(It does not die)

Last Sunday I came across Marguerite after a very long time. It was a blustery morning; torn clouds chasing across a slate grey sky, a strong wind whistling through the entire city. Rain came down in sudden bursts, drenching the hapless buyers & sellers of our little Sunday market. Marguerite was struggling with the bright pink hood of her anorak that she has been wearing for at least last 10 years. That is what I remember. Maybe she’s had it for even longer. She stood tall and straight behind her flimsy stall, now the hood firmly ties around her strong chin.

I looked at her in amazement – she did not seem to have aged at all. Those cornflower blue eyes were as sharp as ever, taking in everything, giving nothing away, framed by crisscrossing laughter lines. Her figure stout, feet firmly planted to the ground. Her slender hands strong and supple as she arranged eggs & cheese & other wares behind the counter to protect them from the invading wind & rain. Bending down and standing up, pirouetting like a woman one-third her age. As I looked at her, I had to tell myself over & over again that Marguerite was at least 80 years old!

I have known Marguerite for a long time now. We met for the first time when I was attending a sort of ‘Citizen’s Forum’ on organic farming, way back in the late nineties, when it was a relatively new concept in this area of France, where mechanized agriculture with GMO was the rule rather than exception. The vast landholders couldn’t care less about what they considered to be airy fairy ideas touted by ex-hippies turned green. But the ecologists here were persistent. They sought and obtained some financial help from the local government for organizing the very first forum in Caen. I was sent along as a representative of the Regional Council.

Marguerite owns a (relatively) small farm in a very remote village. Her family has owned the farm forever, she told us during the conference. The only child to survive, she had inherited the farm decades back, and had taken over from her father who suffered from constant ill health. And they have been into organic farming, long before it became a catch word in the fashionable circles in Paris. The yield was just enough to keep the family in relative comfort. ‘I’ve never made any profits in all my life’, she declared proudly ‘all that I earn goes to feed and clothe the family & my animals’. Unlike their neighbors, Marguerite’s family never produced any cereals – they specialized in fruits, vegetables and salads. They raised goats & chicken for cheese and eggs. They had a few milk cows. They were beekeepers too – their verdant orchards guaranteed an excellent quality of honey. Marguerite is a natural story teller – as she spoke I could see that remote farm in front of my eyes – the goats & chickens ranging freely, the fragrance of the fruit orchard, the rancid smell of goat’s cheese, the wet smell of the hay on the mangers of the cowshed.

The Quesnay family (that’s her maiden name, the one she has always used) had another god given gift – they were all excellent bakers. And they specialized in all types of breads and cookies and biscuits and shortcakes, which they made from home made butter and honey. They sold it to the local bakeries, and often in the open markets of the neighboring villages. In fact, Marguerite’s little stall in our Sunday market is famous for the bread and cookies. She bakes her bread with all types of seeds – sunflower, flax, poppy and sesame seeds that cohabit in perfect harmony with raisins, figs or chocolate chips. She sells small uneven roundels of goat’s cheese wrapped in oak leaves, organic eggs that come in all sizes. No fancy boxes, no calibration. She uses paper bags made from recycled paper, sturdy cardboard boxes for her eggs. Marguerite is a living representation of the green earth. At least that’s what I thought when I first met her.

I had gone up to talk to her at the end of the conference, all those years ago. Partly from duty, but mostly because I was fascinated by her. And that acquaintance became a kind of friendship, erratic but totally durable. I was a regular visitor of the Sunday market at that time, and made it a point to go to her stall. She was not always there – her son had willingly taken over the arduous task of doing the rounds in the open markets. He was often there with his own family – his wife & two young daughters, all of them lovely. But I was overjoyed every time Marguerite was there. It gave us a chance to have a quiet chat while the younger generation took over the responsibility of selling. Sometimes I met her at other places – she was often invited to share her organic farming experience in forums organized in different places.
I loved talking to Marguerite. She was a mine of fascinating stories about all sorts of things. I loved listening to her anecdotes about occupied France, the brave young men who left to join the French resistance movement and never came back to the village. About the deep anguish following the D-Day landing on 6th June, 1944 while the allied forces struggled inland, and whining planes flew over her little village to bomb the German fortifications along the coast; about how the entire French society changed in the few years following the end of the second world war, the winds of change sweeping the entire country, right up to the remote village school where she was studying. She left her rural cocoon for long years, leaving everything behind to go to the University in Caen. A very long journey for someone from her background, she assured me. A journey not measurable by time or distance….

Those were exciting days, Marguerite told me. It was the ‘Glorious Thirties’ in France, and everything seemed possible. Marguerite belonged to that new generation, not the ‘bright young things’ of London, but a determined lot that wanted things to change. Women’s rights, mainly, to live as they wished, without the shackles of birth, religion, the social rules – words used by her which I am faithfully quoting from memory. A whole generation of women who recognized their innermost strengths and desires, and fought hard to make them real. At home and at work, in the fields, factories, offices. They made a life for themselves, and lived by their own rules. A ‘city girl’ by now, Marguerite lived her life as she wanted – a free & independent spirit. She participated in the nationwide movement for making abortion legal, to the horror of her own family, who threatened to disown her. She even went to Paris once to participate in a gigantic rally, she told me proudly, following the publication of the ‘343 Manifest’ penned by Simone de Beauvoir and signed by 343 women, known and unknown, who declared having an abortion in the appalling condition prevalent in those days. For those historically inclined, abortion was legalized in France in 1971.

All this did not prevent Marguerite from getting married at the ripe old age (her words, again) of 30 and starting her own family. And the subsequent return to her father’s farm, leaving behind the city lights. She ‘journeyed back to her roots’, as she likes to say, and has stayed there ever since, toiling the soil, raising her own family & her animals, proud as an Amazon. Her children are well educated – her daughter a nurse turned social worker, her son an agronomist who prefers making the old family farm prosper rather than working for companies like Monsanto. Marguerite is proud of her children, for, as she puts it ‘I managed to make them dream my own dreams’.

At the age of 80, Marguerite still stands straight and proud, sure and serene, proud of what she has done. She does not lament the modern society like so many of her contemporaries; she still takes on the challenges headlong. Marguerite is a fighter, a survivor, a dreamer, an achiever. She does not brag, she does not flaunt. She stands there, imperturbable, rock solid, tranquil; she lives.

I wanted to write this eulogy to celebrate the likes of Marguerite, the quiet fighters who permit us to be what we are today – citizens with equal rights and responsibilities. To salute the generation of Marguerite who fought for what they believed in. Quite different from a lot of women I know with ill digested ideas, who think that every conflict is finally a gender issue. Women like me, really, who have hardly ever had to fight for their rights, for their mere existence, for living life by their rules. Compared to the likes of Marguerite, incarnations of Gaea, we are just dwarves. Maybe one day we shall actually be able to acknowledge it.

(19 June 2012 at 05:31)


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