A Year in Normandy? (2)
The two women met in Africa in the late 1940s. They both had several children and a lot in common, not least, their condemnation of their husbands who, through driving, selfish, ambition, had dragged them off into the wilds and far from the security of their homeland. The wives, dutiful Catholic women, raged privately but said nothing to the men. Africa was very remote at that time. There was no great transport network to convey them from A to Z with the minimum of fuss and, frequently, there was no transport at all. The husbands would be flown in to the town of their posting while the women travelled several days on the back of a truck, with many children, kitchen utensils and some items of furniture. Much of the route would be track and they would spend hours breathing African dust, often with one or more of the children suffering an ailment. Each lost a child while they were in Africa which only served to strengthen their already close relationship. When they finally returned to France in the late 1950s my parents in law bought an apartment not far from the other family who lived in the 16th Arondissement in Paris so the two women saw each other on a daily basis. They enjoy a complemetary, symbiotic, loving relationship. Each brings her own strengths to the friendship and together they are a formidable partnership. They no longer have the energy to prepare dinner parties, usually for family members, but they can afford to pay others to do it for them so they are still able to entertain, albeit, very rarely.
My parents-in-law bought the country property about thirty years ago. For a long time it had been a nudist colony, if that is the politically correct term for a group of naturists living together. This was the reason for the sturdy hedge which surrounded the property. It was, obviously, not sturdy enough as older, local, people still remembered fondly looking at the naked people through the gaps in it. Northern France is not the ideal place to run around naked, not even in the summer, so it went bankrupt. The main house was almost derelict and the thatched roof needed to be replaced but it was cheap, my father-in-law loved the trees and my mother-in-law saw the improvements that money and energy could bring to the property so they bought it. It is unrecognisable today from how it was but there is, unfortunately, no pictorial record of it as none of the people concerned was interested in photography. Sandra, who is a photographer, took pictures of the house and grounds from the day we moved in but by then it much resembled the way it looks today. There have been many improvements; adjoining land has been purchased and the gardens enlarged, flower-beds have been created and trees planted. The park, which was wild and overgrown, has been tamed and the woods have been thinned out and, as a result, the trees are much healthier. The house is built in Normandy style with white walls criss-crossed by thick black beams. The second house is a three-bed-roomed cottage in a similar style. The friend and her husband used the smaller house on the weekends but ate with us and spent most of the time in our company. The two men cleared undergrowth, cut down ailing trees, sawed them into logs and stacked them in the barn. The two women planted flowers, decorated the house, and tended to the aesthetic side of things. It is a very beautiful place.
The last time we lived there we did not try to get to know the neighbours as we thought that we probably had very little in common with them. We were friendly enough and bought their eggs and chickens and used local labour as much as possible but I always felt that there was a distance between us. This was the biggest private property in the area and the hamlet in which it was situated was named after it. We probably appeared to be rich but the family were merely well-off and some of that wealth had been inherited. My father-in-law was a corperation lawyer specialising in international financial law. Much of his work was in arbitration between two disputing companies in two different countries or continents. I imagine he was quite well paid for his specialist knowledge because he was able to invest a lot of money in the improvements to the property. He knew he could never recoup his expenses in the event of it being sold but he had not bought it with the idea of making a profit. For him it was to be kept in the family and passed on down through the following generations. It would be a meeting place, a holiday home, a retreat and a common focus for the family. This has not happened. Sandra's siblings rarely visit the place and one sister has not been there for years. When their children were young the parents appreciated having a place to go on the weekend where there were other children, child-minders, better food than was served in most resaurants and it was all free, but, as soon as the children became teen-aged and the parents became more economically independent, they stopped going there. In the intervening time since we lived there we have tried to visit at least once a year and have spent more time there than those who live just an hour away. With a favourable transport schedule it takes us just ten to twelve hours to get there from Plymouth.
It is our intention to return, frequently, to Plymouth either singly or together as we do not see ourselves as abandoning our life here. We are very comfortable and satisfied with the way things have turned out and intend to return here as soon as we are not needed in France. We are hoping that when it is all set up in the country and things are running smoothly, with outside help, if necessary, then the two women's children will agree to spend occational weeks with their mothers and we will get a break and be able to take a holiday.
The week we lived there with the two women we had several visitors from the family but it was always the grandchildren, Sandra's nieces and nephews, who came. For two days there were eight of us. Two of the girls are pregnant so the next generartion is well underway. They only have good memories of the time they spent there as children so why do their parents avoid going there?
It was a very good week and there were no dramas or crises to deal with but I am very aware of what might await us in the future. We might have to deal with unreasonable behaviour or maybe even death and we could prove to be incapable of fulfilling our good intentions but we will do our best. I work, part-time, at university where there is a lot of social interaction but in my leisure time I am quite reclusive and happy in my own company or with that of Sandra so the isolation of the house in France will not be a problem. It is my intention to integrate myself more fully with the local populace than I did the last time I lived there. I will make myself known at the local schools and offer voluntary English conversation and tuition a few hours a week. I will visit the cafes in the small nearby town and try to find someone with whom to play music. Maybe I will start to follow the local football team.
Twenty five years ago when I last lived there I only went into town in order to buy food or, occasionally, dine in one of the restaurants when I did not feel like cooking. The shopkeepers recognised me and were glad for my custom but there was not the same banter I enjoy with the check-out people at my local supermarket in Plymouth. It is the small-talk and phatic communication I will miss; opinions expressed to a fellow pedestrian while we wait to cross the road or smiles exchanged with a toddler in a pushchair on the bus.
We have informed our employers of our intentions and they expressed regret at our leaving but were sympathetic and understood that we really did not have a choice. Strictly speaking, we do have a choice; the family can afford to pay for the best care home in the country where the two women would be looked after by trained professionals but Sandra, when we first arrived in England, worked in the most expensive care home in Plymouth and she was appalled by the lack of respect paid to the old people. They were teated very much as commodities, an income, a necessary inconvenience. Sandra does not want this for her mother and so, morally, we do not have a choice.
Sandra is in daily contact with her siblings and they report that their mother's condition is worsening. They phone to say they will be visiting her and less than an hour later, when they arrive, she says she had no idea they were coming. Although it is obviously the best for her she is not enamoured with the idea of moving into the country but, we must remember, that this is a woman who thinks that she drives out there every weekend and plans to do so again in a couple of days. We must also remember that during our week there both women expressed no desire to go back to Paris and, in fact, hated the idea. I think they have reached the point where decisions will have to be made for them which are conducive with a good quality of life and their own opinions must be taken both seriously and, at the same time, lightly. We must not be seen as 'taking over' the care of the two women and, if the truth be known, we would rather someone else in the two families would take the responsibility and welcome them in their own homes. They are all professional people with large houses, from which most of the children have flown, and Sandra's brother lives in a Chateau so there is no shortage of space but there is a dearth of willing. A couple must agree on a major decision such as taking two geriatrics into their home and there is no agreeement anywhere. We are the only ones who are ready, and willing, to devote our lives, for as long as necessary, to the women. We are not saints; we are realistic.
(to be continued)
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