I didn’t think of myself as Mémère until our son used the word in the dedication to the bright yellow duck book, Allons à la ferme, that we found leaning against the front door last January announcing our first grandchild, born almost two weeks ago.
My mother didn’t like the word. When I proposed that our children call her Mémère, she protested. “It sounds like an old woman,” she said. She was sixty-three at the time, old enough to be a grandmother, for sure, but not ‘old’ in the classic sense. Her response surprised me. For me, Mémère evoked tradition, kindness, warmth. What would the children then call my mother? Grand-mère? So formal. I had always called my grandmothers Mémère, so I had no frame of reference for anything else. Grand-mère would be so unnatural.
We saw my paternal Mémère every week, at least, usually after piano lessons. Papa would pick up my sister and me, and head straight for his parents’ house to visit. Often, we would find Mémère in the yard, watering can in hand, tending the gladioli and tulips that masked the drabness of the gray clapboard. Legs swollen into hard posts could slow her down, but they could never stop this indomitable woman who had moved West alone with four children in tow. In fact, I still see myself propped up at the kitchen table on a red-lidded, metal flour canister, savouring a bowl of homemade beans, dark and rich with molasses and bacon. White hair waved around her ears and pinned back in a bun, Mémère was a force.
So was my maternal Mémère. I was fortunate to see her once a year; a five hundred mile journey was a big deal then. Before Alzheimer’s dissolved her memory, she lived alone upstairs in a war-time house on Ritchot Street. Accessible only by a steep twenty-step staircase, the quaint apartment was always fragrant with the warm comfort of her legendary cloverleaf rolls. The challenging entry worried her children, though, as she would take off on foot to visit friends or do errands. Not a problem. Si je tombe, quelqu’un va me ramasser, she reasoned, and carried on. Philosophical to the core, she figured that if she fell, someone would pick her up. Unmatched as a cook and seamstress, she remembered my birthday with a box of homemade cookies that survived the mail. Once again, spunk + great food = Mémère.
Given my extraordinary experience of strong, determined grandmothers, I wanted my children to grow up with a Mémère, too. After I shared these memories with my own mother and explained to her my connotation of Mémère, she relented. Our children adored her, and I think she developed a fondness for the name. The unconditional love with which she blessed them still caresses them in their adulthood. In her arms, they found comfort, safety, and acceptance. She quilted each one a quilt comforter, always had bill-lined cards for them to celebrate their accomplishments, crafted unique dresses and robes, and slipped them chocolate bars when I wasn’t looking. Her pride in them shone through her eyes. I recognize the power of those memories in our son’s choice of the word for his son.
Now, it’s my turn. I get to be a Mémère. My responsibility is to pass on to my grandson two generations of Mémère-ness, and my gift is the opportunity put my own stamp on the role.