Monday, January 3, 2022

Role Models

This is an edited version of Chapter One of my book, Peeling The Onion.

As I get older and I start to look back at where I have been and what made me who I am, I become more aware of the powerful influence one person had on me. My maternal grandmother stands out above all others. She is the watermark on the paper of my life. She was an amazing woman.

My grandmother was born in France. Her father died when she was a very young baby and the family went to live with her mother's parents on the property where her mother grew up—a vineyard in Bordeaux. When she was four her grandmother died and she was sent to boarding school. The boarding school had a facility for destitute and orphaned children, but a very clear distinction was drawn between the fee-paying boarders and the unfortunate little girls. When Granny and the other rich kids got pain au chocolat the poor children would only get plain bread. She used to share her chocolate bread with an orphan if she happened to be sitting beside one. As cruel and Dickensian as the place was, and while she hated it and was bitterly unhappy there, she saw clearly that the world was made up of ‘Haves’ and ‘Have Nots’, and she was a ‘Have’. She was there for three years before her mother removed her and boarded her with a family, as a paying guest

In one of these families, the father was a baker and she used to go with him and his kids on the horse and cart delivering the fresh bread, she loved that. Whenever her uncle, who was a naval engineer with the rank of admiral, was not at the base she stayed with that aunt and uncle. They had no children of their own, and they adored her. They had a huge influence on her upbringing—much more than her mother, who she didn't see very often. Aunt Mathilde had a third level education, which was almost unheard of for women in those days, and she was a real stickler for protocol. It was this upbringing that prepared Granny for her life in the diplomatic corps. 

Mathilde was a bit of a driven perfectionist, and could be very strict, but her uncle was very kind-hearted, except once. Granny was always dressed in exquisite clothes and in those days people would go on promenades to see and be seen. She was often the center of attention. One Sunday, on returning from such a promenade she went upstairs to look in the mirror to see what everyone was admiring so much. She spent so long studying herself in the mirror that her uncle began to get worried that her aunt and mother were turning her into a vain monster, so he blackened a cork and sooted her face with it, just putting a little here and there. The more she tried to wash it off the more it smeared everywhere and soon her whole face was black. She began to cry, thinking that she'd never get it off, and her aunt was furious with her uncle; he was very contrite. Whenever Granny recounted this story she laughed, she understood that he was acting out of what he thought was her best interests.

When Granny was about twelve years old she was sent to an exclusive boarding school in Paris. This was so her mother could see more of her, and so she would get the sort of polish that her mother and aunt thought desirable for a young lady of her social class. She soon got rid of her southern accent, and, in later years, whenever she imitated the way she spoke before her education in Paris she communicated the idea that it was hilarious that she used to talk like that. Her mother saw to it that Granny had exquisite clothes—she described dresses of beautiful fabrics with matching parasols, handmade lace trimmings, kid gloves and huge picture hats. Her mother visited her at the boarding school and brought her out to the Bois de Boulogne and wherever else it was fashionable to promenade, and to fancy tea rooms to show her off. She was unusually tall and strikingly good-looking, and very aware of how well she looked in her outfits.

At 16 she was sent to finishing school in London for two years. This was a convent in a neighborhood called Mill Hill and she often described those days as the happiest days of her life. She maintained a friendship with her two best friends from that period, Maggie and Rosine, until they died.

After that she did secretarial studies in Paris. In 1912 most females were not properly educated and it was extraordinary to have another language. Nowadays it's nothing to have secretarial training, but a century ago it was a woman's only access to the business world. For most females, even from very wealthy families, education stopped at 2nd level  Until then, that kind of support work in the business world had been done by men who were being prepared for higher posts.

Her first job was in an company called Lucille, one of the most prestigious fashion houses of the day. Equivalent to Armani or Versace today. Although it was a renowned French fashion house, it had been bought by a wealthy British woman, Lady Duff-Gordon. Later she became famous as the wife of the man who dressed up as a woman, to escape drowning on the Titanic. War was on the horizon and the directors thought it prudent to acquire the electronics company, Molyneux. Because an electronics company would surely survive the war better than a fashion house. This is how Granny met her husband Leopold, my grandfather. He was Irish and a senior accountant, involved in the acquisition of Molyneux.

Leopold was smitten and decided that he wanted to marry her, but was sure she would refuse. War was declared and all young men were conscripted. Leopold felt like the only young man in Paris who was not being called up. He bought a stout pair of boots and proposed to Granny with the expectation that she would refuse and he was going to join the French Foreign Legion. She always thought that was very funny—the boots and the assumption of a refusal.

She thought he was perfect, loved his idealism about his beleaguered nation and his pale skin and blue eyes.

After they were married she worked for an Armenian nationalist for some time, who was trying to lobby foreign governments' support for the Armenians against the Turks, much as the Irish were for the Irish against the English. But then she had to work for Sean T. O'Kelly ( later to become an important figure in Irish politics),  because of the highly classified nature of the work. She loved to recount how he said to her, hearing her dealing with a particular problem in French,  "Madame Kerney, you speak excellent French!" and when she told him that she was, in fact, French he was totally astounded because he had just assumed that she would be Irish, so he said "Well then you speak excellent English!"

Highly recommend this book
At that time Leopold was Honorary Consul (which meant he didn't get paid) so he continued to work in the public sector. He had lots of different projects going on—like selling cars on commission. The commission for one car could keep the family for months. Then there were all the political scenarios and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but that's another story—if you are interested you can read more about Leopold here. Or you can purchase Barry Whelan's book about him here.

I remember my grandmother now, as a soft, sweet smelling, gentle old lady. Stooped and lame, without a bit of fat on her. The grandmother of my childhood memories however, is a very tall, strict but loving, dark haired lady with fire in her eyes and iron in her soul.

She was lame, as a result of a dislocated hip and as far back as I can remember, she walked with the aid of a stick.

This lady was so impressive that when my 10 year old daughter was set an exercise at school, to write a story about someone who she really admired, she wrote about her great grandmother. The story was published in the school year book, much to my grandmother’s pride.

My memories of childhood are predominantly unpleasant. But almost every good memory I have can be directly attributed to my grandmother. Her home was a harbor of order, comfort and love. There were rules to be obeyed and the only punishment incurred for breaking those rules was the ‘Look’. It was all she had to do to stop us in our tracks. She would slightly widen her flashing eyes, and pierce our bodies with a stare, nothing more; a laser beam would have been less effective. Just one look and then she returned to the sweet Granny immediately. She never prolonged the punishment, nor even needed to lecture us. We behaved and she forgave and forgot.

Of all the memories that my grandmother created for us, Christmas has got to be the very best. For the first 9 years of my life, every Christmas day was spent in my grandparent’s house. My grandmother orchestrated the most amazing day each year, satisfying both children and adults alike. Used to managing large, elaborate, dinner parties during her years as the wife of the Irish Ambassador to Spain, Christmas day with 12 children and 10 or more adults was a breeze for her.

Our Christmas day started early. We had a strict hierarchy and my oldest brother assumed the right to be the first to inspect the toys around the Christmas tree, usually about 5 a.m. in the morning. He would then come and wake my older sister and escort her quietly to the living room and proudly show her our gifts, then they both came to get me and I was given the tour. As there was a 3 year gap between me and my younger sister, the three little ones were not included in this Christmas tradition, we were too afraid they would make noise and wake the house, or just wouldn’t be able to keep the knowledge to themselves. Instead, we would creep back to bed and go to sleep again, or lie awake, waiting for our mother to call us for breakfast, after which we would line up at the living room door, in order of age again, and marched in to claim our gifts. The three of us older children would put on a great pretense of surprise at our presents. No doubt our poor mother was so tired she didn’t notice the ham acting among the 6 excited children.

The next job was for us all to dress in our brand new Christmas outfits - we always got new clothes for Christmas and for Easter.

In the early years my father didn’t have a car, and my grandfather would come and collect us. He drove a big old black Chrysler - reminiscent of the gangster cars of the 1940’s. We all piled in and headed off to Granny’s house. When my father got his first car, he drove us.

As soon as we had piled our coats on the big, wrought iron coat rack in Granny’s hallway, she led us into her living room where it seemed that there were mountains of Christmas wrapped parcels under the tree. She handed us each the gifts with our name on and for a short while the only sound was tearing paper and gasping children. Once we had opened all our gifts, we surreptitiously eyed the packages that still remained under the tree, wondering what she had bought for our cousins who would not arrive until late afternoon. The adults all received a glass of sherry and the children were given red lemonade. Red lemonade was a soda specific to Ireland. It was made from a number of different fruits including lemons.

The next to arrive was my Uncle, my mother’s younger brother, with his wife and Aunty Dena. Aunty Dena was my grandfather’s brother’s widow. She had been born in Greece, but live in Ireland most of her life. We thought she must be about 100, but she was probably closer to 80. She lived in a retirement home and spent all of Christmas day sitting in my grandmother’s leather, winged armchair by the fire, smoking her home rolled cigarettes, which she held with a small metal pinchers and didn’t dispose of till the glowing red tip almost burnt her lips. Later my sister and I discussed the possibility that she was smoking something other than tobacco.

Granny always hired the same cook each year, to prepare dinner and tea. She also baked the cake and puddings in advance of Christmas day. Each year the unveiling of the cake was one of our special moments. Marguerite always decorated it with a complete theme. One year it had a ski slope, trees, reindeers and little, colorful figures on skis. Another year it was an Eskimo scene complete with polar bears, igloos and Eskimo figures. We were allowed to go into the kitchen to see the cake, but we had to wait till teatime before it was cut and then Granny would give each of us one of the figures to keep.

Marguerite brought an assistant with her, and they served the food as well as doing all the cooking and cleaning up. But Granny set the table. It was magnificent. Crystal glasses, real silver cutlery, china plates that all matched and had no chips, linen table cloth and napkins - each with a different colored napkin ring so we would know which was ours and use the same one for dinner and tea. The centerpiece was always two large silver deer, silver muscles strained, with large silver antlers, and two silver peacocks, tails down. There were candles and Christmas crackers and the table presents! I think we were more excited by the table presents than anything else on Christmas day. Just when we were beginning to feel the anticlimax of all the present opening being over, we got yet another gift. Our table presents were usually a book or jigsaw puzzle or coloring pencils, but the table present will always live in my memory. I carried that tradition through my own children’s childhood too.

Dinner was usually served at about 1.30. My grandfather sat at one end of the huge table, and my grandmother at the other end. With 5 places on either side of the table it was a very festive meal. At the end of the meal, the adults sat sipping brandy and my grandfather would light up a big fat cigar, the only cigar my grandmother allowed him to smoke in the year. He had a bad heart and smoking was prohibited. To this day, the smell of cigars conjures up memories of those wonderful Christmases of my childhood.

Once dinner was over, the cook and maid cleared the table and we played with our toys while the adults sat around and drank some more. Then our cousins and their parents would arrive. My mother’s older brother had 7 children. We watched as they went through the ritual of receiving their gifts, and we all settled down to inspect each other’s toys and discuss what we had received from Santa Clause.

It seemed that in no time at all the table was being set for tea. Frequently there would be one or two other guests invited for tea. Once again, all the china matched —Granny always brought out her best china for Christmas, the tea set was gleaming white with a thin gold trip around the outside rim.  The cake now sat in the middle of the table where the turkey had been at dinner time. There was sliced cold turkey and ham, and probably an assortment of salads though I don’t remember, and tea and the cake.

After tea, we gathered for the final ritual of the day. Each year my grandmother went to Woolworth’s and bought dozens of little cheap toys, which she hung on the Christmas tree among her delicate glass ornaments. She would sit all the children down in a circle around the tree. Then she removed one toy at a time and handed them out to us. We each got two or three items. One year I got a little pink, plastic rocking horse I had been coveting all day long, I was overjoyed and have never forgotten it, I can still see it clearly in my mind’s eye. Once the tree had been denuded of all the toys, it was time to put on our coats and head into the cold night air and back to our cold dark home and to bed. Suddenly we were all very tired, our grumpiness was not entirely due to exhaustion, but also to the fact that another magical Christmas day was over and we had a whole, long year to wait for the next one.

I was 7 years old when my grandfather had his first major heart attack and two years later he was confined to bed permanently - in those days that was considered the only way to treat heart conditions. The living room was converted to a bedroom so that my grandmother would not have to climb the stairs all day long. For 9 years she nursed him, bringing his meals to him on a tray, set as perfectly as the Christmas table, with a linen cloth. I was always fascinated by his coffee pot because she put a cork in the spout to prevent the coffee from getting cold before he had finished it.

That was when Christmas with Granny stopped. We continued to visit her on Christmas day, and now we lived just around the corner, so we all walked around to exchange presents before walking home. My mother continued to match our Christmas day as closely as she could, but nothing could compare to Christmas in Granny’s house.

When I was 16 my grandfather died. He was 84 years old. My grandmother rented out the second story of her home and continued to live alone on the ground floor. We visited her frequently and had tea and toast with her and listened to her stories. But she was getting older and her arthritis was causing her considerable pain. My uncle and aunt had their garage converted into a small apartment and my grandmother moved in there. She continued to live there, as independently as ever, for many years. When she was 80 years old she had a hip replacement, unfortunately they could do nothing for her badly dislocated hip, but the good one had degenerated with arthritis and they did replace that. She was up and about in no time, recovering quickly. At 84 she had an appendicitis operation, once again recovering as quickly as someone half her age would be expected to. Until the day she died, at 96, she listened to both the French and Irish radio news and held very strong views on all she heard.

Despite no longer being able to do her weekly shopping trip, and despite the constant arthritic pain she suffered, she was always cheerful, interested and I cannot remember her ever feeling sorry for herself. She adored all of her grandchildren and great grandchildren and we all adored her.

No comments:

Post a Comment