The farm was hidden on a hillside and surrounded by trees, in a curve in the road that could have been anywhere in the countryside of southwest France. It was just a very small step away from the suburbs, but it turned its back on the tight rows of identical stucco houses, the treeless backyards with brown grass and bright lines of laundry, the curbs and roundabouts. Only the steeple of a church was visible from the farm; an illusion that shifted the farm away from any concrete moment in the 21st century.
Our car’s GPS found it without any trouble: “Lieu-dit R---“, in a village near Agen, a mid-sized French town north of Toulouse. We were on our way to two weeks of vacation in the Gers, and my husband’s aunt had invited us to her family’s farm on the afternoon we passed by. I didn’t know her well and knew nothing about her family, except some vague details about their connection to the Southwest. We gladly accepted the family invitation, however, not quite knowing what to expect.
The literal translation of “lieu-dit” is “place-named”: it is a place designation from a time when people spent their lives more or less in one postal code, and every farm or outbuilding had a local name. Along country roads throughout France, “lieu-dits” are marked by discreet signs, black-on-white or white-on-black, they figure in official addresses, and they are also clearly marked on detailed maps. The names are often in a mostly-forgotten dialect, a local variant of Langue d’Oc here in the Southwest. Many no longer seem to mean anything at all, but some are intelligible in modern French: la Misère or le Bout du Monde.
We pulled down a gravel drive, parked, and a large dog came bounding out of nowhere to greet us. My husband’s uncle and aunt arrived and whisked the kids out of the car, while I stepped out and blinked in the contrast of sun and shade. The stone farmhouse was dominated by the grove of trees behind it and the flower garden in front; I noticed windows and a small, shady porch, but I didn’t taken in the height of the roof or the length of the building as a whole. My focus was drawn to the ninety-year-old patriarch who greeted us on the front steps, hesitantly shaking hands and smiling kindly as we made our typically noisy entrance. We sat down to lunch at a round table in the large, cool farmhouse kitchen.
After lunch, my husband’s aunt showed me around, an honor which I wasn’t expecting: in France, unlike in the US, guests are rarely given a grand tour. She showed me the central sitting room, with dark rafters and a large fireplace, and old, cozy furniture layered with bright blankets and pillows. (Although Mademoiselle curled up on the loveseat yet refused to take a nap, I would have gladly complied.) My husband’s aunt took me up the stairs of the “new” addition to see modern rooms carved out of the attic in the 1960s. I saw the bedroom where she grew up, and peeked into the half of the attic that was still unfinished. The house was neat, but quite full of memories: old toys and paintings and books of all sorts, antique chests filled with homespun linens woven generations ago by the women of the house. Then she showed me the oldest part of the house: a large room which had once served as kitchen and parlor where a 16th century fireplace dominated one wall. Then two shady bedrooms with large walnut beds and small marble fireplaces the corner. The whole smelled lightly of seasons-old wood smoke. She cheerfully described her plans to renovate and modernize: she’d brought in an architect, and in the near-term work would begin for them to move in permanently.
“It has been in my family for a long time,” she explained. “Since 1802. I traced the genealogy. Under Napoleon, it became possible for anyone to purchase land. Interestingly the first person in my family to own the farm was a woman.”
I thought about the only branch of my family which has stayed anywhere close to its roots, my mother’s cousins on their farm in Indiana. I have no idea how many generations back the family farm there can be traced, but certainly not 1802. Then it hit me that 1803 was the Louisiana Purchase: half of my country was younger, so to speak, than this Gascon farm.
We walked up the wooded hillside to a clearing where the hay had been already harvested. A tractor worked in the distance. The land was rented out now to local farmers and no longer directly dependent on the farm, but this was new. The field had been planted with grapevines until the 1970s, and the wine they’d produced had had somewhat of a local reputation. I noticed as we walked back down the stone building where the empty barrels were still stored. Below the farmhouse, another large stone barn housed dairy cattle up until the 1980s. Above each stall, there were small hand-lettered slates with the half-erased names of the last bovine residents. Blue sky peeked through the many missing tiles in the roof.
The most recent generations of the family lived now in Nice, Toulouse, or elsewhere. They were doctors or engineers or office workers for all I knew; they lived in apartment buildings or suburbs; they commuted every day and looked forward to a long vacation in August. In short, they were a lot like me. Yet an invisible chain linked them to here, a lieu-dit in Gascony, on the outskirts of Agen, with its back turned on the 21st century – and I suspected, anchored them quite solidly in the present. For my part, as we drove away, I was dreamily lost in the past, and was startled to find the same rows of stucco houses, the same treeless back yards, and the same lines of laundry drying in the same summer afternoon.