’d written (and –eek!– I still haven’t!). With my limited knowledge, I was frankly surprised that an old woman in a decrepit trailer in the boondocks knew enough to drag that name from the recesses of her brain to throw out at me like that, but maybe she was a huge fan of Maurice Chevalier.

A few weeks after my “reading,” whilst wandering around the library in this pre-Google era, I decided, just for fun, to find a biography of Colette. Standing there among the shelves, I flipped it open and read something on the first page that caused the blood to drain from my face and the hair on my arms to stand on end. “Colette” was not her first name, as I had always assumed. Her first name was actually Sidonie-Gabrielle.

Six years before, I had given birth to twins. I had named them Sydney and Gabrielle.

When my daughters were born, I had never heard of the writer Colette; and even if I had, I certainly would not have named my children after her! I closed the book, returned it to the shelf, and slowly backed away. Coincidence? Did the old woman somehow find out who I was, the names of my children, and a random famous person who shared those names? I have no explanation.
A few years ago, my daughter Gabrielle and I were in Paris visiting the Père Lachaise Cemetery, the final resting place of many famous people – Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde, Chopin, Proust, just to name a few. We had been wandering around for some time with the worst excuse for a map I had ever seen (perhaps poor cartography accounts for the French ineptitude at wartime?) trying to find Jim Morrison. Finally, I came to a halt and said, “Stop, let me look at this thing and see where we are.”

My daughter gasped so loudly it was almost a scream. “Mom! You’re standing in front of your grave!” I glanced over and there it was, engraved in stone:
ICI REPOSE
COLETTE
1873 1954

Colette's grave, Père Lachaise Cemetery
I suppose if we had thought of it at all, we wouldn’t have been surprised that Colette is buried in that cemetery, but to stumble upon her tomb by chance aroused a sensation akin to nausea. My daughter wanted to take a picture of me with “my” grave, but I refused. That seemed too morbid. I am glad to know, however, that she is resting in peace in that beautiful cemetery, and that I had the opportunity to visit the grave of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, whether we have a connection or not.

I did ultimately buy a biography of Colette, written by her last husband, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to read it. How much do I really want to know? When I had to select a pen name, though, the choice couldn’t have been more obvious. The name had chosen me.
By the way, three years after meeting with the psychic, I did marry a man with dark curly hair. Turns out she was right – I already knew him. He just hadn’t come to mind because, at the time, we were barely acquaintances. He had been the teaching assistant in two history classes I had taken in college. We didn’t even have our first date until six years after we met, and this fall we will have been married for twenty-two years.

Here are two pictures of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. What do you think? Any resemblance?

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette


Originally published March 1st, 2013 for Austen Author

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