‘“She is dying of grief …” they will say. But a woman can never die of grief. She is such a solid creature, so hard to kill.’ French novelist Colette
The harsh cacophony of kookaburras awakens me and through the window I see the indigo sky, not yet washed with dawn. I lie still and hear the cool morning breeze rustling through the gums which encircle our home. It ushers in a moment of peace before Olivier wakes alongside me in such pain that he moans. He needs morphine immediately and I rise, take a needle from the refrigerator—already prepared by the nurse last night—and jab it deftly into his arm. Soon he relaxes and moves his body under the sheets.
‘Sit down here, chérie,’ he says, patting the bedside. Our new puppy, which he bought with such optimism last month when the chemotherapy offered a reprieve, is in his basket watching Olivier’s every move.
Olivier props himself up, takes my hand as I sit and we gaze fondly at each other. It is 12 January and we know the truth, but neither of us speaks a word of it. He kisses my hand. I smile and lean forward to kiss his forehead.
Four months ago, in September, Olivier saw the head oncologist at the Tennyson Centre because his regular specialist was overseas. He’d known Dr Dusan Kotasek since as a teenager he played with Olivier’s and Colette’s children in the migrant centre at Pennington where the two families initially settled in South Australia.
On the day of our appointment, Olivier had been doing well and the chemotherapy had stalled the progress of the cancer in his spine. I knew that Dusan would not lie to us.
‘How will he know when the cancer returns?’ I had asked.
The doctor’s answer rings in my ears today. ‘When the pain returns.’
Today Olivier cannot move from the bed for the pain. He pats my hand once more and raises it to his lips again. We hold the same thoughts. We know he has exhausted all the chemotherapy treatments for his prostate cancer. It was always terminal, with secondary cancer in his bones being diagnosed before the primary, in the prostate, was discovered. But the human spirit clings desperately to the belief that he will be the first to survive ‘extensive metastases of the spine’.
Those prophetic words of the neurosurgeon—‘It’s a big story from a little finger’—struck fear in my heart. A year ago, Olivier had entered the specialist’s surgery seeking the source of a nerve pain in his forefinger and he left knowing he was going to die.
As he kisses my hand again, I feel rent asunder emotionally—so deeply saddened by his deteriorating condition manifesting before me and my utter helplessness. Yet, my mind has played a trick, flashing back to another memorable moment when Oli had taken my hand and kissed it so lovingly. It was on 30 April 2008, in France, on the first evening of our French honeymoon. We had been married three months already, but work commitments had staved off leaving Australia sooner. Olivier had made all the arrangements from Australia and had booked into the idyllic Château de Challanges, close to Beaune in Burgundy, for our first night as a honeymoon couple in France.
However, we were utterly pooped when we arrived at the nineteenth-century maison after a sleepless flight followed by a long day on the road, and by the evening I could hardly climb up the two flights of stairs to our honeymoon suite, dragging my suitcase behind me. It was a gorgeous double room, rich in patterned upholstery, drapes and furnishings. The huge bed had a floral cotton canopy and the distinct fragrance of lily-of-the-valley filled the room. Fresh blooms sat on the side table. I leant over the small vase and breathed in their exotic scent.
‘It’s the first of May tomorrow and it’s a custom here to buy lily-of-the-valley,’ he said. ‘The children will be selling little posies from baskets in the villages. Whole families pick them wild in the woods from early light and the children spend the day selling them to tourists.’
We both flopped on the lush queen-sized bed, too exhausted for romance.
‘Thank you for bringing me to such a beautiful château, darling.’ I chuckled, ‘Do you remember how you refused to take me to a château that first year in 2004? And here we are.’ And I added, ‘In the fullness of time.’ I stroked his face as I said sleepily, ‘You’re the most important person in my world.’
He smiled wanly. ‘But you need your sleep.’
‘Yes, but it’s been a wonderful day.’
‘À demain.’ Until tomorrow. ‘We’ll look for lily-of-the-valley in the woods.’
And he took my hand as he always did at night as we settled to sleep. However, this time, he took it to his lips and kissed it so lovingly—and it was as sweet as any sex.
But I did wonder as I drifted off to sleep why I hadn’t told him that I loved him. I love you. Such simple words, but the only ones that really capture honeymoon bliss.
So, today, as I lift both his legs off the bed and help him to his feet to alleviate pain, I look him in the eye and say with fervour: ‘I love you so much, darling.’ And then I kiss him ever so gently on the lips.
This last course of chemotherapy has given Olivier one final Christmas with our families. But it has been bittersweet. On Christmas Eve my husband, bald from his treatment, sat at the head of the table wining and dining with his family. Such fun. No pain. His many grandchildren gathered around him.
But the next morning, Christmas Day, he woke in such agony that, although we joined my family at church, he could not walk to the altar and took communion in the pew. As suddenly as night became day, the cancer had returned.
By New Year’s Eve, he was so dosed up on morphine that he could hardly stay awake at our intimate dinner at Celsius restaurant. Just the two of us. Just like New Year’s Eve in 2003, when we drank each other in, when we first became lovers. Today, 12 January 2012, is our fourth wedding anniversary.
He smiles meekly at me as he links his arm into mine for support and when he finds his balance, he rubs my hand warmly.
‘I don’t think I have much time left,’ he says in his deep, melodic French-accented voice. And he catches my eye for a response, but I cannot answer or I will break down and weep.
It’s a poignant truth as it’s the first time Olivier has acknowledged the cruel hand of fate about to play itself out. His impending death has been the elephant in our room.
And yet, I simply nestle my head into his shoulder and then I do what he has done up until now whenever I’ve tried to broach any aspect of the future; I place my finger on my lips and murmur ‘Shhhh’, and I squeeze his hand so hard that mine aches. Touch is such a powerful sense. He knows that it means I love him so so much. It’s an unbearable thought that I am losing him. My mentor, my lover, my friend, my companion. My wonderful husband is dying.
‘I have something for you, chérie,’ he says. ‘I bought it before we married and forgot to give it to you.’ He laughs and adds, ‘I’m still learning about giving cards; luckily I found it in my top drawer, which is a stroke of luck. But I’m sorry I have no gift this time.’
His big fold-out card is decorated with roses and an embossed gold heart. It reads, ‘I Love Our Life Together’, and inside he has written À Nadine, ma chérie … À toi, mon amour, qui sera bientôt Madame Foubert. Mon amour éternel. To you, my love, who very soon will be Madame Foubert. My love eternal.
Those poignant words tear at my heart and once more my mind flies back to France to the first time he introduced me as Madame Foubert—at our French wedding feast at the quayside Hotel Les Colonnes, at St-Martin-sur-le-Port on L’Île de Ré.
Even now, three years eight months later, I can feel his arm around my waist as he pulled me into himself that night, in front of seven of his closest French friends. Staring into my eyes, he said, ‘You had your white wedding cake in January, chérie, and now it’s my turn to give you a French wedding cake—a croquembouche.’
A waiter placed the historic French wedding dessert before us. It was a magnificent stack of choux pastry profiteroles piled up and laced together with threads of toffee, dabbed with chocolate and dotted with rosebuds. On the side was a marzipan map of Australia and on top was a bride and groom.
Oli kissed my lips delicately, then my forehead as he was wont to do in our intimate moments.
‘Happy?’ he asked as if we were the only ones in the room.
Then he turned to our guests and announced, ‘Madame Foubert mes amis.’ The guests clapped and Oli’s best friend Dominique called out mariage d’amour (marriage of love).
That moment crystallised a new truth—Olivier had given me a lifestyle I could never have imagined. Romantic love with a debonair man and a travelling companion in France. The handsome former French Lieutenant had married me to sprinkle my life with joie de vivre.
Yet the price of his love is now manifesting before me in our marital bed.
‘The card’s a bit out of time, but does that matter?’ he says.
‘Not one bit, darling.’ But I feel my voice cracking, so I quickly thrust my card into his hand. In it I have written, ‘No one knows how much I love you. No one knows how much I care. Thank you for four fabulous years.’ A bit of a cop out knowing the flowery words I have written in the past.
‘It’s so symbolic,’ I murmur. ‘Look how the two gum trees are entwined like us … two strong trunks but only one lush, entwined crown.’
Then I can’t help thinking anew ‘in the fullness of time’. Soon I will need to stand alone forever. It has been the hardest thing to learn to live with his diagnosis and act normally as his wife without letting my caring role smother our love. So, once again as if we are walking down the aisle as we did those four years ago, we link arms and walk out to face another day.
THAT FIRST WINTER OF WIDOWHOOD
‘The grief was so intense … There I stood alone and wept. Where are you, my bridegroom, my beloved husband?’ The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy
The lyrics will not come. I’m humming the tune, but other than ‘seasons in the sun’ the rest is lost in my mind, fogged up as it is by floods of tears.
I must remember the songwriter’s message because I think it holds the key to overcoming my grief and despair. Not that my life holds any resemblance to halcyon ‘seasons in the sun’, nor those cool, green pastures which were once a great metaphor for my contented married life. Now, I imagine my life is more like a barren desert of loss and loneliness, caught as I am in that grim rite of passage through grief.
Ah … Now I remember … ‘We had joy, we had fun, we had seasons in the sun …’ All past tense. Now I’m a widow and struggling to come to terms with this new state of being. I have no idea how to be and cannot cope with being alone for the first time in my life. From my childhood with parents, my marriages, single motherhood with small children, then adult children living under my roof. Always someone to care for and to care for me. Now I really do live in an absolutely ‘empty nest’.
My sense of self is shattered. Somehow I hold together, but any minute I could disintegrate into a thousand pieces.
I receive an SMS from a close friend. ‘Hey Nadine, love you honey. Big hugs to my brave girlfriend.’
‘I feel sick with grief,’ I reply.
I know I am not absolutely alone. If I would count my big, extended family I would run out of fingers and toes. Anne, for instance, my sister, born on my sixteenth birthday, is a gem. From my first two marriages I have two daughters and a son whom I cherish, and my beloved daughter-in-law and sons-in-law have formed a nurturing family fold. I adore my five grandchildren. How can one feel miserable with such a quiverful of relatives?
Yet, it seems the whole world is married. I remember that terrible feeling of isolation when I separated in my late twenties and found it impossible to remain a part of the married congregation of my church. I was the first person to get divorced in my spiritual and social network and I sorely felt like a leper on my own.
Widowhood means to be without a husband and I feel half lost. Half empty. I don’t feel a whole person anymore. I am beginning to rue the fact that somewhere in the bliss of my marriage, I lost my sense of independence. I became joined at the hip with Olivier, and my feeling of wholeness included him. Emotional interdependence. I wrote about its dangers before I met him and I never intended it to happen to me. However, such intense togetherness was Olivier’s idea of a French marriage, and now I am suffering enormously because of my profound loss. My enjoyable French social life has evaporated virtually overnight except for my delightful French language teacher and her husband, a great friend of Olivier’s. Olivier’s niece also remains close. But that French couple life is gone. Our prolific Australian social life has also fallen away, and invitations for me to attend events with other couples have dwindled. Yet I witness their good times on Facebook. I feel forgotten. Without my women friends and women in my family I would have turned to dust by now. Here I think upon how daughter Serena, who lived in London, brought her family of five to Adelaide three times to stay with us during Oli’s decline and a fourth time for the funeral (from Brisbane by then). I think about the enormous emotional support they gave me.
In this shadow land of sadness, I know my friends mean well and I have the wisdom to accept every invitation they extend to me. Very soon after Olivier’s death, a married girlfriend asks me to see Yes Minister, the theatre version of the popular TV series, because her husband is having an operation. It is my first appearance in public and, at interval time, some people join us and my body begins to shake and my teeth chatter.
‘Nadine what’s the problem?’ my kind friend asks. I don’t know myself, but I feel I am experiencing a meltdown. I know I have to flee from this gathering and I escape to the bar to buy a brandy to steady my state. Then I stand alone at the window staring out over the darkness of the River Torrens until I calm myself, but I wish I could race back to my car and to the safety of my home. I am so fragile and can’t face interacting with anyone who might ask about Olivier.
In early June, a work acquaintance takes me to a luncheon in McLaren Vale wine country, entitled ‘The Good Vintage’. It is organised by a group of young women lawyers raising funds for an eight-year-old child suffering from an aggressive form of childhood cancer, neuroblastoma. It’s a cold winter’s day and I have progressed somewhat and enjoy talking with people I know through my professional life and a group of the mothers of the young women, who are caring for small grandchildren. However, after lunch, during speeches, we are told that the little girl, named Olivia, is in the US trying a new drug to save her life because the cancer is now in her bones.
Olivia. Olivier! When will a cure for this insidious disease be found? I break down and sob and simply can’t stop. The kind grandmothers usher me into another room and someone brings a brandy and eventually I settle down. But all I want to do is continue sobbing not only for Olivier but for the little girl and her parents so desperate for a cure.
My faithful friends coach me to write lists of my single life before Olivier, those twenty exhilarating years of independence when everything I touched turned to gold—not only my successful career as a journalist and columnist, but as a developer of my original family home, subdividing the backyard to build a second little house on the land. It was my third new house since my twenties. I now live in my fourth new home. Indicative of that capricious hand of fate, Olivier was diagnosed in January 2011, the month the foundations of our dream retirement home were drying out.
‘Mum, we are still having the slab party on Friday,’ my son had insisted upon hearing Olivier’s diagnosis on the Monday.
‘Vanessa and I will organise everything, including the fold-out table. Oli just needs to bring a bottle of bubbly. We are still going to celebrate your new home.’ So in the end, it was just the four of us sitting on the slab, sipping French champagne and trying hard to enjoy our achievement. Tyson had made a correct call. By the end of the first week after diagnosis, we were focused on the present—on building our house and garden—not the grim future.
My list includes the unexpected success of my first book, From France with Love, a memoir of the first time Olivier took me to France ten years ago. I wrote the dreamy beginning of my story of Olivier before I married him and it’s a record of how I fell so deeply in love with him that it lasted until his dying breath. Tears rush out again at the memory of his dignified, quiet departure.
I try and grasp the fact that I had a life before Olivier, an identity as a prominent newspaper woman. I make another list to build myself up: the women I have interviewed. My career was built on writing women’s stories and they make up a unique ‘who’s who’ of trailblazers. That feisty American feminist Betty Friedan, who kick-started the women’s movement in America, was one woman who taught me to be prepared. When I admitted I hadn’t read all of her tome The Fountain of Age, she told me coldly to ring again after I had read every word.
‘Then I will talk to you,’ she said from her Sydney hotel room. I oozed chutzpah back then when I knocked on the hotel room of American feminist Marilyn French, who wrote the ground-breaking novel The Women’s Room. She was in Adelaide to speak at Writers’ Week. However, her real story that day wasn’t her books (she gave me a copy of every one), but how she was recovering from throat cancer and didn’t quite know how she would cope with such an important speaking engagement. I learnt about resilience! Marianne Faithfull, a truly likeable person, had grown beyond a suicide attempt and broken heart over Mick Jagger to become a famous singer. She had built a new life beyond sex, drugs and rock’n’roll to shine in her own right. And in stark contrast, I interviewed Hazel Hawke a few times who reflected how women must be stoic during adversity. I admired her so much, but she almost walked out on me once when I asked her about Bob’s drinking habits.
My heart lifts somewhat as I realise that I honed my craft interviewing these incredible women. I was fearless finding a story. Delightful Janet Holmes à Court talked candidly about her marriage to Robert and widowhood. I wish I had paid more attention. And one of the most extraordinary interviews—the day I met Nene King, Australian Women’s Weekly editor, when we both wept in each other’s arms. She was still grieving for her husband taken by a shark and I was mourning the recent loss of my mother, who died a shocking, lingering death following heart surgery that went horribly wrong. I learnt the most relevant fact: the universality of grief in women’s lives. Surely I had a gathering of life skills to cope with any adversity?
Did I really live that fabulous life? Then whatever is the matter with me now?
The weeks slip by since Olivier’s death in May 2012 and I still feel gutted emotionally by grief. I drift in a permanent state of despair, a mental illness the doctor calls ‘reactive depression’. But I want to cope without medication. Except I have no idea of who I am anymore. I don’t want to write, which has been my abiding passion for decades, and I certainly don’t cook anymore. What is the point of cooking?
‘Why don’t you go back to cooking; you have always been a fabulous cook,’ says my son Tyson one day. I look at him in amazement. He has never—in his 31 years of life—said that I was a good cook.
‘I just wish I felt like writing again,’ I answer. Journalism had been my raison d’être and when I became a published author in 2007, I felt a fulfilled woman. After all, in a fortunate twist, I was deeply in love, about to marry and about to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of my journalistic career. When Olivier helped me launch my website nadinewilliams.com.au in the early days of my retirement, daughter Felicia flew from Melbourne to be MC at the glitzy event. I felt a child of the universe.
Like the words of the song, it was all past tense. Life remains like a heavy winter fog where you can’t see the road ahead. Yet, a candle begins to flicker ever so tenuously in my black world. Olivier’s best friend, Dominique, who had been a part of our French social circle, returns to Adelaide to visit.
Is he shocked to see me like this? I wonder. However, he takes me to the Fleurieu Peninsula and teaches me how to use Olivier’s expensive Nikon camera. During the course of the day, he asks: ‘Why don’t you come and visit us in France? I think it will be good for you.’
How can I explain that I see my Belair life as my anchor, a haven for coping with grief by sharing each day with Olivier in spirit? I can’t imagine how I could leave our home. I still talk to him as things happen during the day and write him letters each night. I stare at Dominique blankly and don’t answer.
When Dominique leaves, I re-read my letter to Olivier which I wrote last night.
Today I begin walking down our street again with our new dog Oscar on his lead sniffing at every blade of grass and piddling to claim his territory. It is strange to do it alone, but then we never did walk these hilly streets once we returned from renting at Hindmarsh Island. You were too ill and I didn’t want to walk without you. You have been gone for six weeks now and it’s time.
I notice a fat koala is wedged in the fork of a gum tree beside the road. I run home and get your camera and snap him staring down at me. A medley of birdcalls pierce the still, wintry mist. If only you were here with me this crisp morning, because the winter creek, which runs across our property and along the side of the road, is rushing with water. I cannot remember if we ever saw it gush like this. Usually, it’s as dry as Oscar’s bone, but now it zips along flattening weeds and grasses on its journey down the hillside. There are magpies, too, hopping around, flying overhead. And I notice it all on my hillside stroll.
However, no more than ten metres around the corner in High Street, where we walked a hundred times in eight years, I find two cèpes, under the tall pine tree! I almost shout with joy and pick them carefully. ‘Here comes breakfast!’ I tell myself. ‘And a beef and mushroom casserole.’
Before I met you, I had no idea that finding rare mushrooms could be so much fun. One is almost as big as a saucer and neither has been infested with grubs. And as I walk briskly home, I remember our mushroom adventures last May in the Kuitpo Pine Forest on Fleurieu Peninsula. We found so many we didn’t have enough bags to carry them.
We had stepped over the fence into the ploughed earth, which bordered the forest, to find cèpes by the score popping up through the bare ground. But you insisted on going into the forest anyway—a dark place, dangerous to walk with broken branches and years of pine needles covering rocks.
‘No, let’s just go home; we have so many to pickle,’ I had said but still you beckoned me.
‘I will hold your hand, chérie,’ you had replied. ‘This is fun. I will show you some magic mushrooms; they’re bound to be here somewhere.’
So I traipsed alongside you through a wonder-world of countless fungi and we picked our way over the fallen branches, rocks, and pine needles, treading carefully with the smell of pine cones all around us. And you found a clearing where tall trees had long been felled where other mushrooms grew in gay abandon.
‘A-ha!’ you cried out in joy. ‘Magic mushrooms. You eat them and you will get as high as on marijuana.’
Now I smile at the memories and yet am sad to think you missed finding the same cèpes, which sell for $80 a kilo in French provincial markets, growing wild no more than 100 metres from our house. Now I can only imagine your pleasure.
And then something beautiful happens. On 26 July, ten weeks after Olivier’s funeral, there’s a bubble of sheer bliss when my daughter-in-law Vanessa gives birth to my son Tyson’s first child—a perfect little girl, whom they name Scarlett Rose. She’s simply beautiful, with black hair, defined eyebrows and a rosebud mouth. I am there in a flash, all smiles, even though my heart surely misses a beat when I must enter Ashford Hospital’s oncology reception to turn right to the maternity ward. I turned left so many days when Oli was hospitalised.
But today is the blessing of new life and after kissing my exhausted daughter-in-law Vanessa, I take the swathed babe from her bassinet into my arms and notice her eyes—closed tight, but definitely almond-shaped—like her daddy. And I am filled with joy. This baby is my redemption because it’s such a happy family time, as we gather in a big room at the Hilton Hotel with our joint families on the next night.
Sadly, it’s a mere blip, although I am included in their exciting new life. Will nothing lift this blackness? My doctor believes I need anti-depressants and this time I agree.
More weeks pass in a hazy state of mind where tablets dull reality enough for time to aid recovery. Months later another candle casting light in my dark life arrives—my dear friend Jane has come to stay. She lives in Sydney, and it is twenty years since we first met at a meditation retreat at Mt Buller over New Year.
‘Remember how it snowed on New Year’s Eve and how amazing it was in high summer to watch those snowflakes land noiselessly on the glass ceiling?’ she recalls. ‘They looked like marshmallows dropping out of an inky black sky.’
Ironically, we didn’t meet during that communal bliss fest, filled with an array of professionals, lawyers, New Agers, married couples, divorcees and single mothers, because we were encouraged to dwell in silence.
We were thrown together on the bus returning down the mountain and we began to chatter. I discovered Jane had worked with the Australian Children’s Television Foundation. She had been the marketing manager for Open Learning Australia and we discovered we were both single mothers, which opened up a Pandora’s box of shared issues.
We are certainly in tune when conversation involves literature, film and theatre. My inbox offers up Jane’s refined collection of book and film reviews, fad diets, women’s health tips and Sydney restaurant hot spots. When I visit Sydney Jane has a full itinerary organised, whether it’s a movie she believes I must see, time at the beach or, recently, visiting Wendy Whiteley’s unique community garden at Lavender Bay. I feel as if Jane is almost a life partner, living at a distance.
I cherish one particular time Jane came to Adelaide. Our new home was finished, and although Oli was very ill, she stayed in our second bedroom with its pretty joie de toile curtains and French bed linen. She cooked, washed the dishes and cleaned my pantry and in the evenings, while the nurses were preparing Oli for bed (by then he was in a hospital bed set up in the living room), we would sit together in my marital bed like little girls and discuss the books we were reading.
Jane missed Olivier’s funeral because her mother died three days after my darling husband. We wept together over the phone as she explained she had her own ‘celebration of life’ to organise for her mum.
‘I feel so wretched,’ she said. ‘Your worst moment and I won’t be there because of my worst moment, losing Mum.’ Our shared grief was one more pillar to our abiding friendship.
She phones most days and I still sometimes weep down the telephone. One day, she says, ‘Nadine, it is so hard for me to see you suffering so much when I’m so far away.’
‘I wish I could stop it too.’ I confide that I have started taking medication to stabilise my feelings of despair. Yet, I still feel my grief which glues me to a black world like that tar baby in the children’s fable my mother would read.
So she continues.
‘Why don’t you take a holiday back to France?’
I remain silent.
‘I have never been to France and I could come with you so you aren’t alone. You will recover in France, because you know you have to recover, don’t you, darling?’
Perhaps, I muse.
I love la belle France and I had begun to learn the French language a year before I met Olivier.
After I met him, we spent six weeks every year travelling around France. I know the history, characteristics and food cultures of most regions.
I fell immediately for Brittany with its crude Romanesque churches, its windmills, its white-washed unique fishing villages, rugged coasts and forests shrouded in Celtic myths. We explored idyllic French Alpine towns with high pitched roofs and heavy timber balconies clustered around central fountains, cafés and cathedrals and the terracotta-tiled cheek-by-jowl white housing of Marseilles and Provence. Onward we drove through Aveyron with its quaint fishscale slate roofing of housing to the ancient fieldstone hamlets of The Lot. It was so exciting to discover how France’s forbidding medieval military castles and walled cities of Carcassonne and La Couvertoirade contrasted in spectacular manner with the fairytale castles of the Loire Valley.
Olivier’s legacy is my memories of those 5000 kilometres each time we drove across France (and he made me drive my fair share). I never tired of the landscape itself—captivating lavender fields of Haute Provence, ancient olive groves of Provence, the white horses, bulls and bird sanctuaries of the Camargue delta on the Mediterranean, the swaying green grain crops and fields of sunflowers and red poppies in the north-west to the wonderful wine regions spread throughout this glorious, rich land.
And Oli’s modus operandi was to ensure that I, at his right hand, learnt from his country and loved it the way he did.
Our French travels were like an open-air classroom. We counted many Christian crosses at intersections, discovered prehistoric dolmans on the roadside and at Carnac; we bought fresh goat cheese from a farm gate in Auvergne and we once bought a whole foie gras in The Lot. Always there was a cultural lesson to follow. Such as that first morning of our honeymoon in France, when he reckoned we should seek out lily-of-the-valley in the forests surrounding our château hotel instead of staying in bed. (Although I do remember that, naturally, as honeymooners, we did loll about in ecstatic love before rising and pulling on our walking gear!)
As the sun filtered through the tall trees, he grabbed my hand and we walked along a well-worn pathway through a carpet of ivy growing over everything on the floor of the wood.
‘This is a typical forest in France,’ he had said, lifting the branch of a young sapling out of our way. ‘The smell of damp earth,’ and he drew a deep breath of air into his nostrils. ‘The countless saplings all struggling for light and life, the tall, old trees, the fallen logs, covered in climbing ivy. Don’t you love it chérie?’
Then he stopped suddenly on our walk. He had heard a cuckoo and cupped his hands, blowing through and flapping one hand until a strange sound suddenly mimicked the cuckoo’s mating cry. No response from a cuckoo amidst the cacophony of birds.
‘When I was young, I could get a response from the cuckoos … every kid on a French farm knows how to do that. The cuckoo calls in spring.’
His raison d’être really was to teach me something new each day about France’s history and its food and wine culture. One day in Provence, for instance, on our way to Moustiers Sainte-Marie, he stopped the car, saying, ‘Look at the verge and you will find les herbes de Provence ready for us to pick.
‘Just look,’ he said, alighting from the car. ‘I pick, I crush between my fingers and voilà! One has a familiar scent of a hundred meals where Provincial herbs are used.’
My education about France took an academic turn one day when I heard a French university lecturer from the University of Adelaide speak on the iconic women of France. I sat in the front row listening, spellbound, as she spun fascinating stories about the French queens and mistresses of the Renaissance. I remember vividly how she stated that Eleanor of Aquitaine, the medieval French queen, actually divorced her husband—the boring but pious French king, Louis VII—to marry the dashing young Prince Henry of England, who would unexpectedly become king.
Olivier was most indignant at the notion and we had a petit débat (disagreement), neither giving ground. I was enthralled at Eleanor’s cleverness to claim her marriage was illegal in the sight of God because they were related by blood—even if it was a remote seventh degree of consanguinity.
Soon I was busily scouring historical tomes in libraries and sourcing newspaper articles about the Renaissance queens and mistresses. This was my private journalistic passion. And I created a concertina file giving it the grand title ‘French Women Who Inspire and Who Wrote the Story of French Love.’ Olivier fostered my interest and bought me Histoire de l’Amour en France by Guy Richard and its ten accompanying volumes in French off the internet. I was so thrilled with his thoughtfulness.
The act of researching had never been so much fun! I thought there was a book in their explosive love stories as well as how these famous French women had created such a feminised society, still ensconced in France’s contemporary romance culture. The list swelled like yeast to become an earlier timeline, headed by licentious Eleanor of Aquitaine, followed by the virgin warrior Joan of Arc. But the notorious Renaissance queens Catherine de Médicis and Marie Antoinette along with those famous French mistresses of their era—Madame de Pompadour, Diane de Poitiers and Madame de Montespan—intrigued me the most. The kings’ ‘favourites’ were equally important because they virtually ruled France alongside their king and even today French schoolchildren can name the mistresses alongside the ancient queens. I researched the renowned French female writers and soon eighteenth-century ‘femme de lettres’ Madame de Staël, nineteenth-century author George Sand and twentieth-century author, existentialist and feminist Simone de Beauvoir were all added. I believed Australian women could learn from these iconic French women, who shaped France’s sensual culture. I worked like a beaver in my spare time gathering into my list French fashion icon Coco Chanel and Empress Joséphine. Eventually I zealously presented a proposal to an Australian publisher for a book devoted to their love stories and the French feminisation of love stretching back to the troubadours. It was promptly rejected and about that time Olivier was diagnosed with terminal cancer, which stopped my world in its tracks.
Shortly after Olivier’s death, Jane sends me a book entitled Joséphine by British author Kate Williams with a covering note. ‘You think Joséphine is pristine, but she was utterly unethical, immoral and unfaithful.’
In my dark mood, I see this as a ploy to get me back to the history of French women. I don’t read it. And yet it triggers a passing thought of France and memories of Olivier’s and my French life flash by …
After Jane’s proposal, I begin to surmise if it would work travelling with her. I find myself asking, ‘Why not return to France?’ It could be nice to retrace my steps with Olivier and show Jane all the wonderful sites we visited.
Eventually, I phone Jane telling her I like her idea of travel and she flies to Adelaide to plan our holiday together. She is so full of enthusiasm that I don’t voice my doubts, but I do think: Oh Oli, I don’t know how I feel about returning to France without you. I think I am terrified of the unknown.
Yet, I feel the fear and plan anyway for Barcelona, Provence and Paris together with Jane and another three weeks alone in Paris. Ideas begin to flow and I decide to attend Alliance Française, the French language and cultural learning centre in Paris, to consolidate my flimsy knowledge of French. And, then I do the online test and send off the fees. They organise host accommodation for me. Suddenly after a handful of emails, it’s cast in stone.
So much depends on this holiday. When my dear mother died, my grief was intense for a short period, but life returned to normal in due course. But, as the new year dawns, I have not recovered fully from Olivier’s death and I continue fortnightly doctor’s visits. Although I can intellectualise that grief has been like a wet blanket temporarily smothering me emotionally, I have been unable to feel happy again. That exquisite joy, in late July, when my granddaughter Scarlett was born, flashed by in short-lived ecstasy, falling like a comet almost immediately. I still hate opening the door of our home alone. In fact, my life as a widow has been a shipwreck. So I have imagined that returning to Paris, the place where I fell in love with Olivier, may trigger the metamorphosis. Finding love again was a mid-life miracle. Now I hope the glorious city of Paris, which lifts the spirits simply by walking its streets, will spin its magic once more. Because I will need magical thinking to lift this shroud of sadness.
In the weeks prior to our departure, I wean myself off anti-depressants. Twelve months is long enough to take medication. Paris will be my panacea.
About the author
Award-winning journalist Nadine Williams forged an impressive career over her twenty years at Adelaide’s The Advertiser focusing on social issues, women’s issues and relationships. She was a features columnist for the paper and its celebrity columnist for some years when her ‘PS’ and ‘Life Etc.’ columns were widely read. Nadine was editor of the supplement Looking Forward, and chief reporter of Boomer magazine for readers over fifty years of age. Among many local awards, she was awarded the Centenary Medal and in 2016 was awarded an OAM for service to the print media in South Australia.
Nadine lives in the Mitcham Hills of Adelaide and is the mother of three adult children and has five grandchildren.
Her first book, From France With Love, published in 2007, was a bestselling memoir and Farewell My French Love is its much-anticipated sequel.
We hope you enjoyed this sample of Farewell My French Love by Nadine Williams - coming May 2017!
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