In praise of grandmothers (and oral histories)
I’m not entirely sure whether I owe my interest in history to my grandmother but she certainly helped. Her house, which until very recently she still lived in, was built in 1972 and hasn’t changed much since. Walking through it has almost always been, with certain exceptions such as an ever larger and thinner television, a walk through a mish-mash of past time. Her attic is an attic of dreams where, as small children, my siblings and I unearthed an old dress from the ‘40s, a bird cage, yellowed women’s magazines with patterns for perfect postwar motherhood and other such treasures.
As for my grandmother herself, a small woman with a cloud of wispy white hair and tentative steps, at the age of 95 she is an attic of knowledge herself. This woman survived la guerre, by which she means the second world war and the German occupation of her small town in the north of France: Cambrai. When asked her about her past, she will almost always evoke that period from the age of eighteen to twenty-four with bombs, German soldiers, and rations. Now that she is near-deaf and living in a retirement home, I haven’t had the opportunity, as I vouched when I began my history undergraduate degree, to record some of these histories. All I can give you, right now, are my own memories of some of our conversations. Most are timeless in the sense that they occurred during or around WWII, although the German occupation of France beginning in 1940 gives some kind of indication of their chronology. Most include German officers perhaps because all German uniformed soldiers were defined as such without much attention to rank. All include Paule (my grandmother – yes, a woman’s name) and most contain, Régina, her sister, and Louise, her mother, from the Fournier family of the rue d’Awoingt, Cambrai. Here are a selection of what I, and she, remember:
- At what point this happened during the war, I’m unsure, as many of these instances will prove, but it was during a period of rationing. My grandmother and her sister were under orders by my matronly namesake Louise to fetch un cochon (a pig – a whole pig? Part of a pig? Which part?) from relatives that lived in farms outside of their town. To bypass suspicion and detection, Paule and Régina set off with a pram and in it a doll and returned with pork. The image of these two young, and very adult, women walking across the countryside with pork in their pram has always struck me as a somewhat hilarious example of defiance. It seems the two sisters were so petrified from the experience they never repeated it again.
- The Fournier family, again due to rationing, succumbed to having to eat what my grandmother referred to as a type of cheap potato called rutabaga which was simply disgusting. This mysterious and seemingly vile vegetable was happily revealed after some quick research in fact to be the noble swede.
- Paule once insulted a German officer in the local patois while she climbed over a parked train and he understood it at which point she, as we say here, legged it.
- The Fournier family were listening to the English radio which, according to my grandmother, was illegal. At some point, German officers walked through their back garden and Paule’s mother, Louise, thought the Bayeux family had come to their end. It transpired, however, that the officers were not there to arrest them but simply to ask if they could have some of their roses. At which point Louise, said mother, gave them as many as they wanted and more.
- Paule and Régina cycled to the houses of relatives yet had only one bike. To cope with the distance the sisters set up a system where one would cycle for a while, stop, leave the bicycle behind, and continue walking. The other would reach the bike and cycle past the other sister until a particular distance and at her turn leave the bike and so on and so on. This remains to be tested – it might work or it might not.
It saddens me that I’ve been unable to ask Paule about the harder aspects of war. These are the stories told to us as children in the hope they might amuse and as such are tailored and trimmed to their audience. Yet they remind us, and this is something so easily forgotten when historians are submerged in books with full of words and few images, that history is a lived experience, from the highest and most intellectual kind to its more daily and particular.
Simply put, talk to gran.
For more oral history (the real kind that are recorded!), see: