HOW LONG SINCE I’d lived without a child or a husband or even a roommate? If a woman is defined by her relationship to others—sister, wife, mother, daughter—I was…what? My siblings were far away in visiting-miles and wavelengths. And now I was without even the peripheral presence of parents. My father had died with Alzheimer’s and my mother was lost in a murky limbo, a victim of the same thief.
I loved Andrew, but I loved him in a way that didn’t require his continuous presence. Between us there was no “we”—not yet, maybe not ever. He was a visitor in my house and in my life.
I was by myself.
I thought about that. My self. What is that but a collection of cells, a tiny ball of energy powering itself through time and space? And I was by it. The I part would be my consciousness, I guess. Billions of neurons bouncing back and forth over trillions of synaptic bridges, gaining and sharing ability, knowledge and memories.
That didn’t seem like solitude.
I could be by myself. I could do that.
It had been a wonderful thing to be surrounded by the young—you can linger on in stages of life you’ve found to be particularly enjoyable. For example, if your fifties are healthy and supple enough you can stretch them past your sixtieth birthday. But sooner or later some watershed event comes along, notices you loitering there like the last guest at the party, and tells you it’s time to move on.
When Ben went off to college I lost the only reason to stay in the little house I had never loved. I would leave it—but for what and where?
It helps to have a contact in the new territory, a friend or relative living successfully in the next stage of life; someone to follow and emulate, to explain the mysteries, alert you to pitfalls and show you what to wear. But I didn’t have one handy. I came of age in the South (although my parents were born “in the shade of Lincoln’s tomb,” as my father often reminded me). If I had stayed in Dixie, if I had followed the same magnolia-scented path as my three eternal girlhood friends, maybe at this turning point everything would be set out for me like luncheon silver. I would define myself as a wife and mother, and at this point, awaiting my duties as grandmother, I would have a role in the community–the arts center, or the Junior League, or in some well-regarded charity. I would entertain my husband’s clients and customers; I would hostess society luncheons and chair committees. I would play bridge or tennis at the country club. There would be weekends on our boat or at our cabin in the mountains or our house at the beach.
But I’d moved North, lived in big cities where the possibilities for a woman like me seemed so varied and numerous it was almost frightening. There was nothing to keep me from following my instincts, my curiosity. They wouldn’t call me weird, or brainy or wild, because there was no they.
Of course I hurt others and myself along the way, but the vision that had emerged out of the mess made by my mistakes had helped me create my new life. I’d made bad marriages and made marriages bad. I’d staggered under the weight of motherhood and career. I’d let my drinking get out of control. And I kept right on making it worse until one night, after a long cry in a hot bath, I asked myself what my ideal life would look like. I found that I could see it clearly. I virtually summoned up a blank canvas and began to sketch in images of what inspires and nourishes me, what grounds and protects me. I was astonished at what beauty was created by simply disentangling the good from the knots of fear and anger and bringing it out into the clear light of my best intentions.
It had taken time to dismantle and throw out the mess, but when I started adding the good things I saw in my vision—the love, the learning, the painting, the exploration—wonderful things began to show up on their own, as if attracted to the scent of promise, like bees to new blooms.
Now I just had to adjust my vision to the new realities.
The Corfu crowd, the traveling trio–was back in France! Andrew, Michele and I, with a fourth friend and colleague, Debra, had rented a charming house in a woodsy neighborhood just outside Aix-en-Provence—Cézanne country—within view of his beloved Mont Sainte-Victoire. There was a big kitchen, an enormous wooden dining table, a shady terrace and three comfortable double bedrooms.
It was a glorious time for me, golden days of painting, twilight in the kitchen making dinner, using the little bit of expertise I’d picked up in French cooking and the extraordinary goodness of local produce—the bulging garlic, luscious tomatoes, slender haricots verts, vats of glistening green and black olives coated with herbs and spices, golden onions, fat Cavaillon melons that taste of a tropical heaven…not to mention the thyme, sage, rosemary and bay leaf right outside our door.
I was deeply happy cooking for adventurous appetites, for people who’d worked outdoors all day. For me cooking continued the creative process from my easel in the field to the stove in the kitchen. I loved working with the flavors of this land as much as I loved working with its colors. Now I understood why they call it cuisine of the sun.
Andrew had been trying new means of expression since he left school, and he kept his work to himself. Michele was painting dreamy landscapes saturated with romantic color. Debra was in transition from the precision of graphic design to exploring a personal view, and she struggled with her perfectionist nature. I was busy churning out product and going on to the next job. “Racing for closure,” Deb called it.
It’s a strange thing about Aix: Cézanne’s legacy is everywhere—you can even follow his painted footsteps through the town—but in life, he and his work had been rejected, and none of his great paintings are anywhere in sight. We passed a few evenings chuckling over the cliché of going to paint Mont Sainte-Victoire ourselves—to see what the big deal was. He had painted the mountain over and over again, from different vantage points, in different seasons. When he caught the chill that would lead to his death in 1906, he had been…yes…painting Mont Sainte-Victoire.
Finally, we just had to do it too. It was there.
I stood by my easel on the grassy site we’d found and measured the great mountain against the buildings and the hanging vines and winding lane in the foreground of the scene. I fussed over the changing light, because it forced me to keep reshaping shadows and putting down new ones. Eventually Andrew appeared from wherever he’d set up to see how I was coming along. He was thoughtful, and he spoke in his teacher voice.
“The Impressionists—those guys were all about capturing the moment. You grab the sunbeams, the ripples of the water, the motion of the leaves, and boom—you’re done. The moment is stopped, crystallized in time.
“Now, old Paul was a Post-Impressionist, and he had a different game. He was interested in capturing, not the moment, but the accumulation of moments, and hours, and all the stuff like mood and emotion that add to the picture, whether you can see them or not.”
The way love works, I thought.
This particular moment, this whole scenario, came back to me many times. It had all the elements I wanted in life—art, beauty, friends, cooking, France.
And Andrew in my bed.
The worst thing about leaving America was coming back. After the peaceful pace of France, the hours that blended smoothly into each other without a jolt, arriving in America was like stumbling into the final meters of a road race. The whole country was caught up in a kind of fin-de-siècle frenzy, obsessed with the speed of change, with globalization, with new technology.
I had always trusted my trend-surfing skills. I could see each new wave coming in my business, get smart quickly, catch it and ride the crest. By the time it plunged I was on the next one.
But now I felt an ominous swell coming up from the depths, and it was something I couldn’t read. I found myself in new offices of new clients, looking around at furniture still in boxes. In meetings, there were new people whose function I couldn’t identify. When I put forth my usual marketing questions—who are you, what do you sell, who’s your target audience, and why should they buy—no one gave me a straight answer. Even the boss—especially the boss—was vague. The only mandate was a presence on the Internet.
Was it me? Or were they talking about selling air? I was torn between learning more about this new wave and running away from it—far away.
For years now, I had ignored a tiny voice deep inside that squeaked whenever it caught me behaving as if this work I did was valuable to humanity or any part of it. I wasn’t one of those copywriters who pouted that they were wasting brilliance that could be better spent on literature. No, I had a reverence for the job, and for doing it well, no matter what it was. I did have certain standards. I wouldn’t write for political candidates, and I wouldn’t write for purveyors of products or services that were harmful or even just annoying—telemarketing for example. I could spot clients who were potentially shifty, who seemed to have no principles. I liked writing about something that had good, solid benefits to a consumer. But at this point, I felt my ability to discriminate had begun to weaken.
The good thing about that period was that every business now wanted to let their customers know they were changing along with the times. I understood that, and I was getting jobs right and left. A local advertising agency contracted me to help present the sleek new face of Amtrak to a public who had found it faster and cheaper to fly. It was a yearlong project that would pay well. The agency management was nervous about letting a freelancer take the job out of their offices, but delivering copy by e-mail was beginning to be accepted. They reluctantly loosened my leash–just in time, as it happened.
Another girlfriend from my Southern past surfaced and blew the lid off my France fantasies. Cindy and I had met as newlyweds in Baton Rouge. Our husbands were engineers at Kaiser, and we were the hussies who drank with the men while their wives huddled to talk diapers and detergent. When my husband was accepted at Harvard Business School and we moved to Boston, our paths diverged, but she’d kept in touch with letters that made her domestic life read like “The Canterbury Tales.”
Cindy’s two girls were now grown, and her news was that she and her husband, Ken, were going to France, where he was to manage a three-year project for a chemical company in Grenoble.
As she went back and forth on relocation missions, I lived vicariously through her colorful accounts of apartment shopping, furnishing and decorating, installation of appliances—using all ten words she knew of French—and befriending all the merchants on her street. I was thrilled with this opportunity to be walked through the process of relocating in a foreign country. When she wrote that she was finally settled in but deeply exhausted, I said I’d be right there to take her on a recuperative road trip. “Let’s go down to the Riviera,” she answered without a second thought. “I’ll find us a deal.”
In Grenoble, I got the tour of the newly decorated apartment, done in the correct French style with a lusty Louisiana accent. “The other American families wanted houses outside of town, for the schools and all…” drawled Cindy, “but ah said hail no—I want to be in town where stuff is happenin’!” I admired the soaring ceiling, the tall elegant windows giving on to narrow wrought-iron balconies that would soon spill over with geraniums. I met the traiteur down the street that specialized in foie gras, the Belgian chocolatier and the tall ebony-colored florist who made exquisite bouquets.
Next morning, we spread the map out on the hood of my rental car and determined that the Route de Napoleon would be the straightest and most interesting way to get to Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, where Cindy had wangled a special off-season tariff. On the map, it looked like a direct route. What a coup! We went roaring off, exulting about being together, in France, on our way to being seriously spoiled on the glamorous Côte d’Azur.
But we hadn’t noticed the topography indications on the map, and before long the road started twisting—no, writhing—through treacherous mountain terrain. All whooping and giggling stopped as I drove, white-knuckled, hugging the road around switchback turns, narrowly missing death by plunging over embankments, as French drivers streaked past us in low sports cars, oblivious of anything in the way, and the jingle of Cindy’s bracelets echoed our jangled nerves. We stopped once at a café in a little village for food and directions, but it was not lunchtime, and a couple of geezers at the bar just laughed at us. Indignantly, we marched back to the car, gritted our teeth and took off on the next sinuous stretch of time and terror.
Finally, at eight o’clock that night —after I made one last, potentially fatal wrong turn—we pulled into the hotel’s parking entrance. I turned off the key, shaking. Cindy sat back, smoothed her crumpled linen, inventoried her jewelry and appendages, and checked her makeup in the passenger mirror before she spoke.
“My asshole’s so tight I’ll never shit again.”
Oh, but when we recovered it was like a dream. There we were, two old friends surrounded by period grandeur in a gorgeous luxury room in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat—and as if that weren’t enough, at a discount! Flowers were waiting in our room—as if we needed further spoiling. Our stone balcony overlooked the vast aquamarine swimming pool cradled in coral decking, surrounded by neat rows of white lounge chairs. A screen of green shrubs and swaying palm trees spiked with cypresses allowed the occasional peek at the palatial splendor on the other side.
We were truly, as we used to say, farting through silk.
“I just love France,” sighed Cindy.
“I feel like a better person here,” I said, just then realizing it.
“We need to get you a pied à terre.”
“’Cause when Ken’s project is over and we have to go back to Baton Rouge I’ll need a place to stay.”
Then it happened that the sale of my parents’ property in California went through, I received a comfortable share of the proceeds, and the idea of buying a pied à terre now began to gain weight. It could be a solid investment. It could enable me to live independently as an old lady. It would give me a great excuse to travel!
Cindy’s dogged research led me to real estate possibilities all over the South of France. I read the descriptions, even subscribed to a French real estate magazine, learned the lingo and charted the selling prices by location. For me, it was all about inventing a situation for my eventual old ladyhood. The act of buying seemed so remote, and I knew so little about how it worked in France, that it was more of an exploration of a lifestyle. I was putting on its shoes and walking around in them, as my therapist described part of the process of positive change. I had walked around in Paris (too expensive), the Riviera (ditto), the Dordogne (too British) and Provence (hmmm…maybe).
Andrew couldn’t resist offering his input, and I was glad to have it. After all, his sister lived in Paris, he had traveled in France since he was fourteen, and he’d grown up with a European worldview. In his Maryland grade school, he said, he was the dork with a baguette in his lunch bag.
He wanted to put a word in for the Luberon. He had visited that part of Provence with a family friend and thought I should look there. I was skeptical—it was the setting for Peter Mayle’s first book and I envisioned the place crawling with tourists, usurped by British gentry for holiday homes.
But what the hell. It was worth a look. Nothing said I had to act on it. Old ladyhood was a long way away.
It was October when Andrew and I left Washington with our easels and supplies on a painting trip and reconnaissance mission. We flew into Marseille, descending over the azure Mediterranean, landing on a sunny strip lined with palms. We picked up a rental car and drove north to the village where we’d be staying for a week, in a rented villa with a swimming pool.
We found it as comfortable and well equipped as the listing had said, and while it was too cool to swim, it was nice to eat our meals outdoors by the pool, secluded behind vine-covered walls. But the surroundings weren’t inspiring to paint, and the hard-edged eighties décor freaked us out. We decided to venture out into the paysage. Andrew brought up the Luberon again. We were practically there anyway.
Driving east from Avignon we entered a cozy valley cradled between two gently rising mountain ranges. Along the road were fields of red earth striped with orderly rows of lavender, shorn of flowers and left a faint teal color; burly vines were still heavy with grapes; orchards of delicate fruit trees delivered of their apples, pears and almonds; small groves of curly olive trees with silvered leaves. The occasional red-roofed mas and its outbuildings hid behind a windbreak of evergreens. A crossroads store, a bus shelter, a salvage yard—even a used car lot—were smudged into the background by the placid insistence of nature, softening the edges as an artist does with a thumb.
Looking upward from the valley floor, you noticed the almost ghostly presence of stone villages perched on the lower rises of the mountains. Built centuries ago of the same rock they cluster on, they seem to have emerged from the ground over time. The sturdy ramparts surrounding them, the lookout towers looming above, gave an eerie sense of being expected—and not necessarily welcome.
Andrew introduced me to his real estate contact, Gwen, a friend of a friend. “Just looking around,” I said. A crusty American ex-pat, she’d caught the second-home market at its debut and now she was apparently the go-to guy for people with worldly tastes and astronomical budgets. My budget barely registered in that realm, but she said she could show me the only three properties she knew of that were anywhere near my price range.
Why not? I was just looking.
The first was a house in a village that had become so charming that no real people lived there in the off-season, and it smelled of elderly illness. The next one was a money pit, a crumbling maze of eccentric spaces that would keep renovation projects going into eternity, with nosy neighbors watching me make a fool of myself. The last one was adorable, renovated from ruin and appointed with style, but it was the village I found irresistible. As soon as I stepped out of the car and heard the splash of the fountain, I was in love.
This village, built on a giant rock overlooking the valley, was a real place, with people who seemed to belong to the land. Its antiquity had not been tampered with. The houses were built of stone and their walls leaned gently forward under the weight of centuries. Spring water gurgled up from various sources and poured into fountains and basins. I saw neighbors, hikers and bikers filling their water bottles. The fountain in the main square seemed to double as a holding pond for the inn’s dinner fish, and a waiter filled pitchers for the table. The squat parish church dated from the twelfth century, and it had the sweetly worn look of constant use, like an old teddy bear. There were only two or three tiny streets, one bakery, two shops and one tourist attraction—the castle ruins on top of the rock, barely hinted at by a handmade directional sign. Nobody seemed to be in much of a hurry. An old man sitting on a wall slept with his face turned up to the sun. A dog dozed in the street, and a car negotiated around him, rolling carefully along the curb.
Andrew was talking to cats; he is a greeter of animals. These cats were everywhere, perched on windowsills, lurking under cars, peering through bushes. They looked fat and smug. To Andrew, this meant that people of the village were kind and caring, because they were surely feeding them well.
This seemed to be the kind of place that would be kind and patient with the crotchety old lady I would surely be. There’d be someone to take my elbow, carry my basket, bring me something from their garden.
Meanwhile, it was a place I could enjoy now. The house had three bedrooms and two baths—I could rent it out to a family or three couples. It could make back some of the money I would put into it.
I wondered what Andrew thought.
“These houses are old, and they’re made of stones—even older, ancient as the earth,” he said looking up at me. He was on one knee trying to get a big tabby to come to him. “Generations of people have lived and died and left their ghosts in them. When someone talks about buying one, I don’t get it. We don’t buy something like that, do we? We just borrow some time with it.”
I looked up at the cliffs that rose over the rooftops of the village. They seemed to agree.
I told Gwen I would think seriously about it. Before I left, though, I went with her to the bank, met the manager and opened a French account. Just in case.
In Paris for our flight home, Andrew’s sister Anne told us the news. Their father was having seizures. Andrew was needed at home.
–Marcia Muir Mitchell