For All Saints’ Day, the day on which French gravestones disappear under bunches of chrysanthemums, we offered to take Denise to the cemetery where Joel’s aunt and his grandparents are buried. Unfortunately between moving apartments and me spending four days in London (one of which was 15-hours non-stop work), we kept putting it off. I don’t think my mother-in-law minded too much. When we arrived at Tomb Number 18 (in which there is still room for one more), we found it was neatly swept, and two fresh pots of flowers had been placed on top. I never met Joel’s grandfather, and I only remember his grandmother as a tiny little cheek-pincher who by that time was well into her 90s. I remember aunt Louise vividly, however. She was the youngest sister, absolutely beautiful with emerald eyes, and she died of breast cancer after having married first a serial womanizer and then a pot-bellied pig. It wasn’t an enviable life, and it was way too short. Still, at least the place she and her parents are in now is peaceful, on a hillside outside Nice looking down a valley to the coast.
Plenty of other people would have taken Denise for Toussaint, but I think she must have refused them, waiting for us. To make up for the delay, we continued on up into the hills from the cemetery to the Sanctuary of Notre Dame de Laghet. We’ve been wanting to go for ages in any case. I knew it was a catholic sanctuary, a place of pilgrimage thanks to the miracles (lepers cured, and so on) attributed to a 360-year-old painted olive-wood statue of Our Lady of Laghet. Every day the nuns cook lunch for ‘pilgrims’ who sit at communal tables and get what they’re given for 11 €, 15 € on Sundays. They don’t check if you’re a pilgrim, of course, but just in case, we tried to get there in time for mass. It didn’t matter that we were late: the chapel with the statue was standing room only, with crowds spilling out into the hall. You don’t see that very often these days, do you?
It gave us the chance to wander round, and I was totally charmed by what we saw. For years, people far less cynical than I have been painting and drawing their thanks to Our Lady of Laghet for saving them from tragedy. Children falling out of windows, ships tossed at sea, speeding trains, runaway horses, careering cars; all sorts of situations in which you can imagine people sitting shocked and bewildered and thinking… “Wow, jeez, that was close! I must thank Notre Dame de Laghet for saving me from catastrophe!” I guess it’s not surprising that there’s a certain naïve quality to all these ex-votos, religious folk art.
There’s a crypt, too, with a wall (too dark to photograph, sadly) full of dusty crutches, and polite requests not to write on the walls. That’s how people used to ask the saints for protection. Now the Sanctuary provides paper and pens. I must have been affected by all the drawings and paintings of dramatically squashed bicycles, as I filled in a form and asked for Joel and I to be kept safe on our bikes. I think it’s just like making a wish, though Joel says it’s because the nuns who taught me as a child in Ireland wormed themselves deeply into my psyche.
The moment mass was over, the crowd headed for the hotellerie, led as if into battle by… my mother-in-law Denise. Pushiness in other French people irritates me, but in her it makes me smile (and embarrasses me only slightly). I hung back a bit, Anglo-saxon-like, but Joel was forced to trot immediately after her, as he had the wallet.
We were at a table for eight: a couple with a granny and two young boys. They live nearby and come regularly – apparently children pay only 9 €, so it really is a cheap Sunday lunch out. The oldest boy was horrified to discover he was at a table with fluent English speakers. Seems like he might have been rumbled in front of his parents, who think school is actually teaching him English. He devoted himself head-down to his endive salad, choucroute and tarte tropezienne. It’s all made right there in the sanctuary kitchens, so the papa told us. We loved it! The nuns are helped each day by visiting pilgrims. Today it was a bunch of smiley boy scouts from Lourdes. Do you think they were sent undercover by the Lourdes tourist office, to check out the competition?
Joel, who amazingly after 30 years stillhas new biographical facts up his sleeve, told me at the Sanctuary that he has been to Lourdes. How can I have been married for more than half my life to someone who has been to Lourdes, and I never knew? He was taken there as a young boy, by some aunt. Perhaps Louise? We had to confirm it with Denise, and she remembered it vaguely. Could it account for his miraculously youthful looks? Or perhaps his miraculous appetite.