My summer on Ile de Noirmoutier

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My mother is French. She grew up on a pork-chop-shaped island off the northwestern coast of France called Ile de Noirmoutier — the Isle of the Black Monastery. The island is about 17 miles long and is in places about a mile wide. It’s famous for two things.

 

The first is the tidal road called Le Passage du Gois that used to be the only route to the mainland. During low tide, its cobblestones would appear and inhabitants could take the 3-kilometer journey from the island to the mainland, or vice versa. Sometimes a person would cut it too close and the returning tide would wash their car away. Since 1970, a four-lane bridge has connected the island to the continent.

 

The second thing is potatoes: walnut-sized, light brown, thin-skinned and delicious. A kilo sells in Paris for more than $20.

 

In 1962, my younger brother Phil and I spent the summer on Noirmoutier with our beloved maternal grandmother, Memère. She lived in a hamlet of about a hundred houses called Barbâtre. Her cottage was on the main road. I was 10 and Phil was 7, and we had the time of our lives. We pretty much had the run of Barbâtre. We’d fish, go to the beach or head down the road and hunt for clams.

 

There were a few rules. The young men of the island loved to drive their Italian motorcycles at breakneck speed up and down in front of Memère’s house. Memère would bolt out and shake her fist at them and use French words that were unfamiliar to us. Crossing that street with care was our first rule.

 

The second rule concerned Memère’s neighbor, Roger Semblan. We were told to avoid him at all costs. No reason was given, but we were to go the other way if we saw him. We never gave this directive much thought, but we obeyed. We later learned Roger was the village inebriate.

 

We would also learn that, as a young man, Roger was handsome and full of joie de vivre. He was a fisherman who worked for one of the boats that went out from the port of Noirmoutier. He rode a motorcycle and had a girl, Adele. One evening after a hard week of work and a few drinks at the café with Adele, they mounted his motorcycle and headed home. They never got there. Roger, unable to negotiate a turn at high speed, lost control of his bike and Adele was thrown off, killing her instantly. Roger’s descent into the bottle began, and never ended. 

 

During our visit, Roger spent his days in the small park in Barbâtre’s center, sitting on the benches, green wine bottle in hand. We observed him from a distance. He seemed harmless. He would sing, dance with himself and whistle at the ladies passing by. Most of the women ignored him, but some would reply in words that, again, were unfamiliar to us.

 

Then it happened. Roger was found dead in the park, the victim of years of overindulgence.

 

A funeral was set in the only church in Barbâtre — Catholic, of course.  I’d never been to a funeral. In fact, I’d never seen a dead body. The day came, and Memère, a widow, put on her widow’s garb: black shoes, black stockings, black skirt, black blouse and a black shawl. Out the door we went and, along the mile walk, we were joined by ladies wearing the same black outfits, all trudging toward the church, many with handkerchiefs in their hands, dabbing their eyes. I noticed even Memère was tearful.

 

Conspicuous in their absence were the men. The church was full of sniffling, whimpering women, but not a man in sight. I found this unusual, but have since learned a maxim regarding French men: They attend church three times in their lives — their baptism, their wedding, their funeral. Because he had never married, this must have been Roger’s second visit.

 

The funeral Mass seemed like a regular Catholic service, except it was constantly interrupted by sobs and women blowing their noses. Memère wept openly. It all seemed so puzzling. 

 

At the end of the Mass the priest rose and asked if anyone had anything to say about Roger. He sat down. No one moved, the place became dead silent. We waited and waited until the priest got back up, went to the pulpit and gave the most profound eulogy I’ve ever heard. He said, “We aren’t sure what killed Roger, but we are certain he didn’t die of thirst.”

 

Silence for a moment, then, suddenly, a giggle, a laugh, a chortle from the mourners. Pretty soon everyone in that sacred space was laughing. The handkerchiefs, still out, were now dabbing tears of joy. Even the priest was chuckling. 

 

As we returned home with Memère and her lady neighbors, there was gladness in their steps, the shawls no longer covered their heads and they regaled each other with stories of that rascal, Roger Semblan.

 

Many years have passed. My Memère now rests in a churchyard in Barbâtre. Roger’s grave is a few feet away. One day while reminiscing with my mother, I brought up Roger Semblan. Mom’s face grew sad, she was quiet for a while, then said, “You never knew her, but Memère had a sister. Her name was Adele. She was Roger’s girlfriend.”  

 


Rich D’Amour lives in Evansville, Indiana, with his wife, Holly, and goldendoodle, Enzo. He is a Vanderburgh County superior court judge.


 

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