Contenance.

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My great-grandmother was a great influence on me, although I never met her. But I get it from stories my mother who adored her has told me. My favourite one, and the most impressive, gives a wonderful example of what it takes to be cultivated, and maybe more of what a certain upbringing does to you and your morale. She was very particular about the way a table was set. As a middle aged woman, long before the war, I’m talking World War II, she indulged in style, decorated her house beautifully, with no trouble apart from striving for perfection on a daily basis, she would give orders to the few servants she had, and was known for her splendid dinner parties. But it wasn’t just the times and circumstances that made her the lady that she was and to bring her daughter up to be one too in the future, meaning to instruct my grandmother, then a young girl, never to take too much sugar with tea, what unthinkable intemperance, regardless of my grandmother’s sweet tooth of course, so I was told, to force her to sit at the dinner table as if she had swallowed a broomstick and to introduce her to the effects of alcohol, a young lady’s demeanour and virtue mustn’t be compromised by a glass of wine, let alone three, it was her composure, her absolute restraint in everything she did. This would actually not be a story if she hadn’t had to adapt to war times. First of all, that dinner table got lost in ruins, bombs smashed it to pieces, and after the war was over, there was not much food to serve. But no war could ever impinge on her dinner celebrations, they had to meet her demands, it was like an obsession with her. My family was happy to have anything at all, potatoes were a luxury, there weren’t any oysters to sprinkle with lemon juice, meat on the table would be conceived as a mirage, a fata morgana, but she would never eat up, she would always leave something behind on her plate, always, whatever it was, however humble a meal had been prepared, she would leave something to be thrown away, for one could get the impression she’d been hungry, and hunger, oh dear, what a vulgar sensation, how weak a character one would be to adapt to a life in ruins, she might have thought, and so she did not. Never. Quelle contenance.

I think of her, each time I want to eat something right off the box. And then, I take a plate, or a dish, a beautiful antique glass instead of the dishwasher safe ones, and enjoy it in her style. God bless her.

2 thoughts on “Contenance.

  1. I cannot thank you enough for writing this beautiful tribute to your great-grandmother. I was full of admiration for her wonderful manners and taste and then extremely moved at the dignified way she clung to these to get her through experiences I cannot even begin to imagine. It’s also clear to me that you come from a long line of people with exceptionally good taste and style. I’m sure your great-grandmother would have loved this article. She certainly had ‘contenance’ in spades but also what the French call ‘du cran’, or ‘gumption’ in English. I thought of Kipling’s famous poem ‘If’ and those immortal lines:
    “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;”

    Your best article yet!

    Liked by 1 person

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