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I had heard much about her, and met her once when I was little, before my uncle had passed. And then there I was, corresponding with her about coming to visit and stay in her country home in the Alps of France. My aunt and my mother speak very highly of her, and although I was nervous about taking advantage of such a connection, they reassured me that she was truly as kind and generous as she seemed. And she was. She picked me up from the airport, prepared a bed for me, and told me I could stay as long as I liked. She lives her life helping people, traveling back and forth from France to Africa, being here and being there, and being wonderful everywhere.
She makes friends for life, as her daughter confirmed, and although I did not know I was as welcome as I was, that was confirmed as well. She has lived a full life, committing herself to doing good and being good, so cheerful and lovely through it all. She raised two amazing children, and to see her with her daughter was great because it reminded me of being with my mother, and I felt closer to home. Her daughter has spent time in Africa and Asia, and her son, too, both working with organizations that deal with development, truly offspring of an intellectual and culturally aware family, of political parents who do their best to build global relations. Her husband, I met in New York, and he was great, too, welcomed me and my friends in for dinner on Roosevelt Island, and to see that apartment, and then to be here, feels like I`m connecting the dots of a life my uncle lived. He spent much time there, and this family was as much family to him as ours was.
She has a lot going on, all the time, yet she made as much time for me as she could spare, apologizing for not having more to spend with me, yet confident that I would be back someday. Now that I know how welcome I really am, of course I will be.
My uncle`s paintings are all over the walls of her house, and their relationship and positive influence on each other`s life cannot be doubted. He loved her whole family and they loved him.
She spoke of how he was such a joy to be around, dancing and singing around the kitchen as they cooked, always a light and lovely energy. He was so brilliant, needing to tell her of this or that as they wandered the city and museums together. He opened her mind to a life of art and beauty, something different than the political environment that she had lived in so intensely while working with the UN.
She remembers the last birthday party we had for him, when he was very sick, and how she came to Chicago, and I kind of remember this day, meeting her. And we both remembered how good of a mood he was in, even then, so sick and unable to participate in the party, but a vibrant presence still. Even though it was so hard for her to leave him, her mother was sick at the time, too. It was difficult to get to the airport, and getting dropped off and trying to find her flight, she realized it was actually the next day, and did not know what to do, could not go back and say all the goodbyes again. So distraught, she called her friend, and her friend comforted her and simply said, change your flight, it will be okay, just fly out that day instead of the next. It`s hard to think clearly with all those emotions running high. She said it was not nice of him to die on her like that, rude even, and I couldnt help but get choked up about it, over our coffees and ice creams. As we walked she told me more about their friendship and a little bit about the other women in his life, and how broken up he was over his marriage to the Swiss Cornelia, who I never met, but she thinks was only interested him for a green card, and that was really hard for him. I think her family was one that he maybe always wanted, but never had.
She took me around some medieval villages, planned for me to see the city of Geneva, and recommended I see the adorable town of Annecy, and did as much as she could for me to make my stay pleasant, even though she had a lot of other things to do in her short week being home from Africa. She is the only daughter of her father, and takes care of him as much as she can, of course worried about the man of 96, and when grocery shopping, buys him his favorite chocolates, (and for me a packet, too.) She was all at once a mothering aunt, a sage French grandmother, and a friend to me. Its so strange to see pictures of my uncle and of her 17 years ago, and to think about my uncle as an aged man, as he would be if he were still alive now. He is frozen in time as a handsome man, not even 50, and she has aged gracefully and beautifully with much spirit and spunk still in her eyes.
She has been working on her house for years now, and its a lovely country home, passed down from her grandmother, and she takes time deciding exactly how she wants to decorate and what should be where. She spends most of her time in Ghana over the last many years, but is now slowly changing how much time she spends there so that she can spend more time in her countryside home. She has childhood friends in the area and takes pride in her little countryside living. People just show up at her door to say hello, spend a few hours of the afternoon, join in for dinner, or the slicing of apples for a crumble. She has apple trees and walnut trees and lives as greenly as she can, with her own compost and a place for bottles and a place for caps.
I`m so glad to have met Christiane and to have spent time with a woman that was so loved by my uncle, and being in her presence I feel closer to him. They knew him better than I did, I was quite young when he got sick, and even though I knew how cool he was, and we wrote to each other, and I saw him every year at Christmas, I was never able to really tap into how awesome he really was. But being here and through her, I get a little more of that.
This time of my trip has reaffirmed even more my feelings of being lucky to be alive, and not to take anything granted. Love and live life to the fullest, because you never know what will happen tomorrow. Surround yourself with good people and work hard to make the world a better place, one step at a time.