Who was Gabriel?

Some stories, a few faded pictures, and a name, that’s all I have from my great grandfather Gabriel.  I guess that a name is a lot though.  What I don’t have is a real impression of him, as I never met him.  Every cousin or uncle or relation that I’ve talked to have used the same words in describing him: kind, gentle, and quiet.  He was probably quiet because he spent his first sixteen years in a small village in southern France, practically in Spain, and then moved to big city London.  I think that I would be quiet too if I grew up in place with only 500 people, and had to exist speaking my third language. Montazels 2010-09-11 010 But you can’t get much of a sense of a man from stories and pictures, not as much as you can being in the same room as him, sharing a drink with him.  What I wouldn’t give to have 5 minutes to talk and really learn what kind of man my great grandfather was.

My father’s love for his grandfather is clear; he named his first-born for him.  To trace this love we took a trip to my great grandfather’s town, Montazels, on the Aude river.  We wrote a letter to the mayor, told him who we were, some of the other surnames that we new, and beyond all expectations had an e-mail from a cousin a week later.  She knew my grandfather, she remembered my Dad’s uncles, and she would be honored to host us.

My Dad had been to Montazels before, 44 years ago to be exact, with his uncle Simon, my grandfather’s son.  They’d met a young male cousin who had shown them around, taken them on the back of his motorcycle to a hilltop fortress, and they’d slept in Gabriel’s house.  In fact, Gabriel’s house was still Gabriel’s house even though in those days he had no interest in returning.  My Dad and uncle spent a night or two in town, gave the house to the rest of family in Montazels, and left.  I think that there has always been a bug in the back of my Dad’s head to come back to this town.  He would speak of it to me, pull out the atlas and point it out on the map.  Tell me that it was tucked right up next to the Pyrenees.  His uncle Simon passed away suddenly last year.  We had all been together and seen him two weeks before, made plans for trips and visits, and then he was gone.  Maybe that jogged loose the bug in my Dad’s head.

We didn’t know much about the family that we were coming to visit.  My father remembered a male cousin, not a female one.  Simon had made another trip to Montazels when he was in France years ago.  Doubtless he had the same bug in his head.  He had it so bad that he named his house in London Montazel.  When Simon visited the town none of the close cousins were to be found.  He was walking near the square and saw someone raking leaves.  In his broken French he told this person who he was, and the first word out of their mouth was “cousin!”  Simon and his wife spent an evening in town and learned that Gabriel’s house was owned by someone who worked far away in a city.

Over the years we speculated.  Maybe the house was a vacation home for some Parisian who came down for the summer.  We weren’t hurt, how could we be, but I think that we had this dream of a big warm family still living in Montazels, making wine from the family vineyard plot, and wondering about their cousins who had moved away.

We found that family.  It turns out that Josette, the daughter of Gabriel’s cousin, still lives in Gabriel’s house.  Gabriel was an only child, and was very close to his cousin.  They remember our branch of the family well.  In fact, Josette pulled out a black and white picture of my Dad, Simon, and Franci (her brother) in the hilltop fortress, putting a photo to the memory that my dad had.  Josette spent her adult life working and raising her children in Toulouse.  There isn’t much work in small towns in the hills anymore, so Josette had to move to earn a living, but she held onto the house.  She and her husband are spending their glory years in Montazels, and Franci and his wife live just off the town square, a 2 minute walk from Josette.

The welcome that my Dad, Simon’s son Daniel, and I received was beyond our wildest dreams.   Josette and Jacque prepared feasts for us, housed us, and drowned us in wine.  A lunch or dinner at their house went like this: we started off with an apertif, and then had an appetizer with a glass of wine.  Then we’d have the main meal, with a few side dishes (and more wine), followed by the wine and cheese course.  Finally we’d have dessert with Blanquette (a sparkling white wine) and drink and talk for hours.  Our relatives in Montazels know how to live, and after dinner Daniel, my Dad and I would take an evening walk enjoying the beautiful town and speculating about my Great Grandfather.

Those four beautiful, sun-drenched days in Montazels will live prominently in our memories for the rest of our lives.  We went for hikes, met the mayor and got the key to the old church, took a ride in Franci’s beat up Peugeot to the little forest that he tends, explored the market in the town next door, met a few expats who inhabit Montazels, and talked, laughed, and ate our way through the visit.  While I’ll never know Gabriel, I learned a lot about him on this journey.  I learned about the place he was from, and what is important to his family; I learned about hospitality and kindness.  A bug has been planted in the back of my head, and I’ll be back to Montazels, but I won’t let it take 44 years.


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