12 March 2012

An ode to a grandmother, an ordinary heroine

Mamie Nanou died last Friday. She didn't wave goodbye. She couldn't, despite the morphine injections trying to relieve her of her pain in the previous days. Her mind had already mostly left her a few years ago due to Alzheimer's disease, and her physical condition had significantly declined simultaneously, unable to take care of herself, reminding me of pictures of the tortured bodies of victims of concentration camps. Her mortuary, glacial face displayed no more suffering though.

From left to right: Mathias, Papi Francis, Mamie Nanou, Lydia, Sebastian, Florian

Mamie Nanou, Grandma Nanou in English, was my grandmother. Nanou was the nickname my elder cousin had given her, I think a distortion of a childish way to say "to us" ("à nous" in French) as in "our grandma just for us". She was truly a loving mother and grandmother, but she was more than that, and not just for us, her children and grandchildren.

Who, at 21, would risk their life in joining the Résistance under German-occupied France during the Second World War? Mamie Nanou was part of the 3% only of the population who actively did. At that time, she's a teacher, replacing imprisoned teachers. When she's not at work, she delivers secret messages, concealing them in her bike's handlebar, cycling 40 kilometres between Blois and Rahart, in rural France. That's until another Résistant got caught using the same handlebar method and the Résistance had then to change its methods, for instance hiding messages in the heel of one's shoes as my grandfather did.

Fake identity papers

In February 1944, an American plane is shot down. Five aviators survive and are hidden by my grandmother and her colleague in their apartments. Five days go by before the Americans manage to rejoin the nearest command base. Within a couple of weeks, news came that the Gestapo was in town, perhaps already looking for my grandmother. Quickly, the decision was taken by the Résistance to exfiltrate her to the free zone. False identity papers were produced for her to escape: keeping her initials, her name was transformed from Louise Fata to Liliane Ferrand. Imagine the stress when, on the bus taking her to the free zone, a German soldier sat right behind her... but luckily did not check her papers; not forgetting the 6-month additional stress with the French Militia, a paramilitary force helping the Germans, patrolling the village where she took refuge.

How many other lives my grandmother saved indirectly during the war, I don't know. But she fought for what was right, risking her own life. She didn't have to do anything and could have, as many others, waited for the war to finish, if it ever could have ended without the contribution of people like my grandmother. She received no medal for it, but medals mean nothing in light of what she has done, of the exemplary life she has led.

Would she have been caught by the Gestapo, I may have never existed. However much I cherish life, I will never forget what is right to do, especially in difficult times like these or when ethics come into play - and they come into play every day if one pays attention. I cannot take any personal pride from a family member, namely my grandmother, having acted heroically as she has done but she can still be, and is, an inspiration to me - and I hope that she now becomes an inspiration to many others as well, and maybe to you, through the words I'm writing today. My grandmother always believed in individuals being the masters of their own destiny and for human beings to help each other out. No nonsense with her.

She spent all her life teaching, educating hundreds of children, while raising three children of her own. She became a teacher emeritus, and even after retiring, she couldn't stop learning and singing by attending a university for retirees. And at home, you'd always find her stuck in arrow crosswords or watching serious games on television, like Countdown.

Is it then a surprise that she married my grandfather, still alive today with all his senses very much alert but very sad, who experienced the same trajectory, also a Résistant, also a teacher, and an Officer of Academic Palms? My grandparents are so humble that when my mother expressed her surprise at not seeing any mention of my grandmother's past as a Résistante on the death announcement to the local newspaper, my grandfather simply replied that she would have preferred it that way.

She is now at peace and will return to dust. In the tiny house by the sea that my grandparents also own by the Atlantic ocean, she would enjoy the fresh air, with a calm, serene, sometimes slightly distant look in her eyes. She would cook grilled sardines, or chopped potatoes with little sausage chunks, the smell of which would delight us all, children and grandchildren alike, the smell of which we'll always associate with my grandmother. Life was simple and fun with her, as long as we got the basics right: fight for freedom - not just one's own - and respect fellow human beings. No need for religion for her: just a simple, humanist philosophy.

Mamie Nanou, you'll always be in my heart and a role model to me. Au revoir, Mamie.

PS: I can only encourage you to visit or at least call your own parents and grandparents. Tell them you love them. Ask them to tell you their memories, record them on YouTube. And if they are too sick to say anything, talk to them, tell them what you do in your life, even if they don't seem to respond at all anymore (such was the case of my grandmother over the past few years). By doing so, I've always felt conscious of my own life and more open to helping others when they needed me.