Cathy Park Kelly
I was here. This is what happened.
‘Je m’appelle Christiane. Je suis née à Calais le 11 juin, 1905…’
This is the simplest act of existence. Something we all can claim. A name. A place and date of birth.
And from there, in a little black Croxley manuscript book, a story unspools, a thick, multi-coloured thread winds its way back through the years, weaving a story of a life. It creates a rich tapestry that says ‘I was here.’
I used to think writing one’s life story should be reserved for celebrities and famous people. Anyone else who dared to write, ‘This is me. I was here.’ was being self-indulgent. Possibly even narcissistic. Who cared about the life story of Joan Schmoan?
But this is the story of my French grandmother’s life. And I care. My whole family cares. This little black hard-covered book is now a cherished part of our heritage. An heirloom.
When I was in my late teens, my mum and I bought my gran an A5 manuscript book and asked her to write her life story. We thought my gran would welcome this task. We imagined it would give her a renewed sense of purpose, fill her mundane days with enthusiasm. But I think she agreed to do it just for us, because we wanted it. She accepted the gift reluctantly, asking us what we wanted her to write.
‘Write about your life, grand-mère. Tell us how you felt during the World Wars. Raconte nous tes amours.’ (‘Raconte’, that lovely French word that means so much more than ‘tell’.)
But it wasn’t in her nature to reflect on and share her inner life with anyone. Nor was it something her generation even seemed to contemplate. I doubt anyone ever used words like ‘inner landscape’ or ‘personal journey’.
My gran was very practical when it came to matters of the heart. If you were sad, or ‘faisait une petite déprime’ (‘making a little depression’), which makes this affliction sound like something that is both cute and purposeful, you were briskly told to ‘fait les poussières’ (do the dusting). If you were tired, she’d ask about your bowel movements and suggest strongly that you needed to pooh more regularly.
I think she dragged herself to these blank pages out of a sense of duty towards us. When her task was done, she gave back the book with a shrug and a moue of the lips: ‘I don’t think I did it right.’
I laughed and assured her: ‘It’s your life, grand-mère. You can’t get it wrong.’
But when I began to read it, my 18-year-old self was disappointed. There were no agonized explorations of the self (unlike in my diary), no musings on life and humanity (both of which occupied pages of my journal), and hardly any ‘feeling’ words (my diary was filled with them).
Instead, she’d begun with ‘Je m’appelle Christiane’ and plodded on dutifully from there. So I put it aside then and never read it fully. We’re very fickle when we’re young. This year, I rediscovered her life story. And suddenly, as I cracked open the pages, I caught a whiff of her Peter Stuyvesant cigarette. I could hear her deep voice calling me ‘ma poulette’, her rich, smoky chuckle. Through the lines of blue ink written in her shaky, 80-year-old handwriting, the colour and substance of a life – her life – shone through.
And I’m so glad she left this for us. This simple creative act that says, ‘I was here.’
So it’s not about being a celebrity. Nor is it about writing a misery memoir that may or may not become a bestseller. It’s not necessarily for the public eye at all. It’s about a simple act of existence. An act of faith in the face of the extreme fragility of our animal bodies. ‘Je m’appelle Catherine…’
Do it for you. Do it for your children, your nieces, your nephews. Tell them. Tell yourself: ‘I was here. This is what happened.’