Yesterday, and through work, I had the pleasure of meeting a woman who left Paris in 1943 at the age of 9. She was small with striking features and a smile that would melt your heart. Even after so long in England her broken French/English accent was wonderful and caught your ear and made you want to listen to her. I’m not sure what her real name is but we’ll call Maria for the sake of this piece. Maria just popped in because she didn’t feel too good (she’d got tired walking around) and wanted to sit for a while and so we made her a cup of tea and just chatted to her until she was feeling less tired.
Maria’s story was captivating. I asked her what bought her to England and she told me her mother had married an English soldier who she’d met in France during the First World War. However, on the arrival of the German soldiers in World War Two, Maria and her mother had to flee Paris quickly and they fled to England. Maria didn’t mention whether her father came with them or was somewhere else at the time and for some reason I was just so captivated by her story I didn’t ask.
I asked Maria if she had any photographs of her parents or time in France as a little girl as I love really old photographs and this is where I get to why I’m writing about her. Maria’s face at this point changed and she explained that she’d lost most of them and everything else when they fled and then when the soldiers arrived everything that was left behind was taken or destroyed. They’d arrived with just the clothes on their backs and nothing much else, they’d just had to leave it all behind. All those memories which had been captured on photographs as a little girl growing up in Paris, her friends, her relations, her parents were just in head. There was no Facebook or Instagram or Flickr to turn to or Cloud in the sky saving the images or memory sticks. Maria herself stayed in England, found work and then married an English soldier. Maria then said she felt a lot less tired and needed to go to catch her bus.
After she’d gone I couldn’t get her out of my head. It wasn’t that she was just such a lovely person or the captivating story she had to tell but the photographs. It was the look of sadness in her eyes at losing all her early memories captured in photographs and the look of joy when she showed me a cut out photograph of her husband, who died three years ago, of when they first met that she carried around in her purse. It made me think of just how important the end product of photography is and what that print actually means to someone. The joy they bring not only to the person taking them but also the person receiving them however long they are passed on for.
I also learned another valuable lesson from yesterday in that Maria was a joy to meet and now I just have the memory of that meeting. I really wish I’d asked for her contact details and offered to take her portrait or took her photograph there and then my camera was only in my bag. I won’t make that mistake again!