M. de Méneval is not the type I’d expect to see on all fours: a small, graying man, crisp of carriage, with an astonishing aquiline nose. And this is not a place that promises such informality—a bourgeois salon with its large oil portrait of an austere ancestor, its ancient bandoliers marking the walls with Xs, and its glass cabinet filled with such Empire relics as pieces of royal china and a fan from Empress Eugénie.
I had never imagined, when I impulsively invited my mother to Paris for her sixty-fifth birthday, that we would end up here, in Versailles, sipping tea and chatting in French with Claude and Monique de Méneval. Sure, I knew that my mother’s junior year abroad had been one of the formative experiences of her life. But hadn’t she moved on, settling for a humble life in rural Hawaii, never returning to France, letting her ties loosen?
She had, in my view, not so much abandoned her taste for all things French as chosen to pass it on, to me. She pulled me off the beach to read Madeline and the Bad Hat and Eloise in Paris. She bought me a small spiral notebook, inscribing its brown cover with MON PETIT CAHIER DE FRANÇAIS and listing words for me to memorize. Although our everyday diet consisted of things like tuna-noodle casserole and Hamburger Helper, she occasionally gave my brother and sister and me a taste of her Continental past by serving a cheese soufflé or chocolate mousse. Once or twice she treated us to stories of the French gypsy who’d taught her to read palms—and then she proceeded to predict our futures.
Tales of gypsies were eventually supplanted by tales of le Baron-Louis de Méneval, scion of the petite noblesse, and la Baronne, head of their formidable household in the 17th arrondissement. Long on pride and short on funds, the enchanting de Ménevals had chosen the socially acceptable way to improve the family cash flow—by taking in a college student. My mother must have fit the bill perfectly: she had studied French all her life (even winning a statewide award in Ohio), but she wasn’t just a French nerd. Raised by a socialite from Massachusetts, and named “Madeleine” after her, she had followed her mother’s footsteps by attending Smith College. By then my mother had lost her mother, and she always spoke of the de Ménevals with a fondness usually reserved for family.
Now here I am in Versailles, connecting the dots: Before me are all the possessions—inherited by the eldest son of le Baron-Louis and la Baronne—that filled my mother’s descriptions of her “home” in France. And here are the intersections between a family and a country, whose history Claude is proudly enumerating. Here, too, is the relationship between Claude and my mother: the once stiff rapport between a competitive twenty-three-year-old law student and a smug twenty-one-year-old American girl is now reinventing itself as a warm friendship between a retired businessman turned Napoleon expert and a photo-toting granny from Hawaii. But, more than anything, here are my mother’s deep ties to Paris—which, because they preceded me, have remained largely a mystery.
The longing for such connections had sparked the idea of our trip. Then, midway through the planning stages, my father was given less than a year to live. Though he and my mother had been divorced for thirty years, the news devastated us both. We considered postponing, until a new urgency swept aside our misgivings. Go. Now. While there’s time. In the face of losing Dad, I yearned to draw closer to Mom. Planning the trip got me through some hard months.
There was lots of planning. With the help of the Internet and two Paris services, we finally selected two pieds-à-terre: a large studio on the Ile de la Cité, and a one-bedroom on rue du Fer à Moulin, in the 5th arrondissement. Apartments would afford us corners of privacy and our own washing machine, and their kitchens would give us an excuse to load up on fresh bread from Poilâne, cheeses from Androuët, and mustards from Hédiard.
But apartments also let us experience Paris not as tourists coming and going from a hotel, but as residents. Being on Ile de la Cité means waking to the eight o’clock bells of Notre Dame, lunching in the lovely Place Dauphine, taking in an evening violin concert at St. Chapelle, and snagging ringside seats for the Saturday-night street theater kicked off by nine guys in surgical scrubs and a gay man in a bunny costume with a few strategically placed fresh carrots, green foliage flopping. In the 5th arrondissement, we visit with the boulangère down the block, blaze through the rue Mouffetard market every day, and take mint tea in the Arab Café de La Mosquée, with its blue-and-white-tiled fountain, fig trees, and round brass tables.
Mom spends one morning on the Ile de la Cité scouring the map. Soon she is leading me across the Seine on a footbridge, around the tiny chapel of St.-Julien-le-Pauvre, and then straight to rue de la Huchette, a narrow medieval alley. She stops in front of a crude stone façade.
“My dear friend David brought me to the Caveau de la Huchette on my birthday in 1953,” Mom muses, casting her glance to the Greek restaurants now lining the street. “This was just an old alley then, with centuries of grime.” Pointing to pictures of dancers on a subterranean parquet, under stone arches, she continues: “Steep, turning steps descended to a cave-like room. Sidney Bechet and his Blue Notes played! A gang of men all dressed in black turtlenecks—they were called ‘apachés’ then—arrived. One of them—very handsome—asked me to dance. At first I demurred, but David insisted I dance with him. By chance I was wearing a black cashmere turtleneck and a flared red skirt. He was very polite with me. And he was the most wonderful dancer—the smoothest…” I sense in Mom’s voice the hint of something dark, forbidden, thrilling; later I learn about the underworld of the apachés, and the rough tango they practiced.
“Afterward, in the foggy mist from the river, David and I circled around a small Greco-Roman church. We walked back across the city to the seventeenth, past bakers in basements—one blew flour at us from a bellows. We crossed the Place de la Concorde, completely empty. I was carried part of the way because my feet hurt.”
Mom knows little about my falling in love in my early twenties with a French photographer. Jacky and I shared poetry, love letters, and, briefly, a room in a sprawling house on the St. Cloud train tracks. We met in San Francisco, but it was in Paris, after a ten-month separation, that Jacky took me up in his bear-like arms, burrowed through my jumble of curls, searched for “le creux de ton cou,” inhaled deeply, and whispered, “Je retrouve l’odeur de Connie” (I am rediscovering the scent of Connie).
But it is also here that Jacky and I made our own Odyssean journey by foot, starting at 1:00 A.M.. from Châtelet and ending at 4:00 A.M. near the Bois de Boulogne, when Jacky gently let me know that he intended to live alone, needed to be alone. An artist needs la solitude, he said, without a trace of grandiosity.
And now, fifteen years later, Jacky invites us to an exhibition of still photographs at the Canadian Cultural Center that he has taken for a film, The Red Violin. There, he adds, we can meet Nam, the French-Vietnamese woman for whom he has abandoned la solitude, and their son, Ulys. Never am I so happy to have my mother’s company. I am struck by uncharacteristic shyness; she holds my hand while I gaze at photos, she makes small talk with Nam, and she praises Jacky on the handsomeness of his son.
Jacky’s first words to my mother—Je la connaissais quand elle était toute petite (“I knew her when she was a little girl”)—call Bob Dylan to mind (not just “she breaks just like a little girl,” but also “I was hungry, and it was your world”). And they also remind me of that peculiarly French kind of intimacy—witty, affectionate, and brutally detached. He looks better than ever, his auburn hair now brushing his shoulders, and I find that I am still susceptible, still able to be pulled in by his tender words and then spit out into the dark Paris night.
My mother does not directly address the whorl of confusing emotions within me as we leave the cultural center and wander along Les Invalides. “Would you like to stop by that wine bar you’ve been curious about?” she asks instead, with exquisite delicacy, placing her hand softly on my shoulder. And so we submit together to the attentions of Au Sauvignon’s proprietor, who determines that we shall leave his establishment tasting the very best France has to offer.
Not that I do all the talking. In an antique store in the Marais, an eccentric, leather-skinned patron points me downstairs to his collection of ’40s French soap wrappers. (Flat, light, and cheap, etiquettes de savon are the perfect souvenir.) Having dispensed with me, he extravagantly sets two director’s chairs in the doorway, facing out, and flirtatiously invites “Madame” to join him “sur la plage.”
To track down the de Ménevals, Mom had taken the lead. She pored through an old white pages, thinking that at least the children—Claude, Françoise, Christian, and “Bébé”—would still be in Paris. She found a Claude de Méneval listed, but it was up to me to translate our urgent desires into graceful French. I dialed the number, identified myself, and asked after Claude. The man who answered—he was much too young to be a contemporary of my mother’s—explained that Claude, once a roommate, now lives in Poland. “Perhaps you are looking for the father,” he added. “I believe he lives in Versailles.”
And so we ended up at the train station in Versailles. The moment Claude steps out of his blue Renault, my mother gasps. “He hasn’t changed at all,” she whispers. He and my mother approach each other without a trace of doubt, clasping hands and kissing both cheeks. Then we get into the car, me joining two towheaded and very curious little boys in the back seat. Unlike Claude, who has retained the formalities of the 17th arrondissement, Monique is a down-to-earth Bretonne equally at ease welcoming us into their modern townhouse on the edge of Napoleon’s woods, passing delicate porcelain teacups and crisp cookies laced with chocolate, and firmly insisting that the grandchildren, Luc and Daniel, sit still.
After an exchange of gifts and the finding of the magnificent lithograph, Claude suggests a tour. Mom visited the palace years ago, so she picks the gardens. All six of us pile into the Renault as our private guide, who has filled his retirement by learning about this place, reveals the intrigue behind the endless canals, the Grand Trianon, and Marie-Antoinette’s faux peasant village. When we part, the Paris my mother and I now share acquires another facet.
In Act III, we both weep quietly in our front-row balcony seats as the slave-girl Liù expresses her “deep, secret, unconfessed love” and anticipates her untimely death. We weep for the loss of Liù, for the pending loss of my father, for the loss of youthful romance, for the loss of rekindled friendship, for our last moments together in Paris. To console ourselves, we stop at the Café le St. Médard for a crème brûlée, a last look at the crowd, a last listen to the fountain. There I realize I have lost an earring. It is half of a pair of lovely mabe pearls, traced in gold, given me by my father on my recent birthday, the last I will spend with him. I am momentarily heartsick, and then decide that an earring is the only thing I’ve really lost on this trip, and I can live with that.
A few weeks later, back home in California, a small package arrives from my mother. It is a pair of pearls.
Constance Hale’s lifelong fascination with French is rivaled only by her lifelong fascination with English. She is the author of Wired Style and Sin and Syntax, and as a journalist has written about Latin plurals and internet clichés. She has also covered national politics, the digital culture, and the spread of hula on the U.S. mainland. She lives in Oakland, California, and Hale’iwa, Hawaii.
About Editors’ Choice:
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