My father was Lt. Cdr. Inslee E. Grainger. Our family lived in Villefranche in 1959-61 when he served aboard the USS Des Moines and the USS Springfield. I was only two when we arrived, so while I have a lot of memories of Villefranche, they are from a toddler’s perspective.
The Americans and Sixth Fleet Villefranche sur Mer website has stories posted about a strange and mysterious character named Bloody Mary, and I have wondered she might have been a woman I saw in Villefranche.
We lived in the ground floor of Villa El Flamenco, a small duplex villa on av de la Malmaison (above Port de la Darse). Daddy was often at sea and my sisters Penny and Eleanor went off to boarding school, one year in Frankfurt and then the second in Dreux. So most of the time I was alone in the Villa with my mother. The landlord was Vincent, the town butcher; he had a Belgian wife named Emmy and a son named Raymond. Raymond was much older than I was, but younger than my sisters. Vincent and Emmy and Raymond lived on rue du Poilu, just a few doors down from their butcher shop.
Sometimes when my mother was busy she would leave me with Emmy to babysit. I would stand on the rue du Poilu outside Vincent’s shop and watch him work, or bounce a ball against a wall, or watch the boys who were squatting in a circle to play marbles. You had to walk up dark and steep steps to get to the Raimondi’s apartment. Inside, they had a big, old, lazy German Shepherd who slept in the corner of the living room and if I got too close, growled or even sometimes bared his teeth. There was a very small balcony off of the living room.
Once mother left me with Emmy for a few days while she drove up to Germany to get my sisters from school. It was my first time to spend the night without her; I missed her a lot. Once when I felt very sad I went through the living room to the balcony, making a big arc around the dog in order to get there. I sat down on the floor of the balcony, dangling my feet through the bars and looking down on the empty alley that ran behind the house and led into the rue Obscure.
All of the sudden a fat woman wearing a bright red dress ran out of the rue Obscure and through the alley, passing under my feet. She was shrieking and sobbing loudly, covering her face with her enormous arms. She had long black hair. She scared and disturbed me: I did not know that grownups even COULD cry…..and certainly not in a way that would not have been allowed even for a little kid like me.
I started having nightmares about her where she tickled me relentlessly, pressing down on me with her squishy flab and almost smothering me as I sobbed uncontrollably. When my mother woke me up and I recounted the nightmare, I called her the Poops Lady. I already had believed that the Boogey Man (whom I imagined as a gaunt, grey, evil wizard) lived in the dark corners of the rue Obscure, where it smelled like mold and piss. Now the Poops Lady joined him in my cast of “stars of cauchemars” who lived in the old town of Villefranche.
While I was still a student backpacking through Europe in 1977, I came back to visit the Raimondis in Villefranche. Emmy was short and round, welcoming and jolly. Vincent was still working in the butcher shop, although he was grey and must have been near retiring. They still lived in the apartment on rue du Poilu. When I asked Emmy about my memories of the Poops Lady she said “oh, that must have been the Mongoloid lady. She still lives upstairs: do you want to meet her?” I declined with a shudder. A few years later, when I made a series of drawings of childhood nightmares, the Poops Lady was a main character.