Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Bells, bells, bells

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I was coming home from the market (the little Saturday market) when I heard the single bell of the cathedral ringing slowly. I thought: “Another funeral.”

Maybe it was because we had gone to the funeral of one of our neighbors or maybe it was something that moved from subconscious to conscious – those altar boy days – but I began to think about how the bells have a role in our daily lives.

Living about halfway between the bell tower at the cathedral and the clock tower in the medieval city, we hear the bells from both. The bells announce the hour and half hour, weddings, when it is time to come to church and the end of funeral masses. In spite of the strict separation of church and state in France there is a strong religious overlay that is very much present.

When we learned about the death of one of our elderly neighbors, we decided to go to the funeral. The neighbor had been ill and confined to home for some time but we had seen and talked with her husband many times on this and earlier visits, before his own illness limited his activities as well. As we considered what we could do to express our support, we thought about what we would do at home. Taking food to the family came to mind. The couple has children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren that were either in town or coming for the funeral. Perhaps we could prepare some food for them?

Since we didn’t want to do anything inappropriate, we checked with a number of friends and learned that the tradition of taking food to the grieving family is not a French tradition but everyone encouraged us to follow our instincts (and habits) to make something and deliver it. We made spinach pies and delivered them to our neighbor’s apartment that evening. The eldest of our neighbor’s children was there with her father, so I explained our custom when she answered the door. She asked us to come in, but we explained that our goal was to make an offering to the family, not to intrude on their time/lives. She insisted equally that we should say hello to her father – who had already started to come to the door. We expressed our sympathies briefly and made our way home, pleased by their openness to us and saddened at their loss.

The following morning, there was a note from the eldest daughter in our mailbox in which she expressed her appreciation for our gesture. Her words were so poetic:

“Cette coutume, qui n’est pas en usage chez nous,
nous a surpris mais nous a conquis.
C’est vraiment très gentil de votre part… »

“This custom which we don’t have here,
surprised us but also conquered us (won us over).
It was very kind of you…”

We went on to the funeral in the company of another of our neighbors, reinforced in the belief that simple gestures offered person-to-person can gently cross imagined boundaries. And the bells had special meaning for us on that day.