Fidelma Cook: How could I tell my cousin her grandmother was a horrible woman whose dislike of my mother split the family?

Fidelma Cook passed away in late June. We are running a selection of her columns as a tribute. This one is from September 2009. We hope you enjoy it.

Since coming here I’ve discovered my appalling ignorance in all matters French. I thought, because I read Paris Match, could decipher a menu, adored snails and wore my coat over my shoulders, I was halfway there. My fondness for incomprehensible art house films plus a worrying mid-life affection for Johnny Hallyday sealed the deal. I will also admit to finding Nicolas Sarkozy disturbingly sexy – in an intense, small, Napoleonic way. Obviously I’m at one with the gorgeous Carla Bruni.

But it was all meaningless when faced with the reality and the small print of life. For example, anyone who lived in Britain in the 1980s is not allowed to give blood because the authorities have decreed we’re all potentially infected with BSE. France, of course, is clean – probably because the farmers quietly dug lime pits for the cows when they started staggering in the fields, and didn’t bother to inform the local vets.

Hence British beef was banned for years, La France chalked up another victory, and locals chauvinistically munched away on the innards and brains of decidedly suspect, but home-grown, animals. I also didn’t know that French hospitals have an automatic right to take your organs for donation. Unless you remember to stick a Post-it note to your forehead saying otherwise, you’ll be filleted and dissected and your bits dispatched throughout l’hexagone before your nearest and dearest gets a chance to pull the plug.

As my friends already know never to leave my son Pierce alone in the hospital room with the plug, I now have the added problem of sticking the note to my forehead before he gets to said room. So I am planning a distribution of beautifully written Post-its to all who know me here for sticking on the comatose moi the second I’m in the ambulance. And, and … I didn’t know I had a French cousin.

Or rather, I’d forgotten. One who, with her mother, sat picking at the feast I’d laid before them last Sunday with the languid, disdainful ease of upper-class Parisiennes. The wild smoked salmon on creme fraiche blinis with langoustines; the herbed roast chicken with avocado and bacon salad and side dish of new potatoes in buttered chive sauce was dismissed as “so British”, as they asked what I wanted them to eat first. Er, all of it? British?

Obviously the potatoes did for me – but I rose above it and I could see they at least appreciated the champagne and the Saint-Emilion, all of which had cost me a week’s living. I have never had much to do with my cousins, for a variety of reasons and mainly not of my making. But one of them was a diplomat who married a French woman in Germany. Back in England the marriage quickly foundered, and so their child, now sitting opposite me aged 32, had grown up in France without contact with her father from the age of five. She had, as she put it, reconnected with him last year, just months before he died of a heart attack.

Another cousin had given her my email address when she stayed there before the funeral, and with her mother now living in Toulouse it seemed fate that we should meet. She wrote to me with the heading “Your French Family”. She had – has – a desperate desire to find a family.

So the beautiful, dark-haired bilingual woman sitting at my table probed me about “our” family. How could I tell her that her grandmother, my mother’s eldest sister, was a nasty, horrible woman who split the family through her dislike of my mother? I simply said she was difficult, tricky, and gave her a handful of photographs showing her father and his sister as children while I dredged my memories of my rare meetings with him.

Her mother caught my eye and acknowledged my reticence as her daughter told me of her few, sad meetings with her father, who went on to bring up another woman’s two girls while ignoring his own. She’s a talented freelance photographer whose heart leads her head and while totally French, I see her Anglo/Irish side in the flickers across her face. I also see her mother’s pure French detachment as she allows her daughter’s thoughts and feelings free rein. Unlike my rural neighbours, they discuss lovers and life with the ease of best friends rather than mother and daughter.

I am, being a puritan at heart, rather shocked that the mother, around my age, has had a number of men in her life. And expects more. When I show my surprise, she blows smoke rings in my direction and asks, “You haven’t taken an agriculteur (farmer) as a lover? Really? I had one three years ago.” She rolls her eyes.

“Superb. Such strong little men, though a little boring.” I laugh, a touch hysterically, thinking of my dear, sweet neighbour Pierrot, and realise once more how little I truly know of the French.

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992