Those Were the Days: Four in Paris ~ Jonathan Johnson

 

One

“The other day, when you told me it was coming up on five years, for a minute I thought that couldn’t be right,” Amy said as she packed our toiletries, passports and her camera into her day pack.

Gray light of morning was coming up over the North Sea out the window beyond my desk at the foot of our bed.  I slid a fresh yellow legal pad and a couple extra pens into one of the two small suitcases we’d packed last night.

It’s February 7.  The date on the end of my mother’s life.  The date that waited on the calendar, all those years, like a pebble on a forest path, waiting for her foot, without intention, without malice, but waiting just the same. Just one sharp little pyramid of a pebble, not even an inch high, which stuck to the sole of her sneaker.  And which, because she’d lost most of the feeling in her feet to diabetes, burrowed its way in with every step she took, until it was deep into the flesh of her foot, ending her walking days forever.  And beginning the years of amputations and infections which ended only with the last of her days.  February 7.

Today.  On the fifth anniversary of my mother’s death, we were going to Paris.

“She would have loved that, Jon, you three going to Paris,” my dad had said on the phone from Michigan when I’d told him our plan.

Amy said much the same thing in the car as we drove from the Scottish cottage in which we now live through a light flurry toward the Edinburgh Airport, past snow-filled fields and hedgerows of black and dark gray trees in relief against the white.

“She’d have thought all about us there and wanted us to tell her everything we planned and wanted to hear every detail we could think of when we got back.”

It’s that thing everyone I’ve ever known personally who has lost someone does: say aloud what the one they’ve lost would have said or felt or done.  I’ve heard it said there’s a kind of tyranny in doing this, a taking of identity from the dead person, who is powerless to be anything but what the living would have them be.  Perhaps that’s so for some.  I can see how it very well could be.

But what’s true for me and others I’ve heard say their dead would have loved or hated or enjoyed or laughed at something is that we don’t stop knowing someone when they die.  The world goes on.  Unbelievably, idiotically, cruelly, indifferently, gracefully, beautifully, it goes on.  And the dead person is left behind.  However, when we sense and then say how that person would have reacted to what the new days bring, we show that we still know them.  And because we still know them, they still have a relationship to the world that has moved on from their time.

Amy and my dad were right, my mom would have loved the thought of my little family headed off to Paris, would have lived vicariously in our modest adventure while we were there and would have listened until we were exhausted from telling about it when it was over.

“Today, I’m thinking about what a good listener your Nana was,” Amy said to our daughter, Anya, as I drove the winding road through oncoming snowflakes.  “Your Nana was a very, very good listener.  She’d remember . . .”

Amy was quiet a long time.  She didn’t continue speaking until she could do so without quavering.

“She’d remember all the details of what people told her, and she’d ask about really specific things later.”

It was true.  My mother would remember the college class schedules or job prospects or illnesses or vacation plans or daydreams of the people who spoke to her.  She’d recall names of people she’d never met and would never meet, people who mattered to those around her.  And she’d ask by name about this teacher or coworker or that relative or friend or romantic interest.  She’d remember what the people who spoke to her cared about and hold on to it until the next conversation.

“She and I would just sit and talk for hours and hours,” Amy continued.  “I really want to be a listener like that for people.”

I glanced in the rearview mirror and saw Anya in her booster seat, staring out the window contemplatively.

“She was the kindest person we’ll probably ever know,” Amy said.  “And we know a lot of very kind people,” she hastened to add.

Amy said that.  I had the particular feeling of comfort one gets when a key personal truth is confirmed by another human being.  The enormity of my mother’s spirit wasn’t something I’d conjured in my mind these last five years.  It was so.  At least Amy believed it was so, and I trust her more than anyone to tell me what’s real.

“What did I do when she died?” Anya asked.

Amy explained that she and Anya were at her parents’ house a half-hour away from mine when I called and said Nana had died.

“You had questions.  I remember you asked if that meant she was out of breath.”

Amy said she gave Anya a choice about coming with her to town and Anya had wanted to, had asked if she could see Nana one more time.

“Was I scared?” Anya asked.

“A little,” Amy said.  “When you saw she wasn’t breathing or moving.  But you also wanted to be there.”

I remembered.  I led Anya into the bedroom.  Amy had gone in for her turn alone and was sitting in a chair beside the bed, my mother beside her, propped up with pillows at her back.  Two friends, side-by-side one last time.

Purple blotches were forming on my mother’s ears and though I’d closed her eyes, her mouth hung slightly open.

Anya leaned over onto Amy’s lap and kept her gaze fixed on her Nana.  Amy stroked Anya’s hair.

On we drove into the present day.

“Do you know what an obituary is?” Amy asked.

“No,” Anya said.

Amy explained the term and told Anya that I’d sat down and written Nana’s that same afternoon, all about Nana’s life and the people she loved.

“Was I in it?” Anya asked.

“Of course,” I said.  “You were the arrival.  You were the new person, the next piece of our family.  The best thing about the last years of her life was you.”

Amy went on to tell how we all, she and Anya, my dad and sister, my mother’s sister and brother and I went to Vango’s on Third Street for lunch.

To myself I recalled that we’d left so as to be gone when the undertaker came to the house with his long, black car and wheeled my mother forever away from her home and snowed-over garden.  Later, when I spoke to him in his office in the funeral home, I was struck by how young he seemed in his crisp shirt and suit, his hair cut to a buzz above his ears.  He was much younger than me.  My mom would have liked that, I recalled thinking.  She was a champion of those just starting off, sympathetic to their need to prove themselves and find a place in the world.  It was the first time I thought how she would have felt about something in the world she did not know.

Amy told Anya how the sun came out the day my mother died and the rest of us all drove out to the rocky Lake Superior shore at Presque Isle Park.  A few hours of spring in the midst of winter.  We parked at the Pavilion where we’d had Anya’s first birthday, just above the paved path along which I’d pushed my mother in her wheelchair, Anya in her lap, into the summer wind off the lake and the seagulls holding the air around them.

“She loved seagulls?” Anya said.  It was as much a statement as a question.

 

We rose up into the sunshine, but it was snowing again as we made our descent.  Anya polished off her Air France hot chocolate and declared it, “One of the best hot chocolates in the world.”  As we taxied toward the terminal, the captain welcomed us to Paris in French and again in English, then Vivaldi came softly on the PA.  No lack for flare, the French.

I’d been worried that Anya would be worn out by the day, its travel and our talk of her Nana’s death.  But to my pleasant surprise, she was giddy to be in Paris.  Normally, Anya barely tolerates eating out and, finicky eater that she is, she generally rejects her food after one bite with a guilty shrug and a meek “sorry” as soon as the waiter is out of sight.  But at the first taste of her first Parisian meal, a simple poached salmon, she went wide-eyed and said, “It’s the best salmon in the world!  Every bite is a little bit of Heaven.”  And a short time later she discovered that, like Air France’s hot chocolate and Café Maître Kanter’s salmon, Café Maître Kanter’s chocolate mousse was quite to her liking.

Our lean, jovial waiter came by to check on us and smiled.  “She’s the princess, yes?”

“Ah, yes,” I confessed.  “The Princess.”

From the restaurant we rushed to Pont Neuf on the Seine to make an 8:00 boat cruise, Anya leading the way and tugging on our hands as we ran.

Amy and I were last in Paris the summer I was twenty and she was nineteen, and we’d taken a night cruise down the river then, sitting atop the tour boat with our cheese and bread and bottle of wine.  Now, twenty-one years later we had an eight-year-old with us, an eight-year-old who could not have been more pleased to be there, among the few people braving the open seats atop this tour boat in the chilly night air.

“Take a picture of me in front of it!” she told Amy when the highest twinkling lights and spinning beacon atop the Eiffel Tower came into view.  And she asked Amy to keep taking photos as it got closer.

When we were right alongside it, I pointed up to the restaurant on the first level above the four legs and said, “Your mom and I had dinner there.”

I recalled us splurging, me plunking down my first credit card because we’d burned through almost everything of the few hundred in cash we’d worked all year to save for that summer.  Our Eiffel Tower meal and the rest of our days wandering around Europe weren’t paid off for five years, and here we were at it again, spending into the red to live it up again.  Gathering stories.

 

They’re asleep now, my wife and daughter.  I’m up late at the little desk in our hotel room, writing in the soft light from the window.

Every detail we wanted to tell.  That’s what my mom would have wanted to hear.  And so I’m telling them anyway.  Telling them to Anya if she’s reading this one day.  Telling them to the cold Paris night outside.  Telling them to you.

I’m reluctant to let the day end.  To leave the fifth year without my mother and begin the sixth.  But we go on, into the life my mother did not know.  The life into which she wished us.

 

Two

We’d been up at Montmartre, amid the winding, narrow streets, taking in the views from that hilly district in the dusk, and we were heading back to the hotel after an early dinner when I saw them, a couple about twenty, ascending the stairs from the Metro, an overstuffed backpack weighing him down, a duffle slung protectively across her front.  She had a guidebook in one hand and they looked disoriented and bushed, but excited to finally be near wherever it was they were headed.  There we were, Amy and me, those two decades ago.

We’d had our young, middle-class family tourist day.  I woke early and stole a couple hours for a ten-mile run through the city.  On the Left Bank a few holdover revelers from Saturday night were still about—disheveled and their talk a little loud, a little slurry—occupying the occasional café table, drinking in the dawn with steaming coffees before finally giving in and heading to bed.  Amy, Anya and I took in the hands-on science museum Palais de la Decouverte, the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower (after Anya stopped us in front of a street vendor’s blanket-displayed wares and spent €10 of her own money for a ten-inch version and then couldn’t wait to touch the real thing).

Then we came up to Montmarte so Amy could photograph the artists selling their paintings at the outdoor market at Place du Tertre, Anya could get a chocolate crêpe and I could wander the neighborhood in which the poet Apollinaire once lived.

Anya and I ended up inside the Basilique du Sacré Coeur, warming ourselves and watching Sunday evening Mass from behind the last pew while outside Amy took photos of the Paris skyline with the lights coming on.  We had a quick, so-so dinner at a side-street restaurant and down we went to the Metro stop, ready to head back to the hotel for some cards, a little Harry Potter read-aloud, and an early bed time.

That young couple would be hitting the town or making sweet, first-night-in-Paris love because they don’t have an eight-year-old in the same room.  Or maybe they’d be zonked out early too.

Whatever they were doing, I wished them well.  As well as us.  And I hoped that when they were two decades older they, like me, wouldn’t trade places with their former selves, happy as they were back then.

 

Three

A rainy day in Paris.  Amy, Anya and I walked beside the Seine, along the section of the Quai de l’Hôtel-de-Ville that proved to be a pet-shop district.  Though later in the morning Anya would express a reasonable interest when we walked through the dark, vast air inside Notre Dame, she was far more amused by the kittens, puppies, hamsters and mice when Amy and I finally agreed, at the third pet-shop window we came to, that yes, alright, we could go in for a few minutes.  Notre Dame would wait a while longer.

Paris critters.  They’ll never want for anything, except maybe open countryside.  As we moved from cage to cage we saw Chihuahuas for €2800, Persian cats for €1800.  Garden variety kittens like the ones kids give away from cardboard boxes in front of American grocery stores were €850.  Hamsters were €80!

Out of the pet shop I looked down the river at the thirteenth-century Conciergerie in which Marie Antoinette awaited execution, and it occurred to me that, despite the most drastic of efforts to stamp it out, decadence is perennial.

But Anya had been too busy flitting from cage to cage, pointing out this then that cute one to notice the little price cards.  Now she was lit up, talking with hardly a pause for breath about the turtle and hamster we’d promised she could have when we move back to the States next August.  She’s a good sport about all this wandering her parents are putting her through, our own decadence, I suppose.

Later, after the darkness and candles and vaulting stone pillars of Notre Dame, she got herself up for the Louvre and our usual game of Pick the Postcards from the Gift Shop, Find the Artwork.  I was concerned about how it’d go.  With eighteen miles of exhibits, the Louvre is the largest art museum in the world.  But we’d unfolded the map, found the Ancient Egyptian halls, and set off to find the first work, a little (of course or first goal would have to be little), ceramic, blue hippopotamus.

It took a while.  Room after room of sarcophagi, pots and sphinxes passed, but Anya showed no signs of flagging.  Finally, when I was all but sure that we must have passed it somewhere in the rows and rows of display cases, Anya exclaimed, “There it is!”

She held the postcard up to the glass cabinet and, sure enough, there was the little blue hippo.  Hippopotamus figurine.  Second Intermediate Period, Seventeenth Dynasty, 1650-1550 BCE.

Over the next several hours, as rain poured on the courtyards and glass pyramids out the tall windows, she found the other five works to match her postcards, mostly animals as it happened, and then spent the euros she had left (after buying her little Eiffel Tower yesterday) at the gift shop on a four-inch, plush version of the blue, ceramic, Egyptian hippo, a new friend for Little Lamb, Anya’s never-sleep-without-her stuffed animal.

Amy and I are usually pretty good about knowing and respecting Anya’s limits, and one a day is certainly her established limit for art museums.  But the rain was still coming down outside, so we decided to head over to see the modern works in the Pompidou Centre where we’d be dry and perhaps able to have a little conversation about changes in the definition of art in the last hundred years.

It went okay for a while.  We stood in front of some Baques and Légers and I gave Anya my two cents on Cubism—the artist able to present multiple views at once in the single moment of one canvas and thereby escape the constraints of time.

“More about ideas than feelings, really,” I admitted.  “But I like it anyway.”

“Me too,” she said, though I was unsure if earnestly or dutifully.

Her earnestness was unmistakable, though, when she asked hopefully, “Can we go now?”

“Soon,” I told her.  I was shot myself, tired to the point of tremulous and bleary.  Amy and I just wanted her to see the Warhols and Magrittes before we left.  “Soon,” we promised.

And then, after we’d seen the rest of the Pompidou’s permanent collection, it was the famed view from the top floor we had to take in before going.

“Look at that!” I said, momentarily buoyed by the sight of the Eiffel Tower’s beacon spinning around along the bottom of the cloud cover.

“And see, Notre Dame, where we were this morning.”

Amy clicked photos through the rain-splattered glass.

Then, when Anya turned from the view to me, I saw the tear rolling down her cheek.

“Oh, baby,” I said.

“Anya?”  Amy lowered her camera.  “Oh, sweetie,” she put her arm around Anya.  “We wore you out, didn’t we?”

“I just want to get back to the hotel,” she said quietly.

“Of course we can,” I told her.

“Of course, baby,” Amy said.

The rain let up as we walked.  We bought pizzas and fruit and bread from shops in the neighborhood of our hotel, went back to the room, crawled under the covers and watched Nim’s Island on Amy’s laptop, the Eiffel Tower on the nightstand beside Anya, her Egyptian hippo, Bluey as she’d named her, tucked under her arm with Little Lamb.

 

Four

We bought breakfast of croissants, another newly-discovered favorite of Anya’s, from a tiny bakery and ate them from the paper sacks as we strolled vaguely toward the river.  We stopped in at a couple more pet shops, then crossed over to the Left Bank, headed in the general direction of Shakespeare and Company bookstore, the center of the English-speaking, expatriate literary community in Paris for eighty-nine years.  In its two previous incarnations in other locations on the Left Bank, Shakespeare and Company was frequented by expat writers like Hemingway, Pound, Fitzgerald and Stein.  Sylvia Beach, the store’s founder, published the first edition of Joyce’s Ulysses.  The store’s current incarnation, across the Seine from Notre Dame Square, was the Paris haunt of Ginsberg and Burrows and now hosts another generation of young expat writers who sleep in bunks tucked among the upstairs stacks in exchange for work around the store.

“Home, I knew it entering,” the poet Richard Hugo says of an old highway bar he came to love in Montana.  Stepping into Shakespeare and Company, I heard his words in my head.  Like the best musty American taverns, the bookstore was crowed in every crooked corner to the beamed ceiling with its own history.  A piano keyboard emerged from between a stack of books on the floor and those on the piano’s lid.  Wood chairs and stools—no two alike but all with layers of old, cracked paint—stood on the thread-worn carpets and bare, stone floor in the narrow corridors and nooks.  Even the stones around the ring of what had once been a well in the floor were stacked with books.  A few coins dotted the cement three feet down where the well had been filled in.  HOWL if you love City Lights read the bumper sticker on the wood and glass cabinet housing what looked to be leather-bound first editions.  Handbills for writers’ groups and forthcoming or recently-past readings competed for space on the door, windows and several bulletin boards.  The scent of incense and clatter of a typewriter drifted down the steps.  A black dog was tugging on a young woman’s glove, refusing to let go.

“Sorry, she does that a lot,” the girl behind the counter said in an Australian accent.

It was impossible to take it all in at once.

For me anyway.  Amy and Anya weren’t so overwhelmed by this setting out of the American writer’s fantasy of an expat bookstore in Paris.  They squeezed right past me, Anya heading up the stairs, stepping between stacks of books on every tread, following the signs to the children’s section, and Amy looking here and there and lifting her camera to her eye subtly.

I took a few minutes at the shelves beneath the hand-written “Poet’s Corner” sign, scanned the spines for poets with Paris roots, and soon had a stack that included Apollinaire, Célan, Rimbaud, Valéry, and Villon, all in translations new to me.  Deciding to walk away with only this handful (I could get books by British and American poets elsewhere, but my time to experience this place was limited), I followed Anya upstairs, toward the sources of the typewriter clatter and incense.

I found her engaged in conversation with an elderly lady, who thanked her in a French accent for her help and then explained to me that Anya had been assisting her in selecting a book for her granddaughter.

“You’re welcome,” Anya said cheerfully.

The woman paid Anya an “au revoir” and made her way carefully down between the books on the stairs.

“I’ve got a stack too, Daddy!” Anya said and showed me her pile.

“Can you help me choose?”

“Let’s find a place to sit,” I suggested and she scooped the books up in her arms.

The nearby side room was occupied by the typist, a long-haired, bearded young man working away at the machine between a smoldering incense stick and steaming cup of coffee, so we made our way forward, down a narrow hall walled in bookshelves, past a couple of the curtained-off bunks in which I’d read young writers are welcome to sleep in exchange for a few hours work the next day, through a doorway above which the words Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise were painted, and into a sitting room lined with cushioned benches and more bookshelves.  In a chair at the window overlooking rue de la Bûcherie and the Seine and Notre Dame Square beyond, cozied up next to a portable radiator, sat another long-haired, bearded young man, but as he was reading and the other fellow was writing, I figured we were less of an intrusion here.

Amy joined us and I asked if she was taking some good photos.

“I think so.  And I found a book.”  She handed me the novel Hunting and Gathering by Anna Gavalda, a story of Parisian misfits, the cover explained.  Amy has a huge soft spot for misfits, wherever they may be.

Anya got down to business and made one stack for maybes, one for yeses, and one for no’s.  Before long she’d settled on three volumes of The Wishing Chair adventures, Jacob Two-Two and the Dinosaur, and Heroes, Gods and Emperors from Roman Mythology.

A friend came and asked the reader in the chair if he’d be joining Jenny and him.

“After this paragraph.”  The young man held up one finger and sat in his chair without moving.

“Alright,” he snapped the book shut finally.  “Let’s go.”

Generations of young people have come here to feel literary, and this was their time.  But it was our time, too.  I took a turn in the chair by the window, scribbled some notes on the day in my little Moleskin notebook, glanced out at the streets, wet with rain again.

Amy took my picture.  It’s good to have a partner who at least occasionally sees you as the figure you enjoy imagining yourself.

I’m not a renowned writer.  My book of poems wasn’t downstairs on one of the shelves in Poet’s Corner.  But that was alright.  My daughter was sitting across the room, paging through her illustrated Roman mythology, my wife was documenting our afternoon in this snug, timeless hideout with her camera and I was doing so with my pen.  The three of us were composing our own story and we were our own audience.

When we finally stepped out into the day the rain had quit.  We wandered down past the Sorbonne, found ourselves in a teachers’ strike demonstration, our way blocked by police in helmets and wielding shields, and by scarf-clad, black-rimmed-glasses-wearing protestors carrying signs that were mostly unreadable to us.  We ducked down a side street and into a shop where Amy bought a purple felt shoulder bag adorned with red and blue fabric shapes.  Something else by which to remember the day.

Back at the hotel for the last night of our visit, we read some more of the sixth Harry Potter book, which Anya had abandoned as “too dark” a year or so ago but which she’d asked to try again recently and is now devouring with delight every bedtime.  Once the lights were out, I lay there awhile listening to the traffic until I heard the steady, even breaths of my loves asleep, then rose and went to the little desk again, where the light from the window is just enough to see my pad of paper.

Now as I finish writing down another of our days, I look over at Anya sleeping, clutching Little Lamb and her new hippo Bluey, the Eiffel Tower still on her nightstand on one side of her, Amy sleeping on the other side. On the far nightstand, the lens cap on Amy’s camera is a sleeping eye.

 

Recapitulation

In the morning on the train to Charles de Gaulle Airport, an accordion player strolled into our car.  He was playing “Those Were the Days.”  Decades before it was popularized in America in the Sixties—my mother’s golden youth—it was a Russian song, and as the accordionist weaved and staggered toward us through the rocking train, the song seemed to come from generations of people who were once young.  Notice, the accordion was telling us.  Notice your life, the days passing each into the next like these notes.

When he was done I put a couple gold and silver euros in the Styrofoam cup he held as he passed, moving on to the next car.

I stared out the window as the scrap yards and gray housing projects of the Paris suburbs passed.

My eyes were wet.

In her youth my mother had for a while daydreamed of directing films.  I let myself imagine the accordionist’s song still playing in my head as her choice for this moment, as the Romantic, already nostalgic accompaniment to the end of our four days in Paris.

I cannot tell her about our little adventure, cannot give it to her for her to make of it a pleasant vision in her mind.  But she would have loved it.  And because I know she would have loved it, she can still remind me to notice, to be inside these days and, as the song says, to live the life we choose.