Today my grandmother, widely known as Bonne Maman, would be 110. If she were alive. She is not, which means that I get to tell the story of her life any way I choose. Even when she was alive, she generously allowed me to tell the story of her life as extravagantly or comically as I chose. Which should give you an idea of what a delightful person she was.
When Reine Marie Garât was born in Mons, on March 4, 1902, King Leopold II sat on the throne of Belgium. Nowadays, Leopold is best known as the owner of the Congo Free State, about which there was nothing free, and which was one of the most brutal and cruel regimes in history. My beloved grandmother was 8 months old when an intrepid Italian anarchist fired three shots at Leopold, and missed.
Young Reine went to convent school at an early age and there she learned to write with her right hand because, as everyone knows, the left hand belongs to the devil. In order to accomplish this task, the nuns tied her left hand to the chair to prevent her from using it. This technique worked, and Reine had exquisite handwriting all her life. With both hands.
Belgium was occupied during the First World War, and several German officers were billeted at their home outside Antwerp. She pointedly explained to me that one officer was Bavarian and despite the fact of his being the enemy he was a kind man who missed his dirndl and leiderhosen-clad children back home; but the other officer was Prussian and he was cold and stiff-backed and disliked children of any nationality. Or so thought the young Reine.
After the war she married the dark and handsome Karl. His parents did not oppose their marriage: he was Protestant, she was Catholic – because their eldest son had likewise fallen in love with a Catholic young woman, and when their marriage was forbidden, they jumped together from the spire of the Antwerp Cathedral.
When I was 12, Bonne Maman took me on one of those iconic and wonderful European adventures, when grandmothers take their (lucky, privileged) granddaughters to Europe, by boat, mais oui, and tell them stories. We were in Antwerp when she took me to the cathedral and told me about these young lovers who leapt to their death. Then, she told me the young man was her husband’s brother. Then, she told me she had another husband before my grandfather, Bon Papa. It was unbearably romantic. Later we went to visit her first mother-in-law, Karl’s ancient mother, now living in a rococo apartment in – of all places – a convent.
But six months after the war Karl died. On the very last day of the war, and foolishly not wearing his gas mask, Karl gassed as the German army retreated and discharged all their unused weaponry.
As she was a very young widow, Reine’s parents expected that she would return to their home. But she did not. She moved to Brussels and learned to type and translate, and got a job. Her plan was to work, then go to the League of Nations as a translator, and travel the world. But after about 6 years of this, she succumbed to the lure of motherhood, and agreed to marry Arnold, her boss and a charming man. But first he went on a business trip to Argentine and Chile, and sent back photographs of himself, to prove how much weight he had lost.
Soon after they married, Arnold was offered a great job managing an oil company in Alexandria, Egypt. But this would mean moving his new wife to a foreign land, far from the grey skies of Belgium. Reine considered the grey skies of Belgium and the heavy soups, and immediately said that she would love to move to Egypt.
She adored Egypt. She adored the weather, picnics in the desert, palm trees, dates and costume balls. She returned to Belgium for the birth of her first child, my mother, but stayed in Alexandria for the birth of her son, Claude. During most of their years in Egypt, King Farouk I perched on the throne. He was extremely fat (in CIA internal memos he was referred to as FF, for Fat F---er), had execrable taste in furniture and décor, and amassed a world-class collection of pornography. When she deemed me old enough to know such things, Bonne Maman told me how favored members of the European community in Cairo were sometimes invited to a special viewing of Farouk’s porn stash. She implied, but did not say, that naturally she and Bon Papa would never have accepted such an invitation.
Above: Reine shaving Arnold while camping in the Sahara.
In 1952 Gamel Nasser overthrew King Farouk, who then went into exile in Morocco and became even fatter.
I could go on (&on) about the long and checkered history of my grandmother and the monarchy, but time is fleeting, so I will not. Or not this time. Bonne Maman did survive many kings and lame duck princes to become a most beloved grandmother and great-grandmother. In her 80’s she developed Alzheimer’s but continued to be ambidextrous, and charming in French and English, as well as a language known only to herself.
So once again, Joyeux Anniversaire chère Bonne Maman.