Last October found me in Indiana. My wife and I traveled there to say our final goodbyes to my dad, who was dying of mesothelioma. I returned in December for his funeral. Because of COVID-19, it was a small, family-only funeral; we will have a large memorial service post-COVID. I lost my mother recently too, just over a year and a half ago, as I mentioned in an earlier column.
If there is a silver lining to having to fly back to Indiana to say goodbye, both in person before my father passed away and again after he had passed, it has to be Mahaut.
Mahaut lives next door to my sister and her husband, with whom I stay whenever I am in Bloomington. In October when I was there, my sister insisted I had to meet her. Mahaut is French and although I grew up in France and am fluent in French, as is my sister, I’m not usually all that excited about meeting someone just because they speak French. But Mahaut was 90 years old and wanted to meet me.
We knocked on the door after my sister assured me that we didn’t need to call ahead because Mahaut always welcomed anyone who came to see her. After a couple of “J’arrive” (“I’m coming”), the door opened to a little fireball of a woman with keen, sharp eyes that apparently no longer work (she is legally blind) and a beautiful smile. She was excited to have visitors, especially ones who spoke French. She brought out a six-pack of Stella Artois cider and we sat outside in her yard drinking it in the still warm-for-the-time-of-year sunshine.
I asked Mahaut how she ended up in Bloomington, and she told me all about her life. It was a fascinating one.
Mahaut was raised in France during the war. She was evacuated to Brittany because Paris was constantly being bombed. She talked about the castle that she and her mother lived in, about the turrets on either end of the castle where she hid and kept her collections of feathers and whatever else she happened to find interesting. She talked about her father, who was one of the first aviators of the war, about how he was shot down and died in a German concentration camp when she was still very young. She talked about her travels all over the world.
She told us about a young man that she fell in love with when she worked as a cartographer. She was the first woman in that position and mapped the first French expedition to Antarctica. She wanted to go with them but, because she was a woman, she was not allowed. She then went on to work for the “Petit Larousse,” the equivalent of Webster’s dictionary, National Geographic and Rand McNally rolled into one — an iconic French company. She created some of the maps we still use today. She told us about meeting her husband while she was studying at Indiana University where he eventually taught. She told me about their marriage and their children.
When I told her that my wife and I were planning on retiring in Portugal, she told me to do it as soon as possible, about how beautiful it was there and about all the great food. “Retire as soon as you can” she told me in French. “My husband died three years after he retired and those three years were the best years of our life!” She has been living alone in the big house next to my sister’s for upwards of 25 years. Her son stops by to check up on her at least once a day. She has very few visitors.
When I went back to Indiana for my dad’s funeral the week after Christmas, we went to see Mahaut again. I brought her a bottle of pastis, a French liqueur made from anise that is near impossible to find in the U.S. She promised to save it for my next visit when the weather was warm. (It’s a liqueur that you dilute with ice cold water. Perfect for a hot day).
Madame Mahaut reminds me that we all have a story to tell and that we all want someone to hear it, to be a witness to what we have lived, to all the memories we have.
If we’re lucky and just a little inquisitive, we might be fortunate to be that witness.
Rob Vajko lives near Wauna.
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