If you’ve read my books or heard me speak about my life in France, you’ve heard about my French mother-in-law (belle-mère in French, a prettier term than the English one by far). She passed away last Sunday at the age of 98 so this is the moment to pay tribute to an exceptional and much-loved lady who peopled my life and my books.
When I married her son Philippe forty years ago, I was filled with the usual qualms all daughters-in-law everywhere have about their mothers-in-law. Would we get along? Would we agree? Disagree? Have fun together or not have any fun at all? In addition to those general questions, I had some particular ones, considering that I was American and my mother-in-law French. Would our cultural differences bring us together or divide us? To take a practical example, would it be a problem if I didn’t set the table the French way? Burst out in loud American laughter? And another practical question: what was I to call her? Should I use the informal tu or the formal vous?
The latter questions were quickly solved. I called her by her first name, Marie-Jeanne, and I addressed her with the formal “vous” as she did with me. Tu is more familiar and creates less of a distance, but I have always remained convinced that the formal vous was the perfect form for us. And it certainly didn’t keep her from affectionately calling me ma petite Harriet or ma petite fille.
What will I remember about my mother-in-law? Of course, her wonderful cooking, but above and beyond that, her incredible and sincere hospitality. 15 for dinner? No problem. The deal was, though….so as not to make her nervous, Philippe would only tell her at the last minute. “Oh my goodness,” I exclaimed the first time he announced he was bringing a group of friends and hadn’t told his mother. “You have got to give her advance warning!” He, who knew his mother well, smiled and replied: “No way. She’ll do better if we just hit her with it.”
And she did. She didn’t even register shock as the 15 friends filed in. She greeted each by name, with a smile and a bise, then proceeded to the kitchen to prepare a simple delicious meal that would fill many hungry stomachs. On these last minute occasions, she’d often make the Rochefort potato omelette I wrote about in French Fried. She’d produce a fresh head of lettuce, make a homemade vinaigrette, find something in the house that would serve as a starter (her starters were always so lavish that in the beginning I thought they were the meal), ask husband Henri to run to the fromager so she could put a dazzling variety on the cheese plate. Even with no warning, her meal was so skillfully done and artfully presented that it looked as if it had taken days instead of minutes. She always wanted people to feel at home, and they did, staying late into the night, laughing and talking.
Even the war didn’t stop that. Although there was a curfew and Germans were patrolling right in front of the house, Marie-Jeanne and Henri would sneak out the back door, cross a little brook, and go to their neighbor’s place to play cards until late at night when they’d silently creep back home. They knew all about joie de vivre even in the worst of times. . Although she didn’t live in the past, Marie-Jeanne would tell me stories about the war that made me realize what a dreadful time it was in every way – and realize that if food is so important to the French, there’s a reason. They hardly had any! The first time I peeled a potato, she was astounded. “I can see you’ve never been through a war,” she said, not unkindly, and proceeded to demonstrate how to get the skin off the potato while leaving some potato…
As for my French, if it’s as good as it is, it’s due in part to Marie-Jeanne who corrected my mistakes rarely and gently. Not only grammar mistakes but usage. One day I told her that I had bien bouffé at her table. She laughed and told me that bouffé is for animals, not people. Humans say diné. I could cite countless other examples of little tips like this that got me out of trouble and helped me speak decent French. I also got a primer in Perigourdin expressions which my mother-in-law used frequently. Born and raised in that beautiful region in southwest France, she spoke that melodious dialect fluently although she didn’t want people to know it when she came to Paris and became a Parisienne. She referred to the small balls of soft white bread I would separate from the crust as tapous. (I understood that doing that was not très élégant and stopped, retaining only the word as a souvenir of this bad habit). My huge bowl of coffee was a bachou (basin). I would often insert these words into a French phrase and even French people didn’t know what I was talking about!
Marie-Jeanne may have looked like the grandmother we all imagine, with her white hair, sparkling blue eyes, and soft skin (I once asked her what cream she used and she told me she had never used anything other than soap or water) but she was a strong woman who kept her household running smoothly. She planned meals and cooked and served and cleaned up, mended all our clothes, took care of the grandchildren, tended her plants, and especially, made sure the ambiance was good. She once told me that keeping things on an even keel and extinguishing potential conflicts was important. She did that well and graciously and with a smile.
Frankly, I owe most of what I know about France and the French to Marie-Jeanne and her son who, I often told her, she raised right (and well before Women’s Lib). This is a man who never leaves a trail of dirty clothes on the floor, who can cook and sew and iron, and who, like his mother, thinks of others before himself. Pas mal, as the French say.
Mothers-in-law more often than not get a bad rap. Sometimes it’s deserved, sometimes not. Was mine an exception? I don’t know. All I know is that for me she was truly une belle personne and a belle belle-mère. Now that she’s gone, I’m happy I often told her so.
12 thoughts on “The Passing of a Fine French Lady”
Oh Harriet, I’m so sorry to hear of her passing. She was a real presence in your books so I feel like I knew her and so feel her loss in a different way. How wonderful that you had this close and warm relationship (even with the more nobel vousvoyer) but even more wonderful that you let her know how much she meant to you. To live to 98 surrounded by people who love you is a grand life indeed. I hope the quality of her life in these later years meant that she enjoyed even these years. (My mom is 96 and my dad is 98 both sharp and with it but i see there physical bodies failing little by little). I hope she understood that you did indeed immortalize her in your books. My condolences to you and your family and thank you for sharing this tribute with us.
I’m so glad you got to “know” her via my books. She was a very special person and I’m glad I could share my French mother-in-law experience with my readers. We hear so many horrid stories about mothers-in-law that it’s nice to tell a positive one. I appreciate your kind thoughts.
Every time I make ratatouille, as we did today for lunch, I think of Marie-Jeanne. It was that hot August 2003 in Bréchamps and I watched her preparing ratatouille. On the stove. In the heat. She added that “petit plus” that today gives my ratatouille its special taste: Garlic, yes, but garlic, lots of it, squeezed through a press.
Your tribute was lovely, Harriet.
Multiply your ratatouille session by 1000 or so and you’ll see how lucky I was to watch Marie-Jeanne cook. It was like having a private cooking lesson for forty years! My mother-in-law didn’t have recipe books. They were in her head, which is why one had to be attentive. Thanks to her, I’m happy to say that her son is well-fed, even if he is married to an American (an American who thankfully spent a lot of time in his mother’s kitchen!). Thanks for sharing.
Harriet, What a beautiful tribute to a French lady who was “belle” both inside and out. I remember first meeting her in the 1970s at one of those large gatherings where the Rochefort omelette was a
star attraction. From your many comments both in print and in conversations over the years, I know there is no doubt that she was an exceptional “belle-mere!”
She was indeed, Betty, and I’m glad you got to see her in action. Those large gatherings were a sheer pleasure for her and that potato omelette was a real crowd pleaser (not to mention delicious!). She certainly taught me a lot about the “joy” of entertaining, but especially about the joy of life. Thanks for sharing your memories.
A fine tribute to a lovely lady who shared her joie de vivre with everyone she met. We feel so fortunate to have known her and to have enjoyed her hospitality. Thank you and Philippe for sharing your mother-in-law and mother with your brothers, sister and mother. We all admired her and will miss her. She leaves behind a legacy to be emulated.
I distinctly remember your being at the Rochefort’s apartment in Paris many years ago. It was in the morning for some reason and Marie-Jeanne, for whom breakfast held no great importance, set you down at the table, brought in a platter of viennoiseries, served and re-served tea and juice, and asked me questions to ask you since there was a slight language barrier. She always asked about you and John (who for some reason she called “Juan”!). John was so struck by her hospitality that one day he turned to me and said: “Is she really that nice? Or is it just for us?” She really was that nice, I assured him, and it was for everyone she met. Her joy was to make sure that those around her were happy. And how she did! Thanks for your kind words.
I never had the pleasure of meeting Marie-Jeanne, but now feel like I have–thanks to your heart-felt tribute, Harriet. She, truly, was a “grande dame,” and was clearly cherished by all who knew her. Both you and Philippe have regaled me with anecdotes about her over the years. I know that these memories have been shared with your children and trust that they will be passed on to your grandchildren so that Marie-Jeanne will always live in their hearts. And I hope that these wonderful memories also comfort you and Philippe during this time of such great loss and sadness.
Thanks so much, Angenette. It’s true that many who never met Marie-Jeanne felt that they have, both from my tribute on this blog and from all the stories they’ve read about her in my books, or ones we’ve told. She was a very special person, a fine French lady, and I’m glad I “immortalized” her in all three of my books.
Chers Harriet et Philippe
Nos pensées affectueuses. Quel joli hommage !
Tilly et Alain
ps – within 2 weeks from now, I’ll be a belle-mère myself for the first time, and reading your portrait of Marie-Jeanne I measure that I have a lot to learn 😉
Merci beaucoup, Tilly et Alain. The secret of being a good mother-in-law is to not interfere and never say what you think if you can help it. It’s called the “closed mouth” policy. My mother-in-law excelled at it and I hope I do as well. I’m sure you will too!