What Mémé taught me



To listen to this post in French, click below

Mémé and Didi in Deauville


Thinking about my post about Willy Ronis and ageing, I have been wondering why that short movie had hit me so hard.
I think that the images I have of my grandmother Léa, and my mother’s last years explain a lot.
Family lore says that Léa, my grandmother, when she turned sixty, sat down and said:
“Now I’m old and I am not going to work any longer”.
My brother, who was born in 1934, remembers how during the war, when the family had to cross the demarcation line which separated the Occupied zone from the Free zone of France, our grandmother said that she was too old to go on, sat down on a tree trunk and said she wouldn’t go any further and that was that. To which my mother got furious and ordered her mother-in-law to get up and walk if she didn’t want to put the whole family in danger.
Mémé, as we called her, died when I was sixteen, and was thought to be around 76 at the time. I’m saying ‘was thought’ because the Gregorian calendar used in Bulgaria was not quite the same and the family had no passport or birth certificate with a reliable date.

The photo above was taken in 1947, (I was three), when she was around 63. As far as I remember, I never saw my grandmother wearing shoes, but slippers, or walking, except at home with a cane.
I have images of her with a cigarette or sitting by the window, twiddling her thumbs, playing cards with one of her sons or with me, or playing solitaire.
I loved her dearly, but wouldn’t have chosen her for a role model. As far as I know, she had always been a dependent woman. Dependent on her husband who abandoned her, and later dependent on her children who gave her shelter. She stayed first with her older son, my father, and his wife, later with her daughter Fanny, and finally with her younger son, Victor. Léa wore whatever clothes her children bought her, she went where they took her, she couldn’t read French, and there were no books in Ladino around, so she didn’t read, and I now realise how lonely and depressed she must have felt.

She deserves my thanks. She has taught me the lesson of independence.


7 thoughts on “What Mémé taught me

  1. How sad for her then…How wonderful for you now. I have almost identical memories of my own mother. I still find myself reacting violently at the very thought of not being independent…at least until the time I truly don’t have a choice. And even then I will appreciate my choice to accept that!

  2. She looks a little angry but I like her style.

    “Now I’m old and I am not going to work any longer”.

    A dependent grandmother is an interesting observation, a sign of the times perhaps?
    When I think about it both of my grandmothers were dependent on others, to different degrees,
    but dependent on husbands and later family members. I’m glad that Grammie was dependent on me.
    It makes me smile to see your photos and read the stories. You tell the story well and Ladino is yet another
    language I had never heard of so thanks for the quick link to look it up.

  3. Knowing a bit more about Lea’s life makes me change the way I look at her. That’s wise to say that she was a teacher of independance, but what a high price for her!

  4. Our grandmothers lived in times when independence for them was quite different than what it can mean for us, I think. As with your grandmother, they established their independence in different ways.

    My maternal grandmother had an independent spirit, talked to me of her “elocution” classes which she clearly had cherished; recited from memory with the vocal mannerisms and flourishes of the time which I still recall vividly including “Twas morning in Seville …” I’ve looked high and low for this, “The Barber of Seville”, I believe.

    Lazy summer days we play acted in her front yard with my frequently leaving her side to climb on a rubber tire swing for imaginary trips to many places all over the world. After all, her brother had a career in the Navy and traveled the world, so she had second hand knowledge of many places in the late 1800’s, early 1900’s. She likely never was outside the USA state where she was born.

    Literally, she was dependent upon her husband, later her children. She was a dreamer and a fantasizer with this 8 and 9 yr old.

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