Nov 1 2010

All the Saints

Because the interior walls of the country house are not at all soundproof, we usually overhear the girls talking to each other as they ready themselves for bed. Last night they were wired from all the sugar and excitement of trick-or-treating. They also get to share a room with the mother-in-love when she joins us at the country house so going to bed is always a bit of an adventure, sharing those last just-before-sleep moments with their grandmother.

“Oh, will you stop it,” Short-pants screamed, “You’re talking about dead people again!” Buddy-roo protested. She was missing my mother and remembered sharing a bedroom with her when we took our family vacation to Punta Cana. And for that matter, she was also missing Grandpa Artie, De-facto’s father, who died before I was in the picture and long before Buddy-roo was considered, let alone conceived, but she has a special kinship with him because they share the same birthday.

(While I was in labor for Buddy-roo, we worked on the New York Times crossword – a visitor had brought it and left it – and were more than slightly stunned when the central word around which the entire puzzle was written was his name, A-R-T-I-E.)

My mother-in-love came up the stairs and into their room and heard their dispute. She made the expected, gentle inquiries. Short-pants remained exasperated. “She keeps talking about dead people and it’s useless.”

“But I miss Grammy,” Buddy-roo countered. Mother-in-love launched a sensitive and sensible explanation of how the people we love who die are never really gone; they stay with us when we think of them. So it is good to remember them.

“See?” Buddy-roo defended her nostalgia.
“I still say it’s useless,” said Short-pants.

I remember how famously my mother and my mother-in-love got on. De-facto’s mother admires everyone without envy, and she’s a great listener and a strong woman in her own right with as many fascinating accomplishments as my mother. Sipping iced-tea on the back porch, exchanging stories, admiring their grandchildren – I loved that that the girls could enjoy the company of both grandmothers at the same time. Though the way my mother was with the girls was different than how my mother-in-love engages them, the feeling of having both of them side-by-side had to be a real treasure. At least it was for me.

That my mother is gone makes me even more appreciative of the visits we have with De-facto’s mother. I always knew – but now I really know – how crucial it is to drink in every moment, every encounter, every single visit with her. She is so good to us, worthy of sainthood (who else volunteers to defrost your refrigerator?) and we shouldn’t ever take her for granted.

We worked our fingers to the bone. De-facto put up wallboard in the new room and I tended the grapes. She weeded along the front, side and back of the house, mulched any patch of exposed ground, trimmed roses, structured our new compost, hauled firewood, made a soup, colored puppets with the girls and a dozen other tasks to improve the quality of our country living. She is a powerhouse in a way that is surreal; she is as wise as her years demand but just as spry and fit as a woman twenty-five years younger.

For Halloween she dressed as the Countess Duvet who lives in the graveyard. She moved in – very temporarily – to the abandoned barn across the street, with candles and theatrics in order to add another trick-or-treating stop on our sparsely populated road.

“I eat my supper off the tomb of the Count,” she said, with a dramatic accent that made her claim believable. The girls jumped and squealed, not quite sure whether she was funny or frightening.

She cannot replace my mother but her presence somewhat palliates the loss, because she is my friend, because she knew my mother and loved and admired her, too. Having loved and lost her own mother, she respects the necessary passages of each generation. My mother-in-love knows everything I know, and so much more. But she won’t spoil it: she smiles at me, watching as I mother and cook and work and love and garden and grieve, and just puts her hand gently on my back from time to time to let me know she cares, which is just enough to remind me that there are saints here on earth.

Oct 31 2009

Le Halloween

A good thing about being Americans living abroad is that we can take advantage of the holidays celebrated in both the United States and in France. We bring our own national traditions with us: Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and Halloween. But then we also get to appreciate the local celebrations such as Bastille Day, the Beaujoulais Nouveau and, like, every other Tuesday and Friday in May.

Another good thing is that many of the traditional holidays, so unfortunately over-commercialized in the United States, are less amplified here in France. Here we celebrate more modestly, in a spirit that reminds me of when I was a little girl. I’m not saying that France hasn’t succumbed to the consumerism of Christmas, or that there aren’t some materialistic aspects to this culture, but holidays are not over-marketed to the same degree as in my homeland.

Halloween, in France, is especially understated. There happens to be a school holiday the week prior and following, but this is an excuse for a mid-trimester break that coincides with Toussaints, or All Saints Day, on November 1st. But there is no serious trick-or-treating and bobbing-for-apples is unheard of. The French simply don’t do l’Alowine.
It’s still my favorite holiday, Halloween. I love the idea of being costumed and masked and taking on another persona. I love telling scary stories. I love carving innocent pumpkins into mischievous jack-o-lanterns.

Because Halloween is not part of the French national consciousness, I realized, when the girls were finally old enough to go trick-or-treating, that I’d have to choreograph the entire event. I wrote up a French set of instructions and distributed them to neighbors in our building, and to some of our favorite stops in the quartier: our tailor, a favorite café, the bakery. I realized that without knowing the custom, it might seem odd that we’d ask them to provide free candy for our children, so I even made little gift-bags of bonbons and handed them out along with my instructions. Basically, if you agreed to participate, all you had to do was open the door when we rang the bell. It was a ready-made system: Halloween-to-go.

We’ve left those urban Halloweens behind. We spend much of the two-week Toussaints school vacation at the country house, a place far more suitable for celebrating a spooky holiday. The ground is layered with moist brown and orange leaves. The trees are nearly bare, dancing like skeletal silhouettes along the long road we must walk, in the dark, to visit the five houses that are near enough for trick-or-treating. The British neighbors know the drill, so no additional preparation is required. Even the French neighbors caught on quickly, and seem to look forward to viewing the odd creatures who show up at their door, begging for goodies. There is one household, a strange trio of three elderly peasants who live today much like they did fifty years ago, without running water or electricity. It occurred to me, after leaving them the note and the candy, that they might not know how to read. I think they thought the candy was a gift they could keep. When we came knocking on their door, nobody answered. It was pretty scary, standing outside their dark house, knocking, listening, wondering if they’d answer. Now that’s Halloween.
This year Short-pants and Buddy-roo have opted out of any witch, ghost or goblin costumes, and even turned up their nose at the idea of being princesses. (Can I mention how much that pleases me?) Inspired by some ukuleles that came home from a workshop I led last spring and a costume idea from a depression-era story that accompanied one of their American Girl dolls, they’ve both decided to be hula dancers. So, grass skirts, check. Leis, check. Candy, check. Boo!