Quand je vois Fernande

— I had written this text before we heard about the Covid-19. I wrote it for me, for her too. In the light of the recent events, thinking about our senior family members, what we owe them and why we have to protect them made me want to publish it. Also this society of groceries trucks, why it stopped and how we need it now more than ever might be food for our thoughts.

The other day I said out loud something I had in the back of my mind for a while “I wish my grandma could be here and see this”. I don’t have too many family members; one dad, one aunt, one cousin, and one grandma, that’s it. I won’t nag about it, it shaped me pretty hard, it can be useful in life. 

My grandma wasn’t even my grandma by blood. She was the last girlfriend of my grandpa who already had 2 wives but this one didn’t want to get married so made an exception to the French saying “never 2 without 3”. My grandpa died when I was 18 months. His girlfriend had no kids or grandkids, I had no grandparent left and a crazy mother; we matched. She saved me so many times by taking me to her house, she was the sunshine of my childhood. 

She came from a family of 16 kids. Yes, you read it right, 16. She was one of the last, her mom had one contraction while mopping the floor and my grandma came. She fell right from her mom’s uterus on the floor, a cold morning of December 1929, banging her head. Her mom went lying down right after that and the postman heard crying and found her still on the floor. I have no idea if the story she  told me is true but she always joked this was the reason she was so easily distracted, traumatized from birth. 

After a couple of fails in factory jobs, she eventually became a fruits and veggies dealer. She started with a simple cart and a dog to help pulling it, it was 1945, right after World War II, she was 16. She carried everything by herself on her “tour” in a blue collar neighborhood of our city, whatever the weather was like. It was very hard work. So hard, she lost the only child she bared at 5 months of pregnancy. She said to me one day that she wasn’t meant to be a mother, wouldn’t be a good one because she doesn’t know how to properly show love. I felt the contrary but never told her. She showed me more love than my own mother.

Then she got enough money to buy an old truck. Of course I don’t remember the first one (I wasn’t even born), but Iremember the one which was an old fisherman truck. It had a huge fish on the side. She planned for years to turn it into a banana but never found the right sticker. No matter, everybody on her tour knew her and knew she wasn’t selling fish, it became her trademark. This truck was more often broken than repaired and we were living with the constant talk about repairing bills. It could be opened on the side and offered a real little shop inside. We used to go in her garage on Friday night and I would play the fruits and veggies merchant while she would play customer. She only had an old balance with weights, and a book where she wrote every sale by hand. I used to do her accounting every Saturday from 7 years old and on, as she decided I was better in math than she was (which was kind of true). She paid me in strawberries. She had the coolest job ever. Except it started at 4 am at the market and she was the only woman doing it! She was very respected in this sector for that. She was a young widow but she stayed very Independent. She was the strongest person I know. 

It was from a era where everything would come to your house or street: the drinks truck, the bakery truck, the (real) fisherman truck, the butcher truck, the milk and cheese man,… they honked and stopped infront of your house to let you do your grocery shopping. Fresh products, small talk, no traffic, What a time!

Eventually, women started to work, nobody was in the house when trucks came and the attraction of the supermarket did the rest. She had to stop her tour in the 90’s. Funny enough now I order my fruit and veggies online and it’s almost the same kind of truck that delivers, except it has a big cherry on it. Something makes me think that if my grandma was born here, she would have invented Kibsons (for those not living in the UAE, Kibsons is an online supermarket focused on fresh products like fruits veggies or meat). That’s the version of what she was 50 years ago. Trendy, fresh, quality and efficient. 

She was humble but loved the nice things. She was saving money to buy silverware, jewelry etc. She’s the one who taught me the appreciation of good things, especially shoes. She had this closet full of shoes still in the box, each marked with a sticker saying what kind of shoes were in the box. All of them had spelling mistakes, she had never learned to write proper French. She spoke “Walloon” a dialect of my region, for her, French was for fancy people. 

One of her sister married a US soldier after World War II and left Belgium to make a family of her own in California. My “low class” worker grandma travelled every year to California to visit her sister. She came back with tales of a new world, full of promises, sparkling eyes and new shoes for me. 

She had a fantastic health. I don’t recall seeing her sick once. She had other weaknesses. She lost her glasses probably 200 times, and she had more car accidents than 50 people together. Let’s say driving wasn’t her thing, she was distracted like she said. Turns out she buried all her 15 siblings, her husband, her 4 boyfriends, her parents, and all of her friends. 

Then her mind left the building. That’s the saddest thing I’ve seen. She, who signed for no reanimation because she didn’t want to turn into a veggie, is now stuck in her old healthy body but doesn’t remember who she is. Last time I visited her was when my daughter was still a baby and I could see it really upset her not to know who I was. Up to a point I decided not to visit anymore. When you become the reason for stress, it’s not worth it. 

Ok, this text isn’t much fun, it’s even kind of sad you think. Yes an no. Because while I live here I often think she would love this country even more sparkly than the US in the 60’s. She would have visited me every winter and would dress up in her most fancy outfit. Maybe she would even have found a sheikh boyfriend. I think I live the life she dreamed of and that makes me smile. And I talk about her a lot, to make her live again thanks to our memories. She might not have had any child but I intend to make her story pass the years by telling it to my kids and to you too. So from time to time I’ll mention her, my amazing grandma with a crazy life and now you know a bit more who she was. 

My daughter asked me the other day “what was the name of your grandma?” I answered “Ferdinande, but everybody called her Fernande” then she said “I love that name, it’s so pretty” it made me happy because my grandma hated her name. ❤️