Thursday 27 Oct 2016

Je Regrette
Sjef Frenken

I asked Jack what he had in the bag he flopped on the table as we sat down.

He said, "I picked up a CD of Edith Piaf. I have a few of her LPs at home, but I never had a copy of her "Non, je me regrette rien." And now I have. Do you know any of Piaf's stuff?"

I said, "I know a couple of her songs -- 'Milord' and 'La Vie en Rose'. I remember she was a favourite of my father's -- he spoke French fluently. I didn't, and besides the meaning of the lyrics was wasted on a young lad barely in his teens. And by the time I would have been old enough to appreciate the meaning of the words, I was living in Kingston, where you didn't hear much Piaf, or any other French singer for that matter in those days, the early fifties. Now that I think of it, I may have heard that song 'Je Ne Regrette Rien,' sometime or other. I don't recall the words, but I find the title a little odd."

"How do you mean?" said Jack.

I said, "I guess I feel that someone who has no regrets must be either a saint or a psychopath. How can you not have regrets ... surely everyone has done something in the course of his life that he regrets."

Jack said "If you knew the lyrics, you'd know that that's not really the message of the song. It's about accepting whatever has happened in your life -- the good and the bad -- that has made you what you are today. That you'd not want it any other way, for all the pains you've suffered and mistakes you've made."

We chewed on that thought as we did on our lunch for a while.

I said, that some of the things that I regret most were small things.

"Like what?" said Jack.

I said, "for instance, once I was driving back with one of my daughters and her little daughter, along the Northern Ontario route of the Trans-Canada Highway. It was a nice end-of-summer day. We had an early supper in Haileybury on Lake Temiscamingue. My granddaughter asked if we could spend the night there, so that she could go for a swim. I was anxious to get home to Jennifer and the small kids, and I figured I could make it home in about 6 hours. So I said, we'd have to press on. To this day I regret not having given in to the wish of my little granddaughter. She has a family of her own now, and I've offered to pay for them to take a trip to Haileybury, but she hasn't taken me up on my offer yet. And I continue to feel bad about it. And I'm not sure I'll be guilt-free even if she ever takes me up on it. "

"If that's the size of the things that you regret, you don't have much to worry about," said Jack.

"Oh," I said, "I regret a lot of things much more serious than that -- major mistakes in my life -- but somehow they don't nag me as much as the little ones. Now don't get me wrong, it's not as if I brood about these things; I consider myself a very lucky fellow, and pass my days with an average happiness quotient of around 85 out of 100. "

As Jack was still snacking on whatever was on his Greek plate, I thought I'd give him another example.

"Here's another example," I said. "Last night I drove over to Fred and Nicola for my weekly visit. Coming from the West, I got off the Queensway at Carling, and moved the car over to the left lane to turn into the Westgate parking lot, since you can't make a left turn onto Merivale. I had a green light, so I started across the opposing lane, figuring I had enough time to complete my maneuver before the oncoming traffic arrived. At that moment I noticed three people about to cross the sidewalk: a mother with two children: a young boy of about 12, and a smaller girl. I began to brake. The young lad firmly raised his hand to stop me. I saw that the opposing traffic was closing in awfully fast. The mother pulled her two children back onto the sidewalk, and I drove by them.

"No big deal, you say. No, in the grand scheme of things nothing to cause even a faint tremor. Still, as I drove on, I had a very strong sense of regret. I wanted to stop the car, go back, and apologize. Perhaps even explain. But I didn't. I drove on to my friends, but couldn't stop thinking about the incident. Just what was it that upset me so?

"When I got back home, and played the scene over again in my mind, I realized that the crucial moment was the little boy's raising his hand to stop me. That he had expected me to stop . . . and I hadn't. That he'd been trying to protect his mother and his little sister, and he'd failed. And also, that he'd think of me as just another thoughtless and careless driver . . . which, in a way, I had been. And now I would never be able to explain to him why I'd not obeyed his signal, to explain that I hadn't seen the three of them because they'd been hidden by the near door post, until I was almost on top of them, and that if I'd stopped I'd have caused a serious accident with the oncoming cars. It's as if I had tarnished the little boy's faith in the efficacy of his lovely, trusting gesture. And I had passed up an opportunity to make amends. "

"Well," said Jack, "don't fret about it. It happens to me all the time. Except I don't bother to make amends. That's how people learn that life isn't fair, isn't safe, isn't always nice. "

"No," I said, "I don't fret about it . . . at least not for long, but once in a while these things jump at me from my memory, and they hit me just as hard as when they first occurred. "

"You think too much," said Jack. "Are you going to eat that cole slaw?"

Sjef Frenken is a renaissance man: thinker, writer, translator and composer of much music. A main interest, he has many, is setting to music the poetry, written for children, during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Nimble of mind, Sjef is a youthful retiree and a great-grandfather. Mostly he's a content man, which facilitates his relentless multi-media creativity.

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