The 8th of January 2016 would have been my maternal grandfather’s 100th birthday.
He passed away on July 9th 1994, (the same day that I found out I was expecting Benjamin), at the age of 78, of cancer. He was born in Yverdon-Les Bains, Switzerland in 1916, but emigrated to Nigeria before WWII, and lived there his whole adult life.
West Africa and the colonies were ‘the land of opportunity’ for the young, poor son of a struggling laborer and a seamstress from a rural community in the French speaking part of Switzerland.
First, he worked as a trader, with import and export, then in a mining company, and later he ran his own contracting company, building roads and infrastructure in the British colony. He met, fell in love with, and married a young women from the French Cameroons, and my mother was born in 1944. (Their love story is a post for another day.) Norah, the love of his life, sadly passed away just a year later, in 1945.
Nigeria was good to him for many years, but in 1962, he was bankrupt, and could no longer pay for my mother’s expensive European education. She had been attending boarding schools in England and Switzerland from the age of 6 (!).
Post Colonial Nigeria was a struggle, with it’s cycles of civil war and military dictatorships alternating with democratically elected governments, but Eugene stayed put. He remarried once, but the marriage was fairly short lived. Towards the end of his life, he lived with an African woman, an artist, who crafted silver jewelry. I still have a necklace, bracelet and ring that she made and that he gave me.
I remember him visiting my mother and me in London, and later Oslo, always impeccably dressed, with a clean handkerchief in his breast pocket. He had a lovely French accent when he spoke English. He always smelled so good, of cologne and hair cream. He was a great appreciator of the arts and incredibly well-read, and I always picture him with a book. He used to write letters and cards to me quite regularly, but mummy would have to read them to me, because I could not understand his handwriting. I still struggle.
I was born in Nigeria (just after the beginning of the Biafra conflict), but was only 9 months when we moved to England, and I only visited Nigeria once after that, when I was 10, in 1977. I remember a bustling, colorful and verdantly green country. The smell of unfamiliar spices and beautiful tropical flowers. Crazy busy Lagos traffic, cockroaches, lizards, and living on mangoes and grilled cheese sandwiches, because the food was too spicy…
After Granddad became ill, my mother traveled to Lagos and brought him back to Norway to live with my parents. While there, ElRay, my younger brother, took it upon himself to get him to tell his life story. And Elray, at the ripe old age of 17 (!) wrote it all down. In French. My mother has since transcribed it, and sent me a copy. What a treasure it is!
Eugene and Cherina
Granddad and my mother were always very close. I have never seen my mother as distraught as at his funeral. He always supported her and encouraged her, even when she joined the Mormon church. (He was an atheist) . I’m not sure he was altogether happy about her having 8 children, but he spoiled us with Swiss chocolates and stuffed animals whenever he came to visit.
A couple of random things I remember him saying:
He used to call Maggie Thatcher ‘Maggie Snatcher’. He was interested in politics, and quite opinionated, but I still remember him as very soft spoken.
‘Switzerland is a great country to live in if you have money. If not, it is just a beautiful country. But you can’t eat beauty.’
‘Ca suffit maintenant’. (‘That’s enough.’ Usually said when the 8 of us grandchildren were being a little too loud or rowdy for his taste…)
Happy birthday Granddad!