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1996: a crappy year

We replaced the gravestone of her parents’ grave so as to add grandma. When we realized that the plaque remembering grandpa, my dad, at Chiltern Crematorium in Amerhsam had been lost, we remembered him too on the new stone. A grave gives you somewhere concrete to pay your respects. Grandma lost her mum when she was ten and her dad when she was seventeen.

Grandma began 1996 by spending New Year’s Eve, and New Year’s Day too for that matter, in Wycombe Hospital, four miles from her home in Marlow. Her ailments were increasing and diversifying into cancer.

What upset her the most was that she had been unable to wrap, address and send her cards and packages that year. Christmas was her annual time of contact with her larger world, and had been as long as I could remember.

Grandma was no longer there, but her gifts to us lived on. Here is Alban having fun on a wet day at Disneyland, Paris, on December 27, 1996.

So at her request Marie-Hélène and I spent New Year’s Eve in Grandma’s hospital room with the wrapping paper and cards that they brought from her home helping her wrap and address her Christmas wishes. That was what she wanted to do. She was very grateful for our help.

1996 was a crappy year. Not a lot else to say.

Here’s Tom on the same day, equally wet, equally happy. As they get older, you forget how happy even the little things in life could make your children when they were young.

I visited Grandma for the last time with Nick and Tom the weekend before she died. We stayed in a hotel near to her home in Marlow so that the boys and their turbulence would not bother her. She no longer had the strength to handle them for long periods.

After putting the boys to bed in their Maidenhead hotel room on the Saturday evening, I drove over alone to visit her again. She had been flat and worn out all weekend, not surprisingly when fighting pancreatic cancer, but during this short nighttime visit she perked up and showed her old energy, buzzing and laughing, interested and interesting. Grandma had always been a night person. She even called in the Doctor for a short late-night visit to attend to an ache in her arm. Without actually saying it, he conveyed the question, “why am I here?” She seemed so well.

1996 was also smack in the middle of the period when La Grée was central to our lives. Here is Nick in his St James sweater in front of Daniel’s cows.

For some reason, I ended up leaving at the end of the evening, quite late, through the French windows in her living room rather than through the front door. I smiled back at her before turning aside outside the windows toward the back gate. She gave me a sort of grin, a knowing half smile, looking at me from a distance now that the Doctor had gone, through a tunnel, I thought to myself.

That was my last look shared with my mum. It was going to be a long, long tunnel. We went back home first thing on the Sunday, and she died on the Wednesday. We buried her next to her mum and dad in the grounds of The Abbey, Erdington. Her funeral, in the Birmingham that she grew up in, took place on Nick’s birthday. Like I said, a crappy year.

Again, we did not send an annual update, but here is an edited letter sent by Ian to a friend in the UK, another Ian, looking back on 1996.

Her mother put thought into the composition of this photo of Daphné in La Grée, taken (it says) on June 1, 1996. She is holding her own painting of Bambi, and standing in front of her grandmother’s (Mamie Régine’s) painting of a tree weeping. The daisies in the vase complete the picture.

Dear Ian,

I do hope you find the time during one of your Paris conferences to look us up, or plan another holiday here. You and yours will always be welcome, and there are enough rooms to fit you all in even when we are all here.

Nick asked after you the other day. “Do we still see Ian?” he asked, somehow giving me the impression that he was wondering if the divorce had interfered with your and my friendship. He has seen the divorce interfere with so much that it begins to explain everything in his head. I told him that we did still see you, but that it has been a while since our paths have crossed.

The happy couple on that same June day at La Grée, with Grand-père, Mamie, his mother-in-law, and Marie-Hélène’s tante Lucette.

It’s because of money, is it dad?” he continued, once more jumping on a reason for misery that he has learned over the past couple of years. I told him that it was not, but am not sure that he believed me.

With childlike clarity, that little exchange summarized the recent past. Ian, it has been a shitty year. Nick and Tom’s mother dragged on the divorce through the hearing which was finally held in October. What wears me down the most is the extent of the bad stuff that trickles down to Nick and Tom. It‘s not simply the uncertainty for the past 18 months, since the preliminary judgment gave me custody, although that has inevitable effects on them. . . .

One more from La Grée. Here are his proud parents holding on to their chou-chou next to the cottage. Note that Marie-Hélène’s and my right hands are both on Charlie’s tummy to hold him. Probably only one of us was needed!

Judgment will be given in the divorce in January, and she has already told the boys that she will appeal. I hope that it will be favorable, if only so that I can have a bargaining chip to persuade her not to appeal. None of us need any more of this. It hangs over you like a storm cloud on a heath, and the storm never seems to break. I still worry about the judgment, of course: there were three woman judges at the hearing, two woman lawyers, one woman party and me!

Finances have also been catastrophic this year. In addition to the alimony and child support that I have been paying, all of the joint debts from prior to the separation continue to fall on me alone, and my practice has been suffering. We were already planning on staying home most of the summer because of financial limitations when my poor old mum finally succumbed to her years of illness and misery and died on July 24th. The death certificate talked of pancreatic cancer, but she had simply had enough of being chronically ill and gave up one day.

Charlie grabbing a chunk of his mother’s melon at the kitchen table in La Bellanderie.

And by now, you must have had enough of this miserable letter. So I’ll stop the shit. It is Christmas, after all, and Christmas perks all of us up.

Charlie is the world‘s most adorable baby. He actually laughs as much as or more than he cries. He is a very lucky chap. All four kids dote on him; everybody’s brother, he is one of the things that ties this household together. And his mother spends hours and hours with him, to the point where he screams if he is left alone. He sleeps almost religiously through every night, and eats everything put in front of him, although he has a marked preference for what is put in front of us. At mealtimes, after his own bottle or bowl, he tours the table begging from children and parents indiscriminately for anything he can
get. It’
s all such a pleasant change.

La Bellanderie, where we all lived happily for about 16 months before leaving France.

The other high spot in our lives is this house. It‘s only a rental, but it has been the other major factor (after Charlie) cementing the household. We moved in in April, and for the first time were all living in our own place, not somewhere from somebody’s past. Each of the kids has his or her own room, and they have an enormous playroom as well. But it’s the grounds (one can’t really say garden when they cover about 45,000 m²) that they appreciate the most. They have built dens and even a prison, and when the weather is good can disappear for most of the day in their own little world. They each get to drive the tractor that the landlady leaves here to encourage maintenance of the grounds, and generally have a quality of life that cannot be equaled in the city.

Even the chores at La Bellanderie were fun for the whole family. Marie-Hélène happily mows the lawn in a sitting position!

How is everybody there? Are you still buried in work? How are your sons coping with adolescence? Who was it that said “and then, through no fault of my own, I reached adolescence?” Are you all, like we all, getting older?

Finally, by way of an apology for having subjected you to so much dejection so close to Christmas (not to mention the absence of a card this year), heres some Christmas spirit!

Do keep in touch, and all the best,

That letter sums up how the year looked overall: losing a mother and a grandmother is a terrible loss.

The group congratulating Madeleine Epaillard on living out her century. Yves Rocher, Maire of the commune as well as the most important industrialist in the region, addressed the group because his mother and Madeleine had been good friends for many years.

But when you look between the lines, you find that good times mingled with the bad, just like any other year. The photos show relentless good times, throughout almost the whole year. Here are others of those good times.

Taking care of grandma's affairs brought us to the UK several times during the fall. On one of them, we visited Thorp Park, an English fun fair, which took this great shot on their water ride.

Taking care of grandma’s affairs brought us to the UK several times during the fall. On one of them, we visited Thorpe Park, an English fun fair, which took this great shot on their water ride.

Above is Madeleine Epaillard, a relative on Grand-père’s side of the Berhaut family, who turned 100 in June 1996, and most of us went to the party that her family threw for her in La Gacilly, near La Grée. In the photo on the right, Marie-Hélène is in front of her father with Charles keeping busy on her lap. I’m on one knee next to her with a camera.

Two of Grand-père’s three brothers are here too: Oncle Pierre, the oldest of the four brothers, is sitting next to the centennaire, and Oncle Alain stands at the back in a grey jacket and dark tie. Daphné sits cross-legged in front of Oncle Pierre, framed by Alban and Tom.

Yves Rocher, the area’s most important industrialist and founder of Yves Rocher, a major French cosmetics company, was the Mayor of Le Gacilly at the time, or perhaps the deputy from the area in the French parliament. He did both at one time or another. Because his mother had been good friends with Madame Epaillard, he gave a speech at this gathering congratulating her on her century.