In the center of France, in a tiny town, in a small cemetery, at the end of the most recent row of graves, a blue cross tops a white tomb. For Christmas, a wreath hangs from the curly metalworking, and two pots of chrysanthemums left over from All Saint’s Day perch on the lower ledge. In other words, this grave is visited.
The day after Christmas, on our way into town, Jeanne brought my father and me to her mother’s grave. She explained that she had chosen that shade of blue for the cross because it had reminded her of the shutters that frame the windows of a seaside town where her mother used to bring the family for vacation years ago. With that light blue against the gray December sky, it was not difficult to imagine a warmer and sunnier place. Yet, during the past three years, it had been always winter and never Christmas for Jeanne and her family: they didn’t see the point, nor could they muster the strength to celebrate without wife and mother. In fact, Claire, Jeanne’s daughter, hadn’t even been home last year; she had been in England, celebrating Christmas with the family of her pen pal.
This year, however, as I decided to remain in France for the holidays and as my father decided to visit, Jeanne invited us to her parent’s house out in the French countryside, resolving to celebrate Christmas again. She must have begun planning weeks—maybe months—in advance, first, weighing her spirit. Then, finding that she wished once more to unpack the decorations and to clip the candles to the tree, she began to envision the dinner, the order of the dishes, and the organization of the day. In those weeks leading up to Christmas, she scolded her father, who was willing to make do with a less-traditional meal, into ordering a turkey from the butcher’s, while she herself undertook the task of finding the right bakery from which to order the bûche de Noël, a buttercream-filled-and-frosted Christmas cake. All the calories from the several (unsatisfactory) mini-bûches Jeanne taste-tested must have burned off while she resolutely vacuumed, scrubbed, and dusted the weekend before. I’m sure that by the time my father and I arrived on Christmas Day, Jeanne was running on adrenaline—a power outage on Christmas Eve had delayed her preparations and, consequently, pushed her bedtime way past midnight. Her morning alarm had rung almost three hours before the late winter sunrise.
Despite the frenzy of the night before, Jeanne was far from frazzled as we sat down to the apéritif, and when we moved to the dining table, she glowed as we discovered the carefully scripted place cards, which were almost lost among more porcelain, crystal, and silverware than my dad and I knew what to do with. We carefully examined the menu and puzzled over the elegant names. (Fois gras sur lit de figues et de mâche = fois gras on a bed of figs and lamb’s lettuce.) Then, the wine was poured and the first dish—raw oysters—was served. We ate, and Jeanne and her family introduced us to a real French Christmas dinner, explaining that the foie gras had been bought from a friend who raised his own geese and the chestnuts had been roasted in the drippings of the turkey. Everything—from the foie gras’s bed of greens to the four cheeses, which each sported a little label that marked the name, type (cow, goat, or sheep), and the region it came from—was carefully presented. I lost count of how many times Claire changed my plate.
It wasn’t until after dinner, when we were putting away the water, red wine, white wine, and champagne glasses, that I realized we had used Jeanne’s mother’s Christmas crystal. Jeanne proudly opened wide a cabinet and showed us the rest of the set her mother had found in an antique shop years ago. This year, the five of us, with four glasses each, had hardly made a dent in that shipshape platoon.
As the day progressed, I came to understand that every corner of the house bears witness to Jeanne’s mother. Most obviously is the upstairs where her antique collection—tea sets, Victorian-era dance cards, quaint armchairs, an ivory mouse no bigger than my little fingernail—is on display. But we were also fed from her porcelain plates, and in the evening we opened presents under beams that she had stained, craning her neck upwards until it cramped. The bûche de Noël, which we enjoyed again after a light supper, wasn’t quite as large as the ones she used to order, lying to the baker that she was having many guests instead of admitting that it was for only four people who wished it to last more than one serving, but it was chocolate just the same. And, when we finally went to bed, pulling tight the blue sheet of sleep, we were warm and full.
Photos by my dad, Ray Lee.
Sabrina Lee majored in English and French and graduated from Calvin College in 2013. After a couple of gap years, she’s back in school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, pursuing a MA/PhD in English.You can usually find her reading and drinking tea—and, once in a while, ballroom dancing.