Sunday, 5 February 2017

Of New Lives, Reconstructed Stories And The Dearly Departed

2016 was a horrible year for many reasons. Musicians who made the music with which I grew up died in droves, many of them not having attained their allotted span of three-score-and-ten. Terrible wars continued, turkeys went crazy and voted for Christmas (twice) while much closer to home la Devine lost her mother. Then, towards the end of the year she lost her beloved stepfather and in a final flourish we all lost la Femme Canadienne. I suppose having now passed the three-score mark myself, I shall be encountering these end of life changes more frequently. It looks like we enter life in tears and we leave it the same way. I shed many tears in 2016. I wonder how many were for others and how many were for me? 

La Femme Canadienne was truly one of the most remarkable women I have ever met. She moved to France nearly five decades ago with a scholarship from the French government and never went home. She claimed P's mother in an act of annexation, her own being many a thousand miles distant. These were two extraordinary women who had it in them to cause conflagration as the sparks of their determinations could easily set fire to anyone else lingering nearby. Through that act P and his brothers acquired a big sister. Not just a big sister in name, she was their confidante when confidences needed to be shared, aired and considered and she was a fountain of wisdom and advice, particularly adept in dealing with matters of the heart when discussion with one's own mother was completely out of the question. She saw the world very clearly and did not suffer fools at all, although somehow she found fathomless depths of compassion for others less fortunate. One always knew when a conversation had run its course. She would dismiss the other party or simply get up and leave. That way, no welcome was ever outstayed.

In the over-world she was an academic and university lecturer while in the under-world she volunteered in a soup kitchen and established recycling projects redistributing life's necessities among those who lacked. She collected clothes for homeless men whose own apparel would never survive laundering. She recruited others into practical acts of humanity. She wrote academic treatises, published books on obscure and erudite subjects. The choir of which she was a member undertook some surprisingly challenging repertoire from the contemporary canon. She operated per "project" and always had a project on the go. I was amazed to find myself standing in a museum in Lyons a few years ago surrounded by the artefacts that accompanied the research for one of her projects. Typically it was in an area in which there had been no prior research carried out, so she had started this project from scratch. Whole rooms of the museum had been given over to her work, which has since travelled to other museums in France.  That was the first time I remember realising that her contribution to the culture of her adopted homeland went far beyond our little family clique. The ultimate proof of her academic achievement was the award of a prize from the esteemed Académie française a few of years ago.

I think she was proud to have her work acknowledged in the highest of high places, but she wore that very lightly as she continued to volunteer in the soup kitchen and continued to help distribute recycled clothing to homeless men. She said in a newspaper interview that any pair of shoes would find a needy pair of feet. I never saw her in this role, but I cannot imagine her ever being condescending. She was completely pragmatic, albeit a force of nature when she considered it necessary. Where others saw problems, she saw solutions. Among her many projects she made things. She changed things. The ordinary became the extraordinary. When she moved into a new home she knocked down walls to change the shapes of rooms. She flattened the most unassuming of cookware into two-dimensional shapes to create artistic displays, which she pinned to any walls left standing. She had accumulated an over-abundance of ties (they no longer being seen by many as a necessary item of clothing) and these would never be distributed amongst her gentlemen. Some of these ties - actually, to be blunt, most of them - were horrible and, even given the extreme circumstances of many of her clientele, most still found the wherewithal to hang on to a last shred of dignity. She embraced the notion that we are all entitled, even in deprivation, to have standards. Her solution to the surfeit was to sew them together and make them into skirts for the indoor containers in which Christmas trees were potted. Ingenius! She loved dictionaries and took pages from her "swaps" to decorate furniture, walls and even the front door to her small apartment in the medieval centre of the city that housed the university in which she taught.

The first time I met her was at her other house in a remote town in the mountains. After the eighteen years P had spent focusing on his own career, as well as dealing with the ongoing aftermath of family tragedy, La Femme wanted to celebrate P's fortune in finding a lover and took the three of us out to dinner. During the conversation she let slip that her great-grandmother had been a lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria. Earlier that afternoon she had sent us out for a walk. Knowing P's love of cooking, not to mention his culinary skills, she had decided to make us each an apron. We'd accompanied her to her sewing room where she threw open several suitcases filled with cotton fabrics. She thought a Mondrian print would suit P. perfectly while she thought I was somewhat more Art Nouveau. Within the hour we'd returned from our walk to the cemetery to be presented with our finished aprons. When not in (frequent) use they still hang from hooks on P's kitchen door in proud display almost a decade and a half later.

In the apartment of the late Femme Canadienne with aprons, candles and her real life sister

The cemetery we'd visited that afternoon has become an emblem in my life. It signifies one of the points I wanted to explore in this essay. P's brother died tragically young in 1994. Before his illness became so bad that he had to move into hospital he was living with la Femme Canadienne. His big sister had taken him in to take some of the heat off the family. In her pragmatic way she had already bought herself a plot in the cemetery for when her time came. She made a bargain with her little brother that whoever needed the grave first could have it. They both knew it wouldn't be her. Although a three-hour drive into the mountains P and I visit when we can. That afternoon we'd taken the opportunity to weed, water and tidy the plot as he had done many times before and we have done together many times since. In 2011 we buried P's mother in the other half of the double-sized plot. That was the completion of at least two circles in the weave of these lives that have come to mean so much to me. 

These are stories of real events that I can only have lived through the telling. Whenever the family gets together real history is revisited and I can never be part of that. There is also an "older brother", another stray taken in by P's mother. Older Brother is an Anglais who now has French citizenship and who has recently retired from a lifetime of employment in France. He is another lovely person who is woven into the family narrative. He, like la Femme Canadienne, la Devine and the wives of P's brothers can all talk about a past where so much has happened and in which I have played no part. I would like to have played a part. For reasons I don't understand I do not feel the same sense of disconnect in conversation with P's father. I wonder what's going on? It's something we haven't talked about, but now I am discussing it with myself I am sure we shall. One of the beautiful things about P is that no topic of conversation is off limits. I would love to have been part of that narrative, though. I would love to have known P's brother. While I can rejoice that I knew his mother and la Femme Canadienne, and that I have met most of the surviving cast, those reminiscences still jab at a sensitive place somewhere deep inside. Do I label these feelings with some derogatory epithet? If so are they irrational, selfish or simply pointless and unrealistic? I wonder if P feels the same about my family's history?

P and I were in England and could not get to the funeral of our departed sister. On the morning we received a spate of text messages. Her own sister, in France from Canada, was searching for the music that La Femme had said she wanted to be played when the time came. It would not be found. The music she wanted was a composition I had written and recorded with my band ten years previously in commemoration of that gift of a final resting place for P's brother. We were able to get them a file of the music just in time. A couple of weeks later, we went to France and went up into the mountains to say our own private goodbyes. We played my music again and read messages and poems in memory at the new grave of a very special woman.

View from the graveside across a sea of marble