by Kathy Comstock
Remembering women of another age.
Years ago across France one could set a watch according to the ‘vieille fille’. Dressed in black and with laced shoes supporting a stocky or painfully thin frame, she would secure her front door lock, look right then left, and head off. One withering fist hugging her shawl and the other gripping a straw shopping ‘panier‘, her wobbled gait sometimes made one leg appear shorter than the other. Each morning was not without its trip to market stall for luncheon bread or evening soup vegetables. Before mid-day church bells, she prayed at chapel. Her Saturday post office appearance punctuated a week that terminated in full only after Sunday mass at the same time in the same pew listening to the same priest officiate a service she herself could perform. However mundane others might have considered these activities, the ‘vieille fille’ had long before elevated them to personal sacred ritual.
Exuding grand determination, she strutted, stared, and submitted to conversation only with those she trusted. Depending on who else crossed her path, wariness or confusion evinced from eyes filled with memories real and imagined. Stabilizing her day with equal parts order, predictability, and faith, her taut and unassuming ways left this widow or old maid facing her final decades alone. Resisting change dismissively if not with compliance, she assumed her role as part of society’s backstage. Occasionally releasing herself from a carefully guarded interior world, her valiant or vivid recounts provided clarity and texture to those who might care to listen.
Her once taken-for-granted appearances have thinned over the decades, a result of time and this era’s penchant for acknowledging youth. The rare sight of a ‘vieille fille‘ conjures my own faded days and I grow nostalgic for lost opportunities to better understand and appreciate this somber, nearly extinct poster child of anachronism.
Madame from Grenoble was the first and as it turned out only ‘vieille fille’ I had the opportunity to know.
During my 1970s semester abroad in that Alpine town and contrary to fellow students, my friend Rachel and I chose not to rent a room in a restrictive convent school or a pricey hotel. These options seemed to us tailored for the timid or wealthy and we were neither. So, days after our arrival in the strange city, we separated from our colleagues and took to pounding the pavement. An entry in a newspaper advertising two rooms for rent in the same apartment caught our attention. Following directions, we found three high-rise dwellings that had housed the 1968 Olympic athletes. Twenty stories of freshly painted cement walls, plentiful windows, and walk-out balconies oozed luxury in this land stubbornly post-war when it came to creature comforts. We marched up marble stairs through glass doors to a gleaming hallway and finally to the first floor apartment.
As I raised hand to knock, Madame swung open the door.
“Bonjour, mes filles,” she said in a throat-scratched voice.
Mellow hazel eyes watered behind black-rimmed glasses and a smile hinted on pencil-thin lips. Wearing plain skirt, cuffed shirt, and black apron, her thick wide belt both protected and contained a ponderous bust. A crucifix hung around a silver chain at her neck. Silver and brown hair pulled into a tiny bun at the nape of her neck. Her sliver of a mouth absorbed me as she evaluated my brown fake-leather coat over jeans and Rachel’s furry-collared corduroy one. Rachel’s French was better back then so she did the talking which included few words because Madame had things to ask first.
I remember staring past her to the wall mirror and table under which stood an oversized wood trunk decorated with labels from round the world – Greek symbols, French airline tags, stickers in Spanish.
“Vous es Americaines?”
Unbeknownst to us at that time, she rented only to Americans, having remained enamored of the Allies saving her city and especially GIs stationed in Grenoble during the war. Ready to get out of the chilly hall, we nodded eagerly. The door shut behind us and she took my elbow.
“Winter approaches,” she said releasing me. I nodded and smiled, a helpless comportment I had assumed in recent weeks. French barely under my command, the thickly incoherent Alpine constructions contrasted greatly with the speed and clip of Parisian to which I had only recently adjusted. Smiles helped.
Her next question took us aback. “Vous es catholiques?”
Jewish Rachel shook her head. “Juive, moi. Kathy, elle est catholique.”
To my discomfort, a conspiratorial smile in my direction both singled me out and commenced a dubious association the ramifications of which I was yet to discover. She thought a moment, perhaps about the Jewish half of us, then opened arms and led us to her living room. She indicated what would, Ã la parochial school, become our assigned seats–a crimson upholstered chair for me and one end of a fine wood-trim couch for Rachel. Madame took a hard-back chair beside the low mahogany chest holding a small black and white television. The fall daylight filtered past sheer linen drapes that would be covered by thick maroon ones come evening.
Administrative details were few and addressed promptlyamount of rent owed, when to pay, choice of payment by check or cash. She led us down the hall. Though Madame did not point out the bathroom, Rachel and I paused to peer past its half-open door. Yellow tub with shower and large sink plus toilet proved wondrous sights after days washing in cold water bidets. Each bedroom had a single bed covered with white Swiss down comforter and walk-out balcony overlooking the snow-tipped Vercors Mountain range. The entire place was clean and free of that sour-damp smell we had encountered at convent schools and, best of all, warmer. We signed up. She led us to the entryway remarking that Americans were her favorite. I gazed at the trunk one more time but was unable to glean hints of her past life. Had she traveled far prior to settling here? Had she relocated from another part of France? Madame revealed only what she wished: she was a retired teacher, long-time resident of the area, and lived alone.
Outside we hugged each other, happy with our find and glad to see the modern appliances in the kitchen and bath. Rachel was ready to move in that instant, to wash her hair once and for all. But we had agreed to wait until the next day.
My mother was overjoyed because my letters assured her I was safe and sound, something that in her mind was impossible to do in such a faraway and foreign place. The letters included lavish description of how Madame was watching over us and making us feel right at home, anything to assuage concern that her daughter risked her life living overseas. Hadn’t I reached adulthood? When would she let go?
This complaint was to repeat itself with Madame, sooner with Rachel than with me. For the time being however we were content to share the apartment with someone who made herself invisible. Or so we thought.
We soon discovered her bedroom was the kitchen, a not uncommon practice amongst area landlords of frugal nature. This ‘kitchen life’ caused lengthy exterior conversations between Rachel and me.
“Rachel, I saw the cot! Everything in that 4 by 10 spacebookcases, a rack of black clothes, her boots! Imagine, constrained within her two bedroom apartment.”
“Figures,” Rachel said with an exasperated sigh.
She seemed more clued in on Madame than me but offered no further explanation. I assumed her knowledge had to do with Rachel’s mother being French, that Rachel was more aware of idiosyncrasies of the culture than me. I did however begin to wonder was Rachel ticked off by Madame’s religious question our first meeting.
Stranger still, Madame never appeared to use the facilities. We thought she might wash in the bathroom when we were at school during the day but there were never any cluesstray hairs, damp towels, toothpaste in the cabinet. As the days progressed, her lifestyle became a topic of imaginings that occupied us while walking to or from campus.
“She washes in the kitchen sink then.”
“Gross. That means she never takes a bath.”
“No bidets in that kitchen from what I can see.”
“She doesn’t smell.”
“She’s too loaded down in black. She’s probably never seen herself naked. Takes a sponge to her face and armpits once a week before mass.”
Our American routines of daily shower and regular hair washing soon clashed with Madame’s lack of same. First however we were to learn about degrees of warmth. One particularly wintry night a few days into our stay, we woke up freezing. I tiptoed in to use the bathroom and found it refrigerator cold. The ceiling vent was closed so I stood on the toilet, jiggled and fought with the tiny metal flap opener. Finally the vent banged open. Warm air covered my face but weakened quickly. It was certainly not enough to fill the hallway down to our bedrooms. Back with Rachel, who moaned over this unanticipated discomfort, we figured Madame turned the heat completely off.
“Typical French. They barely use utilities, especially at night. Too expensive.”
“But we’re freezing! We should say something tomorrow,” I suggested, already forming the phrases in my head for fear Rachel would refuse.
The next day we figured we’d catch her unaware when she exited to market. In proper wool coat and gripping straw panier, she halted and gave a long stare.
“Pas d’cole aujourd’hui, Mesdemoiselles?” (no school today?) she asked.
In deferentially formal French I’d not yet heard from my friend, Rachel explained that we were very cold the night before and could the heat have been turned off.
For perhaps ten seconds she stared past us then promptly turned and left the apartment.
“What was that?” I asked, shaking from nerves or the cold I wasn’t sure.
Rachel rolled eyes, a surly look deepening behind them. She waved her hand. “Let’s go.”
“But you were very polite! Why doesn’t she say something?”
With a shrug, she said, “The old bag will do exactly what she wants.”
We decided to outsmart her. Or so we thought. During one of my nightly visits I discovered that the vent, open prior to my retiring, was shut tight. Wobbling again on the toilet seat I stretched and threw the vent latch to heat that quickly evaporated into the cool air like the last time. It did no good. Subsequent nights without fail Madame managed to get in there to close it. So I took it upon myself to open it afterwards, however menial the results.
Mornings she never brought the fact up that the vent was open nor did she admit to closing it sometime during the night. Like a dysfunctional family, we never raised the topic. The charade continued for weeks. Every now and then when away from the place, Rachel and I giggled uncontrolled but usually the incident was cause for annoyed recall.
As opposed to my dry thick curls, Rachel’s longer straight hair required daily washing so she would luxuriate in the bathroom for hours at a time. This indulgence in hot water, however, was nipped in less than a week.
One day when Rachel exited her bath, Madame appeared in the hallway. With broad swipes of her dish towel, she cleared away the steam while announcing, “Pas de grandes toilettes tous les jours, Mademoiselle.” (”No big cleanups each day.”) Hair whipped up in a white towel, Rachel glared then passed by her in the same way Madame had turned heels on us.
Following protests both to Madame and even more virulent ones behind her back, Rachel ended up defiantly washing her hair whenever Madame was out and even a few times when she was in. Yet during those times Madame was present, she never chastised Rachel to her face. More dysfunction.
A monastic aura settled about, not unlike that of a strict boarding school. When we compared notes with colleagues living in convent-style rigidity we found the same frigid nights and restrictive rules in place. Madame, we then figured, differed little in mentality from the unbending Catholic nuns, their breed not unknown in the States but here definitely skewed to the more maniacal and stingy persuasion.
When we described Madame to fellow students who were French, they used the term ‘vieilles filles’, widows or old maids who lived alone and who grew increasingly enclosed within their shrinking world. They described women who refused to adjust to a new decade let alone four or five removed from the days when they were young like us and very much less surrounded with what we considered basic necessities like hot water.
“They’re all the same,” one French girl told me. “All in black, cheap as a flea market, and horribly strict.”
Winter settled thick and for days on end sunshine eluded. A penetrating cold left us reluctant to step out of bed let alone outdoors. To boot, we suffered a frigid apartment and minimal use of the bath. Without fail, that vent snapped shut each night. Rachel’s gloom spread to me and together we decried the injustice of paying rent for services we did not receive.
All this did not prevent Madame from encouraging us to speak French with her and inviting us to share an occasional night by the television. Usually she called us around the tube for historical presentations or documentaries on art hailing from eras we barely supported in school let alone for leisure. In our designated seats, she watched along with us. Saint Louis was her favorite but sometimes she allowed the life story of the debauched Louis XIV to air in order, she claimed, that we could appreciate the architectural splendor of Versailles and works of the King’s court painters. We suffered through these evenings but as soon as the show ended, we excused ourselves to our frigid rooms to do ‘homework’. Those prison nights, we bundled up with blankets and sweaters, settled on Rachel’s balcony (furthest from Madame’s kitchen), and puffed away on cigarettes until fingers froze or our supply was exhausted.
Addressing us as “Mesdemoiselles”, she always spoke French. She never wondered over our bored and distracted gazes but continued to recite the affairs of state or some small historical detail about Grenoble, usually finishing with comments like ‘now you can make notes in your journals.’
What I really wanted to note in my journal was the story behind that hall trunk. Ever visible in her entryway, its iron lock and those tags of far-away cities never suffered from a layer of dust or grime. More than once, I came upon her easing a cloth across its finish, reverently touching as though it were a treasure guarding a part of her soul. Once she caught me staring and hurried to the kitchen, closing the door without a word. Walking to school without Rachel, who took to truancy with more frequency, I embellished my daydreams with romantic tales about Madame and her trunk.
In one, a train porter helps a much younger Madame and her trunk as she arrives in Paris for the very first time. Fresh and energetic, she is receptive to happenstance and executes life according to whim and fancy rather than protocol and prayer. She is also stunning with brown hair rolled into smart chignon and suit tailored to match her subtle voluptuousness. The war has turned in the Allies’ favor and Paris spills with English-speaking soldiers. Madame meets an American, some Midwestern salt of the earth blonde who readily displays his affections. They fall in love. The trunk is moved to the port of Le Havre in preparation for the sea voyage and eventual nuptials in the States. But the man never joins her. Madame waits for days at a port-side hotel, praying for his arrival but gradually realizes her dreams are dashed. She finally returns to cold gray Grenoble with her trunk.
Plots and climaxes differed depending on the day, my state of mind, and the nearness in time of that vent cruelly slapping shut during the night. Still, and in spite of Rachel having long before written her off, I maintained she was more than what she displayed.
Those evenings she gathered us around her TV to watch dull shows, I would steal glances when she wasn’t aware and wish for her to help me with my daydreams. Was there an American who never made it back to claim you? Some GI who wrote letters but failed to follow through? Or a handsome Resistance fighter you sheltered for a week? Did you ever know secure romantic love or did you forever deny it in the name of a ruined heart and too many tears? As she pressed apron flat on her lap and Rachel inspected polished nails, I snuck peeks at Madame’s smooth sagging skin and fluid regard, begging my bolder side to ask, “Do those stickers represent places where you left pieces of your heart?” “Did he abandon you or did you say no thank you?” “Do you cherish a memory or have they really all gone cold like this apartment?”
When Nixon pulled the U. S. off the gold standard, Americans abroad found that banks would not cash their travelers’ checks. Thrown into the same boat, Rachel and I wondered how we could get funds. To our astonishment, Madame asked us to meet with her in her living room and offered to defer rent payments for a month in hopes the matter would clear by then. We thanked her and again asked about the heat. In the same ways as before, her face blanched. She stood and left the room with nary a nod about the matter.
We stayed away with increasing frequency, even spending nights at convents with friends rather than deal with the flipping vent or Madame’s commentaries on ancient history or current events. One night, we met four French guys who invited us to go dancing. In a small Peugeot we climbed one of the surrounding mountains to a disco where we danced into the wee hours, sneaking back into Madame’s at 3 AM with plans to skip school the next day.
This she did not let pass.
The next morning she entered my room without knocking, shook me awake, and said, “I must speak with you, Mademoiselle, about a Catholic matter.”
Shocked and rubbing sleep from my eyes, I sat up, pulled the covers near, and tried to suppress shivers.
“Where were you last night?” she asked, pacing the room.
Without Rachel, I collapsed under her guilt-producing stare, eyes that penetrated mine with every inch the crabby accusing nun I knew in grade school. Her clothing even smelled of a combination of moth balls and soap like those stateside women of the cloth.
“Dancing,” I whispered. Recalling our fun night, a slow smile spread and I was about to describe more when she snorted.
“You will be attacked staying out that late. You were not with reputable people then.”
“They were students like us,” I said.
“God have mercy on you. If you ever return to this apartment after midnight again, there will be trouble. Please pass the word on to your Jewish friend.”
She made for the door then turned, paused to stare back, her thin line mouth set tight.
“How can you live as you do, with no routine each day?” she asked.
Heat fired up my spine. Under the covers my ankles locked tense so much so they hurt. My breathing went shallow. For all my years of ‘Catholic’, no one had ever wished me God’s mercy. After she closed the door and marched away, I remained a statue in bed until after her departure to market. Hurrying to Rachel’s room, I woke her and babbled over what happened.
Rachel lay against the pillows, groggy but with the pronounced deadpan look she had taken to wearing around Madame, set even more firmly after I mentioned the ‘Jewish friend’ part.
“Fuckin’ bitch. What the hell did she mean ‘a Catholic matter’?” she asked.
Easing to the balcony window, she opened it then stuffed a towel into the crack at the bottom of her closed door. Lighting up a Gaulois cigarette she puffed away. I took one too. We remained like that all morning, wondering what gene-mangled crone spirit inhabited these ‘vieilles filles’. Not surprisingly, other than Madame’s ability to produce guilt in me–a sure connection to her cousins of the cloth back home–we were at a loss to conclude on what a ‘Catholic matter’ meant.
In addition to our school and convent companions, we became friends with two women students next door who rented an apartment like ours but ‘Madame free’. At increasing intervals, we joined the company of these fellow Americans. When one took off to travel, the other asked us if we would like to rent the empty bedroom.
It took Rachel one second to make up her mind. For me a longer time elapsed when I reflected on how we could ever extract ourselves from Madame and her expectation that we would be there until May. Something told me she held fast to a deal and that this would hit her hard. In spite of her stingy ways, I could not reconcile walking out on her. Rachel whined that I was too guilt-ridden, to get over it. This I could not dispute as I too wished to continue our friendship with the girls next door who had French-speaking friends with whom my language skills improved daily. I relented. We prepared our speech for Madame.
Rachel would deliver it as I had taken mute with fear of reprisal from my mother who would be disappointed I was no longer under Madame’s care. She had even sent Madame a Christmas card.
We asked for time with her the next day. Settled in her parlor, each in our designated chairs, Rachel began. “After much reflection, we have decided to move next door.”
Madame stared that stare then slipped back into herself, her non-committal mask deepening across her eyes and jaw.
In a hard cold tone she asked, “When?”
“As soon as possible,” Rachel said, with clarity but downcast. I kept my eyes on the floor.
Madame stood and went to the kitchen. Rattled pans.
The day we left, she remained in the kitchen. Rachel bolted but I asked Madame if she wanted to inspect the rooms. Refusing to emerge from her galley space, she did not answer me. A day or two later, I ran into the ‘vieille fille’ who accompanied Madame to daily market.
Snug together in the narrow mailbox space, she could hardly avoid me. She hesitated then whispered, “Madame will never rent to Americans again, you know.”
My questioning eyes did not prompt further explanation on her part and the woman left shaking her head and muttering. For hours after, I couldn’t let go the guilt that succeeded in causing my stomach to throb. I tried to deny that we had been terrible to Madame, in spite of her weirdness over the heat, but succeeded only in feeling rotten about the whole event. Rachel called me a wimp.
By the next week we were well installed next door. Rachel had already forgotten Madame and even made faces behind her back when we happened to see her in the stairwell. I tried to be polite and say hello but apparently our decision had turned her forever against us. She never acknowledged the hello and went out of her way to avoid us with her eyes and in her body language.
Once school ended, I said good-bye to my friends and left Grenoble to venture elsewhere on my own. The Riviera and especially Nice with her warm breezes, aquamarine Mediterranean, and Latin pace captivated my heart for longer than planned and also helped me soften the recall of raw unforgiving Grenoble and even our unfortunate turn with Madame. But Nice had ‘vieilles filles’ too. No thick winter coats and blue-gray regards here. These thin, brittle women protected angel white hair with sheer black veils and deftly managed tourists and sidewalk bustle all the while studying onlookers like me with unabashed truffle black eyes. Stooped, ever wary, trundling along with their baskets, they brought me to a melancholy place woven in with the sad end to our stay with Madame and a notion of what life becomes with age. These elderly women had become a clique of sorts, joined through religion and aloneness to a place that, for some perhaps, was acceptable if not downright better than the life they knew with youth. At least each day offered minimal upset to their routines.
Much of this portrait remains conjecture though. Save Madame, I never talked with another ‘vieille fille’.
In 2004, I returned to Nice and immediately noticed the absence of ‘vieilles filles’. Elderly women wore smart tailored suits or pastel spring dresses, enhanced their features with makeup, and kept white hair short and perfectly coiffed or twisted into war-era romantic buns. Eyes sparkling, they walked without stoop or burdening market basket having likely promised themselves years before that they would never turn into those black-clad stumpy women of another age.
Madame has crossed the one hundred year mark or is probably dead as are, I suppose, most of her sisters. Perhaps down a Corsican mountain-side or from shadows of interior France, her kind still emerges into the cool dusk. Raising black shawl to protect opaque cheeks, she heads to market. After each meager purchase, she counts her pennies. Nodding good-day to the merchant, she retraces steps down a dirt road, slowly slowly returning to the home she will die in, disappearing for another day back to her shelter, her habits, her quiet. Her Catholic matters.
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.