For a brief time, my daughters were adopted by a French grandmother. Mamie is a kind, beautiful, incredibly elegant lady with a large flock of her own grandchildren, as well as a part time job raising funds and awareness for kidney disease, but she somehow found time for my girls and me, too. Mamie’s hair is always in a perfectly impeccable chignon, she wears stockings and once apologised for being under-dressed because she had on a pair of slacks. In the rare moments that she is not working or taking care of the grandchildren, Mamie goes to the theater and book lectures.
When Mamie would take the girls for the weekend she would give them intellectual exercises, teach them card games and cook traditional French dishes like baked endives. My kids didn’t love everything, but that knew instinctively that you don’t mess with Mamie. You finish what is on your plate, forget that computers or cellphones exist, say please, thank you and non, merci madame. Against all logic, they absolutely adored hanging out with her, and somehow managed to choke down those endives.
One evening after the girls’ father left, Mamie showed up at my door, telling me I needed a break and that I should get out of the flat. NOW. This very moment. She handed me a coat and sent me on my way with strict orders to eat something.
Later that evening, back at home with the girls safely asleep, Mamie and I had a chat.
“It is really shocking that he left. He was so in love with you, but you know, its kind of your fault a bit, too.” she informed me.
I continued to listen as she explained the concept of le jardin secret, the French woman’s secret garden. At around the age of 40, women are well advised to take a lover. You never share this with your friends, your family, or anyone has have ever breathed. Not even those who are now 6 feet under. It is your garden. Your secret garden.
Since that chat, I have had a few years to talk about it with my parisiennes and read about it in ELLE and eavesdrop on the subject in cafés. The theory is that having a secret gives you confidence, which draws people to you (people like your husband, for example). The French also believe that falling in love is the ultimate diet, so having a lover is great for the figure. And it is safe to assume that when one has a lover, she pays more attention to her looks and her wardrobe. To be brief, a woman in love looks hot.
I don’t know about your average Frenchman, but I am confident that Mr French would much rather send me to a fat farm, offer me a day at a spa and invite me on a shopping spree. This strikes me as a ridiculously complicated way to re-attract your man and perhaps there is something seriously wrong with my sense of adventure, but personally, I’d rather bring out the mink-lined handcuffs to spicy up my marriage.
The husbands, Mamie assured me, remain totally oblivious, but are unconsciously drawn closer to their wives at an age when their eyes tend to stray, looking for some young blood to make themselves feel younger. Does this ensure his fidelity? No way. If the women have a secret garden, surely they are hoeing in somebody else’s yard. The idea is that, while he may stray, he won’t stray far. And if he does leave, well, at least you will have had an adventure of your own. I am going to have to take her word on this. It is not something I can imagine for myself, but I get a girlish pleasure knowing that the very traditional, deceptively up-tight ladies I see strolling my quartier are, like Mamie, very likely to have had a secret garden adventure of their own.