March 26, 2010
My image of militants usually includes basements and cigarettes. Usually there will be a hair thing going on too – dreds or at least rakish dishevelment. Michele and Rene are disappointingly well-groomed and when I visit, they kindly bestow upon me a home-made apple tart and some mango and fig chutney.
I met Michele at a breast-feeding support group for mothers of mewling newborns. I sat cross-legged on the floor with the other mothers who were swapping alarming tales of cracked nipples and breast ailments. My daughter lay on my lap and every now and then would wriggle and fuss. My answer to this was to nurse her and hope for the best.
After a while Michele leaned forward and suggested, in her diplomatic way I have come to know and love, that perhaps she wasn’t hungry. I needed to listen and observe. Michele has done a lot of listening and observing and a lot of Caring in her life. I have since learned to listen and observe what she teaches me. She is a wise woman indeed.
When Michele asks me why I want to interview her, I tell her that I am in search of people who spend their lives well. Typically, she all but looks over her shoulder to see if I am talking about someone else. But no. Michele is a true champion.
“I am what you call a ‘Petite Parisienne’, a term from my generation which does not really exist any more”.
“I was born in Paris to parents from the provinces. My father came to Paris from Chartres to seek work as a boulanger/patissier. He arrived in the big city with his old grandmother as his mother had died. They went into the first boulangerie they saw near the Gare du Nord railway station and he was offered work”.
“My mother came armed with her new diploma as a registered nurse. Her mother had been a matron in one of the big hospitals in Paris, which was quite an achievement in those days.”
“The hospital was a mix of a social welfare provider in the broad sense of the term rather than a place to treat illness, as it has become today”.
“I was forged by these two women, my mother and my grandmother; schooled in the concept of care”.
Very early on in their marriage Michele’s parents abandoned their former professions to run a Brasserie in Barbes, the heart of old Paris. I visited Paris in summer with my teenage son and through a complete inability to read maps (on my part), and an enthusiasm to explore Paris on hired bicycles (on my son’s part) I led him into the red light district of La Pigalle. We stopped in Barbesse en route to look at the “I Love You” wall, a modern blue-tiled wall with “I love you” scrawled on it in over 400 languages.
I digress. Barbesse is now, and was then, a rather lively quartier to find yourself born into. Michele chuckles as she recounts what she considers to be a blissfully happy childhood. Edith Piaff was a regular and outbreaks of song and dance were frequent.
“I remember ‘dancing afternoons’”.
“I must have been six or seven and I would watch people come in, plonk their bags and coats down and start to dance. They could be in couples or alone, it didn’t matter”.
“I was born into this cafe, this society. One day I would be pushed in my pram by a lovely prostitute, often the most charming and correct of women, and another by a wealthy politician’s wife from the Hotel de Ville next door”.
“I was born in 1945 and my parents doted on me”.
“Their first child died when my mother suffered a difficult labour. Paris was occupied by germans at the time and soldiers had taken over the hospital. On the night in question the doctor was drunk and did not react to her distressing labour. The baby died and had to be removed in pieces from her womb”.
“I am the result of one of the first medically-assisted pregnancies in France!”
“My mother was still working at the hospital when she was pregnant with me. She used to collect up all the empty tins of Nestle formula they used for the babies and lock herself in the toilets to scrape out anything that was left. Food was in such short supply.”
Some thoughts are occurring to me as Michele recounts this. Where was her father? This was during the war, after all, and menfolk were thin on the ground. It turns out that he had the good luck to be injured seriously enough to be sent home from the Front but not seriously enough to impede being able to live with and love his wife. The other thought that occurs to me is one would think that doctors had their hands full with injured soldiers without having to make the first tentative forays into infertility treatment. I am about to voice these questions when it occurs to me that there could be no better way of confronting the enemy than helping into the world a person such as Michele. A victor over adversity.
“My parents were married on a Friday and war was declared on the Saturday. When the mayor married them he paused at the part where he traditionally wishes them happiness for the future”.
Instead he said,
“Mes pauvres enfants, I would like to imagine a happy future for you but it will be difficult in these troubled times”.
Two days later, her father was dispatched to fight. Unhappy days indeed. Michele says with no trace of irony,
“He was lucky enough to be taken prisoner and then later was injured”.
It is hard to see Fate smiling on someone who was interned in a prisoner-of-war camp and then shot in the leg, but it did result in his return to Paris. He never spoke of his experiences, preferring not to burden his family with them.
“After the death of their first child, my mother was treated by one of the top obstetricians in Paris at the time.”
“He prescribed that they should have intercourse at a very precise time on specific days and then my father had to pick up my mother and run down the stairs with her. He then put her on the front of his bicycle with her legs in the air and took her to the hospital.”
A primitive procedure was then conducted to help the chemistry along and the result was the much-awaited Michele. I can’t shake the image of a bicycle flying along the cobbled streets of Barbesse, early-risers scratching their heads in puzzlement at the woman perched in a peculiar position on the front.
When Michele was born on 5 July 1945, she caused major celebrations in a hospital which had not had much cause for celebration in recent times.
From the age of 2 or 3 Michele spent holidays with her grandmother in the Pas-de-Calais. Her childhood playmate and sweetheart, Rene, lived across the road. They have always known each other and will have been married for 50 years this year.
“When he was 17 and I was 14 we decided we were going to get married. We married the month after I turned 21”.
Michele started life in the Brasserie frequented by all sorts,then was looked after by a nanny. She soon graduated to the other end of the spectrum and attended a preschool and school run by nuns.
An incident in kindergarten marks her first memory as a caregiver.
“A little girl in my class wet her pants. She was distraught and the nuns were furious. I said not to worry that I would take care of it. I walked with my friend across the huge and strangely empty playground, to the laundry on the other side. I cleaned her up and changed her”.
School provided a sharp contrast to her life outside the school grounds where many women “walked the streets”. One school friend was the daughter of one of these women and she lived with her mother in a rather splendid hotel. It didn’t occur to the girls that the rule that if the door was shut they had to wait on the stairs was unusual in any way and the woman in question was apparently kindness personified. The stair sitting was not frequent as men were not allowed to visit after school hours. If a man did dare to show his face when the children were around, the inmates of the hotel would boo him out the door. Michele felt cosseted by this and protected by her colorful quartier.
“As we grew older and wiser, we came to understand that if a police whistle was blown, all the occupants the hotel would spill out onto the street and run in different directions; a hilarious sight to behold!”
“So we did what anyone would do under the circumstances: we bought a police whistle!”
It wasn’t long before they were caught and admonished but the joy of seeing the mayhem they caused has been remembered long after the punishment it attracted.
Michele pauses for a moment and her eyes sparkle.
“Wonderful memories,” she says,
“Wonderful memories from the heart of Paris.”
“I have always loved children. From the age of fourteen I was often looking after children and helping out at a centre for the handicapped. I decided to follow in my mother’s and grandmother’s footsteps and become a nurse”.
“For my eighteenth birthday my parents paid for me to go and see a friend in Antibes on the Cote d’Azur. I was going to see this friend who had also applied to study nursing. I can’t tell you more about her because I never did stay with her! Rene and a friend were staying in an apartment and I joined them there.”
“We played house but were very chaste. What a wonderful holiday we had!”
Michele and Rene currently live in a 3 bedroomed house about an hour inland from Antibes, in the hills of Les Mayons. They provide a base for their growing grandchildren and many friends but are starting to think about leaving this sleepy village for the lights of Antibes. They could live in a small apartment and complete the circle.
Michele and Rene have three grown children. They are all the successful, rounded people you would expect such parents to produce. Their youngest, Virginie, now a mover and shaker in the north of France did not show signs of having a bright future when she was born.
Within a few short months of her birth she was diagnosed with a serious heart and physical condition which looked like it would end in an early grave. Michele and Rene campaigned for the best treatment, pioneering treatment, and as one by one the children who surrounded their daughter in the children’s hospital succumbed to their ailments, Virginie lived on. I believe that she was fueled by the fierce love and determination of her parents.
You would think that young parents with two small children and a very sick baby, surviving on Rene’s meagre teacher’s salary would have their hands full. And they did. But it did not stop them from being the instigators in the provision of playrooms in hospitals for siblings of sick children. After sitting in drafty corridors with 2 toddlers for days on end they set about providing better settings in hospitals for the often-overlooked siblings of patients.
Virginie made painstaking progress and finally learned to walk at the age of seven. She proved to be an intelligent child and was more than ready to join her siblings at school. This proved to be impossible. Or would have done, if she were not the child of the Militants of Les Mayons.
After a nationwide campaign on behalf of children in the same predicament the law was finally changed and Virginie was able to walk through the school gates.
Michele and Rene had always dreamt of carrying out humanitarian work. In their teens they imagined traveling to far flung places where they could roll up their sleeves and practice their chosen professions. With Rene’s teaching skills and Michele’s qualifications in physiotherapy they would have indeed been an asset to any community.
With Virginie’s illness keeping them close to home, they decided to look inwards and see what could be done in their own community.
Their house became a haven for many South American refugees and by the sounds of things many lively evenings ensued. They are still in touch with their friends, many of whom are now re-established in their home countries. This is in no small way down to the help and generosity of Michele and Rene, not that they would ever say that.
When Virginie became a teenager and was doing well, this indefatigable pair thought it was really time they did something to help others. As if all that they had already achieved was not enough, they decided to be a place of love and safety for seriously compromised newborns.
Michele’s medical background and experience with her own child made her an ideal candidate to receive babies with serious handicaps who needed a new home. A bundle would be brought to the house at short notice and they would love and nurture him or her until they were adopted. This could take up to a year.
After they had made this life changing decision one weekend, they went for a stroll around the local market. Rene spotted something and bought it for Michele. A bunch of plastic keys on a ring, the kind babies like to chew on when they are teething. Michele shows it to me now. And indeed, there are little teeth marks, the gnawing of no fewer than 8 babies.
Each child left their home with a scrapbook made by Rene. Every day he recorded something of the time shared with their temporary charge. Photos, keepsakes and reflections.
These children are still part of their lives, in the ever-increasing circle of the lives touched by this incredible couple.
It has taken me a long time to tease out of them the things that they have done, like unraveling a reluctant ball of wool. I am sure that there is so much that I have don’t know about.
Michele and Rene are the honorary grandparents of my children and we will miss them so when we move to Canada.
Having spent their lives in the service of others has not proved to be financially rewarding. I will take this with me though: that sometimes a string of words written into a law and a chewed on bunch of keys is the best legacy anyone can leave.