Tuesday, July 28, 2009
Since I posted the earliest picture I have of my elder daughter, I think I should give equal time to my younger. This picture wasn't big and sharp to begin with, but I think in reproducing and tweaking it I've brought up as much detail and clarity as possible. She arrived at three and a half months of age, earlier than expected, because another child became ill and couldn't make the scheduled flight--my daughter was bumped up and landed in the U.S. in Chicago. A Social Worker from there brought her to Boston.
This picture was probably taken some time during her first week. She looks a bit wary here, but is now vivacious, talented and highly skilled in recruiting, her particular branch of human relations, with offices in Los Angeles and New York City.
All of which brought on a lot of family memories. My immediate family, my parents and I, was an extremely problematic grouping. There was also an extension--my mother's mother and younger sister--who always had an apartment in the same building where my parents and I were. I've never blogged about it but probably will someday. The family dynamic can cut both ways and in mine when it frequently cut in a bad way, it could be hell. Suffice it to say for the moment that I wouldn't wish my childhood and pre-college years on anyone.
My father's side of the family was a different story. All four of my grandparents had immigrated to the U.S. in the first decade of the 20th century, the maternal grandparents from Liverpool, England; the paternal grandparents from Paris (grandmother) and Massa di Carrera in northwest Italy--heart of the famed marble quarry area of the Italian peninsula where Michelangelo and other famed Italian sculptors went for the finest white statuary stone.
My grandmother was very French even though her maiden name was Italian. She was born to an Italian import merchant family that had settled in Paris, with professional ties back in Italy which they visited regularly on buying trips.
On one of those train trips back from Italy, my very pregnant great grandmother gave birth to her eldest child, a daughter, in circumstances so improvised and chaotic that nobody took note of where the train was when my grandmother was actually born, or in what year.
All anybody could document was that when the actual birth began, the train was in Italy on December 31; when it was all over, the train was in France on January 1. There were legal difficulties about her nationality and her birth date for years. Her nationality was finally settled when both countries agreed to accept was that she was a French citizen because the train was French. As to her birthday, we always celebrated it at the stroke of midnight between New Year's Eve and New Year's Day because that issue was never resolved.
Two years after she came to the U.S. in 1902, she founded a school in New York City, an early manifestation of the Montessori method in New York City. She also offered something unique at the time, a day care extension program to serve poor children with both parents working from the city's immigrant French community. The school was open from 7am to 7pm and offered education, recreational and cultural activities, two meals and refreshments during the day in a bilingual program that she ran for 40 years.
Grants from the French government partially funded the school, with private support in New York coming from prominent members of the business and arts communities whom she recruited relentlessly, stressing the joys of giving back from their positions of wealth and influence, while she sat immovable in their offices until a check was produced.
The medals above came from the Academie Francaise (two on the left), the City of Paris (far right) and finally from the French government--the Legion of Honor is third from the left, then a French Overseas medal of a type reserved for distinguished women, and one other I don't remember--in recognition of her work with the school and in many other ways to foster French culture and language.
I shook my head at the stupidity of the "Freedom Fries" and other anti-French propaganda idiocy from the Bush administration. We'd probably all still be singing "God Save the Queen" if it hadn't been for French support during the American Revolution (said support was a massive drain on the French treasury, the country's financial collapse being a major cause of France's own Revolution against Louis XVI, who authorized military aid to the Americans for years).
One taste that came down from my grandmother was for the French faïence pottery Quimper, named for the town in Brittany where it's been manufactured for centuries.
I don't collect it any more as I have a large number of pieces and it's rarely encountered any more in American antique shops, having become, as they say, "very collectible" with prices soaring to match.
This is a favorite piece, found with its mate (a man playing a set of pipes) wrapped in old newspaper and stuck in a crumbling cardboard box on a lower shelf in a shop in Lyon. I was in France leading a school group, we were in Lyon on our last day in the country and it was the end of that day. The box was marked "faience du pays"--country pottery. Not expecting much, I unwrapped one and realized that they were a pair of matching Quimper hanging wall vases, almost certainly 18th century, asking price just over $100 U.S. I sat on the plane all the way home, cradling them in my lap.
Love the memories of your grandmother - she sounds like quite a woman.