This week’s post is a rather sad story, but it contains some happy memories. Our neighbour, Monsieur F., died last week, aged 92. Mme F. had died almost five years previously. Monsieur F. had been ailing for some time and was very frail when we saw him back in March. Because of Covid, we regret that we haven’t been able to visit since then.
Monsieur F. lived at home in a hamlet populated entirely by other members of his family. A squadron of home helps and nurses looked after him.
However, the isolation weighed on Monsieur F. He received few visitors, mainly because he was very hard of hearing and almost impossible to understand, even for French people. When we visited, I had to feed the SF (Statistics Freak to the uninitiated) things to say, since Monsieur F. couldn’t hear me. Between us, we managed to interpret what Monsieur F. said in return.
A fount of local knowledge
If you got Monsieur F. on the right subject, it was fascinating, since he told us about his life, how it was to grow up in the area, and how things have changed.
He described his courtship of Mme F., who had to choose between him and another suitor. Monsieur F. had been a handsome man in his day, so he won her hand.
He told us of the freezing cold winters of his childhood. He explained what they used to farm; apparently, much of our area was once under vines. And he related anecdotes about people in the neighbourhood.
Following some clever prompting by the SF, he gave us details of previous owners of our house. This enabled me to consult the online departmental archives and discover more about them back to the early 19th century.
I think Monsieur F. found my interest in local history a bit mystifying. To him, it was his life, and he felt it wasn’t particularly noteworthy. How wrong he was!
Monsieur F. had a wry and self-deprecating sense of humour, betrayed by a twinkle in his eye. “Les français ont un mauvais caractère,” he said on numerous occasions. He was delighted to have lived long enough to see his two great-grandchildren, remarking smilingly, “A new generation comes in and the old one goes out.”
An individual character
As I explained in a recent post, Mme F. was a character. She was younger than Monsieur F., but her health deteriorated over a period of years, partly because she never took any exercise. An inevitable fall hastened her decline.
“I’ve walked enough in my life,” she said, explaining that she and her sister had to walk to school some four kilometres distant. She had to watch the brebis (ewes) in the fields, since the pastures were not fenced. There are very few sheep and open pastures here now. Cattle and barbed wire or electric fences have taken their place.
Mme F. retained a lively interest in what was happening around the area, monitoring local goings-on through her binoculars. She was fascinated by the British royal family and aristocracy and found our ignorance about them disappointing.
Monsieur F. regarded all this with amused indulgence. Mme F. could be a bit sharp, but her husband always said, “Elle n’est pas méchante.” [She isn’t nasty.] And when she died, he was left on his own with their undisciplined dog, Milord, as company.
Shaking his head, he said, “J’aurais dû partir le premier.” [I should have gone first.]
The custom in rural areas is to tell all the neighbours as soon as someone dies. You are then expected to go to the funeral, along with the whole neighbourhood. Monsieur F.’s sons, knowing people’s concerns about Covid, said they would understand if we didn’t go. In any case, numbers are currently restricted to 30 people.
For those reasons, we didn’t attend the church service or the line-up at the cemetery. But we did stand outside and offer our condolences and wait for the hearse to arrive with the coffin. There were indeed far fewer people than in normal times.
Monsieur F. was one of the very last of the old guard, born right at the end of an era, when the old rural life was being swept away. He never had a mobile phone or touched a computer. We were always Monsieur and Madame with him, and vous, never first names or tu. Even in infirm old age, he was courtly, offering us a biscuit or a madeleine cake without fail when we left.
We will miss him, but he was ready to go.
This is the only photo of Monsieur F. that I possess (wearing the beret). He took us to see vieille prune being distilled.
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