Mother’s Day 2017
Almost two years after my mother’s death, Mother’s Day comes with a sting and a yearning. I still want to do something for her. On the Mother’s Day before she died (7/18/15), I gave her a poem I wrote for her. Last year, I shared some snippets of memories on Facebook. I thought that this year I would write for her again, and for me, too.
When I was 16 years old, Mom took me to Paris during my spring school vacation. I had longed to go to France for as far back as my memory would take me, possibly as a result of reading Madeline. Some French lessons from a family friend in first grade cemented my dreams. Mom loved to travel, did so fairly often for audiology conferences, and whenever she could beyond that. I was a lucky companion on many of these trips.
There are three things that I remember most about that first trip to Paris. I remember feeling overwhelmed and disappointed as we drove to the hotel. Paris was not the quaint city from Madeline (I did not watch much television as a kid, and my book knowledge was limited. I’m not sure I’d seen many images of Paris beyond Madeline). It had a largeness and in some parts a grittiness that I recognized from Boston and New York City, but the pictures I’d drawn in my head as I read stories about Paris had not included those identifying markers of cities. The surprise and sharp disappointment passed quickly, leaving me feeling foolish and much more grown-up now that I knew, but they left a distinct imprint.
The second thing was the concierge at our small hotel. Upon arrival my mom mentioned to him—a short, sturdy, middle-aged, dark-haired man— that I was learning French. From that point on, the concierge only spoke to me in French and insisted I respond in kind, a striking difference from many others who had no patience for my timid tongue. He made me realize I could speak French. That sounds silly, but my confidence before then had been nonexistent (except when given the chance to make fun of my mom’s attempts and accent. She never let me forget my meanness when it came to French either).
The third thing was the day Mom took me to Moulin Rouge. This was a month or two before the big motion picture by that title came out. I had read about the cabaret in French class. I asked Mom if we could go, and she said yes. So off we went to Montmartre and we took in an afternoon show. Mom and I were some of the only women at that particular performance, and I was, without a doubt, the youngest audience member in the building, a circumstance that Mom and I laughed about for years to come. Remember, I was the girl who, mere days before, had been shocked to find that things such as graffiti and business districts existed in Paris. I was the most naïve person I knew. So imagine my reaction to bare-breasted women dancing and swinging from acrobatic contraptions. And up till then, I had thought of Mom as conservative in her social views. She was my mom.
But that afternoon changed my understanding of her. At various points we laughed and oohed and clapped. Mostly we sat quietly in that loud celebration of music and tradition and beauty, of masculinity and femininity. I was acutely aware that I was experiencing something that, had I truly understood what the show would be like, I felt certain Mom never would have allowed. And here she was next to me, not insisting we leave. Indeed, having fun and elbowing me every now and again, but more than anything giving me room to react and process.
Afterwards, I didn’t feel ready to return to the hotel and read, or to some organized and guided activity. I wanted to keep exploring and discovering. “Can we walk?” I asked Mom. We were several miles at least from our hotel. “Sure,” she replied in her easy, agreeable, ready-for-an-adventure way.
We walked for hours, without a plan, sometimes talking, sometimes silent in that thoughtful way of silence that holds hands. Sometimes we walked arm and arm and sometimes follow-the-leader when the sidewalks narrowed and people hurried. The second my mood began to sour and my legs began to tire she sat me down at a café and ordered me a café au lait, herself an espresso, and elaborate desserts for the both of us. Then we continued. We walked until the sun went down and the lights came up. Then we went to dinner, and ate more dessert.
My mind was reeling from the day. My greatest discovery was my mom’s openness to letting me experience something completely new and outside my comfort zone, and welcoming my reaction, whatever it was, giving me the space to react. And yet, my reaction was informed by her good humor and enjoyment, too. I knew then that I wanted to some day be the kind of mother who would agree to her young teenage daughter’s request to catch a show at the Moulin Rouge, and be willing to ditch plans and wander.
Mom and I became even closer from that trip and through the years. And I still want and strive to be a mother like her.