This may appear quite unusual in many ways to tell the story of my parents’ first meeting many moons ago. I gleaned some information from family mainly. Of course one has to be aware of many aspects when one talks to family. It is their perception and how they view the world, then sometimes their distorted recollections of events…Like all of us when we try to remember an event that happened long ago, it will be tinted and distorted…as events fade with time. But is it not how stories are told when time is at stake? Recollections…some dreamed of, some fantasised, some imagined, some tinted with one’s own wishes and some true of course. This story is a mixture of all of them I think.
I will try to put together some sort of my own recollection of my parents’ story.
My grand mothers and aunties and uncles, all of them told me a story about mum and dad…But mum never told me anything about their encounters. She was too withdrawn and I felt at times that she wanted to keep it a secret. It was always dad that took pride in recounting events and occasions of their life.
So, how did it start? But before we get on with the beginning of their romance it is vital to have a glimpse into their background. Let’s start with Mum.
Mum had one sister and 2 brothers..so 4 in the family. One brother and her sister are still alive, Pierre and Georgette, but the other has passed away as well as mum.
A very tough and unhappy childhood. Born in 1929 mum was the 2nd of the children down the line. My grandfather, Simon was a bit of a Don Juan and was playing around quite a fair until he left everyone for Paris to join one of his mistresses. I did meet her. She was not very beautiful at all.
Photos above : centre My maternal grandMa …from left to right, my cousin Nelly and me, Fernande, my maternal grand father Simon, my cousin Charley, Mum at 18 years old
When the Algerian war ended in 1962, my grandfather invited us to stay with them for a little while because dad was still in Constantine to wind up his business. A rather perilous undertaking where he was almost lynched by a group of armed “fellegas” ( the people who fought against the French ) as we used to call them. He got caught in a march celebrating the independence of Algeria and were it not for an Arab friend who knew dad and dad did speak a smattering of Arabic helped, pretending to be one of “them” he went along with the march and his friend alongside shouting slogans. He managed to walk away stealthily with his friend after 10 minutes and got back to his atelier where he started to pack his sewing machines to be expedited to France.
Back to grand Pa….He nevertheless had 6 children with my grandmother Fernande. 2 of them died in infancy. I still remember him quite well. He came often to our house with all sorts of promises for me. I was his first grand child and he was quite fond of me. Always promising me some things that never eventuated. Yes, a bicycle was my dream…I am still waiting today.
But that is a diversion. After my grand father departed for Paris, he left his whole family without a cent.
My grandmother had to scrounge and fight everyday to bring food on the table. The latest child Pierre, was only 6 months old when Grandpa left. So you can imagine the resentment my grandmother harboured. No electricity for the children to do their homework, no regular food on the table, perpetual struggle to survive. Mum knitted socks for the army, grandma would apply her skills as a dress maker to sell her goods and go to people’s place to clean. Neighbours from the street understanding her predicament and her difficulties would bring her food. The headmistress from the school next door would also help the children with books, pens, blouses an so on. Even gave mum a scholarship later on to further her studies in order to become a school teacher. Mum had a lot of aptitudes and was very good learner as well as very strong intellectually. She loved literature and had some perseverance in what she undertook and above all wanted to succeed and to show her skills and and strong desire to shine. She also was an accomplished writer.
According to my uncle Jacques, (husband of my Aunty Georgette) he always kept mum’s letters and would read them again and again as he enjoyed her style and her prose. He told Peter and I this one summer that we spent with them in 2011.
Mum had always felt a pull for adventure and Aunty Georgette told me that when they were around 8 and 10 years old, both went on a train on their own from Constantine to Marrakech in Morocco. I was just dumbfounded. Who would allow these things today? 2 very young girls travelling on their own.
The whole family was brought up with deprivation, fear, even shame knowing that they saw the neighbours bringing food and seeing how their mother would fight for a living and be very hard on them for every minute thing that was not done properly. Food was never discarded as it was scarce and too precious. My grandma was very strict and severe with all the children Aunty Georgette will recall and it was their grandmother who would step and in and reprimand her own daughter for being too harsh with my mother. Milk was sometime the only sustenance they could have. Mum could not bear the sight of milk later on in life after that and anything or food that had a white colour was abhorrent to her. Nothing would change her mind at all. She was very rigid on many fronts.
So, given the background of poverty, the war, the resentment of the children toward their father, and the hatred of my grandma toward him….the atmosphere was very gloomy indeed… I know for a fact that my grandma absolutely hated him. Many a day I used to cross the road from school and be at her place where I spent the night or the day with her. At night she used to tell me all sorts of stories about her husband. She used to sing me songs of the 20’s and 30’s…”J’attendrai” by Rina Ketty…(listen to it on you tube) as we snuggled n bed. She described how she had been a very beautiful woman and many men coveted her and used to ask her to dance. She surely made a big mistake with that one she moaned many times. Every night for years grandma told me these stories and sang dozens of songs…I used to love these moments even if they meant nothing to me….Just the fascination to be with her in the warmth of her big bed and her huge duvet and waiting for the stories to start. A little anecdote there that I remembered for years….Grandma used to pass wind with force when we were in bed together and I used to be horrified and hid under the duvet away from her. She would then say to me “just don’t move the duvet, stay still and it will pass”. To this day I recall these incidents with a big grin on my face. I felt secure with her in spite of the independence war that was raging in the streets in Constantine in the 50’s and 60’s.
I could feel her pain and her regrets. Her bitterness and her sadness. She was so hurt that she called herself a widow and vowed that she would bury him and never speak to him. She wanted to to addressed as ” Veuve Tabet” . It reminded me of “Veuve Cliquot” minus the bubbles. He never gave a cent to bring up all the children that he had with her. One could understand her misery and suffering.
She did indeed passed away well after him at the ripe old age of 101. One day my Aunty Georgette (my mother’s sister) told me that they were all having lunch at her place in Nimes with grandma and her grand children when my grandfather appeared. Apparently a disheveled old character walked slowly toward the house and my Aunty was quite taken aback when she saw who it was. She asked him to come him. Of course my grandma recognised him and as he sat with them she never glanced at him or spoke to him. The atmosphere was to be cut with a knife Aunty Georgette told me. The whole lunch happened without a word among everyone. Grandma just ate and went away in the garden. Grandpa was really old and not in good health at all and Aunty Georgette took pity on him. In fact, she was the the only one that offered a meal. All his other children would not speak to him or see him.
Anyway back to mum. So as you can already figure out that she did not have such an easy childhood. At the age of 17 she put her name down to be part of a political movement where my father was the leader. She did not know that at this stage, but was avid to get out and meet people of her own age and flee the depressing atmosphere of home with all its constraints. For a young woman in her late teens what better than to evade the narrow confines of her home. She was no
doubt bursting with enthusiasm and hope and eager to mingle with young people like her. An escape too good to miss.
It was love at first sight. Dad told me at some stage later on that he knew that she was the woman he meant to be with. They eloped to Paris and my maternal grandma alerted the police. Mum was not yet 21 and of course a minor in those days. They both came back under police escort says my uncle Pierre, my mother’s little brother. It was a scandal in the family. All the family members were told and both were severely reprimanded. Her mother was outraged and worried of the shame that was brought on to the family by the attitude of her daughter. But the romance went on. No question of being together before the wedding, especially when one lives in a provincial town where everyone gossiped. It felt like the whole town knew about their adventure. I am not sure whether they cared or not. But for mum these meetings and reunions were her only purpose. A dedication to a cause, an adventure with her lover, a chance to be with dozens of other young people to forget her background and her constricted life. She was a brilliant student at school and almost qualified to become a teacher. The only handicap was the opposition of Grandma forbidding her to go to the remote regions of the country where she would start her apprenticeship. Her father also denied categorically that she should travel. Another disappointing moment for her and a chance to get away or forge a life for herself. The independence movement started to agitate in the remote regions of the country. But the youth group saved her sanity by the look of things.
But before the wedding took place a brief background on my dad. He came from a larger family that was quite wealthy. There were doctors, lawyers, dentists and attorneys. Money was never an issue. My grandfather was a saddle maker for the French cavalry army and had his workshop underneath our home. It was a huge 3 storey Victorian mansion that he had built and where we all lived also and where I spent my childhood till the age of 13. My paternal grandma was illiterate and was counting on her sons and daughters to guide her through her life. But that did not bother her too much. She was such a gentle soul and I loved her more than anyone else. The saddest thing for her was the loss of her husband when dad was 4 years old.
So, dad lived without a father and under the rules of tyrannical brothers who did not mind using the whip if necessary. He was kicked out of school during the war and never finished past the third year of secondary school. He went on to learn a trade with one of his older sister’s Fortune who had a very successful clothes shop in a chic part of town. The saddle making went under the management of my uncle Simon, the oldest of the family and I heard through the years that he was giving some sort of allocation to his mum. The business prospered and my uncle went to built a beautiful 4 storey villa in the better part of the town called Belleville. It was sumptuous. I went there many times to attend guitar lessons with my cousin Freddy and played around in the big villa for hours. My father would have his business there also in the same ground. He would become a well-known dress designer and was fitting all the fine gentry of the town as well as the uniforms for Air France.
My father was a total atheist and even a rebel who refused to believe in conventions or at times the rule of the law. He just wanted to be independent and not forced to comply. His mum and brothers did not want him to marry my mum. She was not good enough, no money and not a good background. No father and no standing in the community. So, they tried to hook him with one of lady of “better standing”. Eliane was the sister of my uncle Ernest ‘s wife. He is my father’s second brother. A severe man and a teacher. He is still alive at the time of writing. The only one remaining of the 6 brothers and sisters. My father suffered a lot under his harsh discipline. And maybe a motive for him to get out of the family demands and be independent.
So, Eliane was the answer to my father’s “mistake” of choosing to go on with my mum. Meetings took place between Eliane and dad. All sorts of convenient times were arranged for the 2 to meet. Dinners, drinks, dances under the watchful eye my uncle Ernest. This went on for a while apparently until my dad just blew up and said that he was not interested in getting to know her in spite of her good credentials and that she was not very interesting, and tying further the bonds between these families. (??) He told his mum and said that “he was not going to live his life with religious fanatics”. Eliane’s grand father was an eminent rabbi and quite orthodox. Her sister also was going to marry my uncle Raymond, my father’s brother. Dad was just furious…according to my aunt Georgette…3 sisters of these fanatics in our family that was not religious in the slightest. Dad desperate and concentrated all his energy in building up the group that he was attending with mum. That group called “Betar” was going to be his lifeline.
If his brother chose that path he was not going to walk in his footsteps. And above all (vvv) adhere to their code of behaviour.
Dad had abandoned by this stage all beliefs and faith in any religious denomination. “The hypocrisy of it all is sickening,” he said to me many times. The religious community whatever it is, is full of contradictions and nonsense. In those days he was not quite clear on how to articulate these thoughts that came to his mind. He just rebelled. But later on as we spoke and had thousands of conversations around coffee and sumptuous meals (vvv), he enunciated quite clearly the fallacy in all beliefs and doctrines that require a following, a guru, a power that will dictate one’s actions. To him it was the antithesis of a free and enquiring mind. No tolerance and compassion would arise from doctrines that are rigid and where everyone would follow without questioning their positions and attitudes.
The family was totally staggered to hear him saying such things. It was against all odds and my dad was nicknamed “the bête noire”.
Then, one day after meeting mum in the youth camp that they frequented for a while dad proposed while everyone around him tried to dissuade him. It was a big jump for him. He knew, he said to me that marriage was trap and a loss of freedom. But it was clear that he chose to do so. Mum was ecstatic for obvious reasons. A ticket to freedom, independence, a life of her own with the man she loved at first site. Dad also said that when he first set eyes on her he knew she was the lady for him.
So they got married simply and left the town towards a new adventure.
Many years down the track, I still recall as a little girl the envy on people’s face when they saw mum and dad together. They were the talk of the town. Mum, with dark hair and green eyes, slim and always extremely well dressed….of course Dad use to make her the most beautiful garments. Jealousy is the word that one could see on every person’s lips. They were indeed a beautiful couple. I might add that they knew it. They were together against all odds and had to surmount the spite of my father’s siblings. So much so that the 2 brothers that married the rabbi’s daughters, hardly came to visit. The relationships were cordial but that was it. Their resentment was palpable and as a young girl I felt it intensely. Dad would refuse to engage in discussions about religion or political issues saying again and again that they were not worth the paper they were written on. All the preaching and discourses by clerics or politicians would irritate him profoundly and was continuously questioning their premises. He certainly was different and had a spirit of his own.
Mum and dad had a cosy life. They frequented the top end of the town. Lawyers, business men, artists, and a score of other people that entered my life and do not recall. I also felt that they were really unique and used to really “hate” when I saw mum getting dressed in a beautiful evening dress with a gold necklace that dad gave her for her birthday or wedding anniversary falling gracefully on (vvv) slim neck…a few sprays of perfume, high heels, little black purse and a shawl wrapped around her shoulders…and off they went to a night club leaving me wondering why I was not going with them as tears fell down my cheeks. Grandma would gently put her arms around me and singing a little lullaby put me to bed while I was still sobbing.
Yes, they were the talk of the family especially. Siblings, nieces and nephews would drop on them at times and tell at length their love life. Dad was a great listener and always impartial. In his judgements never taking part in family quarrels that might end up in dramas. They were loved for that and attracted it. It seems to me that their love was shining upon everyone with a mixture of jealousy and envy…Loved, hated all at once.
To illustrate the point above, I must recount a little anecdote when the family was sharing some meals together during the festive seasons in Constantine. One of my cousin Nelly, was the oldest of 4 girls and in love with a young man called Guy. He was pursuing some studies in France to become a professor or a lawyer, I do not quite recall which one it was. So, while she was in Constantine, he was in Paris and was not quite sure what to do. She opened up to my parents about her dilemma. I was in those days around 11 years old and I was especially enthralled in stories like these. After lengthy discussions of which a lot escaped me at times, my cousin said to Mum and Dad : “ you two form a real loving couple, you are so nice together and I can see that you are very close, I only wish I could emulate that”.
My cousin Charley, now a famous hairdresser in Paris, spent a lot of time with mum and dad when we all in Paris and said to me one day: “you know Gigi, your parents are a great couple and so fitted to each other, like 2 peas in pod, they are very special”.
Again and again these words about them had an impact on me during all these years…But that might be a story for next time.