petite anglaise

April 11, 2005

Madame G

Filed under: city of light — petiteanglaiseparis @ 2:56 pm

I am about to start running Tadpole’s bath when the doorbell trills.


I don’t care for this agressive French doorbell sound. Give me a gentle English ‘Ding Dong’ any day.

I put my eye cautiously to the peephole. I have not ordered any takeaway curry (after my last disappointing experience involving half-raw naan bread daubed with pink food colouring), and I am not expecting visitors. If it is one of those earnest but tedious young men trying to sell me a Trotskyist newspaper, I reserve the right not to answer the door.

It’s old Mrs Gibolain, the widow who lives upstairs.

“BONSOIR MADAME! OH LÀ LÀ QU’IL EST BEAU!” she yells, spying Tadpole, who is pushing her train up my trouser leg. I have told Mrs G that Tadpole is a she, but I suspect she may be a little deaf. Tadpole grips my leg anxiously, probably wondering why the lady with two big sticks and a hairy chin is shouting at mummy.

After a long conversation, which I imagine most of the building overheard, I establish that Mrs G needs some help with her television set. The home help must have switched it off while Mrs G was out at her hospital appointment (I have seen ambulance men come to fetch her, on occasion, and I imagine these are the only time she ventures out of her flat), and she hasn’t been able to switch it on again. Her late husband bought the TV, but passed away without showing her how to use the remote control. She has left it permenantly on the same channel (France 3) ever since, turning it on and off only at the main switch.

She was very sorry to trouble me, and had been hoping to waylay her neighbour on the sixth floor, a young man who doesn’t keep very sociable hours, but despite calling out for help every time the lift stopped at her floor, no-one answered.

I offer to come upstairs with Tadpole and take a look. Mrs G makes her way back to the lift, with some difficulty, while I hold the heavy metal door open. She needs two crutches to get around, after undergoing a hip replacement last year. It occurs to me, with a sharp stab of pity, that it has probably taken her at least fifteen minutes to manoeuvre herself to my front door. I make a mental note to leave her our phone number so that she can call next time she needs some help, saving herself another arduous journey.

Tadpole and I press on ahead up the stairs and into her dimly lit flat. It smells musty, like second-hand clothes in a charity shop. The faded wallpaper which covers every available surface, including the doors, must have been very fashionable in 1948. The poky living room is crammed with rustic furniture better suited to a farmhouse: a hefty wooden dresser and a solid table and chairs vy for space.

I spy the offending television in a corner of the room. While Tadpole plays with her train under the table, I jab impatiently at the remote, which doesn’t seem to be working. I try the main on/off switch, which catches on the second attempt. Tadpole leaps halfway out of her skin as a talkshow springs into life at full volume, knocking her head on the underside of the table. I brace myself for her wails, but she just looks rather puzzled – I can almost see cartoon birds twittering as they fly in circles around her head.

The television is so loud that at first I don’t hear Mrs G calling from the corridor, where she is struggling with the lift door. She shuffles painfully slowly back into her apartment, thanking me for my kindness. We take our leave, but she insists on fetching a dusty bag of boiled sweets from the dresser, and after keeping a few for herself, hands me the bag for Tadpole. They are clearly not Tadpole-friendly, but I thank her for them anyway. Mr Frog’s reaction when he got home was “where have the old-person’s sweets come from?”

I can’t get this little episode out of my head all weekend. First I worry that I didn’t put the television on the right channel, so Mrs G’s routine has been turned upside down. Then I wonder how often the aide menagère pays her a visit. The thought that if she falls and hurts herself one day, no-one will hear her, haunts me. I marvel at how she survived that summer where our apartment warmed up to 40°C and stayed that way for two whole weeks. I wonder whether she has any family close by, and whether they come to visit.

Memories of my great grandmother come flooding back. I remember my mother visiting her every day, to check that she hadn’t left the gas on by accident, or the front door wide open. Sadly she was transformed from a sweet and reasonable soul who didn’t want to be any trouble, to a paranoid, distrustful shadow of her former self almost overnight. Like her, Mrs G is probably past realising that she can’t really manage on her own. Maybe, despite her family’s insistence, she clings stubbornly to her apartment, infused as it is with all her memories of her late husband.

There must be so many Mr and Mrs G’s hidden away in shabby old flats in this city, invisible to the rest of us, barely coping behind their closed doors. Existing, but not really living.

I make a mental note to get out of the city long before I get old.


  1. Now you’ve finally managed to make me cry. I think about the old people behind closed doors a lot, especially since I’ve had children. Crying seems to come quickly than before and it causes less embarrassment than laughing too much (though your Saturday Night Fever post put my physio’s hard work back by weeks…).

    Comment by Lou — April 11, 2005 @ 3:28 pm

  2. Hello Petite

    I discovered your blog via Ester Kitchen’s this week-end and am already one of your (many) fans.

    I particularly enjoyed the last episode re your upstairs neighbour. How sad! There are unfortunately many Mrs G’s around but you shouldn’t perhaps have mentioned her name in full as this makes it very easy to track you (your address) down with a simple name check in the directory. You never know who might be lurking on the internet.

    I shall still look forward to the next episode with trepidation.

    Best wishes JP

    Comment by JP — April 11, 2005 @ 3:36 pm

  3. This is beautiful. I could absolutely see Mme G and her apartment, and feel all your mixed feelings.

    Comment by Jean — April 11, 2005 @ 3:37 pm

  4. JP – It’s not her real name! I chose Gibolain because I thought, what with it being a Deschiens reference, it would be obvious that it was a pseudonym.

    Rest assured, I’m reasonably careful about protecting my/Mr Frog/Tadpole’s anonymity.

    Jean- what I didn’t say, was that I also felt torn between offering help, and getting too involved, thereby making her too dependent on me – and potentially taking on a role which by rights belongs to her family…

    Comment by petite — April 11, 2005 @ 3:52 pm

  5. I used to harbour secret fears when I lived on my own.

    What if I fell over in the bathroom (for example) and knocked myself out? How long before one of my friends would realise? Sure, they might call me or text me, but if they didn’t get a response, how long before anyone actually would actually come round and check up on me?


    It’s very sad. Loneliness is a terrible thing.

    Comment by witho — April 11, 2005 @ 4:13 pm

  6. Beautifully written. If all blogs were so thoughtful and well done I would feel much less guilty about the time I spend reading them.
    One thing — I couldn’t help thinking that even though the problem of isolation for the elderly is universal, there’s something poignantly French about your story. I felt myself wondering about her earlier years. What was her city life like when she was, well, um, our age?
    Anyway, thank you for this.

    Comment by Nina — April 11, 2005 @ 5:00 pm

  7. Petite, you didn’t have to say that you felt torn about getting too involved. I was so ‘there’ that I felt what I would have felt myself in this situation – just that…

    Comment by Jean — April 11, 2005 @ 5:03 pm

  8. I’m in the midst of this very type of thing with my Gran. She took a tumble recently and it’s sparked off the “should she be in a home” discussions which my Mum and her brother aren’t discussing WITH HER! So I told her. It may cause trouble in the short term but, whether or not she’s less physically able these days she’s still mentally sharp as a tack.

    It is sad though, seeing the elderly decline, but good for you for helping her out. Many people these days would just have ignored her.

    Comment by Gordon — April 11, 2005 @ 5:43 pm

  9. Very clever. Sorry I don’t watch TV anymore and thought you entered her name by mistake. Totally agree with every other comments. Beautifully written and very thoughtful.

    Comment by JP — April 11, 2005 @ 6:13 pm

  10. Hi Petite,
    I just discovered your journal and I am loving it. You write so well. Like the other readers who posted comments, I could actually picture myself in her apartment and see the wallpaper. I could see Mrs. G shuffling around on her crutches.

    I live with my father. He is 75. He is still fully independant. His only speed is fast forward. He has told me though that if he ever can’t take care of himself that he would rather be dead. I think it’s a matter of pride. Everyone wants to be able to survive on their own. To not be able to do basic everyday things is probably very depressing. I would never put him in a nursing home though. There is no one else but me to take care of him.

    Comment by Tarna — April 11, 2005 @ 7:13 pm

  11. My grandmother – who has always been very independent – has recently got to be like your Mrs G. Unfortunately (in this sense) she lives in Paris, while my mum (her daughter) and the rest of us live here in the UK. When we were over in Paris last week, her boiler broke down – it was only because we were there that she was able to have heating (we lit the fire) and get the boiler fixed. She is very hard of hearing, so the telephone is rather difficult for her… Her home help visits 4 times a week (luckily), but as my GM doesn’t like her, she won’t tell her of any problems. *sigh* I know that she has had a couple of bad falls that we only found out about when we asked her about the bruises – she hadn’t been to see a doctor or told the home help.

    It really is difficult to know what to do – and living in a different country probably doesn’t make it any easier…

    Comment by dafyd — April 11, 2005 @ 7:14 pm

  12. Oh I have a Mr G in my building. I would see this old man shuffle with his Monoprix bags in the hallway and say ‘Bonjour, Monsieur’ to no response. Now you made me think: maybe he is hard of hearing? Now I feel bad for harboring non-neighborly feelings towards the old man.

    Comment by b — April 11, 2005 @ 10:09 pm

  13. We seem to have trouble with our remote control. The volume button doesn’t work anymore, and some of the others are on the way out too. And don’t get me started on how to set the video.

    If you’re ever in the area and you’ve got a minute…

    Lovely post, once again.

    Comment by Tim — April 11, 2005 @ 11:17 pm

  14. Petite, I understand about being torn over offering help, it’s easy to get too involved. I had an elderly neighbour who was in a similar sort of situation and it was hard figuring out what I could usefully do without interfering too much.

    Is there any chance of waylaying the home help and mentioning your concerns to her? I don’t know if they’re from an agency or not, but they might know the situation better and maybe they can get more help for Mrs G if needed. No harm in trying at any rate and then you’ll at lesat have done something without getting too entangled.

    Comment by Sierra — April 11, 2005 @ 11:52 pm

  15. hmm tricky one that, because I’m out all day long at work… I think I’ll just stick to being available when she calls around, and give her my phone number in case of a problem. Assuming she’s not too deaf to use the phone…

    Comment by petite — April 12, 2005 @ 12:11 am

  16. Heeeeey,

    Two thoughts while I was reading…
    A comic strip from Reiser in the comic book “Ils sont moches” and the movie “Tatie Danielle”.
    Run away! Run away!

    Comment by Chicago — April 12, 2005 @ 3:31 am

  17. Oh, this part of your post made me cry:

    “I marvel at how she survived that summer where our apartment warmed up to 40°C and stayed that way for two whole weeks. I wonder whether she has any family close by, and whether they come to visit.”

    I can tell you that there are so many Mrs. G’s in the world…here in the US as well…yesterday I got tears in my eyes seeing an elderly lady come out of a nearby apartment building, with a small oxygen tank over her shoulder, pushing a little trolly with her trash bag in it. She hoisted it into the dumpster and I looked at my husband, who also looked so sad and said “Where are her grandchildren?”

    It was kind of you to help the elderly neighbor. I only wish that my grandmother was still here so that I could go to visit her and be sure she had everything she needed.

    May you be blessed in good karma for the kindness you showed her.


    Comment by Ro — April 12, 2005 @ 5:37 am

  18. This is very touching, but at the same time it made me laugh out loud, at least three times! Thanks :)

    Comment by Alisa — April 12, 2005 @ 1:20 pm

  19. Good post petite. Also if you fancy a good old English Ding Dong let me know. Grrr.

    Comment by backroads — April 12, 2005 @ 2:11 pm

  20. Thank you for your kind and selfless offer, Mr Backroads. Let me take this opportunity to point out that, henceforward, I must be addressed as HWW (Her Webby Worthiness).

    Comment by petite — April 12, 2005 @ 2:42 pm

  21. Oooh! Now let’s have a look at what you could have won.:wink:

    Comment by backroads — April 13, 2005 @ 2:48 pm

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