Sunday, April 18, 2010
It's been exactly a year since my maternal grandmother, Marguerite Mezbourian, died of congestive heart failure at the age of 99. Her nickname was Mimi, but my sister and I called her Mamy, the most common French version of Grandma. I flew to Paris for her funeral. I was worried that I wouldn't cry, and I didn't. What's more, my sister's kids took great pleasure in discussing my inadequate weeping on the way back from the funeral, with my poor mother in the car.
When my grandfather Robert Mezbourian passed away three years earlier, I was overwhelmed with grief. I took one look at him, lying in his coffin in the drab, depressing little room in the basement of the old age home, and I lost it. I cried for him, for all his dreams and disappointments, for the best parts of my childhood in which he played a leading role, for the loss of a tender-hearted, gruffly charming man who was truly our family patriarch. It was a profound, existential sorrow and there was no composing myself. I was standing behind my grandmother, who sat in a little chair by his side, her tears falling onto the white satin upholstery of his coffin. I could feel her frail body shaking as I held her shoulders. My heart was breaking, and not a day has gone by since that I have not thought of our dear "Papapa".
But back to my grandmother, for whom I monstrously could not cry. She had been a looker in her day. Mimi's mother was a lovely blue eyed blonde Alsatian, and her father, a sad-faced Armenian refugee with a huge walrus moustache. He died of tuberculosis when my grandmother and her older brother and sister were children. My grandfather Robert was also half Armenian - His father ran the family diamond business and employed a slew of cousins and nephews. Robert and Mimi shared a disdain for their immigrant roots and a taste for the Parisian life. They were both small, attractive, ambitious and afflicted with exotic surnames that flagged them as insufficiently French. They wed when they were 21 and had my mother six months later.
My grandparents' lifelong devotion to one another was admirable. Robert brought Mimi breakfast in bed every morning, until he finally grew too frail to carry the big silver tray of hot black coffee, butter and half a fresh baguette. Mimi adopted all of Robert's politics and opinions, read any book he recommended, nagged him about reducing his wine consumption, and never bought so much as a pair of socks without his approval. (Papapa just might have been the only man on the planet who actually enjoyed sitting outside the fitting room and watching his wife try on clothes). When my grandparents got into their eighties, Mimi started following Robert around with a bright red sweater to keep him from getting a chill. After rebuffing her with a dismissive "merde" or two, he would eventually surrender and don the cardigan.
Schooled in the feminine arts by nuns, Mimi was well-trained for the old time domestic life. My Alsatian great-grandmother Alice, a story-book wonderful old lady who just radiated love and kindness, once showed me my grandmother's grade school sampler. It was a masterpiece. Flawless stitching, darning, knitting, crochet. (The manual dexterity gene was sadly not passed on to me or my progeny). As a young woman, Mimi would attend the designer collections, analyze the patterns and go home and make her own knock offs, in the finest quality fabric she could find. All the drapes in my mother's home were made in Paris by my grandmother, expertly packed into large suitcases and brought in to the US as part of my grandparents' luggage. Time has begun to yellow the weighty pearl grey satin, but those curtains still hang perfectly.
When when my sister and I were maybe five and nine years old, Papapa and Mamy came to the States for Christmas. In Mamy's suitcase, impeccably wrapped in white tissue paper, were two hand-made pink and metallic silver rajah costumes in our exact sizes. Bouffant pantaloons with matching puffy-sleeved tops, and turbans adorned with rhinestones and bouquets of exotic of feathers. As a finishing touch, my grandmother had sewn sashes of three long strips of fuschia, emerald and purple muslim. The outfits were intended for playing dress up, but we could have worn them to a soiree at the Ottoman court.
My grandmother cooked classic French food impeccably, the downside of her culinary skills being that one was expected to discuss ad-nauseum the quality of the beef/fish/artichokes as one consumed them. (As a girl, I'd get irritated when my grandparents went on about two of their favorite topics, food and the weather. I have since realized that a fondness for these subjects is a universal characteristic of old people.) Anyway, now I have given Mimi her due as an exceptional and highly tasteful craftswoman so I can also tell you that in many ways, she was not a nice person.
Passive-aggressive digs were my grandmother's specialty. One time we were visiting in Paris and some friends of my parents' were in town. My grandparents invited them for lunch. The wife had on an old navy and white polka dot pajama-like pants suit with a huge discoloration on the top. Of course, my grandmother immediately began complimenting the lady on her "charming little outfit". (Subtext: "Hey females of the family! Can you believe this getup?"). Visiting a friend's country home, Mimi disingenuously remarked that the scene was so bucolic, all they needed was a cow in the front yard. To her grandchildren, my grandmother was never anything but generous and affectionate, but even I was not spared the occasional barb. When I was 15 and finally developing, she turned to me and said "Your breasts are huge. Are you on the pill?" I was years from losing my virginity and shocked that she would ask such a thing.
My grandparents socialized with other couples, usually business acquaintances of my grandfather's and their wives. If a marriage came apart, my grandparents would continue to see the man, and the woman would cease to exist - probably a common practice in those days, but one that Mimi never questioned. She had no close friends and dismissed women in general as "les bonnes femmes" a disparaging term that literally means "the good women" but implies gossipy and small-minded. She felt a rivalry with other females, especially those who were richer, smarter, more educated, or better looking. This perspective infected her relationship with her own daughter. When I was a girl, my mother would tell me horror stories - the hair brush beatings, the name calling, the standing on the low fourth floor balcony, threatening to jump – my grandmother was a drama queen, alright. On my mother's wedding day, Mimi had a hissy because she wasn't happy with her hair. She yanked the combs from my mother's hair, snarling "Ha! HER hair will look good,"
As my sister and I grew to be teenagers and then adults, my grandmother always asked us if we knew anybody "interesting" which to her meant rich and socially prominent. We didn't, much to her chagrin, and our crowd did not pass muster. I once invited two friends up to stay with us at my family's summer cottage. When my buddies were out of earshot, my grandmother referred to them by special nicknames she had coined: the girl, who was about a size 12, was dubbed "La Gravos" - the fat one. The guy fared worse: he was African American and gay and Mimi's special name for him was Bamboula, the French equivalent of Sambo. Somehow, it never occurred to my grandmother that this might not go over well with me.
My grandmother was both a hypochondriac and a food neurotic. She had almost died of typhoid fever when she was four, and was deemed "fragile" her whole life. She milked this alleged fragility for all it was worth. The world was supposed to stop turning when Mimi stopped eating. For days, she would do nothing but pick at her food, complaining of "fermentations", a ladylike euphemism for gas. My grandfather and mother would despair because there would be no peace until my grandmother's hunger strike had ended. As I got older, I'd occasionally suggest to my mother that perhaps they should just let the old girl stay on bread and water and not react, but everyone was too concerned about Her Frailness to call her bluff. "Eat a little fish," my mother would beg. "Try the soup - I made it just the way you like it." This dramedy would continue over the course of several days, with Mimi's daughter and husband in an increasing tizzy over her lack of appetite. I could never understand what they were so concerned about. And I've occasionally speculated that this was her way of keeping her weight down and entertaining herself at the same time. Sooner or later, when she got bored with torturing everyone, Mimi would start eating again.
In truth, until her heart started to go in her 10th decade, Mimi was remarkably healthy and fit. Well into her nineties, she puttered around her Paris neighborhood in her low-heeled Chanel pumps, running errands and window shopping. One time, three young yahoos mugged my grandmother and knocked her unconscious. She was back strolling the sidewalks in a matter of days. I can still see her at maybe 93, dropping down on all fours and crawling under the antique table in her vestibule to show me a hidden repair.
My mother, an only child, felt duty bound to personally care for her aging parents. She left my father to his own devices in the states and moved back in to the Paris apartment her parents had lived in since just before World War II. My grandfather suffered several mini strokes and became increasingly incontinent and incommunicative until my mother could no longer handle the physical demands of caring for him. Meanwhile, my grandmother's angina progressed. At one point, the two of them were in the hospital together. Eventually, my grandfather had to be moved to a home on the other end of Paris. He had stopped speaking and could no longer walk. Every afternoon, my mother and grandmother took a taxi to the rest home to spend time with him and feed him his dinner. I visited him on two occasions and he had no idea who I was, but he recognized his wife to the end. Sometimes, he'd grab her hands and kiss them.
The day after my grandfather's funeral, my mother was stunned to hear my grandmother ask when they were leaving for the old age home to visit him. Mimi's short term memory had been fuzzy for a while, and she refused to believe that her Robert had died. Every day, she would ask my mother when she should get ready to go visit him. My mother would show her the obituary in the Figaro newspaper and my grandmother would start crying as though hearing the news for the very first time. This tragic loop replayed itself daily until Mimi's heart finally gave out.
And so I found myself flying from San Francisco to Paris to attend Mimi's funeral. My conscience was not clear: I hadn't visited since my grandfather's death three years earlier. I had continued to call, but my grandmother grew so deaf she couldn't come to the phone. I got updates from my mother.
I could have written, I could have sent photos. I told myself I would but I didn't. I rationalized that Mimi would forget I had called five minutes after I hung up, which was true. Then again, with her lack of short term memory a single letter could have gone a long way, seeming like fresh news with every reading. But I was on the other side of the world, with problems of my own. The recession hit. I wasn't finding work, our son was in full blown troubled teen mode and our daughter declared she was an East Coast girl and prepared to move back. There was no good news to share, no photos to send, nothing cheerful to put in a chipper little note card. I assuaged my guilt by telling myself I'd take my son to Paris that summer to see Mimi, my sister and his cousins, despite the challenges of keeping the kid in line.
As it turned out, I made the Paris trip earlier than that, with my daughter, to attend my grandmother's funeral. Only a handful of people came, mostly to support my mother – Mimi's contemporaries were long gone. Three years earlier, my mother had asked me to say a few words at my grandfather's memorial, and I had spent hours writing a heartfelt reminiscence. This time, I was in the bad daughter dog house and my mother pointedly did not ask me to speak. I felt ambivalent about that; hurt that I wasn't asked, shamed – as my mother intended –, guilty about my emotional detachment, and relieved that I didn't have to scramble to write a eulogy. My sister said exactly what I would have said, briefly praising Mimi's dedication to Robert, her husband of 78 years. My mother offered up an end-of-an-era speech about Mimi being the last of her generation in our family. There were no sentimental stories, no amusing anecdotes, no fond memories. Mimi was laid to rest in a deep grave, right above "l'homme de sa vie", the love of her life, my grandfather.