Remembrance Day

The day is a popular holiday, especially when it helps to prolong the weekend. It means that schools are closed and people get paid for not working. To ensure a good attendance, especially of the young generation who is taken there by their teachers, the ‘Commune’ organized the celebration a day early. Léonine, who had sung with the choir while I was with Mme El, reported it was a great success, especially given the glorious weather. She looked very smart in her black trousers and white top and the blue choir scarf to crown it.
I wondered to Mme El what benefit the dead had from all that. She said spontaneously that they deserved it, didn’t they die for us?! Yes, but what does it actually do for them? She shrugged her shoulders.
Mme El has lost an old friend, Rona, one year younger, in a neighbouring village, with whom she used to ‘do the pig’, that is make sausages and all the rest on the annual slaughtering day of the home-fed animal, most people had one at the time.
This lady died suddenly when getting a piece of meat down the wrong channel. ‘Suffocated! ’ Léonine told me impressed and she thought it was quite a horrible death, she wouldn’t want her mother-in-law to suffer it, yet is she not in just that danger?
Does she not stuff both cheeks with food? It annoys Léonine no end. Gerrer has warned his mother since, I understand, and she, Léonine, has personally entered the death in Mme El’s diary in capital letters, refraining, however, from stating the cause. Things never happen the way one expects them to, ‘destiny, that’s what it boils down to, isn’t it?’. Léonine looked blank and then asked me to come in the morning of next day instead of the afternoon, which would enable her to take part in the funeral, help with the mourning, ‘faire le deuil’, for she has known the lady for as long as her mother-in-law, she claimed, but I don’t see how that is possible.
Mme El for one is glad it’s not her, but only her friend from early on and for as long as they could ride a bicycle given the distance between the two villages where they lived, one here, one there. After that they never met again because friends and family didn’t bother to provide transport, nobody cared, she said shrugging her shoulders, ‘es atal’. The friend is gone, now, and “may she have to wait for a long time before I join her”, Mme El laughed, je ‘m’accroche! ’ – I hang on!
Two months later Mme El was disturbingly lively, even having written voluntarily a few sentences into her diary, Léonine informed me. As soon as I sat down Mme El told me she hadn’t been able to sleep during her siesta because she had to think about Rona all the time. She said she was dead, it had happened two months ago, but it made no difference since she was very much alive for Mme El, almost as though she was present, all the things they used to do together only yesterday and had she been buried in the right place, she wondered, there, by the wall, next to the little one, a child of hers who died when aged four. I hear that Rona had wanted a proper family grave, did she get it? Mme El was indignant at the thought that she might not have done. At this Léonine
came in and I asked her about it. Of course, they have their own burial site, a big one, she informed me. Mme L went on talking about things from Rona’s life, her going to ‘Allemagne’ … Léonine interrupted her sharply: Alsace is not Germany, it is the ‘East of France’! Mme El looked defiant, but kept her mouth shut.
She sees her son through the open door as I am leaving and remarks about his hat to me. He hears it, shrugs his shoulders and moves out of her sight. Léonine says her mother-in-law is in a ‘delirium’, confused, erratic, full of ill will. Mme El confounds time past and time present, it’s like one for her, everything together. She sees so vividly how she was guarding the cows with Rona for company. Other pieces of memory: Didn’t she have to go to Pamios (Pamiers) now, back to the rest home there? I tell her that she stayed for recovery in the old hospital seven years ago, the rest home she knows is in Mirepoix. She remembers this and remarks that she is comfortable there, ‘je suis bien là’. Her nose is running and like in old times she reaches for a piece of kitchen roll to wipe it, which she is not supposed to do, for the paper will go into her pocket and from there into the washing machine, causing a nuisance. The tip of her nose is itchy, she wonders why. Funnily enough, mine, too, for weeks already.
Mme El is combative: ‘Je ne me laisse pas abattre!’, I won’t be knocked out. It had taken all my diplomatic skill and body-language to prevent a forceful outbreak by Léonine who had caught from a corner of her eye or ear, as she was leaving the room, having served us hot drinks with a stern face, an offensive hand-movement or sound from her mother-in-law.
A few tense seconds before the door finally closed and Mme El gleeful. I told her that Léonine would remember, but she couldn’t give a something.
‘The voice!’ Mme El says to me. First time she mentions it.
Personally I had been thinking for a long time that I wouldn’t be able to stand it. With its stridency, a sharp metal blade, it could well damage one’s ear-drums, especially at close quarters, if not pierce the closed new double-glazed window, for it is audible outside in the road. Incredibly loud and downright painful. I had to refrain from putting my hands on my ears.
Mme El was complaining about her ears: she doesn’t hear any more the not very shrill telephone in her room. I tell her that everything is being worn down and out in life: ears, eyes, limbs, anything, and she’s eighty-nine… She nods. I say, isn’t life like a clock: wound up when you begin and then steadily winding down, until it comes to the final stand-still. Finished. 
Cemetery. She laughs spontaneously, nodding, but says nothing. I challenge her a bit more: What do you think of this life? What is it worth? She turns serious and shaking her head with determination ‘Je ne calcule pas’ – I don’t ponder over these things.