Marie-Hélène’s family were kind to us all during our initial years together in France. There was a flattering curiosity about us, expressed with a French reserve but nonetheless expressed, in particular about the resident Anglo-Saxon (marrying one was looked upon as an almost radical step!), and about the four and then five blending children.
Grand-père, Denis (Marie-Hélène’s brother and her only sibling) and Chantal, his wife, and Cédric and Bertil, their two sons, joined us at Le Tahu for our first Christmas together, and a wonderful time was had by all! We saw the immediate family regularly during those first years, at home or at La Grée, all pretty normal.
Once we moved to California, of course, we, and Marie-Hélène in particular, were more on our own. In a way, that’s only natural. We were a long way away from all of them. But I did find it odd, a bit disconcerting, that no-one in her immediate family ever came to visit, not once in thirteen years.
Her papa never flew over, although he must have been limited by his advancing years. Nor did Denis, just two years younger than her, although he did send Cédric, his oldest, to stay with friends of ours once. Even that was a mixed blessing: Denis was supposed to invite one of our friends’ sons back to Paris for a reciprocal visit, a kind of exchange. That return invitation never arrived, which was a bit awkward for us as the mediators of the arrangement and its instigators with our hosting friends.
Not a big deal. I only mention these prolonged absences here because her father and brother were Marie-Hélène’s first family, and I felt that they showed her inadequate support for her move over here and for raising such a complex family. Her oncle Dan, her mother’s sister, came to San Francisco with his girlfriend Lysiane on one of their group tours (they traveled regularly all over the world, in organized groups on most occasions). And a family of first cousins on her father’s side, the very charming Hervé, Véronique and their children, stayed with us for a few days. They were a delight to host, as they excitedly embarked on the adventure of living and working in China for a couple of years.
Back in France, the support for us continued whenever we visited La Grée, the country cottage where grand-père retired years before we moved in together. There was always a place for us there, a summer base when we needed it. Marie-Hélène especially grew to depend on her time at La Grée during the summers as a place to decompress from and escape the pressures of life at home in Santa Cruz: I guess that those pressures were the children and I! Grand-père himself was a bit old school for Charlie and Alex, expecting them to clean up after meals, for example, a not unreasonable request which they found to be a clearly excessive demand. Hum. Were they maybe a little spoiled?!
Perhaps, but I think that they were also reacting to what I experienced as grand-père’s detachment from them. He rarely seemed to engage with our children, the odd project here and there, but not a real daily dialog. The substantial age difference helped to explain that of course – he is set in his ways – as did the language barrier, but I always felt that he was also pretty much disinterested in us.
He had a very full life with his own interests, despite or perhaps because of his retirement. He played the organ, maintained an involvement in photography (which had been his profession), visited one or other of his brothers, dotted around France, and cultivated his friendships in the area. He was particularly fascinated by his own family history, and traveled around the places where some of his ancestors had lived looking for civic and religious records to piece together their story. Looks like he and I have something in common there! Except that he was much more interested in the dead than in the living, whereas I’m the reverse.
The results of his efforts do make for fascinating reading. He can name dozens of direct ancestors killed in and after the revolution, and I learned more about its politics from reading his self-published book “Nous soussignons,” a collection of fact and fiction on his ancestor Charles Marie Hurel.
Hurel was either victim of or party to (I never quite got straight which) the royalist counter-rebellion in the west of France, called La Chouannerie, that followed the excesses of the revolution itself. Brittany and the rest of western France was a country at war with itself for well over a decade in ways which are still poorly understood and often debated, even at the most expert levels. Reading “Nous soussignons,” which means “we, the undersigned,” gives a vivid demonstration of how Brittany really was organized chaos at the time.
The hole in Marie-Hélène’s life was not her father’s and brother’s protracted absences from her new home in California: it was her mother’s premature death from cancer at the age of 53. “Mamie Régine,” rarely came up in the conversation, very rarely, but she was always there. If I was indiscrete enough to mention to Marie-Hélène her father’s failings with her or with the children, she would agree and quietly bemoan her mother’s absence. She was in le Jardin des Tuileries with Daphné and Alban on the morning that her mother died in 1991 – she had been suffering for some time, and the end had been approaching – and would return there regularly to stroll around and remember.
Families always have peculiarities, yours, mine, everybody’s, and a peculiarity of Marie-Hélène’s surfaced in about 2002. We were visiting different relatives during a brief summer tour around France, and spent a night or two with Oncle Alain, one of grand-père’s older brothers.
He is a doctor who offers his services every year to the Catholic Church in Lourdes, verifying from a medical point of view claims of miracle cures among the pilgrims there. Aunty Margaret, my mother’s oldest sister and a devout Catholic, had been a regular visitor to Lourdes seeking a cure for her cataracts. The Catholic Church had made Oncle Alain a knight in the Order of St. Gregory the Great for his services at Lourdes, an exceptional honor, entitling him (according to family gossip: I don’t have back up for this) to ride his horse into church!
Imagine my surprise when I looked in the barn, where an assortment of our furniture and appliances was supposed to be in storage for us, and discovered that almost all of them had vanished! He had graciously offered to store items that we did not want to take to the US when we moved there, appliances which would not work on the US voltage, pieces of furniture which Marie-Hélène didn’t care for, ten cubic meters in all. With the exception of the GE fridge freezer which missus gave us before she died, and that had a dent in the side, nothing remained!
Fine, he had children of his own, he had paid (in error: we’d already paid the movers ourselves) for shipping the furniture to his home, but I was still shocked.
During the same short summer tour, we visited Tante Lucette, another branch of the family, in her apartment in Six-Fours, on the Mediterranean. She had moved out of her own apartment herself so that the four of us (we were with Charlie and Alex on this trip) could have a holiday in an apartment to ourselves across the road from the beach. That was simply adorable, much appreciated, and a vivid counterpoint to Oncle Alain: he embodied one peculiarity of the family, and Tante Lucette its other side.