The sky is grey, poked by endless rows of swirling wind turbines.
I wanted it to be bright blue with a perfectly round yellow sun in the middle. I wanted the fields to be brown and green, flat as far as the eyes could see. I wanted to be alone.
But this is not the picture of the perfect memory I have built in my head. I have been gone so long that I have not seen the wind turbines sprout from the ground in such numbers.
‘They light up the sky like a Christmas tree,’ my aunt spits out next to me. I cannot blame her attitude. This is her land, the ones that holds the memories of her childhood and youth, the one that has been passed on to her. She belongs here in a way the wind turbines never have. The past and future intermingling in a way that does not reconcile in her mind.
We are walking at the edges of my grand parents’ village in France. We are following dirt paths behind the last of the houses, on our way to the cemetery. She strides with purpose, knowing this path, having always known this path. I am merely following. I have spent so many of my childhood week-ends in this place and yet I do not recall having ever trodden this path. My playgrounds were to the south, firmly contained within the boundaries of the built landscape.
This is the first time I am going to the cemetery to visit my great grand father and grand father graves. They did not die of Covid-19. In fact they passed away years ago but living in the UK and not wanting to get mixed up in family drama, I have not been back to this village in nearly six years.
The last time I was here, my grand father took me for a walk around the village. His breath was ragged, his movements slow, and his body leaning heavily against his cane. We’d stopped often because he could not go very far. Neither of us mentioned that this was probably too much for him. There would be consequences for pushing his body too far, but it was clear to the both of us that this was to be our last walk. I was already living in the UK and didn’t come to visit often enough to pretend otherwise.
At each stop, he pointed out a piece of land or a property that belonged to him. We stopped so often I was certain he would soon be unable to point and claim ownership of what we saw. I knew my grand parents had a few properties around the village. I had heard the joke that they owned half the village. I wasn’t too sure how much of a joke this had been. I wasn’t sure either why my grand father was choosing to share this information for our last conversation.
Was he showing me my heritage? Or was he reminiscing about his life’s achievements? He had invited me on his walk, one I knew was not easy even if a routine of his. He was talking to me more than we ever had any time we’d seen each other. I wanted him to tell me about his life, to show me the tools and skills of his wood turned creations. I didn’t want to know about the physical of what he owned. It would not be passed on to me. My mother had already relinquished her rights on my great grand father’s estate, selling it off to her siblings, and I have no interest in this land. This was not something I could share, not when my grand father had chosen to show me what belonged to him, what in due time should belong to me. So I listened, the gift of my attention the only one I could provide for him.
I listen again as my aunt talks of plants and medicine. She points out various species as we tread along. I would like to pay attention as I did with my grand father but I am trying hard not to tell her to go away. She is at the heart of the family drama and going to the cemetery with her pains me. Yet, I could hardly say I didn’t want her company without having to explain that I think what she did was wrong and petty. I’m not willing to have this discussion. Instead I retreat into the landscape and the memories it holds knowing I’ll soon be free from their pull again.
She is not interested in telling me how half the village will be hers one day. It doesn’t matter to her. She moved to Paris and made her own money when she was younger. She doesn’t need the village. She also doesn’t need to show me my heritage because we both know it will never be mine.
We reach the cemetery gates. She pushes the door open. I want it to creak but it doesn’t. The lock pops open and the gate swings silently on its hinges. I have never walked past those gates. I have never had a reason to as a child. The apple trees we climbed and picked from for cider making are lined outside the cemetery walls. The branches are heavy with fruits. There is no one from my family to pick them now and most of the village has moved on from agriculture. So many houses are owned and inhabited by new families from ‘not around here’, their business done from a computer connected to the Internet or within the city walls of Paris during week days. The children, grand children, and great grand children of my family are scattered across Europe. The rest of the village has been sold or rented through the years, no one from local families willing to carry on the traditional work of the land. Only my aunt remains tethered to the village of her birth, of her youth.
I glance at the tombstones bordering the alleys. They are huge. The small slab of stones I expected to see are relegated to the rows near the bordering walls. Trapped between walls and extravagance, they are dwarfed, diminished, and with barely any space for anyone to kneel or sit in front of them.
I know none of my relatives lie there. They are all under ostentatious monuments. I feel sick at the display, at how they have overtaken the cemetery with their presence. I push past the feeling. I am here to see my great grand father and my grand father. I do not know what I am expecting. I do not believe in god and I have already told them goodbye in my own way. Yet I wanted to come, to see the finality of their deaths and know their absence as real. I glance at the names, trying to find familiar ones. As soon as I spot the ones of my great grand father, my aunt marches to me, pulling me away. She leads me to my grand father’s grave. I look back in longing, not allowed to stand by the remains of one of the few persons who allowed the child version of me to be me without any words being needed. He is persona non grata in her books, marred by the tensions between him and his daughter – my grand mother.
I open my mouth to protest but no words come out. I still do not have the energy to tell her I loved this man more than she ever did. I do not know how to express this in a way that would recognise her own struggle and history with this man, a way that would not hurt her and make me become persona non grata. We three are all from a different world. We intersected in different ways that feel unable to form a whole. I shut my mouth and send silent words of thanks for the man who taught me to mop floors, weed between slabs of concrete, pull out potatoes from the earth, and stories of the past.
My aunts speaks about all the names engraved on the monument in front of us. It is as wide as I am tall. I do not recognise any of the names aside from my grand father.
‘There’s only two slots left. We’ll have to buy more. You’ll want to be buried here.’
She is telling me, not asking me.
I remain quiet. More than ten years have passed but I am still unwilling to explain why I left to London when I was twenty years old, why I have never returned. It is more than I can bear. Silence is easier. It keeps the image she has of me in her head intact and it does not cost me much.
She keeps on talking. She tells me about the names and who they are in relation to me. She omits to tell me anything about their lives and her memories of them. She is listing my heritage as my grand father did, only the one she mentions is intangible, never known and far distant from me.
Names listed, I am dragged away again. We navigate our way through the labyrinth of smaller slabs, my aunt narrating the village history as we go. She has more stories to share about those complete strangers, sharing gossip of long ago as if it were fresh. I wonder how much of this place she actually wants to claim. Does she like having a refuge in the countryside, a place she can escape to when the sight of tall buildings and small flats becomes too much. Or does she feel a genuine attachment to this village, to the people who have raised her, and to the land my uncle still farms? She never talks about any of that.
I crane my neck back to the two monuments I wanted to spend time with, my reason for being here. I didn’t know what I wanted to do but it is not this. I imagine sitting in silence by the graves, remembering. I do not need to be in this place for that. I know this. Still, it would have been nice.
We return to my grand mother’s place via the paved road. We walk past my great grand father’s house, now rented to somebody else. I yearn to walk through the familiar gate, hear its creak, barge in the veranda (the front door having never been used in my lifetime), and proclaim my arrival. I can still see child me doing so, excited at the prospect of seeing my great grand father, his quiet dog, and the deer roaming behind his garden if I were lucky. Instead we tread on, my aunt explaining how bad the tenants are. I don’t listen. I am too caught up in the whirlwind of the past.
Back inside my grand mother’s home, my aunt leaves me alone to take care of paperwork regarding the rental of my great grand father’s house. My grand mother is in the kitchen fussing over food. I look at her silently for a while. She hasn’t noticed me yet. Her expression is blank, neither a smile or a grimace. She is focused on her task, gestures she has repeated thousands of times in her life. I wonder what she thinks of them. Has she ever enjoyed them?
As a rule, my grand mother could always be found in either the kitchen or the garden. She was never happy in the kitchen, her movements rushed between the various ongoing tasks of preparing lunch, dinner, and storage for the winter. She is not a good cook and I’ve long suspected she doesn’t enjoy the kitchen work. In the garden, she comes alive. Her gestures slow. She takes time, particularly with her flowers. You can’t let her see you though or she will resume her rushed demeanour and make up excuses for being here rather than being useful. I have never been able to convey to her that she doesn’t need to be useful, she can enjoy her flowers and her time. I suspect she doesn’t know how to after years of having to keep a household together. This is the inheritance she passed on to me, the one I have always refused.
She tried teaching me about food but I wriggled away at the first opportunity. She tried to teach me about sewing but I messed up my own work on purpose. She tried to teach me embroidery but I never paid any attention to that. She tried to teach me woman work whilst all I wanted was learn about food growing and tractors. I regret this now but it is of no use. She will never teach me again, not when I visit once every few years.
She never tried to teach me about flowers.
She rolls out a pastry for a tart. I consider joining her. The plums will need their stones taken out, and no doubt a myriad of other tasks are in need of doing. I walk out silently before she spots me. I only have a few days here and I want some time alone with the rest of the property. I step into the adjacent living room, moving my body to the middle of it. This room is achingly familiar. It stands as one of the last built vestige of my childhood. Everything else has been sold, passed onto other hands. I am glad of this. The weight of memories is not locked to place any longer. I am free of the markers of my youth. They will never haunt me again by their physical presence. But here, very little has changed through the years.
My grand father’s chair is still by the drinks cabinet, waiting for its long gone occupant. I know my grand mother sits there now when her body forces her to rest. The basin of water at the foot of the chair evidence of time passing. It was never there before. Instead my grand father used a footstool which is now shoved to the side, unused.
Every available surface is covered in trinkets, most of them carved by my grand father. They are all still accounted for, unmoved, unchanged. There isn’t a speck of dust on any of them. The photos on the walls are the same with the addition of my cousin’s wedding photos. The eyes of my families are everywhere like one happy memory of golden days. The space looks lived in, cared for, and yet all I can feel is the weight of the past pressing against my chest.
I see it all.
Me and my cousin running and laughing.
Me and my brother arguing.
Me alone, sheltered and afraid.
I grew from a child to an adult in those rooms, the slowly disintegrating web of my family revealing itself as I lost the carefreeness of childhood. We all grew and built our lives elsewhere, spreading the links between us so thin they often broke to the point of no repair.
We have dug an unbreachable rift, and I was first in line to build and maintain it. I needed to separate myself from this heritage, find a space in this world that did not include this house, and I did not know how to do so without shedding this part of me. I was burdened by the weight of expectations and the carefully crafted images everyone had of me. It was easier to flee than to confront my family, to reveal myself for who I am. I left before I could be rejected or forced to take a position in the generational drama that was never mine.
I left and now I do not know how to navigate back to a place in this heritage. My body is present within these walls but my soul floats far above. I see my grand mother aging, her gestures slower, the lines of her face deeper, her body giving way to exhaustion. The whirring noise of the ventilator at night is hers now instead of my grand father. I see her loneliness too but there is nothing I can do. I am so far away.
I run my fingers along the top of my grand father latter sculptures. It is a woodland scene of mushroom, bark, and moss. A few similar scenes are scattered across the house. Unlike his other work, those sculptures cannot be found in any other houses of the family. He didn’t have the time to make enough to disseminate throughout Europe and we never visited often enough to collect his creations.
I move out of the room, open the side door, and walk outside. I sit on the step by the large wooden door and look out at the garden. It is peaceful in a way inside can never be. The landscape is ever shifting with the seasons and the latest flowers my grand mother is growing. I never paid attention to this, my patch of land was across the road where my uncle keeps all the farming tools. We would play there for hours with my cousin, climbing where we shouldn’t, exploring every nook of the large attic over the tractors. I broke his leg once whilst trying to lift a piece of equipment far too heavy for my weak city girl arms. We were inseparable my cousin and I. Let loose for the day, we would disappear on our adventures until it was time to eat, until he grew old enough to be taken to the fields. I remained behind. The lottery of my birth had meant I was not allowed to accompany the men. Instead my grand mother tried to teach me housework. She taught me how to sew on this very step. I paid just enough attention to repair my trousers before setting off alone at the opposite end of the property, book in hand. I did not want to iron, change beddings, prepare pies for the men, peel potatoes, cook green beans, and endless other household tasks. Ploughing the fields and driving tractors sounded more fun but it was not for me. So I hid wherever I could with a book, disappearing into other worlds where I did not have to be a woman.
I am happy to help my grand mother now. My life has moved so far away from fields and agriculture, I know I will never be back. This is not to be my heritage. My uncle will be the end of the line. I belong to a world of offices, computers, and words. It is a world I cannot explain to my grand mother but it makes her happy to know I am there. I will not have to suffer the life she had. One she never chose. She will never tell me, I know, but she never wanted to marry and have children. At least not here, not like this. I have gleaned this information from conversations about her youth, the freedom cars gave her. Stories of escapades with friends to local towns brought her face to life, her voice alight with passion. The stories would always end and the light would go out to be replaced by her usual self-deprecating rushed attitude. Stories of her marriage and life on the farm were few and always hurried as if the quicker it was said, the quicker we could talk about something else.
I never pressed her to tell me more. I never will.
‘There you are,’ my grand mother exclaims from the other side of the garden. ‘Your aunt brought back the hazelnuts from the sheep pasture. Do you want to come help sort them out?’
‘Sure,’ I reply tearing myself away from memories and musing of what never will be. I make my way to the kitchen, fall into my chair, and start cracking the nuts one by one in gestures known, hated and loved all at the same time. My aunt and grand mother speak of people I know the names of but cannot remember. They update me on all the gossip I was never interested in. I pretend I am. I pretend I understand and know the people they are talking about. It costs me nothing and gives them something I know I have never been able to provide.
In another life I would have been happy to hear of neighbouring farms, the changes in the village, the plight of weather, the sale of wheat, the new cattle coming in, but this is not this life. The dry soil of dirt and blown seed is not mine. The vivid brown of ploughed fields in the rain is not mine. They belong to a past that was not handed to me, a past I learned to reject too early and can never regain. And yet, it is a past I still yearn for. I want this connection to land and people, to be part of a community where I am known and where I know. I have longed for this all my life whilst tearing myself away from every place I have ever lived. I regret not having paid attention to the teachings of my grand mother about garden plants. I regret not having paid attention to my grand father as he took me to water tomatoes, potatoes, and salads in a corner of the garden. I hadn’t realised it was not too late for me to claim back to the land, to carve myself a space in this inheritance. I was too young to understand city and arts did not have to keep me distanced from countryside and land.
There isn’t time to teach me so I learn on my own. I listen to birds, watch the trees, and crouch down to identify wild flowers. I built my own heritage in an attempt to tether myself in the world around me if not in the communities around me. I am still adrift more than ten years after leaving. All of my friends live miles away from me. At best I can see them once a year, but most I will never see outside of a screen. My communities are online, wide spread, and varied. They are something neither my aunt or grand mother can understand so I do not try to explain. I crack another nut, discard the shell, set aside the nut. Occasionally I nibble on one unable to say if this is a better harvest than the previous year or not. I am unrooted in this world, only tethered online. I have not accepted the gift of place as a child and young adult, so I have to create my roots into place but I do not know how. I have only been shown how to uproot and weed, not how to sow and grow.