Hello, my new journal. Happy Halloween 1986.

Bonjour et adieu, mon vieux journal. Il y a longtemps que je n’y écris pas.

The last entry (verbatim): 7 juin 74. C’est une fille. 2850 g. Elisabeth Zoé Wilner. Je l’appellerai Betty.

I am alone in my office. As usual, I am early. It’s 7:15. Staff won’t be coming for another half hour, and the centre won’t open for another 45 minutes.

I am early because, as I have been doing since for two months, I drove Daniel and Betty to the Du Collège station before coming here to the clinic. But it was the last time. On Monday, when the Côte-Vertu station will opens, they will have a walk of only ten minutes from home before taking the metro to their new school: North American Academy, an anglophone secondary school. It is in the Plateau, a good 15 km from our house. But it’s less than half an hour away on the Orange Line, which now runs to and from Saint-Laurent. With Côte-Vertu open, D and B will be able to go to school independently of me and even of each other, since their schedules are different.

Tonight I will drive them to parties with their respective friends from the school. Then I will go to a party at Tina’s.

It was Tina’s suggestion that I write this journal. The same thing happened to her as to me, only in reverse: her girls decided to be francophone, like their father, though they live with her, and are with him only weekends. So she began to keep a journal in French in order to force herself to think in French. She also explained to me the difference (in English) between a journal and a diary: one writes every day in a diary, but not necessarily in a journal.

I don’t plan to write every day. I am a busy woman and, frankly, I am not very introspective, except in mom not very frequent moments of introspection.

Daniel and Betty are as bilingual as anyone can be. Since I transferred to McGill after my preparatory year at UdeM, at least three fourths of my friends and colleagues have been anglophones. Our neighbourhood, here in Saint-Laurent, is mixed. D and B have played with anglophone kids since they were little, and I made a point of hiring only bilingual nannies and babysitters for them. Daniel went to anglophone preschool and kindergarten.

But in our dear Québec people are not recognized as bilingual. If one is not aboriginal, then one is either anglophone or francophone. Since I am French, and a single mother, then according to Bill 101 (la Charte de la langue française!) we are a francophone family, and the children must attend French school. Which is anyway what I wanted for them, it is after all their maternal mother tongue.

They seemed content in French primary school. But Daniel seemed to be less so in secondary school. He never complained openly, but he joked (I think) that he was tired of being the only kid in his class with a W in his name. I answered by joking joked back that he could change it to V, since that was how his father said it, but he just glared at me, as if changing the spelling would be a treason to the memory of his father betrayal of his father’s memory. (Arrête de traduire, Mireille! Stop translating! Think in English!)

Betty, on the other hand, not on was not only never bothered by her name and surname, decidedly not French, but the distinction gave her pleasure.

Last April Daniel announced that he wanted to learn German, so that he could read Miki’s writings (other than The Long Seventh Day). Not only there was there no German class in his school, but also in no other French secondary school, public or private, in Montréal. Then Harvey told him that his school, NAA, offers German. I checked with Greg, and he confirmed it. Good lawyer that is, he also found a loophole (Daniel’s year in an anglophone kindergarten just before the entry into Bill 101 went into effect) that made D eligible to receive instruction in English, and Betty too, if she wanted.

And she did. As soon as she heard that her brother would be going to an English school she declared that she too was anglophone. Just before leaving for our vacation in France she began to talk with D and me in English only, and she continued to do it so while we were there. She amused herself by being taken for an anglophone before surprising the people of local people by speaking perfect French, even saying tu and du as the French do, not the Québec way.

She also decided that her name would not be Betty but Zoë, with a dieresis and not an acute accent. The reason for the change? Well, there is a new French film, 37°2 le matin, with a pers character named Betty. Of course my Betty did not see it (it is rated 16+), but when I told her about the film and the character she decided that she did not like her and did not want to share her name.

I call her Zoë to her face, but not when I speak with others, and not with you, my journal.

Now, with the changed schedule, will I still be coming here early? Probably not. Isn’t it funny that I am beginning this journal on the very last day when I have this space of free time?

But I will find time for you, my journal, for you will be my confidante, even more than Tina. Tina gives me what is called feedback, whether I want it or not. And I don’t always want it. Sometimes I just want to express my thoughts and my feelings. Some, perhaps, that I have not even told Tina. And it will be to you. In English!



“It’s for you, darling,” she said as she reached over with the handset to his end of the sofa, where he was reading a German grammar book (Deutsche Sprachlehere für Ausländer). The clanking of Betty’s after-dinner cleanup could be heard from the kitchen.

The endearment jarred his ears. Had she said C’est pour toi, chéri, it would have been perfectly natural. But an English-speaking woman of Mireille Bouchard’s generation would not normally call her teenage son “darling.”

To Mireille, however, it was the call itself that was jarring. “Someone’s asking for Mister Wilner,” she added. “It… ça m’a fait sursauter.”

It must have been the Mister reference to her fifteen-year-old son that startled her, not the call itself. He had been expecting it – and of course he had told her about it – ever since receiving, some three weeks earlier, Brigitte Wilner’s letter, written in her own hand and telling him that she would be in New York near the middle of December. There would be a retrospective of her films at the Goethe Institute, and she would love to meet him if he could make it to New York. She would be staying at the Plaza Hotel, a place where she had “fond memories,” and she would be happy to tell him as much about his father as he wanted to know, time permitting. If he gave her his telephone number, she would call him once she was in New York to make specific arrangements.

The caller’s voice was female and German-accented, but it was not Brigitte’s. She identified herself as Helga of the Goethe Institute, and informed Daniel that he was to meet Frau Wilner – it was this reference that now sounded strange to him, especially since the name was pronounced Vilner and he was being addressed as Mister Vilner – in the lobby of the Plaza, at ten o’clock on the following Saturday morning. Before this time he had heard that pronunciation only from his great-aunt Fela and some of her immigrant friends.


When Daniel first told his mother about the letter and his desire to go to New York, she reminded him that she had a friend there, a medical-school classmate named Sam Zucker, who had fled to Canada to avoid the Vietnam War draft but returned to New York after Carter’s pardon and was now practicing and living there, not far from the Plaza; Mireille had visited him there. (Sam, it so happened, had assisted at Betty’s birth when he and Mireille were residents.) She would arrange for Daniel to stay with him.

Now Daniel told her that he wanted to take the bus on Friday – for which he would need her permission to skip school – and return by train on Sunday. She wrote the permission slip on one of her prescription blanks. Under MIREILLE BOUCHARD, MDCM she wrote the date on the right and crossed out the Rx on the left. Underneath she wrote PERMISSION, and then I grant permission to my son, Daniel Wilner, on Friday, 12 December, for family reasons. The wording was clumsy – it was the first such note that Mireille had written in English – and was no doubt influenced by permission meaning ‘leave’ in French.

But the next day at school Daniel found out that there would be an important test on that Friday (in German, it so happened) and so he would need to take the overnight Greyhound bus that would get him to New York at 7:15 on Saturday morning. (The overnight train, the Montrealer, had lately been the subject of notorious delays.) Mireille called Sam and learned that he would be away for the weekend, but the building superintendent (the super, as they were known in New York) would let Daniel in. He could go there by subway – the E train – from the Port Authority Bus Terminal, freshen up, have breakfast and walk to the Plaza.

During the rest of the week Daniel sublimated his mounting excitement over meeting Brigitte Wilner, the famous German actress who had been his father’s first wife, by conjugating German verbs and declining German nouns in his head. The excitement was transmuted into a determination to ace that test.

He decided to keep the now unnecessary permission slip as a memento of the beginning of the quest that he was undertaking.


The desire to learn German arose in him one day in the preceding spring when he was visiting Fela Rozowski, the widow of his father’s maternal uncle Leon, at her large house in Westmount. As he was idly scanning the bookshelves of what had been Leon’s study, he noticed two books with Michael Wilner on the spine. Both were in German. One of them, published in 1960, bore a long title starting with Die menschliche Freiheit and was evidently, to judge from the title page, his doctoral dissertation. The other, from 1965, was titled In meiner Zeit and appeared to be a collection of essays and articles published in periodicals called Hamburger Morgenpost, Die Zeit and Merkur.

Daniel already knew that Michael Wilner, even before the publication of his international bestseller about the Six-Day War and its aftermath, The Long Seventh Day, had been a prominent journalist in Germany and that, especially after his separation from Brigitte, he spent much of his time traveling around the world. On a visit to Montreal he met Mireille when she was a medical student at McGill. She had attended some lectures he had given – in both English and French – and fell in love at first sight. They spent time together during the rest of his stay, after which he went back to Germany. When she informed him that she was pregnant, he immediately finalized his already pending divorce from Brigitte and came back to Montreal to marry Mireille. They never lived together – Mireille told her children many times that she could never live with a man – but he came back again several times, including the occasions of Daniel’s birth and of his first and second birthdays. It was on this last occasion, when he spent most of September in Montreal, that Betty was conceived. Shortly thereafter he went to Israel to cover the Yom Kippur War – he was in the process of writing his second book on the Arab-Israeli wars – and disappeared. After the cease-fire Mireille was informed that his mutilated body had been found, alone, in a car that had run over a mine or been hit by a bomb near a battle site in the Golan Heights. Eventually it was sent back to Montreal, with a death certificate issued by Israeli military authorities, and buried at the Baron de Hirsch Cemetery. Daniel’s first memory related to his father was the unveiling ceremony for the gravestone, a few weeks after his third birthday and a year after Michael Wilner’s putative death.


Riding the metro home from school on Friday Daniel felt elation mounting inside him. He knew that he had done well on the test. It was his first semester at the North American Academy, a private anglophone secondary school in which, after a decade in francophone public schools, he was now enrolled because it was the only easily accessible school that offered German.

North American Academy was officially (for example in the school’s brochure) abbreviated as NAA, but among its students it was colloquially called North Am by some and Northam by others. These others included those who thought of themselves as the in-group and who like the name Northam because it sounded like that of an English public school or an American prep school.

Besides being anglophone and offering German, North Am was also the school where Daniel’s oldest friend, Harvey Berman, had been going for the past year. Before being split apart for primary school – Daniel to francophone public, Harvey to anglophone Jewish – they had gone to an anglophone preschool and kindergarten together. Their friendship continued despite the separation. For several years now they had practiced soccer moves together. They had played together in the Saint-Laurent youth leagues. Now they were on the school team, having played in September and October, with play to resume in the spring. Harvey’s father, Greg, was a lawyer who advised Mireille on money matters. He and his wife Marcia were also close friends of hers.

It felt good to get home after the cold, windy walk from the Côte-Vertu station, which had recently been opened and was only a ten-minute walk from their house. His sister, who was also going to North Am but attended – as did Harvey’s younger brother Paul – the separate campus that housed Grades 7 and 8 (Secondary I and II, in Quebec-speak), was already home, and had turned the heat on. Daniel heard the clanking noise of the old furnace – Mireille had long been talking about replacing it – even before he opened the door.

“Let’s cook dinner for maman,” he said to her.

Though English was now the family’s dominant language, Daniel and Betty (now Zoë) continued to refer to their mother as maman.

“But it’s Friday!” Zoë said. True, on Friday evenings Mireille often had dinner out with friends, and then Daniel and his sister would cook together for the two of them.

“I’m going to New York tonight,” he reminded her. “Maman told me that she wants to stay home, and it’s too cold to go out to eat.”

“What are we going to make?”

“I don’t know. We’ll decide when it’s time. I’ve got to do homework for Monday.”


Mireille Bouchard was from Rimouski, of purely French ancestry, but she was estranged from her conservative Catholic family, whom the Quiet Revolution seemed to have passed by. Daniel did not meet any of them till he was in his twenties, and he never got to meet his mother’s father, who had referred to him – within Mireille’s earshot – as le petit bâtard juif, since he was circumcised and had been conceived, if not born, out of wedlock. The elder Bouchards seemed to have accepted Betty somewhat more graciously than Daniel, since she was conceived legitimately and, with the auburn hair that she got from her mother, looked more like one of them. On the rare occasions that Mireille went back to Rimouski for a family emergency, she sometimes took Betty, but never Daniel.

Daniel and Betty Wilner could not recall a time when they were not completely bilingual. At Fela’s house, where Daniel – but not Betty – went to visit fairly often, the company was predominantly East European Jewish and therefore English-speaking, with some Yiddish sprinkled in. Leon, however, had preferred French, which he had studied as a youth in Poland, and most of the clientele of his very successful coffee import business (the brand name was Café du Lion) was francophone. Fela often told Daniel how sad it was that Leon didn’t live to know him.

Legally, however, Mireille Bouchard’s household was francophone, and under Bill 101 Daniel and Betty could attend only French-language schools. But Greg Berman showed her that the law provided an exception for children who had received instruction in English before its coming into effect, as well as their siblings. Daniel’s anglophone kindergarten year was just before that fateful date – 26 August 1977 – enshrined in the Charter of the French Language, Section 73(4). The intention of the provision was that such children could continue their schooling in English, but the language of the law did not say so. Greg drew up the application, and Daniel and Betty were accepted.

He made salmon with a tarragon cream sauce and rice, and Zoë made mixed vegetables. For dessert they had ice cream, which Mireille had bought earlier in the week.

After dinner Mireille drove Daniel to the Central Bus Station. What little he said to her about the purpose of the trip got only a muted response from her. She boarded the bus with him for a farewell hug and said, “Bonne chance, chéri,” before stepping off. The seat beside him was free, so he sprawled out comfortably. From the seat in front of him he heard a gruff male voice say, “Beautiful lady.” He ignored the comment and promptly fell asleep. He was awakened at the border crossing but immediately went back to sleep.


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