Tuesday, November 3, 2009

All Souls Day 2009: In a rural French cemetery: Pt. 2 "My steadfast love shall not depart from you..."

I apologise for the delay in publishing this post. It's been a demanding week spiritually and temporally, not just in personal life but in everything one has had to deal with outside of that.

First, a note about the cedar tree which featured in the last post. Not long after I wrote about it in 2001, the news reached us in London that there had been a freak tempest in St. Romain which had done tremendous damage in the village and surrounding area. Our own house had not escaped. However, when I next went there, I discovered to my sorrow that the storm had been so powerful as to sweep away the cemetery bench, but worse, it had uprooted and destroyed the beloved cedar. In its absence the cemetery feels exposed and vulnerable. (The Commune has replaced it with two or three cypresses. It will never be the same again. Why could they not have been patient and planted another cedar?) But always, always when I visit the cemetery now, I close my eyes and remember the lessons taught by that old lost friend, and imagine it is still there.............

All Souls Day 2009

The weather had been foul, but today around lunch time the sky was blue with not a cloud in evidence. At around half past mid-day I tramped off up the road with the usual tools, and this year not the bouquet described in the earlier post, but a pot of densely flowering yellow button chrysanthemums. When I opened the iron gates, as I expected, a blaze of colour lay before me. As usual almost every grave had been adorned. The predominant colours this year were yellow and white with the occasional touch of penitential magenta or darker than that. As always I was comforted by the sight, even though I know that in many, if not most, cases the graves had not been decorated out of any religious impulse. But Iwas in for a surprise.

As I went down the central avenue I noticed that the wind had knocked many of the pots over and I stopped to prop them up before finally arriving at my mother's grave. She is buried next to our erstwhile next-door neighbour Madame M..... who was a dear friend to her and to me. And so visiting this spot is to revisit my entire life and particularly the French part of it.

I set to work on the grave, digging a hole in the gravel so that I could bury the pot of chrysanthemums up to the rim, thus making sure the wind would not be able to budge it. I thought I was alone, but it was not so. Turning suddenly, I saw Madame B..... two grave rows away. I hadn't seen her for years but I waved to her and she came over to me. We had a most wonderful conversation about Madame M., my mother and their friendship and about old St. Romain. I was aware throughout that she could not have had such a conversation with any other English person who now resides in the village, which we have known for 20 years. When we came, French attitudes were different. And we discussed all that. Then she told me something funny, well in a macabre way, about Madame M's husband who died in 1960, 31 years before his wife.

This is what Mme B told me: M. M..... was not a believer, and in fact was a bit of a provacateur. He insisted on eating meat on Good Friday. Mme M. who was not a Mass attending Catholic, nevertheless refused to cook it for him and told him to go off into the woods every Good Friday and cook and eat his entrecote there. He did this for years, and for the last time in 1960. Having relished his steak, he died on Good Friday night that year. Apparently one of his work colleagues who was of the same opinions and who liikewise indulged in the Good Friday woodland steaks also went to meet his Maker on Good Friday a couple or years later.

At one point during the conversation Mme B left me for a while and returned to her grave tidying so I was able to have peace with my mother for a while. By the time Mme B rejoined me the sky was threatening and we decided it was time to go. On the way back down the straight road to the village, we continued to chat as old ladies do about the old times, and managed to reach our homes before the heavens opened.

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