It occurred to me recently that I come from a long line of storytellers. There are no published authors or poets or journalists in the family tree, just people who tell stories, some true, some less so, mostly greatly embellished. We like to tell stories about each other to each other and everyone has a favourite tale.
Judging by the quality of the memory, I think I was nine or ten when I first heard that my Grandma Madeleine had been partly brought up in an orphanage. I heard other stories of her—from her and from others—and when I was 18 I decided it would be great fun to put them together.
So I asked her to tell me her whole story from beginning to end. Every couple of weeks for two or three months, I would go to her house for dinner and she would have a bottle of wine open and new chapter of her story ready to tell. I bought a cheap cassette recorder and taped our conversations. Once or twice she asked me to turn the recorder off.
She began her story with the story of another. Her grandmother Alphonsine had figured large in her early life and so that is who came to mind when she thought of her beginnings.
It must be a strange thing to have someone who has only known you for a sliver of your life ask you to start at the beginning and finish at the end. How does one begin the story of one’s own life? Does it start at your first memory or the story of your birth you have heard from others? Or if you have never heard the story, do you start by simply quoting your date of birth? Is it even earlier than that with how your parents met and how they got from that first meeting to liking each other enough to make you?
For my Grandma Madeleine, the answer—that day—was to start with her first memory. In it she is about four and her grandmother, her Memére, tells her that she has to do a wee before she can go with her mother to visit her sisters and she had better hurry up because her mother is almost ready to go. Little Mado is sitting on her potty which is on the huge table in the middle of the kitchen, the heart of the house and the room from which her Memére runs the household. Madeleine’s mother is upstairs getting ready to visit her two elder daughters at the convent home for orphans in the next town.
That’s it; a simple story which manages to give a quite a lot of detail. As beginnings go, it’s pretty interesting for all the questions it encourages.
Grandma couldn’t tell her story without first telling the story of her Memére Alphonsine. Then the story of her own mother flowed seamlessly from that until a baby named Madeleine was born and took her place in one of the long lines of women that lead to me.
The women in the stories I have been given by my family are intelligent, passionate, relentless, unconventional women. I feel them behind me every time I’m tempted to give up on something important or take the conventional path when the direction my heart would prefer seems too scary.
Their stories are of real adversity: of living in times when at least half the people over 35 were widowed and almost everyone had a step-parent, when everyone buried children and siblings and friends, when women couldn’t vote or own property or go to school, when the parameters of how to be an acceptable person were so much narrower than they are now, no matter how narrow they still seem at times.
Despite the harshness that my grandmothers met, joy and conviction illuminate their stories as I have heard them, along with a kind of truth that isn’t always to do with getting the details exactly correct.
With my grandmothers at my back, I regularly feel obligated to take this or that opportunity simply because it is available to me.
I’m also confident I’m capable of doing amazing things because they were extraordinary with infinitely less to work with.
Image credit: The Children’s Hour Circa 1952 by sophiacreek under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic licence
I’m writing a book about my great-great-grandmother Alphonsine based on my Grandma’s stories and ridiculous amounts of research. Some information on this project is here.