Bonne Maman

All of my friends have wonderful stories to tell about their grand mothers. I don't. I had just one grandma in my circle when I grew up as my paternal grandmother died when I was very young. Our grandma, whom we called 'Bonne Maman' was a petite woman with grey eyes who went to church daily. She had a large collection of hats and of expensive shirt dresses. One of her legs was shorter than the other and she had special shoes made for her, with one heel slightly higher than the other.


Even though, she limped a little, and if not for the hats, the grey hair and the limp, her silhouette from afar was not much different than that a frail 10 year old. Looking at the photo of her wedding day you could mistake her for a maid of honour. She married my grandfather, twice a widow, and took on to take care of his 8 children. Along the way she had one child of her own, my mother, in 1935.


We shared a large flat with her (it was hers) and she had her own section with a kitchen, a dark living room, and a narrow bedroom. I know it sounds ungrateful to say that I did not enjoy Bonne-Maman's company; she read a selection of great stories, she owned a black and white TV set (when we had no TV), and she was always on time to pick me up from school. She would then prepare an austere gouters', some bread with some thinly spread jam or a small chocolate bar on good days.


It was hard not to like Bonne Maman when everyone felt she was an admirable Christian lady. She even had her own collection of poor families. They would ring at her door from time to time and she would patter along to the back of her flat and grab a few tins, some bread, an old pack of biscuits and give them ceremoniously to the family, usually a tired mother with too many kids. The mother always looked a little disappointed but would thank her politely and go, followed by her kids.


I think what may be the origin of my profound and unnatural dislike for Bonne Maman was the loss of my Becassine doll. Becassine was given to me for my 6th Birthday by a distant aunt and I thought she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. She was a soft doll hand-made of silky material, with large button eyes and plaited blond hair. She wore a green costume with a little apron and red serge shoes. I was so worried that she would get dirty or lose one of her shoes that I had put her on one of the shelves over my bed. And night after night she would sit over my  bed, with her head a little bent. I did not notice that she was gone immediately.  When I did, I cried, looked for her everywhere, accused my sisters, my brother, my parents, until Bonne Maman gave herself in. She was not one to lie. The fact that It took me a few days to realise she was gone established in Bonne Maman's Christian mind her absolute right to take my Becassine to give her to one of her poor families' kids for Christmas and force a good deed on to me, one step closer to paradise. My parents frowned in silence.


On Sundays, our always growing family would join Bonne Maman for lunch. She always prepared some green salad and a 'Gateau a la viande' covered by a red tomato and wine sauce. My brother and I had fun trying to find little worms in the salad. We would usually find 2 or 3 each and giggle as they wriggled on the side of our plate. Bonne Maman frowned but never really realised what this was about. She had poor eyes and approximate hygiene. Bonne Maman 'gateau a la viande' was an ingenious rectangular brick of all of the remains of the week blended together, mixed with an egg and cooked for 45 minutes. It was lumpy and a little crunchy and had no definite taste. There was always some 'gateau a la viande' remains, as we were eagerly waiting for the desert, which was a very liquid version of "Iles Flottantes" where the caramel was replaced by brown sugar.


I suspect Bonne Maman blended the remains of her famous "gateau a la viande" in the creation process of the next Sunday's one. This is probably why she suddenly died on a Sunday evening, following what the doctor suspected was a lightning food poisoning.


I cried a little, as a little girl does when her grandmother dies.

Brigitte Bellan