Fête de Granny May

By Emma Pearson

October 24, 2020

1st May 2019

In my family (as in, among the five-now-four siblings), I like to think of myself as the “reminder of important dates”. The Purveyor of Dates. For decades I have reminded one or other sibling that it is yet another sibling’s birthday coming up, or mum’s or dad’s, or even, a tad obnoxiously, my own.

For my 50th, which ended up being 12 days before Mike died, I reminded them that my big day was coming up, and that since my piano stool cover was ripped to shreds and ugly and very ancient, I would like them to please get me a new one. They agreed. Of course they agreed. They knew my life was very very hard, that they had no way of making anything “okay” or even easier for me, and so of course they would agree to my birthday request. And because of the various countries and continents we live(d) in, I went out to buy the piano stool, and my siblings may or may not have contributed financially to it. The point is that I have my piano stool, it’s lovely, it gets used quite a lot, and it reminds me of all of my siblings – including Edward who had already died by then.

This morning, within moments of waking, I thought, “Today is the first of May – Granny May’s birthday. She would have been 110”. Yes, I know there comes a point when it’s a bit of a ridiculous thing to say. A bit like, “Shakespeare would be 455 today”. (Which is true because I looked it up). I wondered about sending a note on our family Whatsapp but then got distracted and got on with my day. I went for a walk with a buddy and we talked about love, lost loves, fantasy loves, family dynamics and family drama, and of course death. Just some light conversation for a Wednesday morning.

And it being 1st of May, I wanted to tell stories of Granny May. She’s worth many conversations. Still. 14 years after she died.

I told my friend that back in about January 1999, months after I had moved to the Geneva area, around the time Mike joined me, and when my first pregnancy was common knowledge, Granny called me to say:

Granny: “Emma – I’m calling you to let you know that on 1st May I will be having a party to celebrate my 90th birthday, and you’re not invited”.
Me: “What? Of course I’m coming! My baby is not due till the 15th of May”.
Granny: “No – you’ll be too fat to fly – the airlines won’t allow it”.
Me: “Okay, but I can drive and get the ferry. Or go by train if you’re so worried”.
Granny: “No Emma, you’re not invited. You’re not coming. I am not inviting you and so you can’t come”.

I was a bit put out to say the least. After all I had two whole weeks to get back home after her party before the baby was born. I could probably walk from Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, to Divonne-les-Bains where we lived, in that timeframe.

As can often be the way with wise elders, she was right not to invite me because I would have made every effort to be there. I just “assumed” our baby would be born right on schedule. After all, my mum’s five babies had always been on time or even late. And more specifically, I knew that the odds of Granny making her 100th birthday were slim. Despite her then stupendously excellent health.

And because, as it happened, baby Ben was born at 14h10 the next day, 2nd May 1999. We had only arrived at hospital an hour before he was born. And I only went in because I was feeling a bit funky and on the orders of my cousin who said, “Emma – go – you don’t sound like you. You might be in labour”. So it was a jolly good job that I was not on a plane, in a train, or in an automobile. Or on a Cross Channel Ferry, for that matter.

Fast forward 20 years, and today was my last day of being mum to three teenagers. “J’ai trois ados” slips off my tongue with ease any time I am asked if I have kids. So much smoother than saying, “I have three teenagers”. It’s the end of an era. Another transition to honour and bow down to.

I was reminded on my walk with my buddy of the Pixar film “Coco” which was out a year or so ago. I never went to see it, but I read a lot about it, particularly its underlying themes of loving, honouring, remembering and generally talking about dead people. Keeping dead people alive.

It’s set in Mexico where the characters are celebrating the Día de Muertos.  It depicts the dead as enjoying a very exciting and vivid afterlife, on condition that they are remembered, talked about, honoured, and included in an Ofrenda on the Day of the Dead each year. Here’s a little clipette.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zNCz4mQzfEI

The film talks of us having three deaths – the first when the body dies, the second when the body is laid to final rest, and the third – the final death – when there is no-one left on earth who remembers them, talks about them or honours them any longer. That death is the ultimate death. The one to be avoided through rites and rituals such as Día de Muertos.

And telling stories. As I am wont to do.

Here are a couple of brief anecdotes of this truly remarkable woman, whose memory I have no difficulty whatsoever in keeping alive.

Granny May was not a conventional woman for her era. She was awarded a scholarship to go to Oxford university but ended up going to Manchester because it was closer to home and permitted her to keep up with family obligations and expectations. She got a first-class degree in French, and spent time living in France, in the Grenoble area for a while.

While there, in her 20s, she climbed Mont Blanc. Just like that. She found some people to walk with and organised a guide. In keeping with the mores of the time, Granny insisted on wearing her mountain walking skirt, and not trousers as the mountain guide insisted upon.

She told me with a twinkle in her eyes that she argued for a good long while with the guide, telling him that she always wore a skirt for walking in the mountains, even big mountains, and she wouldn’t be wearing trousers, thank you very much. And that anyway, she didn’t have any. The guide promptly produced a pair of walking trousers for her, told her to hop over a wall and to put them on. She did. I suspect that it was one of the rare occasions where she buckled under someone else’s authority.

Granny was also the inspiration for many of the rest of us in the family who have nipped up Mont Blanc since the early 1930s when she did it.  Of course it’s much easier nowadays with better kit and well-travelled routes. Mike joined me for my first attempt in late June 2005. He’d been up the previous year and so when he was with me, he jumped when on the summit, just to get that little bit higher than the previous year. 

We called Granny from the Refuge du Goûter having summited in just one day – as my mum had done when she was about 40. I exclaimed, excitedly, “Granny – we are calling from the Goûter hut. We’ve just been on the top of Mont Blanc! We are remembering you and toasting you and your own ascent with a beer”. Quick as a flash she said, “Beer! That’s why I have been feeling dizzy today!”

She died a little over a week later, on 5th July 2005. I remember being so glad she never knew of the London bombings 2 days later.  I think of her every time I see the Mont Blanc. Which is most days, given where I live. Already some of the kids talk of going up Mont Blanc. They’ve seen it all their life. They know the stories of how Clever Granny, Granny, great aunts and great uncles, uncles, cousins once removed, and even mum and dad have been up it.  Dad twice. They’ve walked all the way around it, and seem reconciled to the idea that they too will nip up to the top, and make their own Ofrenda to all those who no longer walk there, or indeed anywhere on our beautiful planet.

Another story: 1st May is a public holiday in France, and much of Europe, whatever day of the week the first falls on. Unlike the UK where Labour Day, or International Workers’ Day, is now celebrated on the first Monday of May.  But back in the last millennium, when Granny was born, it was the 1st of May that was celebrated. Parties in the street, everyone off work, hobnail boots clattering on cobbles, May Poles, fancy clothes, noise and music, and probably drink and food as well.  Granny used to regale me with stories of how, when she was little, she assumed that all of the fanfare of the day was in her honour – in honour of her birthday, her being called May and her being born on that day. A big celebration of her and her special day.

And one final story: As I grew up, became independent and mobile, and lived, first studying then working, in the UK, I would visit my Granny alone, and later with Mike. As I was taking my leave, I would say, somewhat casually to her, “Granny – take care. Look after yourself, okay?”

In the last decade of her life, I had this little bit of conversation with her – she who, once widowed at 80, carried on living alone, independently, pretty much to her final day.

Emma: “Take care, Granny; look after yourself.”
Granny: “You know – when people say that, I have to laugh. I do look after myself, and it takes me all day long – to get out of bed, to have a wash, to get dressed, to get breakfast, to do some chores, to make some lunch, and so on and so forth.  All I do is “take care”. And it takes me all day!”

She said it all with wry humour, not dispiritedly, not resignedly.

I learned to change my goodbye phrase slightly over the years, once she told me this, but I never quite got it right for what I meant to say, which was, with my more mature years on me now, “Be gentle with yourself, lovely Granny, and don’t always be so fricking independent”.

As a friend of mine said to me last year, “Emma – take care. And by that I mean, “Take care from all the people who are sending you care, love, energy, and hugs””.

I like that version of “Take care”. I would have liked to have had the finesse to say that to Granny May. I would have liked to have cared more for her. And I would have liked her to have been able to take more care from others. She was a magnificent woman.

To Granny. To loving our dead. And to loving our living.

And to no longer solo-parenting three teenagers.

Oh, and when I got back from my walk, one of my older brothers had become the Purveyor of Dates. Perhaps I am not uniquely skilled after all in date remembering. And I am glad to report that visual and olfactory memories of my Granny abound.

About Emma Pearson

3 thoughts on “Fête de Granny May

  1. Thanks, Em. Can’t improve on this…
    But, perhaps note to what extent Granny May lives on in the female line of the family….. three generations at the last count. We youngsters may well have tools to plane some of the sharp edges, but they often lie unused amd rusty..
    Xxx

    1. thanks mum – yes – there are many elements of your mum in all of us, and our ‘us-es”.

      And, know that I think of you too every time I see the Mont Blanc.
      xx

  2. So much of your story reminds me of you Emma. Determined, steadfast.
    You should watch Coco. It will have an alternative meaning to you. The boys and I saw it right after Mary’s death and it had a whole other layer for us. Keeping them “alive” in memory.

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