PROSE by Lily Lloyd Burkhalter MFAW '22
It was the end of the season, the day my aunt and uncle were closing up their country house and heading back to Paris. Someone found a litter of newborn kittens in the barn, and we debated what to do with them. We decided to bring them to the next door neighbor, Henriette. She was sitting outside, on a plastic chair in the alley between her front door and a hedge of white and purple hibiscus shrubs. This is where you can find her in the afternoon: half dozing in the shade, abruptly starting to peek into the street whenever a car or pedestrians pass. Que veux-tu que j’en fais? She said in her thick Béarn accent when we presented the basket of paws. What do you want me to do with that? I’ll take ‘em out back and teach ‘em how to swim.
Henriette will be ninety years old this December. She has lived in the same village of a dwindling population her whole life, in this house for sixty-nine years, and by herself for the past twenty-two, since her husband died. When I asked her if she would be willing to be interviewed, she tugged at the pink wool cardigan flung across her shoulders despite the 80° weather and said, Oh but you know, one forgets so much. She peered at me through her lightly tinted sunglasses with a razorblade gaze. She grinned. The Alzheimer’s might kick in! Though clearly reticent, she acquiesced out of fondness for my aunt and uncle; I was to meet her at three P.M. on Monday.
It’s 87° on Monday afternoon. Henriette, now wearing a blue wool cardigan, leads me into her kitchen, a dimly lit, somewhat claustrophobic rectangle with a table fashioned of a single slab of wood in the center of the room, a large chest of drawers stacked with photographs on the back wall, a grandfather clock next to it, and a wood-burning stove to the side. She begins talking almost immediately, telling me three stories about death: how, when my uncle’s father died, his mother had asked Henriette to dress him. How her husband came back from the hospital with an oxygen tank and finished his days at home. How le Pépé Albert, her “uncle’s brother,” lived with their family for thirty-seven years, how she’d essentially adopted him, because he had no children, and how he died—she points—right there on that chair, on his one hundredth birthday. No, death doesn’t happen at home anymore, she says in a tone that is hard to decipher.
Perhaps we should begin the interview, I say, unaware that it’s already started. Henriette would rather not be recorded. That’s fine. But the questions I’ve prepared are useless; she waves most of them away with her knobbed white knuckles and launches into other stories. She points behind me, to the pictures crowded on the chest of drawers. My great-granddaughter, age 18, now a farmer, passed her baccalaureate and her driver’s license the same year. She runs down the list, citing the names and ages of each. Their birthdays are written in tiny script next to the photograph. I’m doing the math: she doesn’t hesitate; she doesn’t miss a beat. We wind our way back up two generations, to her three sons. She reveals, with surprising candor, that her youngest is gay, that she accepted it because isn’t it his happiness that matters?
Was she raised with religion? Oui, je suis Catholique, croyante et pratiquante. Yes, I’m a churchgoing Catholic. No, not every Sunday, she clarifies. For the major holidays, weddings, funerals.
A black and white cat crosses the threshold of the kitchen. Henriette follows my gaze and smiles. Mes chats, c’est mes amis. She offers me coffee and, when I ask if we can have it outside so I can smoke, tells me not to be silly, slapping an ashtray on the table between us.
And the war? There were two guerrilla fighters killed in the forest. My father, he and the head of the resistance organized—she starts, and then, as if driving and recognizing the turn one is supposed to take as it passes, veers suddenly in another direction. We villagers kept quiet, we knew to keep our mouths shut. She shakes her head. There are too many stories.
Throughout our talk, I’ve noticed Henriette’s eyes darting to my hands whenever I take notes. I put down my pen. I try to disarm her through a serious of innocuous questions—country life versus city life, whether there was a market in the village, what kinds of livestock she and her husband raised, etc.—but Henriette won’t forget that I’m going to write about her. My aunt told me the first thing she heard from Henriette was, J’ai un chagrin d’amour, and it is this heartbreak I’m trying to coax out of her. It’s a known fact, not a rumor, that Henriette’s youngest son isn’t her husband’s. Perhaps if I simply tell her I know this, she might be more willing to talk about it. But we’re still using the formal you with each other, and it was decades ago when she spoke so freely to my aunt about infidelity. No, she doesn’t want to talk about nostalgia either.
Her words uncork soon enough. Other people animate her; she has strong ideas, for instance, about which of my ancestors étaient des bons gens, which ones were good people, and which were hautains, haughty. Though her father was the mayor for twenty-one years, she and her siblings grew up poor, walking a kilometer to school barefoot. She and her husband made a modest living raising thirty-five cows, selling the milk to a cooperative, and working in another man’s vineyard. Je n’ai pas eu une vie de château. No silver spoon for her. The fact that bourgeois families descended upon this little village for the summers—did she resent it? Her knuckles waft the question away. Il faut dîre la franche vérité. One must say things as they are. People are good, or not. Indeed, she has a polarized view of all of her neighbors—that lady is an impossible Communist, but the English family is nice. Do they speak French? I ask. Comme des vaches espagnoles, like Spanish cows. When she is about to tell a joke, one corner of her mouth turns up and a twinkle glints in her eyes.
Her face also lights up when she talks about foraging for mushrooms. The season: August through September. She names varieties and their properties; the conversation swings into a detailed description of all the meals she’s consumed over the past day. Blanquette de veau, purée de pomme de terre sauvage… The grandfather clock tolls: we’ve been talking for over an hour. It feels appropriate, having begun with death, to end with Henriette’s exuberant appetite.
She sees me out the door and resumes her post beside the hibiscus. Walking away, I can feel the watchful eyes of Henriette on my back. A la prochaine, we both say.