For my mother, who would have been seventy-one today
As my father and I help the chauffeur put our bags into the back of the taxi mini-van, the boulangere (baker) and the man from the papeterie (card and paper shop) next door to us step onto the sidewalk on their respective sides of the street to wish us bon voyage. I feel a pang. My efforts to befriend my neighbors in Paris have paid off, and here I am leaving them behind. With a promise to return next year, I step into the taxi, and we head off to the airport for the flight home.
On the airplane, my father and I eat the sandwiches and the sables (sugar cookies) the boulangere had packed for us that morning, watch movies on our individual video screens, and try to sleep. Now and then, I crawl over my father into the aisle to stretch and make a walking tour of the cabin. In the back of the plane, two seated flight attendants look up as I come toward them, move their legs to make room for me to squeeze past, and go back to their woeful tales of debt and family treacheries. Looking out the window from my seat, I wonder if home will seem any different. Or will it be as if I’d never left?
My father is a man of the moment. When we set foot on American soil, he’s left Paris far behind. Walking out of the customs area and toward our connecting flights, he stops a complete stranger to get the details of the World Series, which took place while we were in Paris. I’ve read in Le Monde that the Chicago White Sox had won, but he wants more than that. And the young man my father grabs is friendly and obliging. He tells us about the games, and by the time we finally part, he’s shared half his life story and gleaned as much of ours. I know I’m home. Immediate intimacy is not the French way.
My father and I part with little sentimentality. We hug and agree to call each other when we arrive home. I watch him as he heads off to catch his flight. He doesn’t look back, though I watch him until he’s out of sight.
The final leg of my journey comes with a West Virginia accent. The man in the row behind me is from that state and is terrified of flying. He informs anyone who will listen—and that’s half the airplane, since he’s talking at top volume—that he’s got ahold of his seat cushion, just in case we go down. As we land, safely, he exhales with obvious relief and exclaims, “My God! It’s flat as a pancake here! Donch’all have any mountains around here?”
Home doesn’t seem to have changed much, but I can tell that I’m seeing it differently. I’d somehow overlooked what a friendly lot we Americans are, easy with strangers, quick to laugh, sure the fellow next to you will want to hear your tale.
And when I return to work two days later, people do want to hear my tale. They ask about the cooking, the weather, traveling with my father. Peggy, hired just before I left, has an office next to mine. She loves Paris and wants to hear the long version. So I tell her of not just loving, but of being in love with Paris, of the joy of speaking French and deepening my mastery of the language, of learning new culinary techniques, of exploring new corners of the city. She interrupts me mid-sentence. “My,” she observes. “You’ve got such a glow!”
Her words catch me off guard. They take me back to the final conversation my sister had with our mother, just two weeks before our mother’s death. In that conversation, on the phone, my mother had said she hadn’t always known what life was all about. “But,” she told my sister, “I’ve come to see that it’s all about radiance.”
My sister expressed shock. “You’ve always known that!” she insisted, trying to impress this fact upon our mother. “You taught us that.”
My mother lived a life of radiance from start to finish, never going half measures on anything. It’s true that her glow was dark, as often if not more than it was brilliant, but she always shone. And to the extent that radiance is a form of love, of being so full of something that the surfeit comes out as brilliant energy, I sometimes think I can feel my mother’s radiance, from the other side, and I want to believe that today, on her birthday, as on every other day, she can feel mine.