“Things She Keeps in the Smoke”

by Johann Bertelli

«Like one who returns to the place where he spent his youth, I manage, thanks to a simple cheap cigarette, to return entirely to that place in my life where I used to smoke this kind of cigarette. And thanks to the light aroma of the smoke, all the past comes back to me. It is the cigarette smoke that recreates the past days with a special spirituality. It barely touches my consciousness of having a palate. That’s why it gathers, transposes and evokes more intensely the hours that in me I died, and makes them more present while they are more distant, more misty while they envelop me, more ethereal when I materialize them. A mentholated cigarette, a cheap cigar veil some moments with sweetness. With which subtle plausibility of flavor-aroma I draw up again of the defunct decorations and I restore them the colors of their past, always so delicately eighteenth century in its malicious and weary detachment, and always so medieval in what it comprises of irremediably abolished.»

– Fernando Pessoa, 1982.

My grandmother Léone Vérité was born in 1937, in a place called Petit Bouloire, in the Sarthe region, France. Her father Gaston Vérité and her mother Berthe Bessière were born in 1898 and 1900. Berthe was a hidden child from a bourgeois family, unwanted, who was abandoned to the social service. Her adoption was cancelled when she cried out in fear at the sight of the woman’s hat who came to take her in, even though she had a good social standing.

Gaston and Berthe met while working the land, collecting vegetables and other crops. A hard rural life of chasing money through farming. They had five children: Pierre, Henri, Madeleine, Gaston and the last one, my grandmother.

At the age of 6 years old, in 1943, my grandmother Léone recalls the Second World War through strong and indelible memories: the sound of the boots made by the Nazi soldiers as they walked through the streets of the town of Saint-Calais where she lived. When the sirens warning of the bombing went off, she ran into a shelter with her brothers and sisters. She lost her shoes more than once on the way, caught up in the panic.

At the end of the war, with a mixture of fear and incomprehension, she witnessed the terrible punishment inflicted on two women who had collaborated with the German occupiers: the shaving of their hair in the public square.

At 15 years old as a market vendor in the Sarthe. There she met André Serret, born in 1935. The beginning of a teenage romance that will soon become serious. At 17, she had her first and only child, my mother Chantal. They got married in 1956 following the birth of my mother. At 58 years old, she retires following the footsteps of her partner. They travel around France with their camper van. One trip after another, the landscapes go by.

At the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 her husband André died in Tours. He was cremated and she kept his ashes in an urn. Léone’s brothers and sisters are long gone. Léone then came to live with her daughter, in a house located in Deuil-La-Barre, in the Parisian suburbs. She never lived alone. She doesn’t want to be alone. Or she simply doesn’t know how to be alone.

Thus begins another life where she must learn to discover this new home. An armchair, a bed, a garden… To make the reminiscences of the past cohabit with the elements of the present. “Why did he leave?” she regularly repeats about her late husband.

Léone now at 85 has only one specific request: to smoke cigarettes. Not a whole pack, but a few a day. That’s the one thing she wants to buy. No clothes, no books, no tickets for a trip. The wisps of smoke distract her as much from her concrete reality as from the evanescence of her memories.

The fact that she takes this moment for herself, to meditate on her inner thoughts or simply to escape elsewhere. All make it a pleasure. Not a guilty pleasure. A real pleasure. Because she used to hide from her husband. He hated it when she smoked, now she can do it freely. Alone but free.

As she smokes a cigarette, which has become both myth and substance, she sometimes looks at her age-scarred body and says that old French proverb: “Qui voit ses veines, voit ses peines.” / «He who sees his veins, sees his sorrows.»

What does it mean to get old ? When the time comes, everyone will have their own answer. We lose people, places, objects. But one thing can remain. We then live with it. Naturally.



Born in 1980, based in Paris, France. Formely graduated as an architect from the “Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Paris Malaquais”. His photographic work focuses on the mutual exchange of the organic, the intimacy and the natural landscape, on the divided but yet interlaced relation of fantasy and reality between the human being and its environment.  

Website: https://johann-bertelli.com

Instagram: @johannbertelli


Selection by Alejandra Martinez Moreno – Editor/Burn Magazine.