Friday, 15 June 2012

When Tony Met Josie

Photo: Gigi's album

Wednesday, 13th June, was my parents' 65th wedding anniversary, apparently their Blue "Star" Sapphire Anniversary. My Dad died before I left school and Mum has been gone for more than eighteen months now, but my Mum maintained that she wouldn't remarry because she had never divorced; I believe my father shared that sentiment.
I rattle on a lot about the sanctity of marriage, but then this is my blog after all...  I believe firmly in faithfulness, forever love, soul mates and marriage. I see broken marriages and homes and in fact ones that were never forged in the first place all around me, not least in Brighton: it merely strengthens that belief. Anyone who knows me well, knows that I believe that marriage was intended to be a sacrament and that love and physical union are also God-given
My parent's love story was by no means a fairy tale or bed of roses, but recounting it against today's backdrop, it certainly reads like one. Dad was from a fairly well-to-do Walloon (French speaking) Belgian family; my Mum was a farmer's daughter from the wrong side of the tracks in rural Northern Ireland. At that time, being Catholic, her father didn't actually own the land he farmed or the cottage they lived in. My Mum was one of five girls and six children. She was christened Josephine, after St Joseph, but was eternally Josie. My Dad was an identical twin and one of five children; he was named after St Anthony of Padua and was therefore Anthony, never the French form "Antoine". By the time he met Josie, he was officially Tony.
My father was always very spiritual and expressed an interest in becoming a Benedictine monk in his teens. Although staunchly Catholic, his parents were not at all impressed by this, as the done thing was to marry your offspring into other wealthy Catholic families: keeping it in the family and the church. When Dad and his twin brother came out of the army, my grandfather packed them off to Europe to "live a little" and experience the sights and cultures before settling down with Monsieur So-and-so's daughters. Probably best translated as sowing le wild oats. At some point, they found themselves in England and out of money. Brother Maurice was happy to return to the fold but Tony was unsure what he wanted to do. He still felt a yearning for the monastic life and was loathe to walk straight back into the argument at home. With a wonderful Poirot-style French accent and a love of food that's clearly inspired mine, he passed himself off as a French chef at Margate for a few weeks. He was coming to the end of this time there when a cheeky Irish girl and her former ATS girlfriends walked in for an evening meal.
My Mum told me that she was also loathe to return home for reasons rather different from my father's: all her sisters had settled in London and there was simply no work and therefore no food or fun to be found back in Antrim. My Mum had also used up all her funds and couldn't even pay for her dinner; she ate it anyway and then complained that it wasn't good enough to pay for! When challenged, she asked to see the chef. Enter Tony. My poor Dad was immediately smitten and said he would like to make up for the "bad" cuisine by taking her out to dinner the following night. The rest is pretty much sixty five year old history, but of course it wasn't plain sailing.
My father took his Josie home to the Ardennes and presented her as the girl who had dispelled his monastic dream; he wanted to marry her as soon as possible. My grandfather was horrified. Although Mum was undeniably pretty, bright and Catholic, she was also dirt-poor and had no formal education beyond the age of fourteen or so. After much wrangling and heartache, my grandfather cunningly said that he would give his blessing to the marriage if my father entered his preferred Benedictine monastery on retreat for one year. If Tony still wanted to marry Josie after that, it would be agreed. So my father got his taste of the monastic life after all; my mother slunk back to Ireland broken-hearted. She knew Tony had longed to enter the monastery before he met her and she feared he would simply forget her. My Mum had previous GI suitors, one of whom seemed to own most of  Wyoming or something similar. I believe she corresponded with them for a while. But Tony didn't forget Josie. He completed his retreat with the Trappist monks and left the monastery with a penchant for fruit beer, chocolate and plainchant and with his love for my mother as strong as ever. He set off for Ireland to bring her back to Belgium once more.
Of course my grandfather had no intention of keeping his word and flatly refused to give his blessing or enable a wedding: he promptly disinherited my Dad and subsequently refused to entertain my Mum or their first child (my sister, who was born in Belgium six years later).  My grandfather had passed away by the time I was born in London, some eight and a bit years after my sister. As I grew up, we holidayed in Northern Ireland and in Belgium, but my French grandmother clearly blamed my mother for the rift and never really warmed to her. When I was fifteen, Granny died, and my aunts didn't inform my father for a few days, just long enough to make sure the family home had been stripped bare, presumably still in accordance with my grandfather's wishes. I heard my Dad cry into the night afterwards, comforted by Mum; it seemed to break him. He died a year later, still a relatively young man.
My Mum certainly gave up her dreams of America and endless leisure to be with Dad; wherever Dad found work in Europe in the early years of their marriage she worked too, often in domestic service. She didn't see her own mother regularly and wasn't able to relocate with her sisters in England for several years. My Dad gave up his dream of the cloistered vocational life, his inheritance and his own family to some extent. He eventually became a teacher of languages, a translator and linguist. He sometimes worked four jobs while I was growing up in sarf lundun: I would have loved more time with him, but to me he was always the ideal of a father and husband. My Mum's Irish temper involved the odd clip round the ear and some colourful maternal advice, but if my placid and laughing Dad raised his voice or treated me coldly, I was immediately chastened and upset. Likewise, my Mum's warning of Hell as the ultimate punishment was loaded with fire and brimstone. My Dad would talk about the awful damnation of being kept away from God and those you loved: I can see so clearly where this analogy was formed. My father's Catholicism was quite romanticised and all about the ethereal and the contemplative; Mum's background was one of rugged and often harsh religion rather than spirituality, with a healthy measure of superstition thrown in. It happened that my parents married on 13th June, which is also the feast of St Anthony of Padua, my father's patron saint. When I was a child, I often heard my harassed mother saying "Tony, Tony look around, something's lost and must be found!" It was a few years before I realised that she was calling on one of her favourite saints of the hapless, and not nagging Dad in his absence.
There is of course a legend surrounding the saint's patronage of all things lost or taken. A novice of St Anthony, grown tired of the religious life, decided to leave the community. In addition to going AWOL, he took St Anthony's psalter with him. When Anthony realised his psalter was missing, he prayed for its safe return. Soon after, the psalter thief felt compelled to return it to Anthony as well as returning to the order. I've always felt that Dad was quite aptly named after the saint. Anthony was born into a very rich and noble family who arranged for him to be instructed at a cathedral school: against the wishes of his family, he entered the community of the Abbey of St Vincent, just outside Lisbon, later becoming a Franciscan and an eminent teacher. My Dad didn't give up on his love for my Mum; likewise, he always said if he could have married and been a monk, he would have done both, but he never lost his own faith when he was forced to choose.
My maternal Granny, who I never knew but feel very close to, was deeply God-fearing (literally) but still read tea-leaves and palms (don't tell my bishop) for people from neighbouring villages, to great acclaim. My mother claimed she even read the local Catholic priest's tea-leaves. When Mum was little, her mother told her that she would marry a good man who was "of the faith" and that they would have two children, one dark and one fair; that she would have many adventures but only ever one love. I don't know what brew she was using but it was certainly accurate. I know many Catholics may frown on such things as fanciful or even faithless, but my parent's union was certainly self-sacrificing, kind, passionate and devoted. My Mum would later say it was a match made in Heaven; I believe it was simply meant to be.
Whatever curve-balls life has pitched at me over the past couple of years, I'm strengthened by the knowledge that I'm the product of love: I sincerely wish it was so for all children. Ostracised from his own family, my Dad embraced the warmth and extended familiarity of Mum's relatives; he became a very Irish Catholic, still with the Poirot accent. I see more and more of him in me, yet I have always "felt" my Irishness more keenly than being half Belgian or even being born a Londoner. I've inherited a love of Irish music and dance, and like my father I struggle to keep my nose out of Irish and church politics. There were no blogs then, but Dad was no stranger to the Letters page of the Catholic Herald. My mother's passion for a particular red is evident throughout my little house and in my wardrobes; the perfect backdrop for a collection of icons and crucifixes which rivals my Dad's. My father corresponded with monks in Belgium and beyond for the rest of his life, keeping postcards, literature and always tapes of monastic music. Consequently, I adore Gregorian chant, even though I can cuss in three languages like my Mum. I said at Mum's funeral that I was always my father's daughter and my Mum's baby; the passing of my parents and the passage of years will do nothing to alter that.

Photo; Gigi's album

This post has been pure self indulgence for me, and in that spirit of indulgence I've included two songs. "Plaisir d'Amour" was my Mum and Dad's "tune", as sung by Dad's long term crush, Nana Mouskouri. I included it on the playlist for my Mum's wake and it would just as surely have been played at my Dad's. My mother's mother was actually Scottish by birth, and I share her love of Robbie Burns, in particular the  ballads. I wanted to include "My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose", not only because my parent's wedding took place "newly sprung in June", but also because I think the words form one of the most sublime love letters ever written. No wonder Bob Dylan cited this song as the greatest poetic influence of his life.

Happy Anniversary Mum and Dad; here's to the next 65 years.

"Plaisir d'Amour"  Nana Mouskouri

"My Love is like a Red Rose"  Eddi Reader

"My Love is like a Red, Red Rose"
(Robert Burns)

O, my love is like a red, red rose,
That is newly sprung in June.
O, my love is like the melody,
That is sweetly played in tune.
As fair thou art, my lovely lass,
So deep in love am I,
And I will love thee still, my Dear,
Till all the seas go dry.

Till all the seas go dry, my Dear,
And the rocks melt with the sun,
O I will love thee still, my Dear,
While the sands of life shall run.
And fare thee well, my only Love,
And fare thee well a while!
And I will come again, my Love,
Though it were ten thousand mile!


  1. What a beautiful tribute to your mum and dad Gisele. xxx

    I remember your dad taught my mum French at evening school.

  2. Hi Lovely! Yes I remember my Dad taught your Mum too! Can she speak French now?? I'm glad you liked that - they have a beautiful story and I thought I might as well use my little blog to tell it. Hope all is well with you Chrissie xxx

  3. Hi hun, everything is good here thanks xxx No I dont think mum speaks French now lol!!!

    You are right - it is a beautiful story and I, for one, am glad you shared it. Take care xxx

    1. I remember your mum Mary - she's a scream! Give her my love.
      For some reason I remember our French class day trip to Le Touquet with Miss Colman... we wore matching tank tops. You and me, not me and Miss Colman xx