One of the last of the old guard

Monsieur F. farmed this land for many years.

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.

Pigeonnier in the hamlet of T., where Monsieur F. lived.

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.  

The village where Mme F. had to go to school.

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.]

Burial rites

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.

You might also like:

The Story of the People at La Lune

Meilleurs Voeux Before the World Ends

Making eau de vie de prune – an ancient tradition

Copyright © Life on La Lune 2020. All rights reserved.

10 comments

  1. A lovely tribute to your neighbour. Having been connected with our village for thirty years we have walked behind many a coffin as the older generation gives way to the next one. We quickly discovered that the whole village turns out and signs the book of condoleances at the home or the church. Some neighbours went straight to the cemetary foregoing a religious service as they were convinced communists or atheists, a surprise to us at first in what we thought of as a very religious community. Sometimes stories of wartime exploits have been read out making me wish I had known previously and been able to hear them directly. When I was teaching we always told our six and seven year olds to talk to their older relatives as nothing beats firsthand history.
    How very ‘France profonde’ to have a hamlet people’s by an extended family!

    Liked by 2 people

    • We, too, have been to countless funerals in our time here. I think it’s a nice touch that the whole community turns out to say goodbye to a neighbour. I find it fascinating to talk to people here who remember things as they were. However, World War II is still a no-go area with many of them. Just too painful. Until Monsieur F died, four generations lived in the hamlet, where Mme F’s parents also lived when we first arrived. So we have known five generations of the same family!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Your late neighbour sounds like a lovely fellow. Reminds me of the old gardiner who summered on the piece of land behind our first house. He was retired but worked the land all day long to produce amazing quantities of veg, occasional gifts of which landed on our doorstep. We never got past Monsieur but we always waved at each other and said hello now and then. Salt of the earth. How sad for Monsieur F to have been so alone at the end.

    Liked by 1 person

    • While Monsieur F was capable of working in his vegetable garden, we also got gifts of veg. He was always so grateful for our visits, since he couldn’t hear or see the TV or read any more, so he must have been very bored. As I said, he was ready to go.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for sharing this loving tribute. I was sad when you had written about him before and have thought about him. Covid has been so tough for so many people but especially the older ones. He’s in a happy place now.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We will miss him. It’s a great shame that we couldn’t visit him during his last months, and I was afraid that we might never see him again. I don’t think he got much out of life at the end, so let’s hope he’s in a good place.

      Like

  4. A lovely tribute to Monsieur. I made similar experiences with elderly people, except that pretty much all of them after a while called us by our first name and we did so too with them. But we never went as far as tutoyer any of them. May he be happy to be united with his wife again and may his soul live on in a better place.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Nearly every French person we know calls us by our first name and vice versa, except Monsieur et Mme F. But we were happy to accept that. I hope that somehow they will find each other again.

      Liked by 2 people

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