Competitive mortality: The Doyennes
All Saints Day, Rose Lucindo visits the family tomb with an entourage
admirers and M. Calmette, the journalist for the Rocky Coast. She takes up a collection to
the maintenance of her future grave. Her motto, ‘live and let
live’, does not
mean it’s forever. But still it looks as though she may well
become the oldest
person in France, assuming, as she says, the competition
‘keeps taking the
pills.’ The glint in her eye is not medication. When asked
for her secret, she
attributes her long life to ‘not doing very much’,
other than ‘turning wine
The Novena Women say it should be the other way around, like the wedding feast at Cana. Rose Lucindo’s longevity is miraculous. But I leave what was printed in the newspaper stand, because it’s truer to life: as all flesh is grass, all wine after all ends up as water. But what happens in between for both the flesh and the rosė is your good health. Long may Rose Lucindo live.
2. Age seems to be catching up with Rose Lucindo. I see her on the Place, a bag of bones being pushed around in a wheelchair by a giant Arab woman dressed very properly in the French bourgeois style (skirt and pullover).
Rose Lucido is parked outside Le Pub while her minder orders a coffee and a rosé. The giant slurps down the noisette at the bar while watching her charge staring down her glass, until, losing patience, she stomps out and effectively pours it, Spanish-style, down the poor woman’s throat. Her maneuver is remarkably efficient. There is no spillage, and Rose perks up. The glint returns as she laughs out, I’ll have another wee drop.
In her annual birthday photo in Le Journal, she is a hundred and twelve. The staff of the Maison flock around her like moths to a flame. Although Rose could be said to be a mere flicker in the twilight of her career. Nevertheless, despite her obvious fragility, Rose’s hard, implacable gaze tells me why she has lived so long. She may not show much sign of life, but the challenge in her look tells me Rose Lucindo intends to outlive Michele Bisson, even if it kills her. The stakes are rising. The reigning doyenne of France, Clementine Blanchard, is expected to casse sa pipe, pipe out, before her hundred and fourteenth birthday.
3. Michele Bisson had her hundred and thirteenth birthday in Argeles down the road last week. That makes her Clementine Solignaci’s’s dauphine. Le Journal said she hummed her favorite song, ‘Les Feuilles Mortes’ (‘Autumn Leaves’) after cutting a strawberry cake. Michele was born in Panama in 1898 in the wake of the French Government bribery scandals. The family circumstances were much reduced, and she taught herself to type to become a ‘steno dactylo’. When being French and poor became unsupportable, she returned to the homeland where a marriage had been arranged. The union only lasted a few days, and she remained ‘a woman without a shadow’, childless. A fact she favored in explaining her longevity. ‘Children can take it out of you’, always adding, ‘before and after birth.’
When Michele attributes her great age to a mistake in her birth certificate, Mayor Algas applauds the joke. On being further pressed, she says it was being ‘ordinary and boring. Nobody took much notice of me.’ ‘You have eleven years to go to become the oldest woman in the world ever,’ proclaims the mayor. ‘Jeanne Calment of Provence, RIP.’ But Michele is quick to point out that the doyenne of France is a thorny crown. The average reign this decade is six months.
Michele does not acknowledge Rose’s existence. She is just a gaga kid in a neighbouring village who steals a little of her limelight once a year ‘in the newspaper that nobody reads’. Yet Michele attends Germaine Adorno’s birthday party in Collioure. She calls her ‘my rival’, though Germaine is only a hundred and three, and not competitive, being a lifelong socialist. But Michele is not fooled by her real rival. Rose has le fouet de concurrance, the whip of competition, firmly in her grip, holding on to it for dear life. It may not be forever, but it will be long enough.
However, both Michelle and Rose are well aware of a strong Italian contender for the European crown: Anna Morano, born in the year between them, does her own shopping and has a ‘boyfriend’. But maybe she is doing too much and will fall over herself, Michelle chortles.
Rose and Michele have one thing in common, other than longevity. Both always say, ‘Je vis au jour le jour’. I live from day to day. And so, they do.
4. Michele Bisson became the doyenne of France shortly after her hundred and thirteenth birthday, but sadly relinquished her crown to Rose Lucindo a few weeks later. Rose was the doyenne for just a month, long enough to catch up with Michele’s final age. As they died in the same year it was declared a dead heat.
Since then, there have been eight doyennes with an average reign of three months. None of them lived as long as Rose and Michelle, except one from overseas, Emma Blue, whose birth certificate has been questioned. The current doyenne of France is from Brittany of all places. Like so many ex-femmes de ménages, she is called Severine, but unlike most of them she has no complaints about her health. Medical journalists calculate she could live longer than the nearly immortal Jeanne Calment (122 years and 164 days, 1997). But she has yet to reach the age that Michele and Rose achieved, and the temperate north has no great tradition of longevity. Several dauphines lurk in the retirement homes of the Rocky Coast, biding their time with olive oil and rosė. While Italy’s feisty doyenne Anna Morano (115) defies the doubters and gets stronger every day, by all reports.
But nothing is sacred. In 2018, Jeanne Calment’s astonishing longevity has been questioned by a Russian gerontologist, Valeri Novosselov, working with a sociologist, Nicolai Zac, who has studied the photographs and documents and concluded that Jeanne died of pleurisy in 1934. Her sole daughter took her identity to avoid paying death duties, or ‘les droits de successions’. In 1997, Yvonne Calment would have been a mere ninety-nine. This is disputed in Arles, where the family was well known for generations. They would have known the difference. Moreover, the mayor has pointed out, municipal records show that accumulatively her two parents and their grandparents lived 477 years (almost twice the local average).
Stop-press: an Arlesian has divulged from army records that in 1934 Yvonne Calment’s husband took compassionate leave to look after his terminally ill wife. And so, the Russian hypothesis has been shelved. Jeanne remains the undisputed doyenne worldwide.