by MD Maurice
written about a family icon. please r/r/r. will return the favor
|My great grandmother Claudette was well into her nineties when she developed something I called a "lovely dementia". Normally loss of ones faculties is not pleasant but my great grandmother's frequent forays into the rosy world of her own creation seemed a delightful departure from a world that could be cold and cruel. When her "lovely dementia" really started to take hold, I felt grateful for the temporary submergence in her kind little world. A visit with her would leave me with a strange longing after having emerged back out into the cold sunshine of my respective reality.
Claudette was a slight, but amazingly strong woman. A true-blooded French Canadian, she and my great grandfather had immigrated to the United States in their early twenties from rural Quebec. Claudette spoke in a lilting, singsong accent and was often prone to lapse back into her native French. She had dark, smiling eyes and a flawless, milky skin that seemed to defy most age marks and wrinkles. She had a full head of the most marvelous white waves she kept covered under her "house hat", which looked remarkably like a floral, felt-lined shower cap. I remember she always smelled sweet, like fresh sugar cookies and she hugged you as if she had not seen you in ages, no matter the frequency of your visits. My great grandmother had special nicknames for all of us, short little French terms of endearment that would roll off her musical tongue with an obvious affection.
Claudette never raised her voice, delivered a harsh word or missed a day of church. She drank in extreme moderation. She baked rich white, heavenly loaves of bread and secretly harbored an addiction to Wilson’s boxed chocolates, which she playfully called “wishes”. I can remember sitting through visits with my siblings, waiting for that pivotal moment when she would suddenly pause the conversation, lean forward in her chair, wink at you and ask, “would you like a wish?”
She’d clap her hands with delight and jump up from her padded rocker. In a flash she’d be back, standing over you while you scrutinized the selections of crèmes and caramels, all the while watching you and grinning. She seemed as elated by the ritual as we children were. Being children, single-minded and selfish children, we were mainly concerned with not getting the coconut cream or the molasses flavored treat. You had to pick wisely because one shot was all you got until the next visit, whether you liked your "wish" or not. Needless to say, my father ate many a discarded coconut crème in the days when his children were growing.
The sweetness of such moments would dawn on each of us as time moved forward. As teenagers and young adults, we would eagerly bring our significant others to visit her and they’d smile over the big box of chocolates, fearing a refusal would be an insult to such an enchanting little woman. I watched boyfriend after boyfriend select their “wish”, praying for an orange crème or raspberry jelly. In the fickle years of my youth, I paraded many a suitor past her. Remarkably, my great grandmother remembered every one, and would often recount some small detail about them even I had failed to remember.
Claudette was a woman of many passions with a great sense adventure. The walls of her little house were covered with a collection of plates and spoons from around the world. When they were young lovers, and my great grandfather did not drink so much, they traveled all the time. I never asked about these exotic destinations back then, it just had not seemed fair to bring up that past. By then her adventures were over. Claudette had been forced into servitude caring for my great grandfather whose addiction had reduced him to an alcoholic invalid. I felt infinitely sad for her, nursing her former traveling companion who sat shaking in the corner beneath these shiny trinkets from another time.
Aside from my ailing great grandfather's companionship, Claudette had two French poodles, a male and female named Fefé and Paso. The female had died by the time I was a teenage but her brother Paso, diligently followed at my grandmother's heels for years. The family rumor was that Fefé had been prone to wander off and possessing a bright white coat, would often come back filthy. Claudette, in her constant quest for cleanliness, had supposedly used some mixture of shampoo and bleach to clean the little dog's coat, a remedy that unfortunately had resulted in the dog’s untimely demise. My uncle, a bit of a practical joker, often recounted this story but its truth has never really been validated. The male, Paso lived on. He was her faithful servant and sole companion long after her husband’s body finally gave out after years of repeated abuse. In the end, Paso was blind, nearly deaf and could barely get around, but she still spoke to him kindly. She would reach down and lovingly, often absently, caress his head while she was engaged in conversation with her guests.
My great grandmother had a penchant for puzzles, especially the challenging ones with thousands of pieces. I used to bring her a new one whenever I'd visit; finding it nearly completed the next time around. Whenever we’d visit there would be one of these spread out on the wide maple table. We’d all take a stab at it while we chatted away, crying out if we managed to find the fix for one tiny piece or another. It must have been heartbreaking for her when her eyesight failed and the fine lines and grooves began to blur. She had to stop making the puzzles, but she kept every single one. Years later after her death, my aunts opened her storage shed only to find hundreds of puzzles stacked to the ceiling of the narrow building.
The tough Canadian blood running through Claudette’s veins must have made her indelible to many of the weaknesses that often plagued others. I never remember her getting sick, no matter how hard or bleak the New England winters could be. When my father installed an above-ground pool, my great grandmother was often the very first one in and the last one still swimming when the autumn winds came rushing in. She always campaigned to have my father open the pool early; her personal swimming season sometimes began in late April. I can recall watching her make her way up the driveway dressed in her suit and bright blue bathing cap, a towel draped over her arm. The sun had scarcely been up for ten minutes and though the water had to be freezing, she would lower herself into it without the slightest hesitation. Sometimes she would catch us watching from the windows and stop mid-stroke to wink and wave. My great grandmother loved that pool and those morning swims seemed to bring her a special peace. When she would float, her face tilted up into the sunlight, there was always a serene smile on her beautiful face. You could not help but be impressed by the fierceness of spirit she exhibited throughout her life.
Claudette was a woman who embodied the ideals of perseverance and independence. Countless times, we would look at the window and see her carrying or lugging something too big or too heavy down the dirt road. I remember watching my father rush outside to take an impossible tower of boxes from her tiny arms. “Grandma, how can you even see?” My father had asked, incredulous. Claudette had just smiled and patted his shoulder affectionately. She rarely asked for help, preferring to do most things for herself whenever possible.
When her frailty became a cause for concern, Claudette was moved into a local home for the elderly. She seemed to be such a spark compared to the aged and depressingly lethargic patients around her. She was regularly sighted, gliding through the halls in her wheelchair cheerily calling out a musical, “A-low!” to anyone within range. Sharing a meal with her in the community dining hall was always an adventure. Dressed to the nines she'd float amongst the residents. She'd insist upon stopping at each and every table, greeting her fellow diners and inquiring politely, "and what are wee 'aving Princess?"
Sometimes Claudette would be waiting for you to arrive, anxious to tell you about the meal she was preparing that day for the Pope. My great grandmother adored the Pope. A devoted catholic, she harbored a sincere adoration for his Eminence. On one particular visit she told me she was very busy. She seemed sorry that she did not have more time to talk. She explained, in a voice ripe with childish excitement, that she had to find the right shoes and make brownies for the Pope. Smiling secretly, Claudette beckoned me close and proceeded to tell me how much the Pope loved her brownies, as if she was imparting to me the most important trade secret known to mankind.
Ever selfless and brimming with good etiquette, Claudette would often ask her visitors if they would like to stay to meet the Pope. At this point, one was expected to politely decline the invitation. Everyone knew that my great grandmother like to keep the Pope all to herself. Her time with his Holiness was the one and only thing in this world she did not like to share, not even with her loved ones.
Living in the elderly care facility did limit her in some ways. I think the thing that distressed her most was that she could no longer offer the chocolate wishes. She could not eat them anymore. Claudette was diabetic, had been for years and the nurses were militant about keeping sweets away from her. We tried supplying her with the sugarless variety but she flat out refused them, turning up her delicate nose and sniffing in offense.
It was easy, I think, to be mislead into thinking that her sheltered existence kept the real world and all its problems at bay. Claudette was sharp and tuned-in when she was lucid. She knew about what was happening in the world around her. She diligently kept abreast of current events, knew of the conflicts and chaos. She rarely spoke of such things though; more apt to focus her attention and concerns on the world of her family, managing to miraculously steer clear of the pettiness and drama that plagued us at times. Her unwavering faith carried her forward past the images she saw on CNN. Indeed my grandmother seemed immune from so much of the bad and ugliness of life. Time spent in her presence could make you feel inoculated from that ugliness, if only for a little while. It was no wonder that in her lovely dementia the world rolled on happily, offering up countless opportunities for health and contentment. I consider it a gift from God that while the war raged on in the middle east, Claudette could still smile and hum an old French lullaby while she baked another batch of brownies for her Pope.