This may be difficult to believe, but I do try to stop my blog morphing into a personal diary. I think it is a tricky balance; I frequently see the work of others on social media platforms (especially blogs) and think to myself, "Ouch - I think I would have written that post somewhere private...", and then, of course, I worry a bit about the extent to which I already blur these (rather arbitrary) boundaries.
Whatever, please be assured that, though my writings are always going to be from a personal point of view, I do try to be a bit selective about what I put here. Having said which, I must warn you that this post is about some more family history, so it may be less enthralling to others than I find it myself.
My mother is 92, and is now in a care home, not far from where I live. We had a bit of a saga getting her there, but now it is going well; she is happy, she probably has more friends in the place than she ever had in her life, and she is warm, well-fed and well looked after. Of all the difficult decisions I've had to make over the years, that is maybe the one over which I've had fewest regrets.
I visit her about once a week, at some random time of day, so she can't accuse me of being late (!). She doesn't remember my visits anyway, and I find them rather hard work, though something I am glad to do. I don't suppose we get too many opportunities to care for ageing mothers, so I am getting the hang of things as I go along.
She doesn't walk now, and she cannot see. In both these respects, I am convinced it is mostly because she has decided that this is so. Certainly she had a recent eye-test that confirmed she has fair residual vision (she had a cataract op in the last 2 years) and that the prescription of her spectacles is correct. Problem is that she refuses to understand when to use her glasses, and doesn't expect to be able to see anything when she does. As the manager of the home put it, the problem seems to be one of process rather than a medical condition. No point disputing the matter - if she has decided she cannot see then she cannot see. I'm slowly getting used to this kind of thing.
She is usually in her bed when I visit. Not because she is confined to her bed, but she likes to listen to her radio, and that's a comfortable place to rest. At night she sleeps only a little (probably because she snoozes a lot during the day, though she denies this), and she says she is fascinated by the flow of her memories - she says it's like a cinema show. Certainly in recent weeks she has been rabbiting on about all sorts - mostly recollections of her childhood, in immense detail (bear in mind that she has no idea what happened yesterday, so the older stuff can run undisturbed).
Much of it I have heard before - some of it far too many times for comfort - but some of it is new. Because her parents separated when she was 10, I was brought up to accept some major distortions in the Official Family History. Many of the relationships, places and dates didn't line up very well. As a child you don't question these things. In recent years I've managed to get enough information to correct some of these old myths, so it has been something of an enlightenment.
It's OK - I'm not going to try to give a full run-down of the family history, but my mother has always been obsessed by the years she spent in Paris as a girl. They have had a great, looming influence over her entire life - more than would seem to make sense, proportionally - and I now realise that, since her parents separated in Paris, and her mother brought the children back to England in 1935, her entire recollection of a full family life is restricted to those few years. Her father's memory is certainly enhanced by the fact that she knew so little of him.
|Definitely not Paris - this is Liverpool Pier Head, circa 1920 - the Liver Building is |
the leftmost of the three big waterfront buildings
He worked, as a very young man, for Lever Brothers - for Billy Lever - the 2nd Viscount Leverhulme - of the family which originally made its fortune out of Sunlight Soap and which became Unilever. Grandfather worked in an office in the Liver Building, at Liverpool Pier Head. My mother was born in Liverpool in 1925, and her birth certificate gives her father's occupation as soap manufacturer's clerk. The company was very successfully importing palm oil and other products from Africa - mostly the Belgian Congo (as it was), and eventually grandfather was offered a job in Paris, working with a European subsidiary of Unilever. He was already married, with a family of three daughters, and in 1930 his wife and family joined him in Paris. My mother at this stage was 5, one year into recovery from a polio episode which has affected her entire life.
My grandparents, alas, did not get on. My grandmother did not like Paris, and does not seem to have cared much for my grandfather either - not least because he seems to have had a succession of lady friends (all of whom, it has to be said, appear to have been more interesting than his wife). By 1935 she had had enough, she brought the girls back to Liverpool. My mother's all-pervading 5-year upbringing in Paris ends there. She did not see her father again until he turned up at her wedding in 1945, and she did not see him after that until 1959, when she and my dad (incredibly, unbelievably) travelled to Paris from Liverpool on a 150cc Lambretta scooter, for a week's holiday. This visit was all a little awkward, since they were to stay with Grandpère, with his second wife and family, at his posh flat in Neuilly (Boulevard Bineau); my grandmother, who was child-minding me and my sister during their holiday, did not know this, and would certainly have been very upset if she had known.
And so the family story chugs on - I'll spare you any more. It's just another family story. The bit which has fascinated me recently was getting more light on my mother's Paris years - a lot of this was new to me.
|Place de la Liberté, La Garenne-Colombes - rather before my mother's day|
They lived in an apartment in the Avenue Foch, in La Garenne-Colombes. Because of the polio, my mum had treatments which meant that she was often unable to attend school, so she spent many of her most formative days surrounded by the sights, sounds and smells of a strange city. She has told me of the baker's shop opposite - if she hung around there they would give her macaroons or galettes; she loved the smells in the woodworking shop next door, where they made big items of furniture. She had a friend who lived in a house on a corner opposite - a girl of about her age, and there was a big dog and a lovely garden to play in, but the girl seemed to be looked after by nuns, and one day she disappeared without explanation, though the nuns and the dog were still there. At the end of that section of the Avenue Foch is the Place de la Liberté, where there was a big library, a Catholic church and, in the Summer, a fairground. My mum and her sisters used to like to sit out on the little balcony of their flat and listen to the music and the sounds from the fairground.
The church was of interest to the children since there were two statuettes in the entrance - Jeanne d'Arc and the Virgin Mary - my mum preferred Jeanne - she seemed less austere, and she and her elder sister used to spend time relighting all the candles placed by these statues, until the priests chased them. Mum thinks that a whole lot of prayers must have had confusing outcomes as a result of the candles being messed about.
I've never been there, but a few years ago, when she was still able to understand these things, I used Google Maps to download some street views of Avenue Foch, and the first view was the door of No.37 - apparently unchanged since the 1930s. She was thrilled to bits, and we had a look around the area, courtesy of Google. It is clear that a lot of the area has been renewed, as you would expect, and there seems to be a market building where the fairground used to be. The church is still there.
|37 Avenue Foch - the scooter is not a Lambretta!|
|They lived in the second-top flat - a lot of stairs for a little girl with polio. Note the |
little balconies, for listening to the sounds of the fairground
|Most of the area is rebuilt - the building on the corner, far right of this picture, is |
probably where the little girl with the dog lived
|The Catholic church is still there, though they were constructing an underground |
carpark when the Googlewagen passed
In 1959, on the Lambretta trip, my parents visited Avenue Foch, and went in. The concierge and her husband were still living there, in the ground floor flat, and were astonished that my mother had grown so strong and vigorous, since she had been a very sickly child. The concierge's husband still had to tend to the heating boilers for the building, though they were fired by gas instead of coal. The only other neighbour who remained from 1935 was an elderly lady on the top floor. My mother remembered that she and her husband had a business which made jewellery boxes and cutlery cases - Mum was fascinated by them when she was little. The business was no more. It had ended when the old lady's husband was apprehended in 1941 and sent to Drancy, whence he went on to one of the extermination camps in Poland.