IN PRAISE OF MY FRENCH MOTHER-IN-LAW

The older I get, the more I realize how precious the so-called “little” moments of life are — what William Blake referred to centuries ago as “eternity in a grain of sand.” Recently, upon visiting my French mother-in-law, Henriette, I had quite a few of these moments — each one of them humbling, meaningful, and unforgettable. Below, I share these vignettes with you, along with a request for you do whatever you can to notice these kinds of moments in your own life and, by so doing, more thoroughly, honor the magnificence of your own family.

THE SIGN

The small sign under my mother-in-law's front door bell in France says "J. Pouget." "J" is the first initial of her long-gone husband's first name, "Jean" -- a kind man who died 34 years ago after a lifetime of working in a Citroen factory and dreaming of the time he would one day retire. The two of them met, as young children, during the war, in a Catholic orphanage, where Henriette lived -- or tried to live -- for 12 long years. Jean, I learned, today, would travel, once a month, by train, from his orphanage more than two hours away, to visit his sisters there -- young girls who had become Henriette's best friends.

Her mother died in childbirth -- not Henriette's birth, but the birth of her younger sister. Newly widowed and overwhelmed, Henriette’s father, a conductor for the local railroad, decided to take his six daughters to the local orphanage and leave them there -- a not uncommon act, in Europe, during the second World War. Henriette was six at the time.

Once a day, her father would eat lunch there, the orphanage being conveniently located on his train route. That's when Henriette and her five sisters would press their noses up against the glass and watch their father eat. When he was done, usually late for work, he would meet them in the lobby, allowed only five minutes for a goodbye hug, dig deep into his black satchel and secretly give a handful of candies to his eldest daughter for her to distribute to the little ones at the end of a long tiled hallway where the nuns couldn't see. There, the girls would rip the wrappers off and eat their candy quickly, dreaming of the time their father would next return.

MY MOTHER-IN LAW’S BASEMENT

Henriette Pouget, my 90-year old French mother-in-law, who lives alone in a house with nothing out of place, is no longer able to navigate stairs on her own.

Though she's traveled to Germany, Luxembourg, Martinique, and America, her basement is now out of bounds. Neither of her two daughters will allow it. They are very firm about this. The key to the door is still in the lock, but Henriette has not turned it in years. Touched it? Maybe. Turned it? No. So when it was time to retrieve the shovel for today's planting of purple flowers on her front lawn, it was my turn. Slowly, I opened the door and began my descent.

The first room I entered was at least ten degrees cooler than the ones upstairs, a nice surprise on this brutally hot day here in the north of France. "Climate change" the neighbors like to say. "Mon dieu!"

It is small, this room, but not too small, kind of like a 3-table jazz club only the locals know about. In the corner is a bar, built on weekends and nights, by Jean, Henriette's long-deceased husband -- a project, I am told, that was very important to him -- his chance to make something special away from the noise of the factory floor where he worked the day shift, building Citroens, for 32 years. Many half-filled bottles line the shelves above the bar: Nolly Ambre, Gran Marnier, a St. Raphael rouge, some Scotch, Pernod. I can see Jean pouring a round of drinks for his favorite neighbors on a Saturday night, much laughter filling the room, Henriette with a tray of something in her hands.

On the wall, across the way, are framed pictures of classic cars: a red 1936 Bugatti, a white 1928 Excalibur, and a blue 1927 Rolls Royce. In the far corner, F. Scott Fitzgerald and a few of his writer friends are knocking back cocktails and practicing their French. They like Jean. He's a good man. And though he didn't have all that much to say to his wife and two daughters, his words, when he spoke, stood guard for years, like the tiny tin soldiers no one ever gave him as a child.

Behind a door, to the right, is a guest room -- or used to be -- the place where Henriette's sisters, once a year or so, would stay. On the wall? Two framed photos. One is Evelyne, my wife, at six months, with a blond mohawk before it became all the rage. The other, directly over the bed, is a black and white of Evelyne and her brother, Gille, Henriette's first born before he died, at nine, of some kind of rare blood disease the doctors couldn't quite explain. He is five in the picture. Evelyne is three. She is kissing him on the cheek, her eyes closed. He is smiling.

JEAN’S WINE CELLAR

It all began in Paris. That's where Mr. Boulet, the wine merchant, would knock at the front door and sit with Evelyne's father, Jean, once a month, and talk about all things oenophilic -- the uncorking, the flavor bouquet, and the best buys of the season being just a few of them. Mr. Boulet, a rather large man with shiny black shoes, would pass his knowledge on to Jean, one sip at a time, and then, just before dinner, with great respect and a joke or two, make his best attempt to sell, he too having a family to support. Evelyne, only seven at the time, watched from across the room, her mother in the kitchen or, if someone's button had fallen off that day, sewing nearby.

When Evelyne turned ten, her father, having just been promoted, moved the whole kit and kaboodle to Strasbourg, 397 kilometers away from Mr. Boulet, but fortunately deep in the heart of Alsace, the region, some Alsacians like to say, that's the birthplace of France's finest wines. For the entire time Jean lived in Strasbourg, he never bought a single bottle from a store. Not once. He couldn't. He wouldn't. Only from a vineyard would he buy, needing to be close to the source.

Wine, always better than the weather in Alsace, was much more than a hobby for Jean. It was, a kind of layman's sacrament -- an alchemical blend with a nose, the fruit of God's green earth, and his own unquenchable effort to master something wonderful in this world.

In 1965, Jean Charles Pouget built his first and only wine cellar. That's when he moved the family West to the village of Courcelles-Chaussy. Once a year, in August, he would drive the 14 hours to his mother's farm in Aveyron, his wife in the front seat, his daughters in the back, and there, on that farm, they would stay for 30 days and nights. Evelyne and Joelle lived in the attic with their three cousins, jumping from bed to bed and taking turns looking out the only window to the fields below. Sometimes they would see their grandmother twist a chicken's neck until it moved no more. Sometimes they would see her, barehanded, pull nettles from the ground.

At the end of the month, on his way back home, Jean would stop once or twice at selected vineyards and buy a case of the best wine he could afford. Later that night, he'd carry both his girls from the car to their beds, then the wine to his cellar. Bergarac was always positioned top left, Gaillac below it. Cotes du Rhone was in the middle, Bourgueil and Gris de Tohl always on the right, each shelf marked with a small paper label in his own script -- the only handwriting that remains of this man today.

Sometimes, Jean would invite Evelyne into the cellar to help him turn the bottles so no sediment would form. A few feet behind him was a hutch, it's hard-to-open drawers filled with corks. On the highest shelf, now, is a large jar of dried mushrooms, one that Evelyne's mother can no longer remember. In the middle of the room sits an old tree stump -- the place where Jean sawed wood in winter to carry upstairs and feed the fire -- sitting as he did with Henriette, and sometimes, his daughters, sipping wine from that night's selection. You can still see the groove in the tree stump from all his many cuts.

THE TABLE

In the back yard of Henriette’s house is a cement table, one that her husband, Jean, built with his own two hands, 40 years ago -- a place for him to sit and sip aperitifs after work. Sometimes he sipped alone, sometimes with his wife. The base and top were made from a mold and so were the sections of the small patio on which it rests, now all at odd angles to each other, like neighbors who no longer speak. The mosaic tiles, on top, are not exactly where he placed them, the grout having long ago come undone, so many storms having come and gone. Henriette is no longer able to make her way down from the front porch to the table. She's not walking as well as she used to and doesn't want to fall. So the tiles just sit there, sharp pieces of a puzzle no one puts together. Time has moved on and so has Jean -- a man I have never met, but feel, today, sitting next to me, like a rock, the last few rays of light finding their way through the tree tops where the two of us abide.

WAVING GOODBYE TO HENRIETTE

Evelyne and I have been visiting her mother, Henriette, twice a day for the past week. Our visits are short and sweet. We sit in her living room and, after she turns off the French game shows on TV, we talk. Well, actually, Evelyne talks. My grasp of French, not unlike my grasp of trigonometry, is only "un petit peu". So Evelyne translates for me, when it's my turn, which is actually kind of cool, because it makes our conversations with Henriette a bit longer.

We ask her how she's doing. We ask her if she needs anything. We show her the photos we took of her, on the couch, yesterday. And we banter, the French way. "Badinage" it's called and Henriette is very good at it -- the playful way French people make fun of each other -- yet another way of staying young, I suppose.

I write "Je Taime" on a few pieces of scrap paper and leave them in various places around the house, so later that day Henriette will be reminded of how much she is loved. She asks me if I want some water, her need to serve, even at 90, still so very strong. She gets up slowly from the couch, steadies herself for a brief moment, and walks to the kitchen -- or should I say "waddles" -- a new kind of side-to-side movement that keeps her from falling. The water she brings me is perfectly chilled and served in a beautiful glass.

The first few days Evelyne and I said goodbye to her after one of our visits we simply drove off in the direction our car was facing -- which was away from Henriette's house. Henriette did not like this at all. Her preference, she explained, was for us to turn the car around and drive past her house so she could stand on her balcony and wave -- and we could wave back. This is what we do now. Waving goodbye to Henriette, as she stands behind her purple and white petunias, happens twice a day now here in the little town of Courcelles-Chaussy.

THE PHONE

The phone in Evelyne's sister's house, the house where we are staying, rings 25 times a day at least, the calls always from the same person, Henriette, who lives less than a mile away, alone. The calls begin around 9:30 in the morning and continue all day long.

If we don't answer, the phone rings again three minutes later, but not for as long. Perhaps, Henriette thinks, she dialed the wrong number the first time and if she dials again, she will find us home. Our strategy for responding to her is not very clear. If we answer each call, that will, it seem, only enable Henriette and she will call again in 30 minutes or less, having nothing again to say, but wanting to hear a voice on the other end. Does she need anything? No. Does she have any updates for us? No. Does she want us to pick something up at the store? No. She just wants to hear a familiar voice -- a break from a day of game shows on her flat screen TV.

If we don't answer, which is sometimes our plan, Henriette ends up feeling ignored, which is never a good thing, but sometimes we are simply not at home. Evelyne tells Henriette, firmly, there is no need for her to call so often. She tells her that we love her and will stop by later in the afternoon, but this rarely does any good. Henriette likes to dial the phone. It is one of the things she still knows how to do, having stopped crocheting and crossword puzzles three years ago.

After the 10th call of the day Evelyne and I just look at each other, not quite sure what to do. Sometimes we take a step or two towards the phone, then stop, letting it ring some more. Sometimes we don't even get up from the couch. Sometimes we pick up the phone immediately, even though we both agreed earlier in the morning that we would not do that.

SHE DOESN’T LEAVE HER HOUSE ALL THAT MUCH ANYMORE

Henriette doesn't leave her house all that much any more. Sometimes, yes, but not very often. Sunday is her big day out. That's when Joelle, her youngest, now a grandmother herself, picks her up at 5:00 and brings her home -- just a 3-minute drive in a small, white car Henriette used to enter and exit with less difficulty, her right leg now needing a bit more time before the passenger door can close.

Everyone in the family is always happy to see her, taking turns kissing her cheeks and easing the short distance to her favorite couch where she sits and lets out a sound only the French can translate. She is happy to be here -- the table being set in the next room, the flurry of activity in the kitchen, her three great-grandchildren fighting over a toy on the floor just a few feet away.

Other days, her balcony is as far as she gets. There, in her freshly ironed skirt and blouse, she stands behind the flower boxes and simply observes. The roses by the front gate have opened wider since yesterday. The neighbor, two houses down, has a shiny new car. The mailman walks across the street. It is good here on her balcony. Very good. It's flat and she can hold on to the handrail. And while, indeed, sometimes the handrail is wet from last night's rain, Henriette doesn't seem to mind, her petunias no longer needing to be watered.

No one knows how long she stands there on her balcony, what with the neighbors coming and going all day long. And nobody needs to know. It's enough they wave and call her name. It's enough they bring her chocolate and quiche and talk with her in her living room. Not every day, mind you. That would be too much. No. Just enough to restore her faith in God.

Most of Henriette's neighbors have known her for 20 years. Some have known her for 30. They all still have the colorful hats and scarves she knitted for them back in the day -- the ones they do their very best to wear in late autumn when the weather turns cold.

FRENCH CAMEMBERT

As the story goes, camembert was originally created in 1791 by Marie Harel, a dairy farmer from Normandy upon receiving some advice from a Catholic priest from Brie. It's unique smell has been variably described as funky, earthly, mushroom-like, foul, stinky, nauseating, and the secret project of a chemical company.

Camembert, one of France's most popular cheeses, is made from unpasteurized milk and is rich in chemicals like ammonia, sodium chloride, and succinic acid. It is rated, by a leading food blog, as the second stinkiest cheese in the world, just behind Pont l'Evesque. Even when it's wrapped in its fashionable French box and the box is contained within an unfashionable plastic container in the refrigerator, it still stinks to high heaven.

If you've never tried it, here's all you need to know: Camembert is to American Cheese as Lady Gaga is to Marie Osmond. Got it, mon ami?

Camembert, in France, is something of a cult. It isn't just consumed, it's worshiped -- talked about, I would say, a whole lot more than Jesus. That is, IF the past two weeks of me visiting my French relatives is any indication.

In America, where I come from, cheese is something to slap on a hamburger or serve to guests before a meal so they don't get cranky. In France, cheese is served after the meal. It is not a snack. It is not an appetizer. Au contraire! It is a complete and total course unto itself -- a highly purposeful serving of seriously shopped-for food that is served between the meal and the dessert.

As an occasional visitor to France, what I find most astounding about camembert is not its royalty status in the French cheese world, but its capacity to bridge the inter-generational gap.

Put three generations of French people around the dinner table -- all with very different tastes in music, fashion, and technology -- and, with the presence of camembert on the table, you will soon begin to experience a fascinating phenomenon. As people get their first whiff of the round, soft, runny, buttery, glowing wheel of divinity, all other conversations cease. Where only seconds before people were arguing about the economy, the weather, or Donald Trump, now a kind of harmonic resonance can be palpably felt. All eyes are on the cheese. All conversations are about the cheese. Deeply felt reflections on past cheese experiences fill the room.

Simply put, the camembert has become the sun around which all the rest of us revolve. The aches and pains of my 90-year old mother-in-law? Whether to pick up the phone each of the 25 times she calls every day? Poof! Dissolved in thin air! Fini!

Only camembert remains.

Mitch Ditkoff is the President of Idea Champions, an innovation consulting company headquartered in Woodstock, NY and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. He is also the author of the award-winning Storytelling at Work, a book about the power and glory of personal storytelling. For more info about his keynotes and workshops, click here.

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