French

We Had a Beautiful Life Together, Under That Cherry Tree in France

On love, loss, and our last season of cherries.

July 18, 2019
Photo by Julia Gartland. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog. Prop Stylist: Brooke Deonarine.

The first time we saw the cherry tree, we were 21 travel hours and five pieces of lost luggage into our plan to spend a year in France. We arrived at the end of a sweltering day, worn out and wondering whether it had all been a mistake. We had rented the house sight unseen, via the internet, and had no idea that a cherry tree would be awaiting us in the garden, welcoming a pair of exhausted and exasperated travelers into its fresh, rustling shade.

We had come to France because we knew that I would outlive my husband Shel, that cancer would take him long before we were ready. We vowed to have as much joy and as many adventures together as possible, while we still could.

It was brave of him, because he didn’t speak any French at all. It was brave of me, because although I spoke passable French at the time, my vocabulary had to ramp up fast to manage conversations like: “If we’re not here when you come to deliver the last of the suitcases, the one that’s been lost for 10 days, then please leave it next door with the dog groomer, who has our permission to sign for it.”

Many things were a challenge in our new life, where every word and gesture marked us as foreigners. But the food, that was no challenge at all. We settled in an area in the south of France that is not at all noted for its gastronomy, and still the food that was available every day was the most beautiful I’d ever seen. And our next-door neighbor was a bakery, where Shel went every morning to get his croissant and the daily paper.

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“At my grandfather’s funeral—he was the last to pass away—the neighbor’s granddaughter said to me, “they are all together again, sitting and talking underneath a cherry tree.””
— Windischgirl
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I was bedazzled by French ingredients. I bought everything I saw, then learned how to cook it in the French style. With Shel as my sous-chef, we even won first prize in a small and friendly cooking contest, and astounded the other five couples of competitors, all French.

“Crushed by the Americans,” one guy said, only half-joking.

Eventually our cherry tree bloomed gorgeously, then ripened a prodigious amount of deep ruby fruit. It was the kind of cherry called Burlat, much appreciated in France for its snappy acidity and firm juiciness.

Not wanting to waste a scrap of its bounty, I made everything that could be made from a cherry tree. I made a wine infused with cherry pits and leaves, cherry jam, cherry-soaked vodka, cherry tarts, and clafoutis. Ah, that clafoutis.

It’s the fashion today to call all sorts of confections clafoutis. I am here to tell you that this is the real deal, the clafoutis whose extreme deliciousness had my French friends eloquently expressing their delight.

While I learned French cooking, Shel learned the French language. He practiced it with pleasure when he played in a local rock band, all of whose members had grey hair and welcomed his excellent bass playing with open arms. It wasn’t as much fun practicing on the nurses when he had to be in the hospital for surgery. Although after 17 days in the hospital his French really had improved, for which we were both grateful.

In between numerous trips to Paris and Lyon for medical care, during which we became absolute masters of the French train system, we had a beautiful life. We ended up living in that house for about four years in total, punctuated by return visits to our home in Washington state.

We had lots of French friends, as well as ex-pat friends, an assortment of mainly Dutch, Swiss, Belgians, and Brits. I was the happiest I’ve ever been, shopping in the town’s super-crowded outdoor market in the medieval plaza, getting to know the merchants, some of whom became dear friends. We went to school to learn language and culture, and traveled all over the country. I cooked for our friends and we ate and drank as the French do. We were in awe of it all.

But then came the day when Shel’s oncologist told us to go back to America, because she had no further treatment available for him. Just as we were beginning to talk about staying forever in our sweet little corner of France, and when it was seeming like Shel might live forever, it all came crashing down.

My final view of the cherry tree was when we ducked under the wisteria one last time and slammed the heavy iron gate on our life in France, heading back to what no longer seemed like home, to fight for his life.

Later, when I returned to France alone to bury some of his ashes and hold a memorial service with our friends, I discovered to my sorrow that the cherry tree had been cut down. Why the two of them should leave this life at more or less the same time I’ll never know.

My beloved husband and our cherry tree are gone now, but the clafoutis remains. Make some, and eat it with people you love. Rejoice in the miracle that they are here, with you, in the season of cherries.

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24 Comments

Laura D. August 5, 2019
Such a beautiful story! It's wonderful the random things that sometimes feel meant to be or like they are watching over us. Tonight I'll be eating cherries and thinking of you <3
 
Cindy L. August 5, 2019
I will see the cherry trees surrounding our French village with a smile.
 
Kevin S. August 4, 2019
Thank you for that beautiful story. I worked and traveled in France for several months and loved it. I am in Montana and will make this from our beloved Flathead cherries which are in season now and think of you and Shel.
 
Windischgirl July 25, 2019
My deepest sympathies, Abra. Thank you for sharing this beautiful story.
It brought to mind my grandparents and their dear neighbors, who became another set of grandparents to me, their grandchildren like my siblings. We were family.
At my grandfather’s funeral—he was the last to pass away—the neighbor’s granddaughter said to me, “they are all together again, sitting and talking underneath a cherry tree.”
 
Jim July 25, 2019
Thank You

 
Zitoune July 25, 2019
Abra,
Etant un Français vivant en Californie, votre essai me plonge dans le charme d'une vie dans laquelle on prend le temps d'apprecier les choses simples, mais si importantes: les amis et les reunions autour d'un repas. Votre mari continue de vivre a travers vos essais, ce cerisier devait etre magnifique. Il faudra que j'essaye de faire un clafoutis aux cerises!! Merci pour ce superbe essai.
 
Kfore44 July 24, 2019
Such a sweet story. I’m so sorry for your loss. Thanks for sharing. Do you mind sharing the name of the town in France?
 
drbabs July 24, 2019
Dear Abra,
I'm so sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing your story with us.
 
gretchen O. July 22, 2019
Thank you, Abra - this was a wonderful tribute and a great recipe. Kudos!
 
Suzy Q. July 22, 2019
Abra, you brought a tear to my eyes. I'm so happy you have your lovely memories of Shel and your chery tree.
 
Edward July 21, 2019
Lovely Story. Rest in Peace Shel.
 
Girlfromipanema July 21, 2019
Wow, this left me breathless. Short, but poignant. I have nothing profound to say but what a beautiful way to spend one's last years, as any of our years could be our last, may we all be so lucky.

As many issues as I have with this website, it is worth a visit every now and then for content of this quality.
 
B A. July 20, 2019
Beautiful story! Thank you for sharing.
 
ChefJune July 20, 2019
Oh dear Abra! I have tears in my eyes. What a beautiful, deeply personal article.
And clafoutis! Yum. I will have to caramelize the cherries next time I make it
Thank you.
 
Winifred R. July 19, 2019
Lovely essay, so glad you shared this time and the wonders of France with its delights with Shel when you did. Thank you for sharing the essay with us.
 
Francois D. July 19, 2019
What a beautiful story. Thanks for sharing.
 
Mark G. July 19, 2019
Wow, I was perusing the site when I saw your lovely tribute. And what a lovely tribute it was. Both to your husband and to a cherry tree. Thank you so much for sharing just a glimpse of your life with us.
 
Linnea K. July 18, 2019
Abra, what a special tribute to your husband and your life together in France. Thank you for sharing this and of course sharing the recipe!
Hugs from WW! Linnea
 
Stephanie D. July 18, 2019
Merci d'avoir partagé de beaux souvenirs, Abra! I'm glad many of your final memories with your husband were happy ones, what a wonderful and unforgettable experience you two made for yourself.
 
Annada R. July 18, 2019
Hello Abra, you created such beautiful memories with your husband through food. May these memories give you smiles, laughter and lots of joy!