When I was a child, there was a period where we lived in a very, very old house. Our portion was built in 1725; one of three buildings that had once comprised a single small chateau. Damaged during WWII and rebuilt as three separate residences, the houses still sat inside a moated ring, with ancient oaks, a tangled, unkempt orchard, bamboo, swans, peacocks and geese, sunken paths and massive rhododendron bushes that domed over them like waxy, leafy tunnels.
I spent many hours in that magical garden; riding my pony on the paths, pretending I was a girl-hobbit on a quest. Between two chestnut trees was a gargoyle stone bench. It was the furthest part of the garden against the moat, and dark and gloomy and always peppered with the prickly husks of chestnut burrs. On my favourite old oak tree, a swing hung suspended from a massive limb. Next door, in the oldest, nicest of the buildings (that still had the old tower complete with crenellations, and was made entirely of stone), lived the owner of the property; Hélène, but I knew her by a more familiar name; “Tati”. She was born in 1899.
She lived alone; however on occasional weekends family from Brussels would come tramping into the house and suffocate her with noise and disturbances. Sometimes, her great-nieces would stay for the weekend. Snotty girls, who like their parents, bragged about living there someday. Tati much preferred quiet and a glass of wine—and dreaded the advent of the weekend.
Come supper-time at my house, I would pick up my dinner plate and walk across the graveled area to Tati’s house. I would climb the stone steps in back, so worn they looked like wet, sagging fabric, up to the little bailey; and go into the French doors into her sitting room where Tati was invariably perched in her chair, watching television, with a little glass goblet in her hand. It was usually the Asterix and Obelix glass, with cartoon characters printed on it. It would always be layered in fingerprints which I had likened to insect-wings as a child. Her bottle of red wine was always open, and at her side. My mother joked that she lived so long because she was marinated in vin rouge.
I loved Tati. I would put my plate down at the round table where she sat, and we would watch television together. I would eat my dinner; which she inevitably criticized for its unappetizing appearance… and then she would either complain about how ‘nervous’ television was these days, or tell me stories about her life and youth in this place. Oh, the stories she told… of German occupation, of bombs, of cars taking over where horses once dominated, of the land around the house before the neighborhoods began to grow; of her childhood, of the old tortoise her mother had given her; which still lived at that time, creeping around the garden and the bailey (and even climbing those stone steps!); Rosalie the ornery, hissing tortoise; I’ll never forget. Sometimes we played gin, other times dominoes.
Whenever I had time to be there with her, I was there. Sometimes we’d sit together and not say anything at all. I’d just listen to her breathe and watch her nod off, and I’d help her upstairs sometimes when she was too tired or tipsy to do it by herself, or fetch her things if she wanted them… Tati was always happy to have me. I had a tumultuous family life that anyone in the vicinity with ears knew about, and she knew I liked to escape the craziness sometimes. We didn’t discuss it much, but there was an understanding between us. She had never married, she had no children of her own. My mother speculated that she was of a Sapphic nature… She never told me of great loves. But none of that ever mattered to me. I adored her and her beautiful old house. The tangle of rooms and staircases, crannies and what she called a ‘boîte a Juifs’ where escaping Jews were hidden during the German occupation… there were old prints, and creaking floors, oddly angled doors and rooms and landings at odd levels. I loved the way it smelled too; a bit musty but only cool and stony. It was where I loved to escape. I envied her family members who eventually took it over when Tati got weak. I wasn’t permitted to visit much anymore. I sometimes watched her worriedly from my parent’s bathroom window. They’d brought her bed downstairs, and she hardly left it. I don’t know when she died. Once the family moved in, our relationship with the place had changed. Other things had happened as well, that much to my chagrin; caused us to move shortly thereafter.
I’ve never had my own grandparents—they were long passed away when I was born. My few years with Tati are what I imagine having a grandmother would be like. To this day, I will never forget how much I valued her friendship and her company during a difficult time in my childhood. She gave me a window into a very personal past—created an appreciation for things like what WWII would have been like for those whose land was occupied; for quiet understanding and subtle affection, for trust and appreciation, for things old and new… and for clinging on to the things we treasure even with vultures looming.
I’ll never forget Tati or that magical place.