inspiration – my yia-yia : alicia renardPosted: July 11, 2010
Yesterday my granny passed away. The same week i turned 30. She had been ill for 4 years, afflicted with a vascular dementia which had robbed us of the Alicia we knew and left in her place a wizened, frail and delightfully sweet old lady but not someone we identified with, and neither, it would appear, did she us.
I am particularly sad, because she was unable to realise herself fully during her lifetime. I guess, in part, I also identify with her, my mother has always said I share many of the same character traits. In essence, my grandmother was a dreamer, a fantasist for the most part. A lady who upped sticks and left Argentina on a whim on divorcing my grandfather with a small son in tow, leaving the rest of the family in Buenos Aires for the Greek island of Rhodes, undeniably a paradisiacal place, but not the obvious choice of destination. A lady who, as rashly as she had arrived left this idyll a month short of 10 years of residency and thus eligibility for citizenship.
On returning from Greece, she choose to settle in a small town on the coast of Argentina in the only house she owned, that which had been the family retreat most summer holidays…except that Villa Gesell shuts down during the winter months, becoming a virtual ghost town. She took the most sublimely beautiful photographs and we often encouraged her to get them made into postcards and exploit her talents, yet the fact that she didn’t own a car and her irrational fear of dogs restricted her movements around the town and encroached on her personal freedom, a sorry predicament for someone who had always been such an avid walker.
Yet she sought refuge and solace in her books and was a voracious reader in all the languages she spoke, being Franco-Argentine and with a predisposition to autodictactism she also had an impressive command of English, in her late sixties she decided to teach herself Hindi so as to be able to communicate in her Indian penpal’s native tongue. She was unbelievably well read and cultured, her literary love affair with Proust endured a lifetime.
She was also the most gifted piano player, the way in which her fingers softly caressed those 88 black and white keys and the sound she produced enveloped and entranced anyone within earshot.
Her relationship with my grandfather was not a particularly happy one, both recriminating the other for lovers they took, either blatantly or covertly. My grandmother was Catholic when it suited her, she had a long term love affair with a priest from the faith, whose name even in her senility would register a flicker of recognition in her eyes.
It would ultimately be her undoing, for she decided to sell the house about 8 years ago and follow him to Israel in a vain bid to attempt to rekindle their love. Her flights of fancy also precluded her from possessing any pragmatism when it came to money. She spent a large chunk of the proceeds from the sale of her house transporting her treasured Bluthner piano to France for her son to look after, but it didn’t take kindly to the journey, the changes in ambient temperature and humidity wreaked havoc on the wood which shrank, expanded and warped in disgust accordingly; what once had been a highly valuable instrument now deemed practically worthless.
Quite clearly she lived a life spent running away from or vainly searching for her identity. In spite of her unfulfilled dreams, it was largely her indomitable spirit which made made her such a unique and interesting individual, yet I would have have been curious to see what more she might have accomplished, had there been an element of common sense and constancy in the equation.
The irony of the piece is that she was a complex, difficult and quite embittered individual in her lucid state and yet it took mental illness for her to shed her anger along with the little weight she had put on in her senior years.
She fascinated me, for bucking trends and living such an unorthodox existence. She was prodigious and at the same time her own worst enemy. This galvanises me and inspires me to keep focused and continue to embrace the kind of fears she battled with regarding her own self worth and talent.
Alicia Renard: born 15 December 1929, died 10 July 2010