Stephen Blackwood is president of Ralston College. Article originally published on First Things.
Until this morning, she was a living connection to things that for most of us are mere history lessons. She remembered the Spanish flu of 1918. She was born early in World War I, in the year T. S. Eliot wrote The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and Babe Ruth hit his first career home run. She remembered Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in the cafés of Marseille, and Winston Churchill (bathing in the Mediterranean), and Charles de Gaulle.
She was thirteen the year MLK was born. In 1937, she traveled La Route des Crètes, one of the world’s most beautiful seaside passageways, between La Ciotat and Cassis, by foot. She was nearly twenty-five when World War II began.
She remembered the Luftwaffe flying overhead. She remembered too the Maquis, the French Resistance, and the young girl, shot by the Nazis, whose body lay for two days in the town square as an example to those who would challenge the regime.
She was a devout Catholic. I asked her once what advice she had for marriage (she was married for seventy years). She thought for a minute and said, “il faut beaucoup de patience,” which means, “it takes a lot of patience.” For her, that meant something great—not blind optimism, but fortitude in the face of true things. She said that when she was frustrated or angry with her husband that she would walk up the hundreds of steps of Notre-Dame de la Garde and sit for a while. Notre-Dame de la Garde is a remarkable place—you can see it from the plane as you fly over Marseille, perched above the glistening Mediterranean, a quiet refuge for the spirit.
Her father had been a stone mason. He helped to build the grand marble staircase leading up to the train station in Marseille. She spoke Provençal, the language of the troubadours of a thousand years ago, as Dante did. In many ways, she was closer, in the habits of her life and mind, to those who built the medieval cathedrals—such as the Duomo in her parents’ native Florence—than she was to screen-dominated young people today.
Do you know Millet’s painting The Angelus? Adeline remembered a time when that ritual was still a part of life—when, at the sounding of the bell as evening came, those hearing it would pause, whether at the butcher or in the fields or at the stove at home, to quietly say those words of recollection, lifting their thoughts heavenward. There was a living memory of that time—the time depicted in Millet’s painting—until this morning.
Her husband, Henri, much beloved, knew thousands of lines of poetry by heart. Even when he could not remember what he had eaten for breakfast, mellifluous meters of Victor Hugo would fall from his lips. Mamie would sit with eyes closed, nodding along. When he would stumble, forgetting how the next line began, she would supply the words.
But who will supply the words for us?
We are nothing without a recollected past. We cannot so much as recognize our own faces in the mirror, the doors to our own homes, the answers to the questions of the things we take most for granted, without memory. Memory gives dimension to the present, allows us to see it for what it is. Memory in the deeper sense gives us knowledge of ourselves.
Her death has hit me hard. I wish each of you reading could have met her—seen the brightness of her eyes, heard her lyrical French with its savored double consonants, tasted her tarte aux abricots, felt the soft warmth of her ancient hands.
But I am writing not merely to share a personal grief, but to reflect on where we are. Has there ever been a greater change, in all of recorded history, than between August 9, 1915, and this morning? It isn’t simply that we have largely lost the religion of which she was a devout practitioner, but that we have lost the habits of mind and life, the fundamental patterns of self-understanding, that defined, stabilized, gave meaning, and opened the horizon, for more than a thousand years.
With the death of Adeline Blanc, we have lost one of our last living connections with our deep past, with the patterns that gave rise to things we have now forgotten.
But we can remember them.
We can recollect them as our forebears did, our forebears who unearthed long-forgotten sculptures, or rediscovered ancient languages and the wisdoms they carried, or learned again the proportions of the beautiful, and built anew. It is not a matter of returning to the past but of consecrating the present: of adapting and reinventing here in our time, of rediscovering ourselves in the fundamental patterns. It is a matter of recollection, in the deepest sense.
Adeline’s parents had walked across the Alps, from Italy to France. We have our own set of mountains to cross. But the ancient echoes are the same. If only we hear their astounding invitation and answer their all-consuming call, in the words that were on her lips for more than a hundred years:
“Behold the handmaid of the Lord.”
Stephen Blackwood is president of Ralston College. Adeline Blanc died on April 29, 2021.