July 15, 2008

Malou Joly

Here is Xavier's paternal Grandmother, Malou. She is 89 years old and lives in a little town outside of Lyon. She sang to us at every opportunity and, knowing that I am American, she pulled out songs she had learnt in English when she was 6 years old. When we arrived, she accompanied Xavier about the house, attached firmly to his elbow, gazing up into his face. After a bit, she approached me and said, "Ooh la la, he looks like a movie star, doesn't he? And you...let me get a better look at you...hmmm...pas mal." (You're OK, spoken with a mouth that clearly measured my beauty unequal to her grandson's).

We sat down and watched a remarkable film with her. It was a film that was created in 1936 of Malou and her siblings and family. They lived in Normandy and were a very wealthy family in France at the time; a film like that is rare for the era. She was about 18 years old. There she was, flashing across the screen, with her dark bobbed hair, perfectly coiffed and parted, like her sisters. There were many scenes on the beach in Normandy - before the rest of France populated its shores (and certainly before the Americans came and landed there - she emphasized). The beach was theirs, in essence, until paid leave was given to everyone in France in 1936 - the very year the video was filmed.

There were many scenes of the children in her family surrounded by animals - cats, dogs, horses, chickens, cows - she recalled how important animals were for their family. They had a bit of a removed relationship with them, however; Marie Antoinette-ish - all the animals were cared for by their servants, but the children caressed and played with them constantly.

There were also scenes where the music teacher was giving lessons, and most impressively, the gymnastics coach. She recounted that they would do two hours of gymnastics every morning. The gymnastics instructor was an impressive fellow - with his tank top and muscles gleaming in the sun, lifting the girls off the ground to stretch out their limbs.

The most remarkable aspect of sitting and watching this with her was her ability to recall and almost relive the events that played out in front of her on the tiny screen. Her vision is quite poor and she had to refer to her special glasses equipped with magnifying lenses, created for watching TV, but it was of little importance. She had the memories there on her face - you could read them as we watched. The original film was dubbed with her voice retelling the memories as they passed (her voice superimposed on the silent film, recorded 10 or 25 years prior). Occasionally, she would correct her earlier self on the names of people or dates. She even remembered the name of a chateau she had forgotten originally.

She was stunned at some point as she watched her beloved family and spoke of the way time passes and people are gone. It was impressive. I imagine oldness, as a state, doesn't transcend or change with culture in a certain sense. It was clear that Malou believed that she is as she knew herself in those images, without much of an accounting for who she has become.

Xavier found old photos of his family and found this one of his dad, taken when his dad was 18 years old. Their resemblance is striking and the rest of the trip was marked by people's disbelief of how much Xavier carries his father in his actions and appearance.

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