French songstress Edith Piaf props up in bed in 1959 after an undisclosed illness. Piaf died in 1963 from exhaustion and liver disease, aged of 47. Photo: Matty ZimmermanHe loved music, my grandfather. He’d always played the piano. A family gathering wasn’t worth the name until he approached the lovely old piano in the corner of what was always called the front room, spread his fingers across the keys and summoned the magic, my grandmother at his side. Waltzes, Irish tunes, everyone singing; classical, a smattering of old-time swing, songs and tunes from a century ago. Often, his eyes would close as he delved into his repertoire.
He spoke French, too. It had been useful on the Western Front where he’d fought in World War I and even handier in Paris when he’d taken leave.
There’d be a ghost of a smile when he’d speak occasionally about Paris. But he left much in the air. You had to imagine for yourself the cafes and the music of that city of light and love, a tall, thin farm boy who spoke French and played the piano, savouring the mercy of a few days away from the artillery and bayonets and machineguns. He had been, after all, just 21 when he sailed across the world to war.
I lived next door to my grandfather when he was old and faltering, and sometimes I’d play him a record of some song or tune that had taken my fancy and which I thought might quicken his heart.
Like a fair proportion of the world, I found myself in the 1960s transported by the voice of the French chanteuse Edith Piaf.
She had, of course, captured audiences for decades, but after she died in 1963, broken down by her addictions to morphine and alcohol and life, her music became more popular than ever.
As a boy, I felt I’d discovered a shining alternative universe of song when I first listened to Piaf. I bought a record of her best-known music and almost wore it out transporting myself to a place that existed only in my imagination: a smoky, black and white Paris, romantic to the point of heartbreak.
One wintry day I played my record to my grandfather. I thought Piaf’s La Vie En Rose, surely one of the loveliest songs of love ever sung, might take him back to the rosy hues of his youth. If there is an evocative song of all things French, this is surely it.
My grandfather closed his eyes and sighed.
But it was another song on that record that stirred him. He sat up in his easy chair and moved a hand to the stirring rhythm of it. His eyes were open and he was clearly seeing something beyond the room in which he sat.
The song was Non, Je ne regrette rien.
“No, I regret nothing,” my grandfather translated, and he sounded as defiant as Piaf’s rendering of it.
I already knew the bones of the story that had shaped his life, and that of all my family.
Twice he was wounded within the hellfire of the Western Front, only to be patched up in British hospitals and sent back to the trenches. In a hospital in Birmingham, he was nursed by a young softly spoken woman named Cecilia. They fell in love.
My grandfather’s military papers listed him as Presbyterian. Cecilia was Irish Catholic.
It is hard now, a century later, to imagine what depths of religious bigotry governed social and family behaviour.
When the war was done, and the delights of Paris had released their spell on my grandfather, he and Cecilia quietly married. My grandfather wrote to his parents, omitting to mention his bride was Catholic.
When, back in Australia, the family eventually discovered the woman who would become my grandmother was a “papist”, no mercy was shown. My grandfather, the twice-wounded war hero and farm boy who spoke French (and Latin), played the piano and had a deep sensitivity about him, was frozen out. He had chosen a wife from the wrong religion.
The newlyweds left the family property and my grandfather went schoolteaching. He had to save hard, because when his father died, the will, which he’d been assured left him the family farm, “went missing”. He was forced to bid at a trustee’s auction for his own property with a Depression only a few years ahead. Much hardship was to follow.
The family wound never healed properly, but my grandfather and grandmother cleaved to each other and had six children. In time, their own family gatherings became immense, grandchildren and great-grandchildren finding themselves stilled by my grandfather’s music, his Cecilia at his side.
“I regret nothing,” he said that day as Edith Piaf’s voice died away.
He meant it. You could hear it. Words to live by.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.