At this time of the year when most families are gathering to celebrate the holidays, I think about those of us who because of various misfortunes have lost the comfort of family and tradition. These times then become moments of reflection on what we have created to bring joy to our lives. My thoughts turn to the friends I have made over the years. They have sustained me and have become family. They have given me joy and warmth and the courage that is needed to feel that one belongs in this sometimes cruel world.
Some are no longer friends, some have died, some may not always be available but they all have a place in my heart. But the most painful is the memory of friends who have died too young. It reminds me of the way my mentor and creative source, Michel de Montaigne, dedicated his work to his best friend, La Boetie. When La Boetie died all too young, Montaigne wrote: ce jour qui pour moi sera toujours amer, toujours sacre. (That day which for me will always remain bitter, always sacred) And so I think of my friend Mariette, who died in her early twenties.
Mariette was the first friend I ever had. Sharing the same name gave us a special bond from the beginning. It was during the war in Belgium. We were both six years old at the time. Even then she was la grande and I was la petite. I had no other friends in those days because as a Jewish child hiding in a Catholic community, it was dangerous for everyone concerned that I not say anything that might connect me to being Jewish.
Mariette and I never discussed such things. We were children, and then young adolescents sharing the joys and moments of celebration in the village where I returned every year to be with my benefactors. Then I left for America when I was twelve and never saw Mariette again.
I looked forward to our reunion when I went back “home” for the first time after ten years of separation. I was ecstatic to return to Belgium, and looking forward to seeing Mariette again. No one had told me that she had died a tragic death three weeks before I arrived.
She carried with her the memory of her own mother, blown to bits before her eyes. Mariette’s mother had taken too long to vacate the cellar where they were hiding and was struck by the fragments of a grenade. Now my friend Mariette had taken her own life.
I cannot forget her. I recently found a picture of her and her two cousins. She is sitting at the head of a wheelbarrow holding the handle which looks like a cross. For me it represents the cross she bore of having witnessed her mother’s death.
I dedicate this holiday to all the children suffering from the aftermath of war.
And I dedicate this memory to all those who are blessed, like myself, with friends dear enough to be family.
And lastly, I dedicate these words to my beloved friend, Mariette.