Monday, July 2, 2007


The church bells in this town ring for funerals. A lot. I mean they not only ring almost all of the way through a funeral, but they ring often because there are lots of funerals. Especially in the winter. In the winter they ring about every two or three days.

That's not because this is such a big town...the population is only about 5000 in the village and another 3000 or so in the outlying's because there are a high number of old people that are slowly dying off. Many of the young ones have gone away. Some of the old ones never married or had kids in order to to even entertain the idea of being taken care of in old age, but most of the country ones have lived their lives in the age-old farming village traditions of the old ones staying on and the new ones living together in an extended family situation on the family-run farm.

In the town, however, the situation isn't always the same. The town old ones don't seem to have the advantages of the children sticking around to work at home and take care of them. Most of their children have left to find the paved streets of gold in the bigger towns such as Bordeaux or Toulouse or Paris. And, once gone, seem to seldom come back to live.

In fact, the only time they come back is to either put put the granny up for adoption at the local old folks' home, or to make a visit to the local realtor to try to sell the family house once the granny has died....IF they've ironed out the inheritance deal with the siblings, that is. If any one of the inheritors isn't happy with the state of affairs about the sharing or selling or dividing up of assets, then the entire procedure can hold up the sale and disrupt the partage of the monies and cause no end of family feuding for years, if not decades. This somewhat explains why there are so very many old and crumbling houses at the point of ruin that haven't been sold or fixed up.
They're all too busy fighting with each other over the inheritance to sell, because they are all to tight with money to be able to see the point of getting on with each other in order to benefit the whole.

Another reason, which has something to do with the first, is that many simply don't want to sell or even rent out a property...or spend the money to fix one up to keep it standing, because it may interfere with the monies due to the family at their death. Many older French people will live in a house or use a crumbling barn intil the walls finally give up and fall over, or the roof caves in, all the while not spending a franc (or a centime, nowadays with the new Euro) to help keep the house in good order. This attitude can sometimes be detrimental.

So the children and the grandchildren just wait it out. Calls or visits to the old ones in town are generally limited to holidays and birthdays. The grandchildren will maybe come down on holiday with their parents for a few days during the summer during the time of the village fetes. Granny might go up to their place for a few weeks at Christmas. And, unless a neighbor calls them or a doctor alerts them to a problem, the granny is just left to get on with the end of her life by herself.

I have many friends like this, here in the center of town. I go and visit them in the winter evenings or on a sunny afternoon and they tell me all the stories about the people in the town. All the little histories and skeletons in the closet and family secrets and shames. They tell me about how life used to be here, when there was just them and the curists that would come for the hot saltwater baths, and what it used to be like before the end of the trains and the advent of the motorcar and television and before their children went off in search of 'better'.

I love them. They are bitter and full of regret and and alarmed at the world they see on their TV screens and they can't understand supermarkets and tiny little pots of expensive yoghurt and individually wrapped cookies for kids. They will totter off to the local open market once a week and buy from the local produce farmers and spend three times the supermarket price on a piece of meat from the local butchershop rather than buy from somewhere and someone they have no trust for, but they have a distrust of strangers and an even greater distrust of fellow villagers for everyday life and friendships.

I love them because they teach me about how it used to be 'before'. Some of them still live in the 'before', with no washing machines or telephones or central heating. A small woodstove in the room that serves as both living and dining room, and an old stone sink built into the wall behind cupboard doors that you can be sure the water runs right out into the space between the old stone house and the one next door. Air conditioners and clothesdryers and built-in kitchens are not for them. And neither is anything but cooking from 'scratch'. No cake mixes or instant envelopes for these hard old crows...even the milk is bought from the lady at the market with the cows, and boiled to pasteurize it before drinking it in the big bowl with coffee each morning.

They share their recipes with me. I can make merveilles just like Jan does and Genvieve taught me about the best kind of stewed rabbit with bacon and prunes. Christine showed me what to do with my big old daddy rabbit, when I replaced him with another one, so that I'd have ten jars of delicious rabbit paté to put up in the storecupboard, and Amandine went step by step and made sure that I could manage to drown a guineahen in armagnac and then age it and pluck and draw it and roast it for a delicious, if rather flavorful, roast bird.

After all the years I've been here, the thing I love best about them is the stories they tell about the people in the village. They are full of stories, as the village is full of people that have been here since the beginning of time. I think I love them because the stories show me that the French aren't just evil to strangers, but even, and sometimes even more so, to their own kind. It makes me feel as if it isn't just me....because sometimes I do.

The sad part about my old friends is that they are old. They are beginning to die off. I miss them and it seems so sad and empty without them here. When I pass a house that used to be where one of my friends lived, I am filled with memories of the time spent with them in their kitchens or at the table in the dining room. I can't help thinking that I wish I'd had more time to spend with them, or wishing I could tell them about all the little local news and gossip, or even to go and fetch things for them from upstairs or at the pharmacy.

When, after their death, the family comes to empty the house in order to sell it, I go and spend time with them, too, and we speak of the old one and the memories we have. Over the years, I've gotten to know the families, even the ones that hardly ever show up, because my friends speak so often about their children, grandchildren, neices and nephews. I'm privy to all the little spats and arguments and heartaches that they've had with their mothers since their birth. All the secret and not so secret problems with spouses, alcohol, and problem children. They don't know that, of course, and I don't tell them.

Sometimes, though, I'd like to say something. Like when Nicole died. She was a wonderful old woman, with so much energy. She used to help out at the troisieme-age club, with, as she put it, the 'old' ones. She never saw herslf as old at all, and kept busy every day of the week, between church, Bernaise club, card games, regular all day scenic tours with the Retired Persons' club, and many friends. It was only during the evenings that she could be found at home, in front of her TV, clucking at the news of the world.

Nicole had had cancer, and was getting frail. But she wouldn't have anyone speak of living at her daughters' house, or going into a care home. She was determined to die peacefully at home. If ever the topic of conversation was of death, she would cheerfully bring out a beautifully wrapped white satin beribboned box that held an elegant white nightgown that she was determined to be buried in. She'd chosen it years before and everybody knew that this was her plan, to be buried in her home village high up in they Pyrenees, dressed in this one silk nightie.

In the end, Nicole got sick and went off to her daughters' house, a few hours away, for a few weeks. I guess she made that woman's life a misery until it was agreed to take her back to her own house. The day she got back, I went to see her and found the door unlocked and Nicole calling out to me from her bed. She was not in good shape, although very happy to be back home. The idea was that she''d be taken care of by a visiting nurse and a home help and the neighbors. She knew she didn't have much longer to go, and was simply happy to find herself in her own house and in her own bed for the end.

The next day I went back, and she was gone. It seems that the neighbors were having none of it, and called Nicole's daughter and told her to come and fetch her. The daughter took Nicole to a hospital it the faraway town wher she was living and Nicloe died there a few days later, in a strange place in a strange bed with only strangers by her side. It was a sad end to a lovely woman. How much trouble could it have been, anyway, for the neighbors to take a few minutes of time to come and sit by her side and keep her company for those last few days of her life? I asked one of them, and the answer I got that was Nicole had left her own mother in a hospice to die, so it shouldn't be their problem to see her out to the end. Damn!

When the daughter came to empty the house for sale, I went by and she asked what I would like to keep as a memento of Nicole, so I asked for the crocheted bedspeads that were ever draped over the couch in the sitting room....Nicole was always crocheting something or anther, and these were something that, to me, was really 'her'. I have them now on the beds in the children's rooms, and sometimes we speak of them, and of Nicole. It's a good thing I asked for them, too, as the daughter was about to consign them to the rubbish tip because nobody in the family wanted them and she didn't think that they could be sold.

We got to talking about Nicole, and I asked if her death had been a good one, or if it had been one of suffering. I guess that she went off calmly, doped to the hilt. I asked if she'd been buried in her special nightgown. I'm really sorry that I asked. It seems that Nicole was buried in something that her daughter rummaged from her own nightclothes. Her story is that the mortuary was too much in a hurry for someone to bring in something to bury the old woman in and the daughter couldn't be bothered with the expens and time to drive all the way over here and back in order to fetch the special box with the ribbons on it and the lovely nightgown inside.

She couldn't even be bothered to go out and buy a reasonable facsimilie of the nightgown at a local store. She couldn't even be bothered to go out and buy a plain cheap nightie to bury her mother in. How much trouble and cost could it have been to do that one little thing, I ask you? So the old lady was buried in something from her daughters' drawers. This is a daughter that, with her brother, who was estranged from Nicole during these past thirty years because of a story about him and a woman that was not his wife, were standing to inherit one townhouse, one farmhouse, and two village houses up in the mountains, and quite a large sum of money from their mothers' estate. Heck, she could've hired someone to drive over here and pick up that satin covered box.

But she didn't, because, as she put it, while waving her hand in a dismissive manner while telling me the story of the end of Nicole...'it was too much expense and too much trouble'.


Lika said...

Dang girl when you write, you write. Great stories.

At least Nicole got to see you and you both have good memories of one another.

Right on, write on.

Mokihana said...

Great blog! I love reading it... gives me a taste of a part of the world I will probably never see.

islandhippo said...

I love your blog so far! Thank you for sharing!

Robin said...

wow... thats pretty cool... feel sad for nicole tho... I think stories like that really make me want to do things the way my father wants them done when he does pass

graham7 said...

Congratulations on your blog.
May the muse maintain inspiration
l+h G said...

Sorry, I didn't notice that Nicole was on after the first story. It is very good, but I'd like to read a story about her life, taken from her life. Yeah, I don't like to see very old people like me ignored; I'm 84, my wife is 76, we won't go to an old folks home, we love our little home, little city, big library, nearly all my friends have passed to where, they haven't sent me any messages; tell som stories about Nicole, when she was young, middle aged, strong in old age; not criticising, you have a natural gift for writing; keep writing, let the story telling part of your cerebral cortex take over; Luv, Roy