They called him 'Cap de Fer'
My grandmother’s grandfather was quite a character.
A gentleman farmer from Arfons in la Montagne Noire. He loved horses and owned a caleche which was very exceptional in the area.
I imagine he loved his wife, Mélanie, who looks very shy and diminutive close to him, on the one and only picture I have. I know he loved his children.
He had one daughter (my grandmother’s mother) and one son. He sent them to school because he was a learned man himself but with very little official schooling.
He married Antoine, his son, to a rich spinster since all he liked to do in life was to read. We all called him ‘The Uncle’. I don’t know why. He was very good-looking and dashing in his uniform (from the Great War). So his life was mostly one of leisure and contented well-being. His wife took care of everything. Their servants did. He still is dashing in my memory even though he was then a very old man (younger than Bon Papa though).
Adeline, my great-grandmother was allowed to marry Bon Papa Matthieu because he looked very promising as a young man. Actually he was a hard worker all his life long, so was my great-grandmother who died when I was three. She taught school during the Great War and then went back to farming and raising her children when the men came back.
We heard many tales about our great-great-grandfather. He was called ‘Cap de Fer’ which can be translated as ‘Stubborn as a mule’. This was his name and I’ve never heard anyone talk about him using his real name.
‘Cap de Fer’ loved one of his grandsons (Martial, Bon Papa’s younger son) to distraction.
When Martial turned 12, he was sent to a boarding school in Carcassonne since he wanted to become a teacher. ‘Cap de Fer’ could not stand to be apart from him. Every Sunday, he hitched up his best horse to his caleche and went down to Carcassonne to spend the day with the boy.
Hard to imagine but it must have been quite a ride. In all, 65 miles in one day. Down to Carcassonne and back to Arfons. No roads. Trails down from the mountain to the city. He left before dawn and came back during the night. He did it every Sunday.
My uncle Martial was moved to tears whenever he was talking about his grandfather’s weekly visits - besides the fact that he would bring him food to make up for the school hard regulations. He never left him without reminding him to study hard.
I don’t remember what ‘Cap de Fer’ did during the winter months, so cold and snowy in the mountain. I imagine he found a way though. Probably walked down to the plains. His name was ‘Cap de Fer’, wasn’t it?
He was a legend in the family. He was a legend in the village too, long after his death.
One day, I was to learn that he had been a legend in the surrounding area as well.
I was sixteen and living in Béziers, 75 miles from Arfons.
One day, I went shopping with my mother. I remember I needed a skirt. So we went from shop to shop. Too expensive. Then we remembered a new shop had opened by the cathedral. We decided to give it a try.
Going through the door, I noticed a very old woman, all in black, huddled on a chair in one corner of the shop. I was following my mother. The old woman stood up as soon as she saw me.
She was gaping at me. I was starting to feel embarrassed. The shop owner introduced her to us. She had been her mother’s old servant. Since she didn’t have any family left, she was staying in her old room, above their family apartment. From time to time, she’d come down and spend a few hours at the store.
The woman was still gaping at me. And what followed is quite unbelievable, still is now... how many years later?
‘Do you know ‘Cap de Fer’?’
‘Do you know ‘Cap de Fer’? You look so much like him.’
My mother got it right at once probably because of the accent.
‘Where are you from?’ she asked.
‘From Les Escudiès.’
It made sense. Les Escudiès are very close to Arfons.
So the woman did know ‘Cap de Fer’.
‘I remember him well. I was a young girl then. He laughed a lot with us. He was so handsome. We were in love with him.’
She looked at me again:
‘You look just like him. So much like him. You are related to him, I’m sure.’
I didn’t know what to do with myself. Sixteen years old. Gawky and uneasy. Being told that I looked just like my great-great-grandfather, a man to boot, an old man departed such a long time ago. A man young girls had been in love with.
My mother guffawed.
‘He was my mother’s grandfather.’
I wanted to run away but I was a nice girl, I think. I smiled back to the old lady who then asked my mother:
‘Is she as stubborn as ‘Cap de Fer’?'
This is what you get for being related to a legend and for being too nice to old ladies in black.
After my son’s birth, my uncle Martial looked at him and said: ‘He’s my grandfather’s spitting image.’
Great, the baby was a couple of months old... And Martial had never told me I was ‘Cap de Fer’ spitting image. (Maybe they had been talking behind my back all those years, Martial and his sister, my Bonne-Maman.)
I don’t want to think I am the spitting image of a handsome man but I’m stubborn, I know that for sure. So is my son... Well, he's handsome too!
So it is all about genetics then. Keep being stubborn, Swee' Pea. I'll do my best never to change either! Shouldn't be too hard.
*Good luck, and Good night*