I wanted to talk with Nicole Laborie about how she and her fellow seniors are faring during the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, she took me back to a time when she faced even more personal horrors.
Her memories and her experiences put today’s problems into a different perspective.
She was 8 years old, growing up in France during World War II, when she watched the troops land at Normandy in June 1944 from her home near the beach, and then had to survive during the last years of the war and the poverty that ensued afterward.
“I remember it as though it was yesterday,” Laborie, who will be 85 next month, told me. “We lived in a house which faced the beach and one day we saw the big ships in the harbor. Then the boats brought the soldiers to the beach. They got shot down like ducks.
“It was terrible. Terrible. All of these brave men. Some of them never had a chance. So many young people died. They were really heroes.”
Her father was in the French underground against Germany, and he and a friend smuggled Jews to England in a small fishing boat. He eventually ended up in a jail for political prisoners, and Laborie — who even today speaks with a strong French accent — said her father would probably have been killed except for the invasion. She remembers how the family would secretly listen to BBC radio programs — a punishable offense if they were caught by the Germans.
The memories still tumble out. She remembers shelters that were nothing more than holes dug in the earth that collapsed over the people using them. The sound of an airplane motor makes her think still of the din of war.
The family escaped to a village next to a French town called Caen. Several times they escaped just before the home they were living in was bombed.
“She told me when I was a kid all these stories of what she went through,” said her son, Francois. “Can you imagine what this might have been like through the eyes of a child like she was when all this happened?”
Francois, a teacher, tells his mother’s stories to his class at Ramona Convent, and he said that she also has stories of what the family went through after the war.
”We lost everything. We had to start from scratch,” Nicole Laborie recalled. “Many people were in the streets. You got what you could. Those were terrible times.”
Her mother had twins in 1945 to add to a family of four children. Her father drove a truck.
Laborie studied psychiatric nursing and became a nurse. She and her then-husband found themselves in Vietnam — then a French colony — before the French were defeated by the insurgent Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The French loss to the Communist Viet Minh eventually led to a Vietnam split into two countries. “Things were not good,” she remembered.
The 4-foot-9 woman then traveled to many countries in Europe before moving in 1965 to America and residing in South Dakota. In the late ’60s, Laborie settled in Los Angeles, where she worked in the nursing field at several area hospitals. She moved to South Pasadena 10 years ago and lives with her son.
During the pandemic, Laborie has stayed in touch with the friends she has made at the South Pasadena Senior Center, and Liliana Torres, the facility’s manager, said she often calls her to provide updates on all the regulars.
“I am extremely fond of her as she reminds me so much of my mother,” Torres said of Laborie. “She is petite in stature and is always smiling, yet she is fearless.”
Her son describes Laborie — who is legally blind — as “a ball of energy.”
“She’s always on the go,” he said. “She’s someone who is very concerned about the welfare of othe people. She is someone who lives very much in the present.”
Every other Friday, Laborie and several of her friends gather under the trees outside the locked Senior Center gates, and keep a proper distance while they visit and share cookies and conversation. “We laugh and everyone is happy,” she said.
She knows that many of the people she has gotten used to seeing at the center are now alone. She tries to reach out to them so they can hear a friendly voice. “Some of the people I call don’t have anyone to talk to. It feels good that somebody cares.
“Some of them are alone and they are used to going to the Senior Center as often as they can during the week where they can have lunch with their friends and sit under the trees. They can’t do that anymore,” she said.
“Some families make their parents even more anxious because they want them to stay inside and not venture out. So they are alone — often with no transportation.”
Although she is legally blind, she sometimes goes to Trader Joe’s and cites the city’s Dial-a-Ride Service for helping her and her friends get to the grocery store and to a doctor’s appointment.
Her friends are treated to news of today and I was treated — during a series of conversations last week — to memories of her yesterdays.
“I’ve lived an exciting and beautiful life,” she said. “I’ve met a lot of wonderful people and traveled a great deal. You have to appreciate what you have because things could be a lot worse.
“You do the best that you can do.”