~ Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
How long should the church bells toll to mark the sum and measure of a person’s life?
Ten minutes–in the case of the carillon of the Église Saint-Martial, a 19th century cathedral in Montmorillon, a picturesque town in the heart of France. That was the duration on this still September morning, as a gentle breeze rustled through the church square, softening the bells, and a handful of pigeons circled overhead. The mourners gathered at the cathedral’s entrance while the pallbearers carried the coffin down the steps and delivered it to the waiting hearse. All the while, the bells rang, each note lingering in the air, like a memory.
I watched from nearby, sitting on a weathered stone bench next to “le monument aux morts,” a memorial to the village-members lost in the Great War.
I was unable to remember a time when I felt more alive, or more aware of how I wanted to live. The juxtaposition between the sorrow before me and the joy within me was almost overwhelming in its simplicity.
Having just traveled half-way across the world, I was awaiting the arrival of the immobilier, or real estate agent, who would soon unlock the door to a journey that, just a few months earlier, I thought existed only in great novels of wanderlust, written by women in search of a second chance in life and love. But mine is not a story of second chances, or longing; it is a story of already having the life that I want and still having the courage to chase a deeply rooted dream, knowing that it will change my life, and the lives of those I love.
Its prologue was set in June when, on an otherwise ordinary weekday morning, our home abuzz with a family in motion, I lingered, late for work, over one last sip of coffee. And I took a fleeting glance at the new listings posted on a French property website, an exercise I had indulged in for years, unwilling to let go of the impossible. In that moment, something under my bare feet shifted ever so slightly, separating the space around me into two distinct windows: the time before and the time after a home in France found me.
The listing read: “Beautifully renovated two-bedroom property in the middle of Montmorillon – ideal holiday home.” But it was the voice from the photographs that I heard. On my screen was a small 200-year-old townhome, bathed in a creamy white stone façade, and keeping watch over the church square. Its charentaise-style architecture oozed character and its thick walls whispered 18th century stories to me. On its face were three pairs of French doors – two at ground level and one above, encircled by a Juliet balcony that I imagined would someday burst with descending vines of roses and lavender.
I could hardly breathe from the rare sense of certainty I felt, like that of knowing I could still draw every line of my daughters’ faces, even if I had been born blind. I was sure that I was meant to fling open those shutters, ushering in new life and light and laughter to a home that had sheltered so many lives gone by, and where I could also measure the time that I have been given by the carillon bells that now tolled before me. The home, the cathedral, the medieval bridges, and the town, known as la cité de l’écrit, the city of writers – were beckoning me, as if to say, “this, too, is part of your story.”
This is why, as the trees around me began to burnish into umber hues, I found myself resting on a church square in a medieval town in France, listening to a timeless carillon, as it honored a life that ended and poignantly reminded me that my own life is this day, this hour, this moment. This dream. And I understood, with profound clarity, that all I can do is leap onto the pages of this unfolding story and begin a new passage.
Suzanne Sonneborn is an attorney and an artist with a deep love for France that is woven into all aspects of her life. She lives in Michigan with her family, returning as often as possible to their petit trésor in Montmorillon, France. Follow along with her adventures here!