Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A Long Life

A sad note: Marcelle Pons Sidoine passed away yesterday, at the age of 95. Marcelle was an active member of the French Resistance during WWII, and the wartime companion of French poet and Resistance leader René Char. The couple operated the local Resistance network from Marcelle’s family's home - the house where we now live.

We had the good fortune to meet Marcelle several times when we first came to Cereste; here's the story of how we found the house.

Even at 94, Marcelle was a decisive woman - short of sentence and sure of opinion. When asked about Char, she said: "He was always hanging around, this tall guy, being nice to my mother. Il m'agaçait, celui la. He annoyed me.” I guess love is always the same; when he starts being nice to your mother, you're in real trouble.

The first thing that struck us when we visited the house was the danger, and at the same time, the warmth, of the memories associated with the war. The following story took place in our living room:

The Gestapo were looking for Char, they ordered the entire village out of their homes, with instructions to leave the doors ajar. Marcelle and her mother wrapped Char's head in a bandage, like an old woman with a toothache, and left him in bed, up the short flight of stairs just off the living room.

When the German's arrived, Marcelle was standing in front of the door, key in hand. “Leave it,” said the soldiers, “Go to the square.” “I don't trust these people,” she said, “There are thieves in this village. If you want to search the house, go ahead, but I will stay here and lock the door behind you.”

The Germans came in looked around the living room, out into the garden. They got halfway up the steps to Char's room and turned around. “There's no one here. Let's go.” It was only after the soldiers left that Marcelle noticed the grenade lying carelessly on the table in front of the fireplace. The Germans didn't see it. The grenade (to say nothing of hiding Char) would have been enough to get the whole family shot.

“I was sick for 8 days after that.” said Marcelle, as if risking your life was like coming down with the flu.

I hope the picture gives you an idea of how small the room is. On the left is the door where the German's came in, on the right, the six steps up to Char's bedroom. Barely 12 feet between them.

We are busy spring cleaning, making the house and the garden our own. But we will never forgot why we first came to this place; drawn by the good-luck lilies of the valley and an extraordinary history.

This year's lilies will be popping up any day now.

It will always be her garden.


  1. It is ironic how history becomes intertwined in our lives. With the garden, you will always have a precious memory of Marcelle.

    When I reviewed you book, Lunch in Paris, I was fascinated by the backgrounder you provided to finding your house.
    When I researched for a Master's degree in History, part of the studies involved writing a paper on Marc Bloch, a French historian who co-founded the Annales school of thought. He was also a member of the Resistance, was imprisoned and executed by the Nazis when they invaded France. He wrote Strange Defeat.
    Learning about Char was an irony to me.

  2. I've always loved old buildings and places because of their history. You'll never know what happened exactly, however you do make ideas of what might have.
    Here in Europe every family has its own story when talking about world war one and two. I remember visiting my grandparents and always asking them to tell me stories about what happened. So intriguing.
    How wonderful you made some kind of memoir of her garden, a great symbol because a garden sort of has its own life and tells so much about the age of the place you live in.

  3. Thank you for this beautifully told story. It is very moving and poignant to hear your words portray a very vivid moment of history. A moment that could have had a very different outcome. If those soldiers weren't only too human and had not abandoned their search....well that is only one point. Moreover, the outcomes of our choices, our miraculous lived moments, the chances we take, and the split second turn of events make this journey, (each one's journey in life), endlessly fascinating and precious. Thank you, and, Keep inspiring the good life! (the photos enhance the experience) Beautiful rose!

  4. I just finished Lunch in Paris and am delighted to be able to learn a little more about your new house here. Your book was delightful, the recipes are inspirational - fresh, simple, encouraging even the timid cook to give it a try. I had to review it right away so I could pass it along to my daughter-in-law who taught English in a small French village for one year.

  5. Are we going to see another book? ...please please please! I am finished your book and re-read it too and I need another fix!

  6. This is the way you look at the poorest details of the world resurfaced, after you've been driving for a long time -- you feel their singleness and precise location and the forlorn coincidence of you being there to see them.
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