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My grandmother laid the foundation for my independence

Editor’s Note: This is a part of a collection of stories SDNN will publish throughout the month of March to celebrate Women’s History Month. Join us as we recognize Women’s History Month by sending in your stories too and checking SDNN every day for stories from other women in our region. Happy Women’s History Month!

Born in the Ticino, Switzerland, in 1891, my grandmother grew up to become the “Tomboy” incarnate. Defiant, she knew she was going to escape the severely corseted fate of the women who nurtured her. High-necked or low-necked, she wanted nothing to do with the close-fitted bodice presented to her when she reached puberty. As a cycling and swimming aficionado, she made her own bloomers on an old Singer sewing machine that she kept all her life, even when my grandfather bought her the electric model in the 1950s.

She was an herbalist before she even knew the term. She was fascinated by the Alps both Italian and French. She discovered its flora and studied the medicinal properties of plants.

After the World War I, when she crossed the Mont Cenis from Italy to immigrate to France, she was determined to savor the delights that this neighbor country touted through the controversial literature she dared read. She became the 20th century alchemist who set up her home laboratory where her alembic distilled a Cointreau that reigned supreme within her circles of friends. Among her artisanal products, her griottes were “to die for”! I admit being a scoundrel and, inadvertently, got my grand-father in trouble. My grandmother would buy Morello cherries, a Turkish variety known for its full flavor. Then, the cherries would undergo a slow maceration in what she called “Eau de Vie”, literally translated as “water of life”. It is kirsch or a brandy depending on its origin.

She displayed them in beautiful jars that she aligned on the very top shelves of her laboratory that also served as the laundry. How can a ten year old resist their brilliance? Once or twice a week, I would climb the ladder to open the jar to savor them one at a time, morsel by morsel; until one day, after dinner, my grandmother wanted to serve a “pousse-café”, literally translated as a “push coffee”, an after dinner delicacy to her guests following the classic espresso. The jar was practically empty! She gave my grand-father an accusatory dagger glance that could have pierced his heart. My grand-father looked at me and winked with a smile in his eyes. I was the culprit and didn’t hesitate to say so. To this day, I don’t think my grandmother believed me.

She was a defender of life and education. Autodidact, she became a jurist in her own right. I was born after the World War II; my mother did not survive. My grandmother raised me from birth, fed me with the milk of a cow that grazed in a pasture in the country near Lyon where we lived. Because my father was not involved and made no contribution to my education, she became a family law erudite and partnered with the best of attorneys to pursue and demand the support she knew was appropriate for my education. As a result of her desire, knowledge and tenacity I became the recipient of a fine private education.

Pity that this multi-faceted, extraordinary woman did not live long enough to know that the foundation she laid for me fostered my independence and paved my way to an enriching international lifestyle.

Francoise Esteve lives in San Diego.