This week marks a milestone in our family. Philippe’s mother turns 99! The English Queen’s 90th birthday celebrations apply as aptly to Ninette Willems just across the Channel. Born in London, Ninette’s father Albert Van Mechelen was a Belgian painter who was famous in Belgium. He painted portrait miniatures of English society while they lived on St. George’s Square during and after World War I and even invited to expose at The Royal Academy. They moved in upper circles and Ninette studied piano and the arts – she was, as they used to say, “Très rafinée.”
Ninette met her future husband Pierre in Brussels in 1939 after he was drafted. They were second cousins but had never met before. During World War II Pierre was captured by the Germans in the north west of France as he and his battalion tried to reach Dunkirk. He was Flemish by nationality, so the Germans sent him to Belgium and treated him relatively well — hoping the Flemish would join their crazy Aryan country. Happily, the Flemish refused and fought bravely. Ninette was extremely close to her aunt, Tante Fernande, who lived to a ripe old age. Like many Belgians, she had neighbors and friends who were Jewish and she hid them until they could escape to a safer country. She was denounced by a neighbor and ordered to report to German Military headquarters in Brussels. Fernande’s next door neighbor advised her to bring a toothbrush because she might be deported to rumored concentration camps. Luckily the German officer expressed disgust that a fellow citizen would denounce her – and he let her go. Quite a miracle and as she says, she would never have been released if the officer had been Gestapo.
That moral fiber to do what is right that ran in Tante Fernande’s genes are equally in the Willems, Pierre, Philippe and his brother Thierry. They will stand up for what is right in any situation — sometimes to our great embarrassment. There was the time Philippe stood up to an airline employee who was forcing a photographer to check valuable equipment for a half empty flight. Philippe rallied the other passengers to protest and refuse to board; in embarrassment the employee departed. Or the time a train inspector tried to fine some American tourists when they didn’t understand instructions to have their tickets stamped before boarding. Philippe started yelling at the conductor, asking what he would feel like if he was in a foreign country, didn’t speak the language and had made a mistake. The entire car took up the cry and the conductor departed in a hurry. Or the time a crepe maker tried to serve my own parents some warmed over crepes from his previously made stack of crepes rather than make fresh ones. Argument ensued and Philippe paid by throwing the coins on the grill. My parents couldn’t stop laughing and I’m sure that crepe maker never forgot. The Willems/Van Mechelen family is the one you want on your side when something wrong is happening.
Philippe is proud of his 75% Belgian heritage (as he says “septante cinq pour cent Belge” as they say there versus “soixante quinze pour cent” in France) and jokes “C’est un petit peuple courageux et travailleur” with an exaggerated Walloon accent (“is’s a courageous and hardworking small people”).
Ninette and Pierre fell in love and Pierre asked her to accompany him to Normandy where he lived. Wartime still, and forbidden to leave the country, Ninette hid in a furniture truck headed for France and Pierre followed. Germany was on its last legs and Pierre felt he could escape. They settled in the beautiful seaside town of Mers les Bains in Normandy.
She raised her sons, Philippe and Thierry, with all the love a child could want. When she finally became pregnant, it was after many years of trying — and may explain why Philippe was teasingly called by his cousin, “Le Petit Prince.” Nothing was too much for him. Ninette told me that when he was still in a pushchair he loved trains. So she would walk him to the little train station in Le Tréport and take the train to Eu, the first stop the next village over. Then descend and stroll back to Treport while he slept in his push chair! When he refused to eat his vegetables, they sent Philippe to the mountains and a camp actually called “Le Petit Prince” so he would learn to eat properly. When he started playing up about food immediately after his return, they sent him right back. I had to laugh as I compared my mother’s love and customs to Ninette’s! With six girls to take care of, none of us got special train trips to a neighborhoring town for our amusement. And if we didn’t eat our dinner, we had to sit at the table until we finished. For me, that often meant hours. Mom loved us just as much, but the challenge of packing us all into our VW meant our usual outings were to the USAF base commissary and home again.
Ninette and I have had a long and interesting mother/daughter in law relationship for several decades. In spite of cultural clashes, she has always welcomed me to her family with generosity and love. And, to adjust to a completely different daughter in law from another culture was not easy — for either of us. I am far, far from the perfect daughter in law — too direct, not in love with food, always looking for more efficient ways to do things, passionate about a career and work. I think Ninette was shocked by four things most of all:
1. I have my parents’ early bird gene. And that’s a conflict with the old fashioned customs of 100 years ago which are very much alive in deepest darkest Normandy. The Willems hosted dinners for friends when we visited, and the rule is you stay awake until the last person goes home, whether 2 or 3 am. After a year of this, I announced I would stand up after dessert, kiss everyone on the cheeks and wish everyone good night. It required a lot of intervention on Philippe’s part, but they accepted my crazy American habit.
2. I reverted to the “tu” form and first name for my in laws early on, because I just couldn’t say “vous,” the formal ‘you’ after the first year. My sister in law Pascale still addresses Ninette with “vous” and calls her “Madame”.
3. I committed the cardinal sin of buying frozen fish and vegetables for our children Alexia and Olivier to prepare meals — from an excellent French store called Picard. She and Pierre were terrified our children would grow up undersized and undernourished! When the children would come to visit, Pierre and Ninette stuffed them with fish straight from the water in their seaside fishing village. And order extra fruit and vegetables form the farmer who delivered the best fruits and vegetables in the region. Or tomatoes that Pierre carefully tended in his greenhouse.
Decades later, I note that Ninette buys some of her dishes from Picard, which now has a branch in her little town of Mers les Bains.
4. I worked full time in jobs that I was passionate about — from the day Philippe introduced me to them at their home to today. I’m sorry to say, making meals and complicated menus were definitely not on the agenda. When my in laws came to visit, they were shocked that my idea of dinner was to come home from work or a business trip, pull out salad ingredients or frozen dishes and defrost dinner for them. On my own, I would have gladly bought Marks and Spencer ready meals instead.
Ninette grew up in another era, where learning piano (she studied the piano at the Brussels music academy). and reading great authors over and over again was the form. She can talk philosophy, art and literature more deeply than anyone I’ve ever met. She loves opera and instilled the same love (some might say fanaticism) in Philippe. This August, she’ll accompany Philippe to Wagner’s Bayreuth and shed 20 years hiking to the opera house. Their opera friends can’t believe it!
Ninette prepared each meal with planning and preparation. Every day started with long discussions with her men about what they wanted for lunch that day, their big meal. It’s been a source of fascination to me as they discussed their options … every single day of the year. “The oysters are in season, let’s start with oysters.” “Only if the fishmonger has fine de claire, or belons but no other kind of oysters!” “If not, you know how I love your scallops cooked with bechamelle sauce Mammy.” And if it was Philippe, who wasn’t home as often, he got what he wanted. Lunch was almost always lamb, Pierre’s favorite, to this day, when I smell lamb I think of Pierre hovering over everyone in the kitchen offering tips and slicing the meat. He couldn’t cook to save his life, not even make his own coffee — but that never stopped him. None of them had my sweet tooth, and I am grateful at how both of them made sure there was a patisserie for dessert after the big meal, not just fruit. Pierre would make sure of it and now Ninette.
Ninette cooked and served her men — husband and two sons, every — single — meal. She set the table, prepared every single dish and washed every dish. She refused to let me help her gather up dishes. Every single time year on year, she would refuse until I finally gave up.
Always one to speak my mind, I spoke out several times to my father in law Pierre and the boys — saying that ever since Pierre retired, it was time for Ninette to get a break. It was time the Willems men learn how to get up and get their own salt and pepper if a dish needed more. They should help her set the table or make the coffee or load the dishwasher. This was met with fierce resistance by Ninette, telling me point blank to mind my own business. “Ce n’est pas ton affaire.”
To this day, as she approaches her 99th birthday, the idea of standing up to help her clear plates is simply not heard of. I believe I’ve corrected that in our own children and am the proud parent when a friend says our children were wonderful guests, helping get meals ready.
Over the years, Ninette gave me three French gifts: 1. It’s better to spend more and buy one classic outfit. 2. She taught me how to tie Hermes scarves and how just one scarf can add class to any outfit. 3. She introduced me to her seamstress who could make Chanel style suits better than their own couturiers today. See below; I’ll save this jacket forever!
Ninette is one of the longest living villagers in their town, and probably in France. My friends in London joke that in one year and if she were English, she’d be receiving a letter from the Queen. Her friends, many of whom are 20 years younger, are disappearing quickly. She refuses to leave her 3 story home and while she’s started to be forgetful, she is still able to play bridge and scrabble with the best of them. Happily, Philippe’s brother Thierry has an office in a small extension of their old home so he’s there for lunch daily and if there is ever a problem. It’s not easy for Thierry and we thank him for all he has done for her and for Pierre until he passed away at age 93.
We’ve often asked what gave Pierre and Ninette such longevity and we have several theories.
· First, wine at every meal. For Pierre, one small whiskey before lunch and dinner.
· Second, excellent fresh food from the region: from local oysters and fish, to chickens, lamb and beef from farmers they have known for decades. Fresh just picked vegetables from the local farmers.
· Excellent cheese after the big meal, mostly from the local region — especially Camembert and Neufchatel. Over many a lunch, Pierre would comment on a Camembert he bought that day, how it was just ripe — or maybe advise to wait two days so it would be “fait” or completely ripe. Or complain about how the cheese man gave him a neufchatel he said would be ready to eat in 3 hours, but was over ripe.
· And finally — Philippe’s latest theory — coffee. His dad was a coffee roaster by professional, selling coffee wholesale to all the shops, cafés and restaurants in the region. He and Ninette were voracious coffee drinkers to the point they could sleep even after a double espresso at 10pm.
Joyeux Anniversaire Ninette! You’ve accomplished what matters in life, being a wonderful mother to two kind, smart and upright sons. Imparted a wicked sense of humor to Philippe — and shown our family how love can be expressed in a dish of sautéed scallops, delicious homemade leek soup or thinly grated carrots, tomatoes and celery hearts aux vinaigrette before each meal.