Random Riffs, January 2015

by caroline on January 20, 2015


‘Random Riffs’ unwind,
without warning, from one of life’s unexpected moments.
They will be posted from time to time, as they unwind.

[the retired blog, ‘OPENING LINES‘, is archived here…]


La Petite Maison

Last November, Parker and I stayed in a tiny village near the mediaeval town of Amboise in the Loire Valley. We’d booked, sight unseen,  ‘une petite maison’ that had once served as a small barn, and was attached, by means of a lantern-lit carriage archway, to the main house of a restored ‘minor’ chateau that dates to before the fifteenth century.

Walking about the dimly lit inner courtyard on our first evening, it is easy to imagine a team of carriage horses, steaming and snorting, harnesses jangling as they enter the archway at the end of a long journey.

Within the stone walls of our ancient little cottage, trappings of the past blend easily with modern convenience.  For two weeks, ‘La Petite Maison’  is  our retreat from sightseeing fatigue, a place to prepare dinner from market produce,  to put our feet up in front of a warm fire on a chilly day. By day, no matter the weather, there is light from dormered windows and the large French doors that open onto the gardens.

One misty grey morning, on my way downstairs to breakfast, I am caught suddenly by rays of sunlight landing on a small white chair in our upstairs bedroom window.

At this early hour, in the silence, the empty chair is alive with absence; for a moment, my long departed gran is sitting there, quietly absent in the morning light; and my dear mother, very still, lost forever in her longing for a light that  always eluded her.

I linger at the window, inhale the fresh cool air,  gaze out across rolling hills and  cultivated pastures; I see a distant car making its way slowly through the landscape, becoming smaller and smaller.

For a fleeting instant, I grasp the inevitability of an approaching absence. My own. I am aware too, of the absence of one dear friend, my brother’s wife Diana. She was five years younger than I am today when she died of a cruel frontal lobe dementia.

Here in this chair at the window, Diana would be reading. History probably. Perhaps something about the Huguenots, who in the sixteenth century were hung, dripping blood until dead, from hooks on the outside walls of Le Chateau Amboise. I hear her laughter at Parker’s horror, realizing the fate of his ancestors.  I hear us trading tidbits on all things Paris. We compete of course:  who first came upon Gertrude Stein’s house near Vavin; which artists attended her salons, which writers;  Picasso, yes, and what about Matisse, or Hemingway; and who knows where the best deal is for vintage Bordeaux; oh! and by the way, Morley Callaghan definitely did not knock Hemingway out in that boxing match at a pub; oh yes, he did. Definitely.

Diana is always way ahead of me of course, her love affair with France preceding mine by decades. Not to be outdone, however, I will argue from my position of relative ignorance. It is all a delicious, if perverted, sort of pleasure. 

I remember when, for my fiftieth birthday, Diana presented me with two beer bottle holders imprinted with the bright red letters ‘W.O.W.’.  There was an explanatory note spelled out below: ‘Wild Older Woman’.  Indeed.

The last time Diana visited our home in Ottawa was for a special Shepard family gathering. She and Terry, along with Diana’s caregiver, drove up from Kingston for the afternoon.  In these last years of her life, Diana did not speak. She could no longer feed herself, she was forgetting how to swallow, and was unaware of the indignity of her incontinence. Still, if someone’s witticism caught her fancy, an irrepressible appreciation would light up her face. She was a gifted high school teacher. She was accomplished at the piano, and once had a fine singing voice. She never lost that love of music. [Her caregiver picked up on the sense of humour, and the love of music. She would wash Diana in the shower while singing, to Diana’s delighted giggles, “Gramma Got Run Over by a Reindeer”.]

On that cherished family afternoon, we sat around the table for hours, enjoying pot luck, swapping old stories, talking above the noisy antics of rambunctious kids. Diana, though, remained unresponsive. After second helpings of dessert, everyone was pushing themselves up from their chairs with a laughing groan, preparing to leave. Terry led Diana by both hands, walking backwards through the kitchen door to the living room. They smiled into each other’s eyes with each small step. Diana hesitated at the piano. Terry waited, understanding her longing to play. She sat down on the bench and placed her hands on the keyboard. I leaned against the corner of the upright, and watched her. At first, her fingers wandered awkwardly over the keys. And then, with trembling hands, she found the tentative shape of the melody she was seeking. It emerged first in single notes,  and then the entire piece was right there, right under her fingers, and she gave us a perfect, magical, “By The Light of the Silvery Moon”.

She glanced up at me, smiling with the saddest joyful knowing, the tears streaming down her face.

And now, here in the Loire, some seven years after she left us, I am watching the sunlight fade from her chair. I turn and go downstairs for breakfast.




You brought her right here to my fireside chair, singing
“By the Light…” as the moon rises outside my window.
Thanks for your magical return of my dear friend.

by Dianne on 01/27/2015 at 2:58 am. #

I loved writing this one Dianne. I’ve been with her for the last few days, as I was last November, thinking of her in France. So happy it resonated for you!

by caroline on 01/27/2015 at 3:14 am. #

Oh my goodness: how beautiful, how sad, so powerful.Carole. Thank you for including us in the circle.
A couple of years ago, Marilyn and I went with family to the grave site of her mother, to sit under the trees in the cemetery. We had lawn chairs and sandwiches. We reminisced. Life goes on, we realized with some chagrin. And then we looked over to a spot in the circle of our chairs. We had just put them out and sat down. We suddenly were aware that we had brought ‘an extra’ chair. It was as if Mar’s mom was still among us. Of course, in fact, she was.

by gord jones on 01/30/2015 at 8:03 pm. #

Thank you for your moving response, Gord, and for your poignant story about Marilyn’s mother.

by caroline on 02/02/2015 at 6:10 pm. #

Merci, what a wonderful memory to share with us and Diana would truly appreciate it. I remember you telling of this when it happened and how the music brought her back to you in such a special moment. Warming! And all before breakfast.

by Jamie Kass on 02/08/2015 at 5:48 pm. #

Diana would be chuckling!

by caroline on 02/09/2015 at 3:30 pm. #