Marie was the matriarch of the farm. François, her husband, managed the vineyards, the almond fields, and the animals. The farmhouse was Marie’s dominion. It was a traditional arrangement, one with which she seemed perfectly content.
Her eyes were set deep, as if her creator had pushed a little too hard when placing them. She always wore her pale blond hair pulled into a sensible low ponytail at the nape of her neck. There was a wispy quality to her. Not a fragility — I’d seen her bleed out a freshly beheaded rooster and remove its bowels in five seconds flat — but a sort of slow exhalation of spirit. I couldn’t help attributing it to a physical manifestation of prolonged empty nest syndrome. A devout Catholic, Marie had raised nine children. It was her greatest sorrow that all of them, save one, a son, had abandoned her and the farm for the big city of Paris. (“Abandoned” is how she put it.) The fact that the farm had a regular rotation of live-in volunteer workers suited her just fine; she liked the feeling of a full house.
Marie was unfailingly patient. During the first few weeks when my head throbbed from the mental gymnastics of constant translation, Marie spoke slow and gentle French that unfolded easily inside my brain. When I didn’t understand something, the volunteers simply reverted back to English. François grumbled. But Marie stopped to explain. “Peau,” she’d say, running her finger over an apple, then along her arm and down her cheek. When I’d make the connection — “Skin!” — she’d smile and nod her head.
It was the food-producing alchemy of elements and earth — his earth that his hands coaxed and tended — that brought him pleasure.
Despite her kind and gentle manner, I found it difficult to warm up to Marie. I wasn’t close with François either, but that I understood. François loved his land and had little patience with anyone who didn’t share his passion for agriculture. Most of us volunteers had a shallow appreciation of the farm — we liked its fat…