Can I call this an epitaph if it’s lengthy?
Your obituary did not become you. It was neither celebratory or fittingly mournful. I hated the picture they chose. I know I’ve mentioned before, but it doesn’t even look like you. Tonight I wanted to write something that is more reflective of the extraordinary person you are and the life you lived.
Elyane Marie Therese Ghilaine de Dron (Richards)
April 13, 1927 – June 30, 2020
Born April 13, 1927 in Dunkirk (or Dunqurque) to Rene, a Frenchman in the Order of Dragoons who loved football, and Jeanne, a strong and intelligent Belgian woman. You were a girl of noble birth who had a humble and curious spirit. Popular in school, you loved to draw and doodle in your journals.
When your father died unexpectedly of cancer, you were heartbroken. Devastated. At seven years old, you became an adult. You tried to be strong for your sister and helpful to your mother. Secretly, it was a wound that never completely healed.
When the Germans invaded France in 1940 you were only 13, but very clever. The Nazis took your family home and used it as a base of operations, making you homeless, and many days you and your sister ate grass and leaves to survive. (This is why later in life you joked about disliking Germans.) Memories of the bombs and missile sounds gave you nightmares, even later in life.
You exited university a tri-lingual asset to the allies, speaking French, Italian, and English. You and your sister worked as translators in the field. Jet black hair and olive skin, you were a ravishing beauty and you could have had any soldier for a husband. You chose the kind one, the Captain, the one who spoke softly and smiled with his whole face. He was handsome, in his way, and he was steady. I bet you really liked that about him – his steadiness. You chatted and laughed over picnic lunches and afternoon bike rides, and slowly the two of you fell in love. It felt destined. After so much turmoil in your life at a young age, here was someone offering you peace.
The two of you wed in the yard of a breathtaking cathedral in Marseilles. I have the picture from the steps, both of you radiant and young. I hope you feel as glorious now as you did on that day.
Shortly after, the allies won the war, and you followed your soldier into the unknown, and into your new life as an American. Like many immigrant military wives at the time, you had to travel separately, registering at Ellis Island and then slowly making your way all the way down to rural Alabama.
Back then, Phenix City was known as “Sin City” (Vegas hadn’t been built yet), was working to clean up its organized crime issue, and was undergoing massive transformation. A fitting place for you to begin your own metamorphosis.
Life in Alabama was a challenge. The brutal heat and oppressive humidity were a new experience for you, and the “country cooking” your mother-in-law served made you violently ill. The pressure to be a good homemaker in this new country weighed heavily on you. You missed your old life in France, your friends, your culture. The elegance of every day life. You lost a lot of weight. No one would have blamed you if you had thrown in the towel and returned to the familiar, but that isn’t who you are. It never was. You are tenacious and determined. In all my life I’ve never heard of anyone grabbing a hold of their circumstances and building, and climbing, and forcing them to work in her favor the way that you did. You dug in your heels and began to adapt to life as an American, a military wife, and a mother.
You were a social person, and when you couldn’t find groups to join you created them. The local French Club that still meets every other Wednesday for lunch owes its very existence to you. I remember going with you a few times. I sat with the husbands, because I could understand what they were saying. Remember Bob? I loved him. He always made sure to say hi. And he gave me pennies. I wonder if Bob is there, where you are. What was his wife’s name? Genevieve? Is she there, too?
When your children went off to school, you decided to go to work. After all, you were good for more than just cooking and cleaning and you had always been career-minded before coming to America. Instead of asking someone to hire you, you went to work for yourself as an Avon lady, setting up your office in the basement. True to your upbringing, you preferred to walk all over town, going door-to-door to chat with ladies about your products. Eventually you became known as the “walking lady” of Phenix City. It was a job you cherished and were truly passionate about and your customers became lifelong friends.
Athletic and lithe, you also found time to walk, bicycle, and practice tennis. Mom says you were very good at tennis and I wish I could remember, but maybe it was before my time.
Psychic and superstitious, you had sacred little rituals and talismans you held on to.
Ever the sophisticate, you wouldn’t be caught dead in a pair of pants. Culottes were the closest you’d get, and those were only for bicycle riding or some similar. You didn’t even own a pair of jeans. Modest dresses were your signature style. Hair always done, makeup always “just so”. Lots of jewelry, a la Coco Chanel. One wrist and hand for gold, the other for silver.
You even found a way to parlay your childhood love of doodling into a hobby, and your wood-burned art pieces won several awards at state fairs. You seemed to will yourself to be good at everything you tried. Baking, painting, gardening, knitting. Was there anything you couldn’t do? No, I doubt it.
When your children were all grown up and you found yourself reprising the role of mother, this time to two of your grandchildren, you didn’t moan or complain. In fact, you delighted in the opportunity to teach and guide them. You tucked them in to bed and made them clothes by hand and lathered on the Skin-So-Soft in the Summer time to keep the mosquitos away. You took them on trips to Callaway Gardens and let them have ice cream at bed time. You paid for field trips and tuition and took them to mass with you. You prayed with them, and laughed with them, and talked with them in that magical way that grandmothers sometimes do, that let them know their secrets were safe in your heart.
You even took them (us) to Europe – twice – in order to share your history and heritage with them. I remember funny things like how much we disliked Spain (Barf-elona and My-dread, we called them) to meeting Edith and her daughter and eating Moroccan food for the first time, to the quaint bed and breakfast in London, to Aunt Nini’s house (my favorite) and learning to command her dog, Ulo, in French. You put some of the most treasured parts of my life – of my soul – together carefully, generously, deliberately. I know Jason would agree.
Sometimes you were hard. Not cold, not distant, but tough. I think it’s fair to say I never saw the depths of that toughness but every now and then I got a glimpse. I hope I have an ounce of the courage you had.
Sometimes you were cheeky. You liked to play jokes (but not mean or dirty ones) and you loved to make people laugh.God, you had the best laugh. When you were angry you’d yell Zut! Alors! (damnit) or ayayay.
Water is for the fishes, you said. You loved your daily glass of wine. Grocery day was always Friday and you let us eat things before checking out just so we’d behave. Friday was also the day you cleaned bathrooms. You washed clothes inside but then hung them out on the line to dry, so your towels were extremely scratchy and stiff. Someone bought you a dryer a while back but I don’t think you ever used it. You liked mystery and detective novels best. You wore curlers in your hair and for very special occasions you would curl my hair at night, too. I always got a dress for my birthday and one for Christmas. You cooked every night. You fed the hummingbirds and hated the squirrels. (bb guns! drowning!) You braided my hair with all your rings in and told me “pain is beauty”. You tucked me in at night, fostered my imagination, made sure I did my homework. You went to every recital, every game, every event. You helped me with Halloween costumes and science projects. You bought me Star Trek books for Christmas one year and I felt so seen by you.
I remember visiting you in rehab a couple of years ago. The doctors said something to you that they likely would not have done, had they known to whom they were speaking. You laughed at them. “Watch me!” You said. I laid in your hospital bed beside you as you told me you were going to walk out of there unassisted, and you were going to make them watch you do it. What a spitfire!
There are a million billion little things I know about you. A million billion things to miss.
I can’t write them all here (and this, despite my best efforts, will not come close to doing you justice).
If I assigned one thing to every star in the heavens, I’d run out of stars before I ran out of you.
If I spoke one memory to every wave in the ocean, the water would quiet long before I did.
You are so much more than anyone around me can or will understand. I hope you can see this. I hope you are with us, with my kids. I hope you hug Jason when he cries for you because I know he cries, but he won’t tell me because he is trying not to crumble. I hope you’ll hug me, too, and remember all the million billion things between us, and never ever let them – or us – go.
In the end, you got what you always said you wanted. No long sickness or suffering, no old-folks home, no doctors. You were quick-witted and charming and brave even at 93. An inspiration. You fought against death himself so that Jason and I could get to you. Who argues with death, Maman? Who? You are extraordinary in ways most people dare not dream of.
In transforming, I hope you are reunited with your dear father Rene, your mother Jeanne, your loving husband Warren (hi Bonpapa!), your sister Monique, your niece Silvie, your witchy grandmother, the children you lost, your many many friends and family and numerous small yappie dogs. I hope your soul feels more complete and satisfied than it ever did here on earth, and I hope you’re saving a place for me for the day I get to see you again. I love you. Je t’aime, je t’aime. xo