Ever since the early 1990s, I am a full-time photographer. I have probably taken thousands of pictures. Actually I’ve been taking pictures all my life long.
Ask me which picture is my best picture ever, I shall answer unhesitatingly: ‘My grandmother reading the newspaper.’
I wasn’t even a fully-fledged photographer at the time.
I took it when I was 16 with one of my first cameras (not a very good one).
She was 62. Those were times when women were aging faster than we do now.
She was staying with us from October till March and then she’d go back to her mountains to take care of her vegetable and fruit garden so that we’d have plenty of fresh produce during the summer and jam for wintery times.
When she was staying with us, every afternoon, after she had taken care of her daily tasks (and before getting supper ready), she’d get rid of her apron. She’d grab the newspaper and then she’d settle down on ‘her’ armchair and start reading. She’d go from page one to the last one and comment on the news. I loved those moments with her. So much.
One day, it struck me that she wouldn’t always be there and that I had to take her picture as a memento.
I loved my ‘Bonne-Maman’ very much.
We had a very special relationship. We were very close. She was my sunbeam in a very disturbed family life.
She raised me full time from the time I was born until I turned five when she had to go back to Arfons to take care of her father. After his death, she came back to live with us. I was fourteen at the time. And she was sixty.
I loved my ‘Bonne-Maman’ very much. And she loved me a lot. I was the apple of her eyes.
She was very small. She only was 4ft9. (I was 5ft7 when I turned 14.)
Her face was very round and wrinkled. I used to call her my ‘Pomme d’api’ (a delicious apple, very small and wrinkled we used to eat when I was much younger).
How I loved to kiss her cheeks!
She smiled and laughed all the time because she was a happy woman.
So many years later, I think that this was probably our strongest tie: Being happy whatever may happen. Finding enough strength to laugh about life instead of complaining and whining.
People usually only saw the very shy sweet person she was. But she was in reality a very strong woman. Not stubborn. Very strong. Strong and kind.
She had been my great-grandparents’ eldest daughter, born in 1902.
Second day of December. A very cold day to be born in the mountains.
Her grandmother died the same day in the room next to the bedroom where her mother was in labor.
I always shudder whenever I think about that day. Imagine being born a wall apart from a dying woman, your own grandmother.
Did her parents rejoice over her birth or was the house filled with wailing and sadness? I’ll never know.
They gave her her grandmother’s name: Marie-Antoinette. Since they also shared the same surname, psychiatrists would really love this kind of story.
Bonne-Maman didn’t seem to care at all. Everybody took to call her ‘Marie’ or ‘Marinette’ (little Marie) and that was it.
She was 12 when Bon-Papa Mathieu went to war and so while her mother was teaching and taking care of the farm, she was in charge of her younger sister and brother.
Then right after the war, she was very sick with typhoid fever. She almost died. When she recovered, her parents decided she’d never be able to go to school like her siblings. They sent her to spend a few years in a convent school where she did learn a trade: embroidery.
She became an extremely gifted embroideress at a time when girls needed an embroidered trousseau to get married. I still have a few pieces of cloth she embroidered almost a century ago. They are beautiful. I would not part with them for all the money in the world.
Then she fell in love with a young man from her village. He was a police officer which meant material security in the 1920s. He took her away to Marseilles, a huge city for Marinette. She never talked about this experience because while there, he met another woman. He divorced my grandmother when their daughter, my mother, was 2 yrs old.
Marinette and her young daughter went back to Arfons and stayed with her parents. She resumed embroidery and helped on the farm.
Her life must have been very hard. There was no alimony. The worst part though was she had to deal with a lot of guilt, shame and harsh criticisms. Her husband had abandoned her and their daughter for another woman. But she was the one to bear the cross.
(I’ve never met my biological grandfather. After he retired, he came back to live in Arfons with his wife in his family home. One summer night, when I was 18, I noticed a much older man who kept watching me. It kind of freaked me out and after he left, I asked my friends if they knew who he was. ‘Your grandfather, sweetie.’ Spooky.)
During WWII, she was asked to take care of her siblings’ children. Her own daughter was in a boarding school almost all year long. So she became the live-in nanny for all the kids in the family while her sister and sister-in-law were teaching school, in a nearby town (their husbands being POW). She did it during the war and after the war for a few years before I was born.
She raised all the children in the family and then she raised her grandchildren when her daughter (my mother) needed her. Then she took care of her ageing and sick parents. And back to her grandchildren.
She mostly was taken advantage of. But she didn’t seem to mind.
Whenever she had some free time, she’d embroider everything she could get her hands on. She never noticed that it no longer was fashionable. She did it because she loved her craft.
She did knit the most beautiful sweaters and sewed all our clothes.
I never ever heard her complaining about her life. Like I said before, she was fundamentally a happy woman.
She was not an avid reader mainly because she hadn’t been to school very long but her favorite novel was ‘Jane Eyre’. Needless to say, Charlotte Brontë’s novel was my favorite book for a long time too. I think I’ve read it more than fifty times. It also was the first book I read in English.
She was very proud of me. Whenever she was away, she wrote long letters to me, using notebook pages, letters filled with pieces of advice which I usually followed and tons of compliments!
More important, she was very protective with me and I really needed protection from my parents when I was growing up.
I don’t mean that we were always agreeing about life (my life that is). Sometimes she had a hard time to understand my way of life but I tried to explain to her the ins and outs of my decisions. We never fought and in the end, we’d always part with a kind word and a hug and a kiss.
Her relationship with the rest of my family was strained. My parents did not like her because she was a ‘country woman’. They were ashamed of her. To them, she merely was a live-in maid and nanny. They made it clear all the time. It used to upset me very much because I could see all the good things she was bringing to our family: her help, her goodwill, her sweetness and kindness... besides the summer house and her jams!
My sister and brother followed my parents’ example and were very rude to her, bullying her whenever she was slow to understand something, which was happening more and more often as she was getting older.
We didn’t know that Parkinson was already at work. The disease was quite unknown at the time.
By the time the family doctor understood she was not merely ageing but that she was very sick, the end was quite fast.
She had been extremely happy when my son was born, her first great-grandchild. She was delighted, extremely delighted.
He was 15 months old when she started trying to grab him forcefully whenever she’d see him around and he did not like it at all. She did it because she was sick and she was so sick that she never realized that he was doing his best to avoid her.
Swee'Pea was almost two years old when we went down South because my sister was getting married. By then, my ‘Pomme d’api’ had been brain-dead for the past three months, at my parents’ home (French Social Security home (medical) care). Her heart was still healthy and strong. And she was breathing more or less on her own.
We flew down there and as soon as we got to the house, I felt the urge to go upstairs and check on my Bonne-Maman. Everybody told me not to. All the talking was about my sister’s wedding, the next day. There was no time to waste about a brain-dead grandmother. She’d still be there the following day anyway.
But Popeye and I, we went upstairs. She was lying on a medical bed and was intubated. A light was on.
Bonne-Maman was so diminutive. She looked peaceful. I walked to her bed, took her childlike hand in mine and said softly: ‘Bonne-Maman, je suis là.’ (I’m here.)
You will find it hard to believe but this is the way it happened. Popeye was there with me and I’m glad he was because...
She opened her eyes, looked straight at me, tried to lift her head while attempting to smile and said: ‘Oy-oy-oy.’ Which more or less meant in her native Southern dialect: ‘What a happy surprise.’ And she fell back on the pillow. Brain-dead again.
Her heart gave up three weeks later.
It took me years to recover.
It’s been thirty years now but I’m still thinking about her. I tell her many things, not aloud of course but in my heart. I share with her my joys and pains.
I know she would have loved to see our son grow up the way he does. So I’m telling her. Yes, I tell her my joys and my sorrows, our happy moments in life, my doubts and my fears.
Just the way, since last January, I keep talking with my sweet Yvonne, the way we have been talking all those years.
Yvonne and my ‘Bonne-Maman’ were so much alike. They both knew what love means.
*Good Night, and Good Luck*