That house is of course swarming with memories. As was the case just about everywhere in France in those days, daily life was centred in the kitchen. For one thing, in the winter it was the only room that was heated. My grandmother had a coal burning and an electric stove side by side, and there was always a coffee pot on the coal stove, placed strategically in an area where the coffee would remain hot at all times without boiling. The instant that breakfast was finished and the dishes done, my grandmother would start peeling potatoes or other vegetables for lunch, clean a chicken or a rabbit… in other words get all of the ingredients ready for going on the stove well in advance so as to have a bit of free time.
We would listen for the horn of the bakery truck, the butcher truck, the grocery truck depending on the day of the week. We had it easy because of the location of the house. The merchants would always stop at the intersection, so there was no need to run up the street like some of the people had to do. Obviously, my grandmother knew all of these people so any special request could be handled with no problem. For example, if we had to go to Metz or something, the bakery truck would be informed the day before to leave two baguettes on the kitchen windowsill, behind the half opened shutters. That’s where we would find the mail, too, left by Odette the letter carrier if we were out. As mayor, my grandfather received a huge amount of mail, most of which he tossed. Some of it always came from East Germany, which you could tell from the DDR stamps, but I have no idea what sort of propaganda it contained. Now I am really curious, but too late!
My grandfather would be off on foot to the town hall to sign papers and cheques or whatever, and since his secretary was his mistress, that was another reason to be away. He would return by 11:00 and there would be a steady stream of family and friends just “accidentally” dropping right then because they knew they would be offered an apéritif. My grandmother would sigh, but she was always ready with the bottles of pastis, Martini vermouth, Suze, beer or just a glass of wine. The visitors would refuse the offer for about 3 seconds and then sit down as though they were doing my grandmother a favour. My grandfather would discuss important events such as a ditch being dug, the opening of the hunting season or people who had been seen in the wrong part of the village for mysterious reasons. One of my own memories back then was that if you walked down the street, you never saw anybody, but you would see the curtains at the front of every house move ever so slightly due to all of the invisible observers/reporters.
Today, I decided to walk to the end of Impasse des Roses to see what had changed. It was funny to remember the names of the people who lived in the houses back then – Zanette across the street, Francescato next door, then Lebée and so on. Four houses away was Madame Picca, another former mistress of my grandfather. My grandmother was always civil to her, but you could tell that she would have preferred to spit in her face. Like my mother, Madama Picca’s daughter was a war bride who would sometimes visit from America, so this would give a tenuous excuse to have conversations. On and on to the dead end, where the old farmer family lived. The Hanen’s both looked like they were about 100 years old, and they seemed to love it when my grandfather dropped in for a visit (at apéritif time) with his grandsons. I would sit at their kitchen table and try to survive the ordeal. Their kitchen smelled like a barn (what did their barn smell like?), and there was a big roll of sticky fly tape hanging from the light directly over the table. There were always at least a dozen flies circling it trying to find a landing spot, but it was already so full of dead flies that they were usually out of luck. I don’t know when the old man died, but his wife lasted long enough for my father to know her when my parents were living there. He called her “old lady one-tooth.”
The main thing I noticed were the little new houses that had been wedged between the old railroad houses. Since people don’t want the kitchen gardens anymore, and probably don’t even want to put effort into a flower garden, the best way to make money was to divide the plots and sell them. I imagine that some of these people work at the Renault factory, so they are in more of an asphalt culture than a garden culture. And anyway, most of the fruits and vegetables are much cheaper at the hypermarket even if they come from Spain and Morocco.
I went back to the car and drove to the cemetery. Two houses are more imposing than the others. There is Mme. Binder’s house which has been divided into four dwellings. She was a good friend of my grandmother, but she already died back around 1967. And there is also the Morette house, which might still belong to the Morette family. Jean Morette was a regionally famous illustrator and author. He grew up in Batilly, became famous in Metz and then retired to Batilly where he died in 2002. In the year that I stayed with my grandparents, I quickly noticed that Mr. Morette was the only person in the village who seemed to have a higher status than my grandfather. My grandfather was a self-important blowhard, but he would become totally meek in the Morette house. One very nice thing that Mr. Morette did was to lend his son’s entire collection of Tintin albums to my brother and me for the entire time that we were there (his son had outgrown them and was off at university in any case). It was basically those Tintin albums that taught me to read French, much more than the grammar books. The house was hidden behind high hedges, always a mark of the upper class, right?
And I also remember my grandmother’s very best friend, Marguerite Hoffmann, who lived just two houses away. She came over to my grandparents’ house constantly, particularly when she was sure that my grandfather was playing belote at the café across from the train station. And every Thursday, we would go to her house in the afternoon to make triangular beignets and drink café au lait. “You make them so much better than me,” she would always tell my grandmother, and I’m sure that it was true. We would eat them sprinkled with powdered sugar, straight from the French fryer (which did not use the same oil as when potatoes were being cooked). She died in the late 1970’s, and her tomb faces my grandmother’s tomb. She has recently been joined by her only son Roger, who lived downstairs in the same house as she.
I passed the old café and boulangerie that was run by the Robert family. They might still be in business, but I didn’t look. The older generation is gone for sure. I know that Mme. Robert had feuds with various people and you had to be careful whom you mentioned having seen or chatted with. My grandfather had to regularly visit all four cafés in that part of the village: Café de la Gare run by morbidly obese Mme. Leplomb, Café de la Gaîté (Robert), Café des Sports (mother’s birthplace) and the dreary Café du Centre just down the hill from the church. As long as my grandfather kept me supplied with coins for the pinball machines, I was happy.
I passed the combined town hall and school. The school annex has more than doubled in size over the years. Next door to that is the war monument with its statue of Joan of Arc (after all, this is Lorraine). My grandfather would give a little speech there every November 11th, always well attended because there were free drinks in the town hall right after. But there has been a major change since I was young. I don’t know if the monument has been turned around (I’ll have to check on that.) but in any case access to it is no longer from the main street and there is fence to keep anybody from getting ideas. On the other side, behind the church, there is now a sizeable car park because the new municipal event hall is there, as well as the covered tennis courts. So the change makes perfect sense, but I just hope that the current mayor is not making speeches to Joan’s arse.
I’m in the final stretch now, past the old post office (which was just a small room with a counter) and the new café-crêperie (well, less than 20 years old) which also doubles as news agent (which the village never had before) and postal agency. Probably also tobacco products and lottery tickets; I never really paid attention. I think I have only been inside once.
On the corner, once again my mother’s birthplace, where the family lived for the first few years. My mother always proudly told a story from when she was two years old and would sing standing on a café table to the music of the mechanical music player they had. The customers would give her money but she would reject the coins with a hole in the centre because she knew that they were not worth as much as the other coins.
Turning the corner, the cemetery is in sight. As usual it is empty. I just take a brief look at the family tombs. I used to feel their souls or something there, but now they are all long gone and have better things to do.
The cemetery is where all of the memories converge, because they are all there now. Aunt Nini and Uncle Marcel are the first tombs as I walk in, directly across from their son Georges and his wife Marie-Ange. I don't know how they obtained that location except for the fact that the municipality seems very active in reclaiming abandoned tomb sites. They must have been lucky. Another 20 or so tombs have now been labelled with the final notice of reclamation. Families have 6 months to contest. There is Madame Do who brought fresh eggs from her farm in Anoux-la-Grange, Odette the mail carrier who was always happy to stop for coffee, my grandmother's friend Marguerite who loved her beignets and her son Roger. I recognise quite a few of the family names without knowing precisely who is in the tomb. And there are other "celebrities" concerning whom I don't know where they are buried, for example "Monsieur Nicolas." For one thing, I don't know if it was his first or his last name, but I know that he was a very important "notable" for my grandfather because he appeared on all of the rare family photos of the gala meals in the dining room up to about 1960. Just about everybody else was a family member on those photos, so I am curious about his special status.
In the centre of the old section of the cemetery, at the crossroads of the lanes, are my grandmother and grandfather and also my mother and father, who never expected to be there. They probably thought they would be interred in Florida. My father did indeed die in Florida, but I brought his urn to France when I brought my mother to France (moment of stress when American Airlines lost the suitcase with the urn for a day). Over on the side against the cemetery wall are the previous generations of the family, really just a few steps away. My mother always had a story about the day she went to the cemetery with her father as a young girl. They were opening that tomb to consolidate some remains to make room for her grandfather. The workers pulled out a rotting coffin containing her great grandmother or great grandfather -- I don't know -- and then they pried off the lid. She saw the person perfectly conserved and then after about one minute, the corpse disintegrated into dust just like in all of those movies that we have seen. Obviously she never forgot seeing that.
I always take a look at the new section of the cemetery, which was created about 30 years ago. It is the same size as the old section with obviously a passage between the two sections. It is about 30% full at the moment but there are already three "columbaria" in one corner for cremated remains that don't have a full tomb. I suspect that this will all be redesigned in future years to be more aesthetic and consolidated for the new styles of death. In the new section, I always enjoy inspecting the extravagant gypsy tombs, but there are basically only two tombs to which I have a personal attachment -- first the Crouet tomb where Gertrud now lies with her in-laws and her daughter Annie who tragically died in a criminal fire. Gertrud's husband Marcel is still alive but should be joining them soon. My mother went to school with Marcel and always called him "snot-nose Marcel" (but not to his face) because was about 3 years younger than her and she said she was always wiping his snotty nose.
And a tomb that is really important to me is the one for "Bébert." He was the faithful family friend, who always came to help when my grandfather asked (digging potatoes, fixing fences…) and who was basically his spiritual son since his daughter had abandoned him to go off and marry an American. Bébert would visit every day, often more than once. Obviously he was there for apéritif but also for various meals, any sort of celebration and just to shoot the bull if nothing else. He was my grandfather's card playing partner at the café every day even though my grandfather would call him every name in the book if they lost. Just as Bébert replaced the missing daughter, my grandparents replaced Bébert's missing parents who Bébert had to abandon in 1962. Bébert was a "harki," an ethnic Algerian who supported France at the time of independence and had to leave home or be assassinated. He would fly into a rage (and my grandfather with him) when anybody called him Algerian. "I am French!"
When my grandmother died, Bébert said that he would make the couscous for the funeral meal and my mother validated the offer immediately to the horror of Gertrud. She said "I'll at least provide the meat," implying that poor Bébert and his wife Zouah could only afford shitty meat. In any case it was a wonderful sentimental meal, not sad at all, even though Gertrud had a rather pinched expression most of the time.
So yes, the tomb of Mohamed Larbi Belghersa (Bébert) is one of the most important tombs for me.
It was time to depart the cemetery and leave the ghosts behind. Until next time.
Kerouac, this is a wonderful thread, so full of reminiscences that I wonder how you captured them all. Did you dictate the memories into a phone or recorder as you strolled down memory lane? I wish I knew as much about my grandparents’ ancestral villages...