A few weeks ago our neighbour in France died -or rather, my boyfriend’s neighbour. Her official name was Jeanne, I saw on the thank-you-note later, but everyone called her Jeannette.
She was 89.
Jeannette and her husband, Marcel, who turned 95 this month, were both born in the same village and lived all of their married life just outside this village.
Marcel used to be an agriculteur -which meant he mainly cultivated the land, no animals, except some chickens, or a few goats.
Jeannette had always worked in and around the house, and taking care of their children; two daughters and two sons- one of the sons committed suicide one day after his wife had betrayed him with the neighbour. He hanged himself.
The couple would have been married 70 years this month, and children and grandchildren had been busy planning a party for their diamond anniversary. Instead, there was a funeral.
What is it about summer and death? I mean, apart from having to die in the first place -who likes to, no one, of course, except those who suffer deeply and are either seriously ill or in great emotional pain- it must be worse to have your life come to a halt in the middle of the summer!
There is something about the summer –when the light is often at its best and nature at its most exuberant. There is a promise in the air, brought about by those long, sunny days, and short, starry nights, attesting to a definitive end of darkness, it seems. Summer is the antithesis of death to me and it should keep itself out of the way for a while, I think. Why not? After all, what is death except utter darkness?
Or is it my imagination? Because I’m so against death.
The News of Her Death
It was exceptionally hot, not just in France, in the Netherlands too, when D. texted me the news of her death that morning. I was speed cycling through Amsterdam, on my way to an early yoga class for which I was too late. I called him right after class: how come…?
The last time I saw her she looked fine; sitting at the kitchen table in her new chair –for some reason she used to fall out of the old one from time to time. Her tiny feet in white-woollen socks, her thick-grey hair just cut and styled by the local hairdresser. She’d been talking and drinking black coffee, eating a piece of cake her husband had made that morning.
Leaving for Amsterdam I’d come to say goodbye, kissing her four times on the cheeks, as is customary in some parts of France. She liked being kissed, I could tell by the smile all over her face. And I liked to kiss her, she always smelled great -I had never met someone her age who smelled that pleasant, fresh like a new-born baby. Nothing had seemed out of the ordinary.
What had happened?
To be honest, whenever she strolled out of the house on her crutches, wandering into the fields, she’d been falling there too. Without being able to get up again. Not that it made her upset, on the contrary, she loved being outdoors and she would never give in to whatever ailments bothering her.
Sometimes it could take a while before she was missed. But once discovered by her husband, or her oldest daughter, my boyfriend D. would be called to fetch her -he was the only one being able to get her up again as she was small but quite heavy.
She would be lying there, on her back, sometimes her stomach, among the corn and potatoes, or surrounded by trees –she liked the cherry tree, standing huge and majestic behind the house of her youngest grandson’s, a huge smile appearing on her face as soon as D. came into sight. And while he was busy getting her on her feet again, and back home, she wouldn’t stop talking and laughing, as if it was a big joke she had just staged.
One thing: you’d better never ask her how she was doing. Was she all right?
If you tried, you saw immediately this almost resentful look in her eyes, as if she was saying: ‘what is the matter with you? Why wouldn’t I be all right? I’m perfectly fine…!’
In the end, it turned out she had died in her sleep -being on morphine lately. Her heart didn’t function properly, nor her intestines, while other body parts were causing trouble as well. Old age, her doctor had concluded. It was nothing special, and there was nothing extraordinary about it -his words.
She never left her village. She took care of her parents, her husband, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They weren’t poor and ate well from the land, but there was never any extra money left. She hardly read a thing, except the local newspaper, she and her husband watched some television occasionally. They never went on holiday and never took a day off.
There was the suicide of her youngest son, about whom she hardly spoke.
There were feuds among the remaining children that lasted for years, one side only talking to her husband, the other side just to her.
There had been a dead grandchild. He was overrun by his father, her remaining son, when the 2-year-old boy was playing in the sand, in front of her house -he died on the way to the hospital.
And so on…
At The Same Time
Every summer she tended to her roses. She had planted them around the farmhouse years ago when she was just married. In white, red and pink. She loved roses.
After Her Death
Only later I realized how she’d always impressed me. How I’d wanted to be like her. I still do. True, she didn’t know about computers, smartphones, or tablets. Nor did she use e-mail, Google, YouTube. And there was no Facebook account left behind, nor one on Pinterest or Tumblr.
She neither went to fancy dinner parties, exhibitions, theatre nights or other indulgences. Not ever. Her life was her family -children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, some neighbours, and the farm, surrounded by the land
She’d definitely had a tough life – the cards she’d been dealt were not the best hand, yet there always seemed to be an inner well-being present. There were a dignity and a grandeur around her, a confidence in herself, and in her way of life… It was remarkable and you had to admire it. She was her own person.
On a hot Sunday afternoon she and her husband, Marcel, would often sit at the kitchen table together, windows open, its worn-out shutters partly closed, listening to their favourite music –accordion arrangements, ancient café music, French chansons from the thirties…
‘Parlez-moi d’amour/ Redits-moi des choses tendres…’