20 Jul 2010

Lettre à Ciaruccia (Part 1)

Dear Claire, or shall I call you Ciara, even Ciaruccia (Lil' Claire) as you were affectionately known... A great-great-aunt I have never met, yet I think I have an idea of you almost to the point of claiming that I know you, thanks to other people's accounts of you, especially from mémé, my mum and the shrinking cluster of elderly family friends who are still alive to reminisce you.


I have come across the odd (rare) photo of you, a thin, petite energetic-looking woman with a scarf on her head who was anything but frail and fragile, for you accomplished so much in your humble lifetime, through hard labour and self-inflicted discipline. I have never met you, yet my eyes fill with tears at the thought of your fairly harsh existence with basic/ rudimentary comforts and no material luxuries. Yet what touches me most is that you never complained about it, you took it in your stride and carried on.

And stride is what you did! From the tortuous heights of the hamlet down to the sun-baked plains by the sea, miles of it in one day, every day, by foot or donkey-back! You tended to your vineyards (Malvoisie is the grape you produced), with no mechanical (tractor) aid in sight. You watched out for disease (mildew and phylloxera, the two main and incredibly feared culprits known to deplete a vineyard).


As if this was not enough, you made hay for your farm animals, checked the state of your boundary stone walls in passing, hacked back bramble and other keen weeds. You kept your fruit and vegetable garden in check, watered it, and your patience, faith and plant knowledge - passed down from generation to the next - helped crops to come to fruition and feed the household.

As way of council tax settlement, you volunteered to keep the road verges leading to your hamlet (a good kilometre of it) clear of rambling vegetation. It is said that you always carried a gardening tool with you, a knife, a clipper of sorts, with which you would cut anything that wasn't supposed to be at its place.


You had fun too, almost childlike with your adored nephews (mémé and her brother Augustin who virtually saw you as their second mum) and your only grand-niece, my mum. It seems that despite the harshness of your working conditions, out in the open, self-employed with no job security as such and with no guarantee of a decent wage, you nonetheless felt blessed by family life and the wider circle of village life (from church services to fêtes), although you never married or had children of your own, not necessarily your choice, as I've heard allegations that your brother Antoine (my great-grandad) discouraged any suitors from courting his only sister! Whether or not you would have had an easier life, should you have found a caring husband, we will never know... (to be continued)

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