My grandmother Madeleine, circa 1960s
Some people live extraordinary lives.
Not necessarily extraordinary with the positive connotation it now unavoidably has, but extraordinary in the sense of, literally, something outside of the ordinary.
My grandmother led an extraordinary life.
I made the distinction between extraordinary and extraordinary because my grandmother's life was extraordinary more in the latter sense than in the former. Not that her life was devoid of positivity - though that was certainly not a quality that characterized her - it's just that she really did live a life that was beyond the scope of what is generally considered ordinary.
My mother's mother, Madeleine, was born in France on November 18, 1918. She was born at the tail end of The Great War, and in time, the Second World War would come to play a significant role in her life as well.
At some point between the two wars (I'm lacking a few details, like time and place, but then again, I wasn't around then), she married and had two children. Sadly, her first husband died at the end of the second World War, leaving her alone to raise two little boys.
Madeleine and Pierre, circa 1930s
(It was tragic, but it was also an event upon which my entire being hinges. If he hadn't died, she probably would have stayed married to him, and would have never met my grandfather or had children with him. And if my mother hadn't been born, it would have been very difficult for me to find my way into the world. In fact, it's a little bizarre to think that I'm only alive because of World War Two ).
But I'm getting lost on a tangent. Not that my grandmother's life wasn't extraordinary before or after the war. She was beautiful, wealthy, and incredibly bright. Her whole life was film-worthy.
Madeleine, circa 1940s
Although today I only have the time to tell one of her stories.
She was, to a certain extent, involved with the French Resistance. I'm not exactly sure how far her involvement extended, but it was far enough for her to be believed to be a threat by the German "authorities" - who at the time were occupying France - and subsequently for her to be arrested for her subversive activities.
She was sent to a concentration camp, along with other Resistance workers. And after weeks, or maybe even months (I'm not too sure about the details) the concentration camp commanders decided to move a group of women, including my grandmother, to another camp. They would be moving on foot, to a camp that was considerably far. They were embarking on what was essentially a death march.
The women were made to march in rows of ten; row after row after row. The road was rough and rural, and the walk was long and hard. They walked for hours without stopping to eat, rest or go to the bathroom. Many women didn't make it, and there was still a long way to go.
It was also dangerous, with air strikes a constant threat, forcing the women and the accompanying officers to take refuge in ditches and abandoned or destroyed buildings by the side of the road. After every air strike the officers would get all the women back into their formations and count them, making sure that none had escaped. But after a number of air strikes my grandmother noticed that while they counted all the women in each row, the never counted the number of rows.
So she quietly talked to the women on either side of her, they, in turn, whispering the messages down each end of the row, explaining that she wanted to escape, but she couldn't do it alone. If she escaped on her own, they would see that her row only had nine women and they would surely find her and bring her back, or worse. But if during the next air strike all ten of them hid and escaped, the officers would never realize that an entire row was missing, and they would have the time to get away.
And that's exactly what they did. They waited for the next air strike, and when all the women and officers had scattered into nearby ditches and ruins, they hid themselves well, and escaped through the fields before anyone knew they were missing. My grandmother and nine other women risked their lives in an extraordinary act of bravery that in the end is what saved them all. The few women who did make it to the next camp didn't survive there for long.
After the war she met my grandfather (who in an unfortunate coincidence had also spent time in a concentration camp for subversive activity), and in the 1950s she had my uncle, my mother, and my two aunts. In a way, her life took a turn for the normal, although I'm not sure how normal anything can really be when you've stared down death and accepted the challenge.
Mamie Madeleine was never your typical warm and cuddly grandmother who baked cookies and folded you into her soft apron in an expansive bear hug. She was, to say the least, rigid. She was strict, sometimes snappy, and often unamused with the antics of her young grandchildren. (Luckily my grandfather was warm and cuddly enough to balance her out). But she was also incredibly charming, knowledgeable about a vast range of topics, and boy, could she tell a good story.
Mamie Madeleine and Papie Roger, circa 1980s
Even last summer when I went to visit her and she was starting to show signs of memory loss at the age of ninety-one, she would have difficulty remembering a conversation we'd had that morning, but she could tell a story about a night on the town in 1940s Paris without a detail out of place.
My grandmother Madeleine passed on Saturday, June 2, 2010. She would have been ninety-two this fall. In the last few days I've spent a lot of time thinking about her and her life and everything that she'd done and seen. And I realized that not just her, but so many people of her generation, by virtue of experiencing two world wars and everything before, in between, and after, led such extraordinary lives. And those people and their stories shouldn't be forgotten.
Here's to my grandmother, Madeleine, a brave, extraordinary woman with a wealth of character, who led an extraordinary life.
We'll miss you Mamie. You're in our thoughts. We'll always love you.
My father, my grandmother, my newborn baby brother, and me