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Pierre Willems – Au Revoir Papy

Pierre, on the far right, together this his family

Pierre, on the right, together with family

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.

A handsome young Pierre in uniform before the war

A handsome young Pierre in uniform before the war

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.


the invasion of France

Germany invaded Belgium first, taking Pierre and his troop prisoner. They marched thru Belgium and the Netherlands, completely avoiding France’s ‘impenetrable’ Maginot line into France!

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.

2 willems family

Pierre & Ninette with Tante Fernande and her husband after the war. Fernande was a real hero in Brussels during World War II. She hid escaping Jews in her home and saved many lives. When a neighbor denounced her to the Nazi’s, a friend advised she bring a toothbrush before reporting to Nazi Headquarters.

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.

s home in picardy

Pierre and Ninette’s home in Picardy. The Germans used it as offices and as a stable during the War.

With only one bathroom, thank heavens for the outhouse toilet outside the kitchen which I have used many times!

What a view for an outhouse!

What a view for an outhouse!

Pierre followed his father as a wine, grocery supplier and coffee roaster from his warehouse across the street.

s church on the hill normandy france

Mers les Bains and its sister village, Le Treport in Picardy. The towns are famous for their fresh fish market, which supplies top restaurants in Paris.

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.”

A proud father!

A proud father! Pierre taught Philippe and Thierry that it is better to be cheated by someone, than to be cheaters themselves, a principle that guides them both.

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.


sm involved in the meat cutting always

He never boiled water but was always there to make sure Philippe cut the roast properly. He didn’t agree with my philosophy that if you didn’t help prepare it, you aren’t allowed to offer any tips.

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.

Ninette's kitchen - with the very important baguette!

Ninette’s kitchen – with the very important baguette!

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!

carrefour baguette softer

Baguette dilemma — from the local boulangerie or wait and buy industrial baguettes at Carrefour in Calais?

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!

s learned to make toast

After 87 years being served by his mother and then wife Ninette, I ‘encouraged’ Pierre to learn how to make toast and coffee. Family thought I was a little rough on him …

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!”

sm dictee des gros mots papi pleased

Papy would sit at the table for hours and repeat over and over to our kids: “Mange, mais mange!!” Papy’s pursed lips when Olivier rebelled by chewing with his mouth open.

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!

pappi brought out his best wines

The kids had such a giggle when Philippe teased his Philippe pasted the label to his nose to celebrate and Pierre frowned at the lack of reverance.  Our teasing always worked and we giggled as he frowned.

c papy saved wine from 1948

Philippe teasing Papy who saved a 1948 Pommard for Sunday lunch with the family

Again last year Alexia pretended to drink some fine 1995 Margaux Chateau Giscours straight from the bottle to celebrate the year she was born.

sm lex teasing pappi

Alexia teasing Papy pretending to drink a 1995 Burgundy straight from the bottle

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.

Copy of sm olivier home 2013

Olivier home from college

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.

s they made it to alexia's graduation

Pierre never thought hewould live long enough to make it to Alexia’s High School graduation … but he did! They were the oldest grandparents at Westminster Hall.

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.

Saying goodbye to Papy

Saying goodbye to Papy



27 Responses to “Pierre Willems – Au Revoir Papy”

  1. Bonnie Curry Whitehead says:

    OOH! Madelyn,
    I am so sorry for your loss of your beloved family patriarch. Please accept my sincere condolences.
    I know your custom is to name your apartments after famous wines, but surely a nice tribute to Pierre(and Ninette, too) would be to name two very special Paris Perfect apartments after each of them. Maybe attach this lovely tribute so that future guests can read this lovely memory you have written and know that when they choose Apartment Pierre or Apartment Ninette, they have indeed chosen an extra special place.
    Kindest Regards,
    Bonnie Curry Whitehead

  2. Madelyn says:

    Dear Bonnie, thank you so much and what a wonderful idea! The next two apartments will be named for Pierre and Ninette! Maddy

  3. Fiona Macliver says:

    Hi Madelyn and Phillipe, what a truly wonderful life of love and family that Pierre and Ninette shared with you all. Thankyou for sharing the story, and sorry for your loss. Fiona Macliver (Australia)

  4. Dr. Kathy Chartrand says:

    Thanks you for the beautiful memoire of your beloved Papy. Having lost my father when I was a young adult, I appreciated the intimate view into his true personality and love for his family. What a brave young man and example for all of us. Thank you again for sharing.

  5. Lisa Anselmo says:

    Dear Madelyn:
    What a lovely tribute. I was very touched. My thoughts are with you all.

  6. Antonio y maria turco-rivas says:

    Dear madelyn and phillpe, we are very dad with the news but grateful that he had such an extraordinary life and family.we will remember you boths in our sunday prayers. Thank you for sharing the life of your family and make us a part of it. We are very fortunate to have connections with people like you that know the importance of family values and honesty, love and efficient work, while having a good time and sense of humor.
    A big hug from your family in caracas and in paris ( pouilly)

  7. Meredith Medanich says:

    Dear Madelyn and Phillippe,
    It is so hard losing our parents, thank you for sharing “Papy” story with us, it was wonderful. The last picture as you wrote says it all, ” family and love” is the best!
    My deepest sympathy to all,
    Meredith Medanich

  8. Carolina says:

    That was the sweetest story. I wish I had known Pierre. I’m so sorry for your loss….

  9. Artemida Garrett says:

    Reading about “Papy” touched me deeply. He reminded me of my father who also was a stickler for tradition and I used to tease him. You have a beautiful family.

  10. Mikey Herring says:

    Madelyn and Philippe–we send you hugs and love for the loss of your dear Papy-You have all shown us the importance of cherishing family and we thank you for that

  11. David Brown says:

    Dear Madelyn, Phillippe and family-
    I have not met you, but have stayed at one of your apartments. I wish I could have met this wonderful man, and I am so pleased that you had him for so long. Your story was so touching I just had to thank you for sharing. I laughed and ended up with a lump in my throat. You are all so fortunate, and my Condolences and best thoughts go out to you all.
    David Brown

  12. Kate Huet Burns says:

    Dear Madelyn et Philippe
    Thankyou for sharing your families Papy story…
    I read with a few tears the wonderful story of your beloved Pierre & his family…Pierre & Ninette…Your family/children has been very blessed and enriched by their lives
    …i have only slipped away into the next room, whatever we were we are still…
    Call me, speak to me, laugh as we always laughed…i am with you forever in your hearts

  13. Laurie and Scott Pederson says:

    Dear Madelyn and Phillippe,

    We add our sincere thoughts and prayers tas you continue to process this big loss. Sounds like such a wonderful man who clearly left a wonderful legacy –even if not embracing any kitchen skills! Having lost Scott’s Dad at 91 last year, we still re-live the wonderful memories, but also live with the distinct sense of their being a “hole” that will never quite be refilled.

    I do love the suggestion of naming apartments after these two dear folk…

    With warmth,

    Laurie and Scott Pederson

  14. Dava Gloeckler says:

    Dear Madelyn and Phillippe,
    Thank you so much for sharing the story and pictures of your Papy. It is a wonderful story of a life well-lived and a man well-loved. I am glad you had him in your life for so many years. My sympathy and prayers are with your family during this time.

  15. Michele Beattie says:

    Dear Madelyn and Phillippe,
    Your story about your beloved Pierre made me laugh and cry. It is a beautiful memoir of a wonderful father and grandfather. Having lost my own father recently, your story touched me deeply.

    Michele Beattie

  16. Margaret and Albert Sepe says:

    Dear Maddy and Phillipe we were so impressed by the wonderful story of Papy. What a wonderful movie it would make. We both feel that we know you, even though we have never met. Maybe someday. We are always so impressed by the accommodations that you offer in your beautiful apartments. I am sure he will be terribly missed.
    Fondly, Margaret and Albert Sepe

  17. Kathy Barnes says:

    Deae Madelyn and Philippe,
    So sorry for your loss of Papy; what wonderful memories you’ve shared here and hopefully we’ll get to stay in Ninette and Papy’s Paris Perfect apartments one day. How wonderful he got to be there for Alexia’s graduation from high school and know she’s off to college in VA and to be visiting when Olivier had just graduated from BSU and to know about his 1st job and apartment in NY. Your lives have truly been blessed all these years.
    Our thoughts and sympathy are with you.
    Kathy & Sterck Barnes

  18. Rosie Schmidt says:

    Dear Madelyn and Phllippe,
    How generous of you to share this story with the Paris Perfect extended family – I also had tears well up whilst reading it I send all your family my sincere condolences. The bond between each member of your family and “Papy” was so different . I grinned as I imagined “Papy” learning how to self cater….and could only imagine how he offered his cheek to unknowing teenagers- who are all the better for knowing and loving this elderly gentleman! It is a very special recount and it is by sharing stories like this that all of our lives our blessed. May your memories ease your sorrow.

    Kindest regards

    Rosie Schmidt

  19. Antonio Turco-Rivas says:

    Dear Madelyn and Pilippe, so sorry…its very hard to see your elders go. Incredible man and what a happy and honest life he had. Thank you for sharing and make us feel a part of your wonderful family. Your family from Caracas,
    Antonio y Maria Cristina

  20. Blaine Bolton says:

    What a beautiful story of family and all the love and joy that goes with families. Good luck to your children as they start out on their wonderful new adventures in life and I send my deepest sympathy to you and your family. thank you so much for sharing your story. I hope one day to enjoy one of your apartments and live as much like a native as an American can in Paris. Blaine Bolton

  21. Bonnie Fox says:

    Thank you for sharing Papy with us, he was a great example of all virtues, and, was fortunate enough to have a loving family, that appreciated every single one of them.

  22. Cynthia Whaley says:

    Thank you for sharing such a sweet tribute to Papy Pierre.

  23. Dear Madelyn and Philllippe,

    Thank you so much for sharing the tribute to “Papy”. How heartfelt, impressive and cultural.
    The loss of a parent is like none other. It looks like the photos and memories will help celebrate your lives together.
    Warmest wishes,

  24. Thank you for sharing with us the touching remembrance of your “Papy.” Though we never knew him, your photos and memories have moved us here at our own home in Connecticut … reminding us of the importance of family and how quickly the moments we have with loved ones seem to fly by. We are sorry for your loss.

  25. Dear Madelyn and Philippe,

    What a lovely and heartwarming blog post! I have enjoyed “getting to know” you and your family vicariously via your blog, and almost feel like I know you, especially after spending time in one of your apartments. What a blessing to have had parents who lived so long and had so much to share; such a heritage for your children!

    Please come to visit your daughter in Charlottesville, and let me create a family portrait for you! Charlottesville is a gorgeous place. (So funny that I grew up a short ways from BU, and now live only a short ways from UVA!)

    in sympathy,
    Natalie and Tim White

  26. Madelyn says:

    Our deepest thanks to each and every one of you for your kind, heartwarming and beautiful notes. It means so much to us and to our entire family. We will treasure your words!
    Warmest wishes,
    Madelyn and Philippe

  27. Diane King says:

    Dear Madelyn and Phillipe,
    We are so very sorry for your loss. How wonderful that you were able to enjoy each other for so long. Our family has always felt like we were visiting family when we stayed at Syrah so it feels only natural to be sad for you and your family.
    Charlie, Diane, Madeleine and Lauren King

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