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My Friend Hélène

This past March, I stayed in a house in a little village called Le Coux, in the Périgord (about two and a half hours east of Bordeaux). The people I was renting from were from New Zealand and they happened to be cleaning up when I arrived. I went out for groceries, came back, and they had finished and said they were headed next door to talk to the 92-year-old neighbor there, Hélène. She didn't speak a word of English, they said.

The next day, thinking about it, I took a box of chocolates I happened to have and walked over to her house. When Hélène (not that I called her that, of course; it was "Madame") answered the door, she had that "Who in the world is this person?" look on her face. I explained in my French (it's perpetually coming along) that I was renting the house next door, that the landlords had told me about her, and that I thought I'd bring her a little gift. She took it with profuse thanks, disappeared, returned with a jar of strawberry preserves she had made, and then invited me over for apéritifs the next day.

When I came around the following day, she had arranged a tray with champagne and snacks. It was just the sweetest thing. We sat and talked for almost an hour. She was the most delightful person -- she truly was. I learned about her family, her departed husband, and a bit of her history. She and her husband had lived in the area most of their lives, and were among the first 20 people to see the original Lascaux cave paintings, when it was a hole in the ground and not a tourist attraction. She spoke emotionally about how awful it was when the German Army moved through the area, and yet how important it was to her that she forgive them for what they had done.

We showed each other pictures of our children (mine are teenagers; her oldest is 60). It was great. She invited me over again the next day, and it was just as fun. Then, the day before I left, we took a walk through her garden. While we were there, her daughter called from Paris and Hélène told her about me. Her daughter asked to speak with me and proceeded to thank me for spending time with her mom, which I thought was gracious and completely unnecessary. She said that if I was ever in Paris, that I should come visit her and her family. As it turned out, I had a long-promised, long-overdue trip with my daughter Kelsey to Paris this Thanksgiving. Invitations were issued and accepted on the spot.

The last day I was there, I stopped by Hélène's house to bring back some books of hers that she had loaned to me. When we had said our goodbyes each day before, we had shook hands. This time, she gave me a hug and said to me that though people rented the house next door all the time, I was the first person who had ever come to see her. I almost had tears in my eyes -- it was just the greatest thing.

While I was there, we agreed to exchange letters. I sent her one, and received a reply just a couple of weeks later. Here's the translated version:

Dear Frank:

Thank you for not forgetting me.

I would like to pass along my compliments to your French teacher. Many of my neighbors don't write as well as you. [Note: a French co-worker heavily edited my letter before I sent it. In other words, I cheated. I'm sure this will come back to bite me.]

I keep of you the memory of a tall, charming man who didn't avoid conversation with a grandmother.

I'm delighted to see the beautiful children you have; I am going to be in Le Vésinet [where her family lives, near Paris] during your visit. [My daughter and son-in-law] will be happy to make your acquaintance and that of your daughter.

At this moment, I'm making cherry preserves and all the gardens are blooming with flowers. Our Périgord is always very beautiful and will be honored to receive you once again.

I embrace you and send you my best memories.

Hélène

My daughter and I leave for France a week from tomorrow, and I have the strong suspicion that when all is said and done, having seen the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, and so much of what Paris has to offer, seeing Hélène and her family will be the highlight of the trip.

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