Late yesterday afternoon, I was walking alone through the Luxembourg Gardens, down paths I had not yet explored. The fall wind was shaking the trees, and I was so moved by the beauty of all around me that I would stop every now and then to take it in, in all its sublimity. There were old men in ratty sweaters smoking cigars and playing petanque. There was a young man pushing a frail old woman in a wheelchair down one of the lanes. Mothers and fathers walked hand in hand with their children, who would scamper away to point at sculptures. I came to the intersection of a curving path with a straight one, and saw a statue of the late Socialist leader Pierre Mendes France. He was a secular Jew, but on this day, the day of All Saints, someone left him a spray of red roses, with a ribbon that said, “In homage to Pierre Mendes France.” There is grandeur in that, I thought.
And I thought: God, I love this city.
I kept pulling out my iPhone to take photos, hoping to capture a sense of the deep, rich autumnal beauty on display in this elegant park — a source of wealth open to everyone in Paris — but the images were pale shadows of the real thing. Finally I thought, Put the camera down. You can’t capture these moments. They are passing through your hands. Everything passes. Just be here, and be thankful.
I put my phone in my pocket, breathed deeply, smiled broadly, and said a prayer of thanksgiving for this city and my family’s time here. It has all been a grace, every bit of it. As I walked on, I came upon the image above of the Statue of Liberty, an early model of the statue Bertholdi made for America. It made me smile again. I had been thinking about America, as the day of our return approached, and my readiness to be back home had finally overtaken my enthusiasm for being here in Paris. It was serendipitous, in a way, to see this symbol of my homeland embedded here in what, for me and my family, is the heart of Paris. J’ai deux amours… .
In my forthcoming book, “The Little Way of Ruthie Leming,” I write about how my elderly aunts — the sisters of my great-grandmother — Lois and Hilda spent part of their early adult lives in France, serving as volunteer Red Cross nurses in World War I, and staying on to see some of the country after the war ended. As longtime readers of this blog may recall, it was my being with those dear old women when I was a very small boy, sitting with them on their old red leather couch in the tiny wooden cabin where they spent the final years of their long lives, listening to them tell me stories about their travels, especially about their lives in France. They planted the seed, the seed that has now given such rich fruit to me and to my children. I hope that having given our children this month in Paris will have planted in their hearts and imaginations a lifelong love for France, for the French, and for travel. As a man now in middle age, I see now that my old aunts, though living in a tiny, poor cabin in the woods, were in fact among the most worldly and sophisticated people I could hope to meet. They were cultured and intellectual and well-traveled, but they also loved where they lived. Born in the country to a Civil War veteran who oversaw a farm, Lois and Hilda would have been equally at home on the Champs-Elysees, or walking the path under the pecan trees that led from the mailbox out by the road to their cabin. I understand now that what made them different was that they carried Paris with them in their hearts and imaginations wherever they went, even to the end of their lives, in that frail Starhill cottage swaddled by sweet olives and camellias and four o’clocks, and dogwoods and magnolias, canopied by the Chinese rain tree. There they sat with a curious little boy and delighted him with tales of the things they had seen in France. They did not know what doors they were opening, and I did not know that their cabin was my enchanted wardrobe.
Here they are, in their front yard, with little me. I’m guessing this was the early spring of 1968. Hilda is on the left, Lois is on the right:
And here I am today, in a Parisian garden, 44 years later. I wonder if they can see me, can see the man they helped to make:
I owe them so much, and I owe so much to my sister Ruthie, who told me how important it was to travel with one’s children, to build memories. When she found out she had cancer, she was by then too sick to travel, except for that final trip they made as a family to Charleston, a couple of months before she died. But she had all those memories of family vacations she and Mike and the girls had taken when she was full of life, and she thought she had all the time in the world, and it seemed that the perfect moments would last forever.
In a few hours, we will wake up and go to the airport and head for home. When I get there, I will go to the Starhill Cemetery, and take flowers to Aunt Lois’s grave, and to Aunt Hilda’s, and to Ruthie’s grave, and thank them for these imperishable memories of Paris that they have given to me, and to Julie, and to our children Matthew, Lucas, and Nora. Their family. Our family.
It is all a grace. Every precious second of it, slipping through our fingers. All we can do is to receive these moments like the gifts they are.