My next-door neighbor died yesterday, aged 94. After suffering a long time with bronchitis—he hadn’t left the house in three weeks—he finally agreed to go to the hospital; I can only imagine how hard his relatives pushed to make that happen. Fiercely independent, he’d lived happily on his own since his wife died many years ago. The couple had no children but Marcel had lots of attentive family—the Guillots are a big clan who’ve been in St. Remy forever.
Our homes share a common wall and were obviously part of the same mas, back in the day. Working at my desk, I could hear every time Marcel’s old wall-mounted dial phone rang, followed by his loud “Allo?” Each evening at 11 p.m. I’d hear the TV go off and I’d know he’d soon be climbing the stairs to bed. I could have set my watch by Marcel’s routine. He spent his mornings at Brasserie du Commerce, betting a few euros on horses, reading the paper and chatting with friends. He drove himself to lunch at the nursing home every day at 11:15. Then he’d come home for a siesta and leave the house at 3 p.m. sharp to play boules with his gang. He’d be home by 6 p.m. most nights to make dinner, watch TV…and head for bed around 11 p.m.
Marcel’s little white car, straw hat in the back, was a neighborhood fixture just like he was. He drove fast, which always amused me. Can you imagine still driving at 94? He couldn’t imagine otherwise.
When I’d travel home to the States, Marcel would occasionally call to check in. I found it hard to understand him, with his thick Provencal accent, but the calls touched me more than I can say. When I returned to France, he’d show up at my door with cake and Champagne. I’d find out later that he’d fixed my gate, raked my leaves and did who knows what all else without letting me know or looking for thanks. He told me once, years ago, that he’d always wanted to see New York—and we agreed, with a wink, that we’d go there together one day. (I can’t be sure but I believe he said he’d never been out of the country.)
He’d become sullen when I’d start dating someone—they were never good enough for me--and warm up immediately when the relationship ended. When a new guy came around, the questions were always the same: Who are his parents? What’s the family name? Does he have a job?
One year I asked if he’d feed my cat while I was away. He didn’t want to do it but he grudgingly agreed, on one condition: he’d feed her outside only. “Animals don’t belong in the house,” he said. When I returned a few weeks later, I spied food and water bowls on his living room floor and my cat sleeping under a chair in the corner. “What’s up with the cat in the house?” I asked. “She’s my little friend,” he said, giving her a squeeze.
Over the years Marcel let me help him harvest the grapes from the old vines on his terrace. We’d haul out the ladder, ready the boxes and scissor a surprising number of fat clusters from the small trellis overhead. Early on it was he who climbed the ladder; later it was me. When his nephew showed up one year to do the harvest, I felt surprisingly hurt.
On hot summer evenings, I’d step outside to catch a breeze and Marcel would sometimes join me. We’d sit together in my garden, enjoying the stars and the night air. We’d talk about our lives, as much as our different languages would allow, and we’d congratulate ourselves on having the good fortune to be here in Provence, to be happy and healthy and have good people close by.
One year at holiday time I "elfed" Marcel online (www.elfyourself.com). We laughed so hard I thought one or both of us might actually keel over.
Marcel was a great neighbor and I hope he felt the same way about me. He was kind, generous, smart, loving and full of life. He had a terrific sense of humor and a nice sense of style. He would have been a wonderful father and I’m sure he was a great husband. I feel blessed to have had him in my life for the nine years I’ve been in St. Remy.
Rest in peace, my friend.