THINGS SHE KEEPS IN THE SMOKE
My grandmother, Léone Vérité, was born in 1937, in a place called "Petit Bouloire", in the Sarthe region, France.
Her father Gaston Vérité and her mother Berthe Bessière were born in 1898 and 1900 respectively. Berthe was a hidden child from a bourgeois family, unwanted, who was abandoned to the social service. Her adoption was cancelled when she cried out in fear at the sight of the woman’s hat who came to take her in, even though she had a good social standing. Gaston and Berthe met while working the land, collecting vegetables and other crops. A hard rural life of chasing money through farming. They had five children: Pierre, Henri, Madeleine, Gaston and the last one, my grandmother.
At the age of 6 years old, in 1943, Léone recalls the Second World War through strong and indelible memories: the sound of the boots made by the Nazi soldiers as they walked through the streets of the town of Saint-Calais where she lived. When the sirens warning of the bombing went off, she ran into a shelter with her brothers and sisters. She lost her shoes more than once on the way, caught up in the panic. Her shoes were found on the way back, the calm returned. At the end of the war, with a mixture of fear and incomprehension, she witnessed the terrible punishment inflicted on two women who had collaborated with the German occupiers: the shaving of their hair in the public square.
At 15 years old, she began working as a market vendor, still in the Sarthe. There she met André Serret, born in 1935. The beginning of a teenage romance that will soon become serious.
At 17 years old , she had her first and only child, my mother Chantal, with André. They got married in 1956, following the birth.
At 24 years old , after several small jobs in Paris, she worked all her life with her husband, who had become a butcher worker. Towards the end of the sixties, in Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine, they practiced this demanding profession : getting up very early, maintaining a quality of know-how in the products, repeating a routine of endless gestures. But the community and the customers bring the necessary humanity to hold on and move forward.
At 58 years old, she retires following the footsteps of her partner. They travel around France with their camper van. One trip after another, the landscapes go by.
At 83 years old, her husband André died in 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic in Tours. He was cremated and she kept his ashes in an urn. Léone's brothers and sisters are long gone. Léone then came to live with her daughter, in a house located in Deuil-La-Barre, in the Parisian suburbs. She had never lived alone. She doesn't want to be alone. Or she simply doesn't know how to be alone. Thus begins another life where she must learn to discover this new home on a daily basis. An armchair, a bed, a garden... To make the reminiscences of the past cohabit with the elements of the present. "Why did he leave?" she regularly repeats about her late husband.
At 86 years old, Léone now has only one specific request : to smoke cigarettes. Not a whole pack, but a few a day. That's the one thing she wants to buy. No clothes, no books, no tickets for a trip. The wisps of smoke distract her as much from her concrete reality as from the evanescence of her memories. Most of the time, when she takes a cigarette, she accompanies it with the phrase, "I'm going to poison myself." The fact that she takes this moment for herself, to meditate on her inner thoughts or simply to escape elsewhere, all make it a pleasure. Not a guilty one. A real pleasure. Because she used to hide from her husband by smoking. He hated it when she smoked. Now she can do it freely. Alone but free.
As she smokes a cigarette, which has become both myth and substance, she sometimes looks at her age-scarred body, her arms, her hands, and says that old French proverb : “Qui voit ses veines, voit ses peines.” / "He who sees his veins, sees his sorrows." We guess in her eyes the ambivalent feelings that cross her. But she doesn't dwell on her situation for long, and adds, without specifying the subject, an enigmatic and energetic: "It will be all right, it's just a moment to pass." And there she is, taking up a cigarette in a movement full of life.
What does it mean to grow old?
When the time comes, everyone will have their own answer.
All the photographs were made only in the house, in its garden and street, following several seasons.