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  • Writer's pictureJulie Gerrish

Remembering the Queen, and All the Grand Dames In My Life

Updated: Sep 13, 2022

I met Madame Dairou in France last year, right around this time. I was in Paris by myself, and I decided to hop on the bus my first day there and go to Pere Lachaise cemetery.

My trip was doomed from the start: I tried to put coins in the slot when I got on the bus, because that is what I did the last time I rode the bus (6 years ago!), and the bus driver informed me in French that they don’t take coins anymore (at least that is what I think he said). I asked this woman, sitting by herself near the door, how to pay for the bus. She answered in very fast French, and I had no idea what she said.

She ended up paying my fare, and I thanked her and sat down nearby. As the bus traveled along, I began to question the wisdom of my bus choice, as I wasn’t at all sure I was going to Pere Lachaise. I asked the woman if the bus was going to Pere Lachaise, and I understood enough to know that I was on the wrong bus. After some back and forth, she told me to get off at her stop in the Marais and she would help me.

This old woman took it upon herself to help me, a complete stranger who barely spoke French. Although she was very lovely in that chic French way, I am guessing she was in her 80’s, and she had trouble walking. Even so, she took me to the Metro station, helped me buy a Metro card for the week, and told me which bus to take and when. We decided I would go to Pere Lachaise tomorrow. She chatted about the area and told me she had lived here for 60 years! She asked me if I wanted to go back to her apartment in the Marais.

I pondered this for a moment. Go to her house. This woman I just met, in Paris, barely able to understand every 5th word she says? She’s pretty old. I don’t think she could kill me. She probably doesn’t have any thugs waiting at her house to kill me. I can run fast, and I’m pretty strong. This could be an amazing adventure. Why not? And so I went.

Her apartment was in such a beautiful spot in the Marais, which is my favorite arrondissement in Paris. A beautiful old building. She told me the building was over 400 years old, and her apartment was on the fourth floor, so up we climbed, her going very slowly. She showed me the bathroom, on the floor below, and explained she had to use it because her bathroom was being renovated.

Her apartment was exquisite. She said she had just been to a flea market, and showed me her purchase, an American electric teapot, of all things. She was proud of her apartment, and showed me around. It was quite large, with high ceilings and huge floor to ceiling windows that opened onto the lively street below. Lots of antiques. She had a massive china cabinet that spanned the length of one wall, with wooden doors on the bottom and glass doors on top, and it was filled with antique treasures.

She offered me a glass of water and to sit and chat, which I did. I listened to her talk and basically had no idea what she was saying. I laughed when she did, and nodded, and pretended to understand, but most of the words flew right over my head. But it was such a great experience to be in this Grand Dame’s house.

The most amazing spot of all, ironically, was une toilette. A wooden commode lined with original mosaic tiles, and an original tile floor with a horse in the middle, and horses painted on the wall outlined with red squares. Above the toilet, a bookshelf filled with ancient, yellowed books. I marveled at its beauty.

After that, I figured it was time to take my leave. She gave me her name and phone number, and said I could contact her anytime if I needed help.

I tried vainly to text her so I could take her out to dinner, but she never responded. I realized later that she had given me her home phone.

When I reflect now on the death of Queen Elizabeth, it reminds me of this grand lady, and how she so graciously took time from her day and helped out a complete stranger who didn’t even speak her language. She walked farther than she probably should have on a clearly injured leg and showed me her very interesting French home and life. I was amazed that she lived so simply and yet also so grandly, that her apartment was up four steep flights of stairs, that she had to walk down a flight and use a communal bathroom, but also that her apartment was so rich in history and so exquisitely beautiful at the same time.

There are so many women who are considered “elderly, who people may have written off as useless, but still have so much to give, who are such intelligent, wise, amazing people. All of us can learn and benefit from them, in so many ways. As I age myself, I realize that my years of experience have given me lots of learning in lots of different arenas.

I am reminded that this world is made up of so many intelligent, kind, generous women, women who are considered past their prime, who people may have written off as useless. These intelligent, wise, amazing women who take the time to help people like me still have so much to offer our world. In this very mixed-up world, these women are courageous heroines in their own right even if they never leave their city, who fight battles every day on different fronts, who forge their own paths in the face of danger, adversity and discrimination. These women have taught me that I am rich in friends and love, and I am proud to call myself a woman.

Rest in peace, Queen Elizabeth.

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