Les dents de bonheur - "Happiness Teeth" are part of this elogy
Saturday, January 06, 2018
The regular edition of French Word-A-Day will return in a few days. Meantime, I've been trying to write a eulogy for my belle-mère without sounding too sentimental, too dramatic, or too poetic--but all of these things, from poesie to sentimentality, evoke the richness of Michele-France's life. This--and her humor, her stubbornness, and that charming gap between her front teeth (the French have a term for this: "happiness teeth" or les dents du bonheur)--only begin to paint of picture of our beloved, ginger-haired Pied-Noir (born in Meknes and proud of it. She was the daughter of an equally strong-willed mother).
Since losing Michèle-France on Christmas Eve, I have pinpointed just what it is that provokes each flood of tears, each hiccup of emotion, each groan in my throat as I toss in bed, walk past her apartment, or sit on a pew watching the curtains close in front of her flower-topped casket, as I did Thursday. It is the realization that there will be no more. No more "My darlings" (Ma chérie, she would say with such tenderness), no more visits to her little apartment up the street, no more shared yogurt cakes, no more "I didn't want to bother Jean-Marc so I'm calling you to remind him to..." no more attitude towards the nurses, sass towards the shop assistants as she limped into the store with the help of her cane and her granddaughter, no more intelligent jokes, no more beautifully painted-red fingernails, a string of gold rings (one from her son) below, no more Elvis, no more bodyguard, no more teasing me about her son's ex-girlfriends, and, I will admit...
NO MORE TAPENADE. You little rascal, I say to my belle-mère during another earth-to-heaven conversation. I've asked you for years for your tapenade recipe. And you went and took it with you!!
In a poignant send-off arranged by the crematorium, to the tune of Love is all we have left, the curtains at the front of the ceremony room open once again. My belle-mère's casket is gone and all that remains is a crown of flowers on the floor. I am stunned.
* * *
"I miss you so much it hurts," I wrote on Facebook, where my mother-in-law's account is still live. Though she struggled with technology Michèle-France did not let a learning curve keep her from keeping up with the times. Quickly overlooked by her Facebook friends (including some of you) were the gaffes she made (like using a photo of a stranger (you?) as her profile picture. And posting another photo--this time of one of my sponsor's luxury villas--to use as her cover photo). Her grandchildren (or was it my sister-in-law? for Jean-Marc had given up) eventually came to the rescue, helping her to find a suitable picture of herself to use as her profile (and the luxury villa was replaced by a more modest interior belonging to....my sister-in-law! This all could be explained by the following: while my belle-mère tried to conquer technology--she still couldn't figure out her smartphone camera, or else she might have posted a picture of her own lovely salon, or living room.).
My heart now in a brace, I clicked open Messenger to read over the SMS conversations we'd had over the years. Michèle-France's texts were filled with gratitude and those silly stickers she got me to use, too (do you know the one with the dog digging in the ground and retrieving the big I MISS YOU heart? She was telling us she missed us even before she left this earth).
Now it is our turn to feel the weight of her absence. How heavy it is! Heavy as all those buckets of olives we were planning to cart over to her little apartment when, last fall, she announced that she was feeling better--good enough to make another batch of tapenade. We never got to make that tell-all batch, in which the longtime mystery (those ingredients!) would be revealed. Instead, a bigger mystery has replaced it: Where in the world is my belle-mère? I've been looking for her everywhere--in the sky, in my dark room at night, in the intricate designs in the tiles on my bathroom wall, in the waves crashing across the shore here in La Ciotat, at the top of our cypress tree beyond a bent branch--surely she's looking down on me? I can hear her tender voice, Ma Chérie, Ma Chérie....
She is, I decide, in every particle in everything, everywhere and everlasting. She is as close as a memory...as far as the Heavens. Surely she is up there--waving her tapenade recipe, smiling with those charming dents de bonheur. There is nothing she would keep from you or me, least of all her generosity. In the coming year, I will be reaching, reaching high for those heavenly instructions. I will share with you anything I find.
My mother-in-law (those charming "happiness teeth"), my husband, and good ol' Mr. Sacks, who my belle-mère called "Monsieur Sacoche".
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For more online reading: The Lost Gardens: A Story of Two Vineyards and a Sobriety