I couldn’t let today pass without celebrating, but not for the reasons you think. By sheer coincidence I started this blog seven years ago today. Well over 500 posts, thousands of comments and many friendships later, I still find plenty to write about. But as a nod to Valentine’s Day, I have resurrected and updated a post from the archives that is almost seven years old, about a wonderful local discovery.
Sometimes fate works in mysterious ways. In this case, it saved for posterity a precious letter that would otherwise have been consigned to the flames with a heap of junk.
Every summer, the commune of Espinas organises weekly walks around the surrounding countryside. They used to include a visit to the hamlet of Flouquet. Once a thriving farming community, no one lives there all year round now. However, the people who own houses keep the place looking neat and tidy and take a pride in renovating the common parts of the hamlet.
The houses are grouped around a green planted with chestnut and walnut trees. The original bread oven has been restored and is lit for the benefit of the walkers. You can see the original wooden paddles on which the bread was put into and removed from the oven. The hamlet’s lavoir, or washing pool, has also been cleared out and restored.
One of the inhabitants was brought up in the area. He and his sister were clearing out an attic when a piece of paper fluttered to the floor. When they deciphered it, they realised it was a letter from their grandmother, Palmyre, to their grandfather, written during World War I when he was fighting in the trenches somewhere in northern France.
Palmyre was left with several children and a farm to look after when her husband went off to war, as happened so often then. It must have been so harsh, not only coping with all the work that involved, but also not knowing what was happening to her husband or even, at times, if he was still alive.
But Palmyre was undaunted. She tells her husband what’s happening on the farm, what she has done with particular fields, whose advice she has taken (or not; she was quite proud of that) and how the weather has been. Palmyre wrote the letter in several stages, taking it up again when she found the time.
Showing your emotions in public at that time was rare. We were told that it was also unusual for people to express their emotions in writing, even to spouses or close relatives. But Palmyre says how much she misses her husband, whom she has not seen for nine months: “We were so happy together.”
The fact that Palmyre’s husband hung onto the letter shows how much he valued it. You can imagine him keeping it safe in a pocket book in the trenches, unfolding it countless times and taking comfort from it when the going was hard. Perhaps it transported him back for brief moments from mud-ridden battlefields to the green, rolling pastures of Espinas. Maybe he vowed to himself that he would make it back to her. And he did. He escaped the jaws of death and came home to father another three children.
Little did Palmyre suspect, when she wrote the letter, that a century later it would arouse so much interest. For her, it was a private and intimate document for her husband’s eyes only. It was probably also a safety valve that allowed her to channel her emotions and her loneliness. I wonder what she would have thought had she known that a group of strangers would one day hear her intimate words.
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