Post image for Grand-mère


March 9, 2011

My grandparents lived on a small island off the coast of France, not far from La Rochelle.

Île d'Oléron

Île d'Oléron

Both of them had many brothers and sisters, and we had numerous cousins, most of whom we never recognised when we came for our regular Summer holidays. Two months of bliss, those holidays were! In those days, the summer break was from the end of June till the end of August.


My four brothers and I yearned for summer when we cycled or walked to the beach every day. The best time was when our parents left us in the care of Grand-mère, when they went back to work. Grand-père always thought that children’s care was the premise of the woman in the house and we only looked to him when we wanted stories of his time as a soldier (he was wounded twice at Verdun) or when there was a special tide and he would take us far out on to the sands to catch shellfish of all kinds. We would come home exhausted and very sunburnt (no one bothered about sun  cream factors in those days). When we got home, Grand-mère would sort out the catch and soon the house would fill with the smells of cooking. After a wholesome supper, all to bed for a well deserved sleep.

Only Grand-mère stayed up to clear up and do the washing up. In those days, no dishwasher…no hot water…no running water indeed No electricity in the early days either (this was installed in the late 40s).

The water was fetched from the well, using a zinc bucket dangling on a chain which you let down by turning the fat handle of the pulley mechanism. You’d let the bucket down easily until you heard the splash and then you had to hoist the full load using both hands. Retrieving the bucket was quite perilous and the well was very deep and scary!

One old lady told us (I think she was a great aunt…anyway, she was old and had stiff hairs on her cheek that stabbed you when you were made to kiss her on her visits to the house), she told us that naughty noisy children were thrown in people’s wells quite regularly.

The three eldest shared this chore. Once the water was brought in, first of all, some had to be filtered through cotton wool in a funnel for the drinking bottles. It was fascinating to watch little water shrimps and other creatures wriggling on the cotton ball. We could play with them for hours! The rest of the water was divided up for the washing up, cleaning the stone floors, cooking and to fill water jugs in all the bedrooms ( we had washstands as there was no bathroom, just a WC with three holes in the wooden shed in the garden, by the palm tree). Every morning, we did “the slops”. Once a week, the water was warmed up and we took turns to be washed in a zinc tub with carbolic soap. We were glowing…no little beasty had a chance to pester us!



Poor Grand-mère worked so hard and we were such a lively bunch! She was feared, mind you! Very tiny,  but browny-black eyes that could melt you down.

We had three sitting down meals a day, counting breakfast, all seven of us at least, plus the odd visiting cousins. Most years, a nanny would also be there or a maid that my parents employed all the year round. It was not unusual to find a dozen sitting round the table. We were expected to be on best behaviour. Any misbehaviour and Grand-mère would send the culprit to the scullery to fetch the horse whip.

Va chercher la police!

This was a six foot long black rod that had lost its leather strip. Grand-mère kept it by her side for the rest of the meal, threatening to whack anyone who made a noise. The threat never failed to work. She probably would not have carried it out. Grand-père presided at the head of the table but he wasn’t allowed to talk about the Great War or he would suddenly receive a well aimed kick on the shin from Grand-mère, sitting by his side.

We woke up early, to the sounds of swallows on the electricity wires outside the bedroom windows. Grand-mère was up already. My bedroom was above the kitchen and I could hear her grinding the coffee beans ready for breakfast. Then, the most gorgeous smell of fresh coffee would rise through the ill fitting floorboards.

Ablutions at the washstands, all bedding thrown on the windowsills to be aired, and straight down for breakfast. We all raced one another down the rickety termite riddled wooden staircase to get the crust of the cream that topped the milk in the pan after it had boiled relentlessly on the solid fuel stove. After breakfast, the chores began. Sweeping, dusting, polishing, cleaning, slops and making the beds.

Making the beds was a very tough task as they were huge. Big wooden frames encompassing a big canvass bag two foot deep with slits in the top. Inside the bag was jam-packed with dried maize leaves. On top of that rested an enormous feather mattress with a cumbersome bolster. The bed covers consisted of heavy linen sheets, thick woollen blankets and a fat eiderdown. Totally unwelcomed when the daily temperatures are around 25º to 30º. Making the bed was the most demanding chore. You slide your arms through the slits into the maize to regain a flat base. You ease the mattress back and pummel out all the bumps, you shake the bolster so that it returns to the desired fat sausage shape and then you can distribute the linen suitably so that it passes Grand-mère’s inspection at the end of the morning (lucky is the one of us in charge of getting the fresh baguettes up the road). Of course, the minute you get back into the bed, you’ve made your nest for the night and can’t climb out of it till you are fully conscious again.


Grand-mère was a superb cook and to this day, she is responsible for our great love of sea food of all kinds. Both main meals had three courses and the shopping lists were astronomical since she never used tinned or frozen food. Everything was fresh and in season.


Grand-père had a vegetable garden which helped a lot. Being naughty was often sanctioned by being sent to spend a couple of hours helping him in the garden but Grand-mère didn’t realise that we saw that as great fun…so did he!

Nothing was ever wasted and our plates had to be polished clean with every course. Table manners were strictly respected and although we lived in our bathing costumes, we had to cover up for our meals. I was the only one with a birthday in August. On my special day, the best china came out and a big bouquet of Grand-mère’s garden jasmine filled every vase in the house.

My best childhood memories rest with my grandmother and her house. She was such a character! She taught us to whistle proper melodies and she could sing beautifully. Sometimes, she would break into the local patois which left us speechless. We thought this language came from a heavenly place. She could beat all of us at marbles and we had to win them back by doing some extra chores. Now that my own granddaughters are growing up, I often wonder how they will remember the holidays we spend together in Dorset.

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