“I drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes, I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it if I am; Otherwise I never touch it – unless I’m thirsty.”

Madame Bollinger, one of the “grande dames” of French champagne (1884 – 1977).

I think Madame Bollinger had it right. There is always a reason the drink champagne, some happier than others, and sometimes when those happy and sad moments collide.

As was the case when we recently arrived back in a France for our annual family visit.

It turned out that we were arriving on what would have been my father-in-law’s 85th birthday. My mother-in-law had made the trip from Corsica to join us all at my brother-in-law’s home outside of Paris. In addition to his Champagne born and bred wife, my brother-in-law has four charming daughters. Along with our three children and his mother, there was a full house.

During the long trip from Australia, my husband and I had discussed how we should approach the occasion once we arrived. We hadn’t seen his mother since March, so were not really sure what state of mind she would be in. Ordinarily we would have always opened a bottle of champagne to celebrate being together again, whatever hour we arrived.

This time, we arrived at close to 11pm, tired and uncomfortable after 26 hours of travelling. But happy to be together.

We were told to leave the suitcases where they were and were ushered into the lounge room, where the flutes were ready and waiting. Then out came my brother-in-law with a magnum of Bruno Gobillard. Surely not! Wasn’t that a bit excessive at this time of night, given the underlying sobriety of the occasion?

On reflection, no. It was perfect. My father-in-law would have loved it. Before his illness he was a man larger than life, and even when incapacitated later in life, he loved nothing more than having his family together. He was always generous, and once sourced one kilogram of Iranian caviar (in Brisbane – no mean feat in 1993), for no other reason than the fact that the whole family was together in Australia, including my sister-in-law’s parents. After all, who knew if this would would happen again? There were nine of us, and it was all washed down with a jeroboam of Perrier-Jouët Belle Époque 1985. Needless to say that was also the day I learned to love caviar.

My mother-in-law lovingly reproached him for exaggerating. It was all too much. His reply was so typical of the way he lived his life ‘You can’t put a price on memories’.

And so it was, at 11.30pm on the occasion of his 85th birthday we were almost all together. Happy to be together, sad he was not with us, but drinking champagne for the occasion.

A toast – for those present, those absent, and those still to come.