Pierre Willems: November 28, 1919 – August 31, 2013
It is with great sadness that we share that Philippe’s father, Pierre Willems, passed away on Augst 31, 2013 at the age of 93. We are thankful that his wife Ninette and his two sons were there with him to say goodbye. Our company began as a family business and we still feel like one big family. Pierre’s influence in our lives will stay strong in our hearts. We would like to share with you a little about Pierre’s life and role as “papy” – or grandpa – to our kids.
Pierre Charles Willems: The End of a Generation
Pierre grew up in Picardy, a region in northern France, with his Belgian father and French mother, and that’s where he settled with his wife Ninette at the end of World War II. In 1939, he chose the Belgian draft, which was invaded by Germany before France. His father’s cousin in Brussels was a Major in the army and when Pierre said he was going to join his unit in Liege, Belgium, his uncle insisted he join a different one in Brussels — because Liege was going to be on the front firing line.
His uncle saved his life. Pierre learned later that every soldier he had trained with in the Liege unit was killed in early assaults by the Germans. The Belgians held out for 18 days while the French called them cowards. Big brother France with their “work of genius,” the Maginot Line–built to prevent the German army from crossing into France–was a complete failure. France surrendered after only 33 days.
Pierre was taken prisoner of war in Berck, along the Normandy coast of France while retreating towards Dunkirk. After being interned for a short while he required to report to the Nazis weekly in Brussels. There he had met Ninette before the war, a second cousin first removed, and they fell in love.
There, he also met Tante Fernande, Ninette’s favorite aunt who hid fleeing Jews in her home during the war – a real hero. Fernande believed she was denounced by neighbors and was ordered to report to Gestapo Headquarters immediately. A friend suggested she bring her tooth brush because she might never return home again. Miraculously, the Officer who questioned her had a conscience. He told her these kinds of denunciations were beneath him and told her to go home. Fernande survived and lived to the age of 85.
Pierre and Ninette came back to Picardy just before the end of the war. Ninette hid in a furniture truck to get across the border guarded by the Germans – and they got married. They bought a lovely home that the Nazis had used for a stable during the war and remodeled it with 5 bedrooms but only one bathroom with toilet.
With only one bathroom, thank heavens for the outhouse toilet outside the kitchen which I have used many times!
Pierre followed his father as a wine, grocery supplier and coffee roaster from his warehouse across the street.
Philippe and Thierry were born in this home and became the joys of their father’s life. While he rarely smiled, he showed his love in other ways. He told Philippe the following as a boy, and his philosophy has guided Philippe’s and Thierry’s lives: “I would rather be cheated by someone than to become a cheater myself.”
He never left the old French world in terms of customs, which was often a surprise and lesson for me. His children and grandchildren were expected to kiss their parents and grandparents on both cheeks every morning and say “Bonjour” and the same at night with a “Bonne Nuit” with bisous. When friends and cousins of Olivier and Alexia from America ran through the door without a greeting, he was shocked they didn’t come up to him and kiss him on both cheeks and say “Bonjour, monsieur.” He didn’t understand casual American customs and often wondered what the world had come to.
When he visited us in London he was always there to open the door for the postman, repairmen and neighbors, saying “Bonjour monsieur” and “Bonjour madame” to all. The English plumbers would try to reply with “Ban-jure” in their cockney accents. Pierre would try to make conversation about the weather, never really understanding why they couldn’t follow. He would lean over Philippe as he cut the Sunday roast… getting in the way and driving us a little crazy.
After Pierre retired, I couldn’t get over the fact that he still expected to be served 3 meals a day and I misguidedly suggested to Pierre that he could set the table and remove his own dishes from the table. I was firmly reprimanded by Ninette to not interfere — and reminded once again of the many cultural differences.
His baguette duties were the most charming French custom of all, purchased every morning. Half was eaten for lunch and dinner and the rest saved in a cloth bag to toast for breakfast the following day. Their home is a few blocks from the English Channel (or the Manche as the French call it) and the crust would go soft quickly.
When Philippe drove his parents to London for a visit, always after Ninette fixed a delicious lunch, I smiled at their main discussion, which often centered around where to buy the baguette for dinner before reaching London. Would it be in Mers-les-Bains or make a quick stop in Calais? The one in Mers-les-Bains was crispier but it had more hours to go stale, while the one in Calais was factory-made and too soft. Such a dilemma, but so typical of and wonderful about the French!
When they visited, Pierre and I frustrated each other frequently, but after 28 years of visits he realized cooking two meals per day is not in my genetic makeup. He finally learned how to turn on the coffee machine in the morning and make his first cup. He even learned how to use the toaster!
While he didn’t know how to “play” with our children by rolling around or roughhousing with then, he would religiously sit with them at the table and make sure they finished every single bite. The famous Pierre cry for 22 years was: “Mais mange, mange!” He was trying to help them grow strong and healthy. As the kids grew and Pierre’s own appetite diminished, Olivier and Alexia loved to tease him affectionately in reverse: “Mais mange, papy, mange!”
His formality and manners were a perfect foil to tease and the whole family loved kidding him while Pierre looked on with pursed lips and disapproval. He found two bottles of 1948 Pommard hidden deep in his cellar, saved decades before for a special occasion — Sunday lunch en famille!
Again last year Alexia pretended to drink some fine 1995 Margaux Chateau Giscours straight from the bottle to celebrate the year she was born.
Their last visit in June, 2013 meant they saw Olivier who had just graduated from BU and Alexia who had just graduated from ASL High School in London.
Pierre said he never thought he would live long enough to see his grandchildren grow up, but he did!
When Olivier went to college in Boston, he worried he would never see him again and was so relieved to see him come home for vacation.
He thought he would never see Alexia graduate from high school and go off to college, but amazingly he was able to enjoy this with us, too. Aged 93 and 95, Pierre and Ninette were by far the oldest grandparents in Westminster Hall for her graduation! He never quite understood what Alexia studied or where the state of Virginia is actually located, but he was so proud of her admission to an amazing university. Pierre and Ninette called Alexia before she left for UVA to wish her a wonderful year, which she’ll never forget.
He was so proud Olivier found his first job and an apartment in New York City - les Etats Unis! When Olivier hugged him goodbye in June, I took this photo of him and Papy, which says it all about what matters – families and love.