This essay first appeared in Brick, the beloved biannual print journal of nonfiction based in Canada and read throughout the world. Our thanks to Martha Baillie and the staff at Brick for allowing us to reprint this essay at Longreads.
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“I have found her,” announced the email sent to me by a close friend, H, who was working in Paris. The attached photograph showed a person I recognized—an elderly woman standing on a street corner and clutching a notepad. Her abundant white hair was gathered into a loose knot at the back of her head; she had a fine nose, an open face lost in thought, and on her feet flat shoes. Her white dress, more coat than dress, I could picture a shopkeeper wearing half a century ago or a modern lab technician. A large, unadorned purse hung from her wrist. To the right of her, the glass wall of a bus shelter exhibited a map of the immediate neighborhood, the Fifteenth District, portions of which became legible when I enlarged the image by sliding my fingertips over it. Across the street behind the woman the name of a café could now be read: Le Puit.
On the occasion of my forty-fifth birthday, eleven years ago, a framed photograph of the same woman was presented to me by a different friend, V. In this earlier snapshot, the woman’s hair is pulled softly back from her face, and a blue garment, identical to the one she will years later purchase in white, covers her from neck to knees. On her feet she wears flat shoes. Head bent, she is jotting down something on a notepad while her left arm wraps itself around a metal post painted black and topped by a metal sphere painted white, a post whose intended purpose relates to traffic regulation but which she is making use of to steady herself while she concentrates. From her left wrist hangs a small, diaphanous plastic bag tied at the neck, its contents not quite visible. In the border below the image, V has inscribed the name of the city where he saw her—Paris—and the year 2030.
“I glanced over and there you were—you, twenty-five years from now. I had to take a picture.” V paused to gauge my reaction. “Happy birthday,” he added and burst into laughter.
My future self, month in month out, has perched on the tall filing cabinet in the corner of my study these past eleven years. Every so often I’ve cast a glance her way, applauded V for his fine sense of humour, and wondered about the life and identity of the woman captured in the likeness offered to me as a teasing foretelling of who I may one day become. Most days I’ve given her no thought, yet she has hovered. Then H’s recent shot of her arrived. Did you speak to her? Who is she? I wanted to ask but didn’t, hesitant to learn more than the photo alone could reveal. I waited. What I was waiting for I don’t know. As the weeks slipped by I started to yearn to hear this woman’s voice, to touch her hand, to contemplate the shape of her mouth, and to read, if she would allow me to do so, the words on her notepad.
I was not in a position to fly to France. Instead, I gave in and sent H an email containing my questions. H responded right away, explaining that the moment she’d spotted her she’d approached my future self and asked permission to photograph her. Without inquiring as to H’s motivation, the woman had agreed.
“She pointed to a set of windows above a café. The windows belong to an apartment she once lived in but to which she no longer has access. She stands on the street and writes about her life in the apartment. This was all I was able to find out. I didn’t want to push. I don’t know if she comes every day or changes street corner and subject matter, but I expect that she wanders the city.”
For many years, whenever I was able to visit her and she had a room free, my dear friend L would send me a note instructing me where to look for the keys to her house. Always they lay hidden in the same place, beneath the statue of a woman’s head, to the left of her front door. The statue was carved from white stone and minimalist in style. It stood about a foot and a half tall. The house had many windows, and the felicity of its proportions and the lovely flow of its design meant that every room, however small, felt spacious and welcoming. Built for L and her husband, P, in the early 1950s, in what was then countryside but had now become a well-to-do suburb of Paris, the house retained, despite the proximity of a modern apartment building over eight storeys tall, an air of rural calm, nestled as it was among its many trees, which L and P had planted over the years, smuggling home in their suitcase one sapling from every country they visited while travelling abroad. A cedar uprooted from Lebanon, a birch tree dug up in Russia, an English oak, an Italian walnut. There were more. I wish I’d listened more closely as we toured the garden at dusk on the occasion of my first overnight visit.
The front garden sloped down to a wooden fence with a gate that could be locked but often was left unlocked. Behind the house, lavender bushes bordered a stone terrace, and in the dappled shade of the many trees a lawn even more generous than the one in front descended into a ravine.
Both L and P had worked as engineers. P’s professional life had gratified him, L told me, whereas hers had offered her little pleasure or satisfaction. Engineering had been foisted upon her, she explained. Pressure had been exerted not by her father, who’d died when she was a child, nor by her mother, but by her formidable great-aunt, a retired judge, whose bejewelled ancient fingers searched the surface of tables, the arms of chairs, and the folds in her own clothing, seeking evidence of weakness wherever it might hide.
L’s older sister, M, equally susceptible to family expectations, had enrolled in medicine. She’d done well in her studies but had never practised. Instead, she’d raised three children until her untimely death at the wheel of her car, hurrying to or returning from a recital given by her lover in a small town. Well before she’d embarked on her love affair with the young church organist introduced to her by her teenage son, her husband, Professor D, had left her for an American. The American was neither younger nor more beautiful than M, whom for many years Professor D had refused to divorce despite his affair, threatening to kill himself whenever she, M, declared her readiness to end their marriage.
In the one photograph I’ve seen of Professor D, his bespectacled eyes confront the camera with uncompromising severity. A research scientist, he believed in the methodic, rational pursuit of understanding. On occasion he would take off his belt and subject his eldest son to an educational beating, an accepted practice at the time. His daughter and his younger son he chose not to strike with this strip of leather designed to hold up his pants. If he offered himself an explanation of this inconsistency in his administration of justice, it was an explanation he revealed to nobody else.
To the domestic and amorous torments her sister was enduring L had paid little attention, she told me, and later she’d regretted not having opened her ear more often, not having opened her heart wider. Absorbed as she was, she said, by the demands of her work as an engineer and by the responsibility of raising her own two children, her husband often absent, obliged by his employers to travel, a duty he shouldered with enthusiasm and curiosity, her failure to support her sister, her nephews, and her niece was understandable, yet this failure had dug a maze of tunnels inside her following her sister’s sudden death.
Upon graduating, at the end of the war, L had straightaway found work with a rubber-manufacturing firm. Rubber did not interest her. Music and poetry delighted her. For the next forty years she remained an employee of the rubber firm. Upon retiring she threw herself into the organizing of cultural events, bringing, for instance, musicians to Paris from Azerbaijan and other regions of the collapsed Soviet empire. She assisted her mother, E, who was by then approaching one hundred years old, in the classifying of the many papers left to E by E’s uncle, a deceased Russian philosopher of international renown whose distrust of rationalism and of scientism appealed to both L and E. I should clarify that it was not science or rationality to which the philosopher had objected, but their transformation into overly authoritative “isms.” He’d particularly detested the deification of “scientific method,” with its emphasis on the verifiable at the expense of subjective knowledge.
L’s husband, P, also retired, hoped to continue travelling but no longer for purposes of business and research. He wished to now voyage accompanied by his wife. Upon his insistence they did take numerous short holidays here and there, but he could not convince L to leave her aged mother’s side for longer than a week or two.
E had bills to pay, clothes to buy, medical appointments to keep, letters to answer, and her legs were weak and her eyesight failing. On the balcony of her apartment overlooking the Seine, she grew tomato and persimmon seedlings in a miniature greenhouse, which she covered with a blanket at night to protect her “young ones” from the cold.
E navigated through a blurred yet orderly world. She knew by heart the layout of her kitchen with its impossibly high cupboards, which she opened by ascending a stepladder on her thin and crooked legs. Often the vegetables she served had a scorched flavour, as she enjoyed cooking on a full flame. She’d memorized the precise location of every implement of importance in her home, a home she opened with enthusiasm to others, young and old, provided they returned to its correct location any object they asked to borrow. Her knitting basket resided on the green velvet straight-backed settee in the library, her magnifying glass lived in the top drawer of her desk facing the balcony, her watering can stood on top of the piano (a silly spot for a watering can but one to which she’d grown accustomed), the napkin rings rested on the sideboard in the dining room, the wine bottles lay on their sides in the fireplace, and the metal fireguard screeched whenever, with a yanking movement of her arm, she raised it, releasing a bottle, which rolled out onto the floor. As soon as she felt the bottle touch her foot, she bent to retrieve it.
By the time L and I met, the war was long over. L was my mother’s age. She wore her grey hair short, boyish. I sat in the kitchen of her house, in the countryside become genteel suburb, and watched her smoke cigarette after cigarette. She wished to engage without passing judgment. In anyone else I would have found such an aspiration laughable. I was of a hierarchical and critical nature. But her yearning felt true. Her vision of a world less mired in strife, a world as light and musical as her voice, became an alluring possibility when she spoke. She was an admirer of Krishnamurti. “Why can’t people get along?” she asked hungrily, meaning all of humanity, as well as that tight configuration, the family.
“When my aunt says such stupid things,” declared her nephew, a psychiatrist, in a tone of amused consternation as he glanced in his rear-view mirror and changed lanes while driving me through the city, “I wonder if perhaps she is stupid. Such an air of innocence I could forgive in my grandmother, but in my aunt I find it inexcusable.” I listened, savouring the drama in his voice, measuring the distance between his hand on the steering wheel and my knee. I wished with all my being for that distance to shrink.
In Nazi-occupied Paris, food was hard to come by, but one day, M (L’s older sister, not yet the mother of the psychiatrist who would decades later chauffeur me across the city) obtained numerous strings of dates. As this was the only food she’d succeeded in finding, she, L, and E subsisted on a diet of dates for days on end, for how many days I’m unsure. When L wrote to tell me of her wartime experiences, she mentioned that one day, while standing on a street corner in the Sixth District, she and all other pedestrians in the immediate vicinity had been rounded up, the SS having decided to bring in for questioning, as an act of routine intimidation, everyone located at that particular intersection, at that exact hour, on that unexceptional day. Despite the yellow star sewn to the front of her blouse, L, after her papers had been examined, was released. It was the foreign Jews recently arrived in Paris whom the Nazis were deporting first, and L’s turn had not yet come according to the plan, a plan from which no deviation could be imagined let alone realized, even if abiding by their own rules forced them to free a young French Jew caught by accident in their net one sunny afternoon as she walked from the Sorbonne to the subway.
“I would hold my books up against my chest to cover the star, to hide my shame,” L wrote to me.
As far as I know, L had never set foot in a synagogue, raised as she was by E, a Jewish mother who, in the 1920s, had converted to an offshoot of Christian Science upon arriving in Boston, having fled Kiev, and not yet moved to Paris, a mother who daily, in quiet self-scrutiny, read to herself from Freedom Through Right Thinking and The Master and the Modern Spirit, both by Lewis Strang, a spiritual leader excommunicated from the church of Mary Baker Eddy.
Upon meeting my young daughter for the first time, L led her into the back garden, picked a walnut from a low branch, cracked the shell open, and deposited the tender flesh of the nut in the palm of my daughter’s hand, inviting her to eat but only if she wished to eat. On another occasion, crouching down to my daughter’s height, L confided, “I think I understand your anger. Look how old I am and the rage I felt when I was your age has not gone away. I feel it whenever I remember how clearly I told my mother I wanted her to spread the jam carefully, making sure a gap, a margin of bare bread, remained next to the crust, and instead my mother spread the jam sloppily, so it covered everything, advancing all the way to the crust, leaving no pleasing empty space. I can picture her knife as if it were yesterday, and I feel as furious with her as I did when I was small and she handed me the slice of bread, which I had no choice but to accept.”
All this L recounted in a tone of wonder, while my daughter listened in sober silence, pondering every word, or appearing to do so.
I remember very well E’s apartment. A red chair and a river of Persian carpet greeted you the moment you entered, and if you stepped to the left into the library, you could contemplate the Eiffel Tower through the tall glass doors that opened onto the balcony or turn your back and admire instead an oil painting in orange and blue of the rooftops of Kiev, the work of one of E’s uncles, and should the sun be close to setting at the hour of your arrival and a tour boat happen to glide along the Seine below the balcony, the boat would inevitably cast its bright lights up into the library, and you might stand very still as if pinned in place and watch them sweep along the wall, searching, briefly exposing whatever they passed over, and seconds later, freed from their scrutiny you might restlessly follow the probing beams into the round dining room, recognizing that you were not so free as you’d thought, and there sit down and consider the view of the modern apartment blocks on the opposite bank, a dense forest of white towers, and from this delicious, round room, whose shape you judged to be both whimsical and soothing, an architectural indulgence, a curved caress, you’d slip into the dark of the sitting room, whose windows gave onto a narrow side street, a canyon lined with parked cars, which nobody entered or left, not when you were peering out, and were it not occupied by someone else, you’d flop down on the pale blue sofa known as Mitterrand, so named because selected in haste by E upon the advice of her cousin, who urged her to make a large purchase before the newly elected leftist government snatched away her savings, and from the pale embrace of Mitterrand you’d admire the brown and white swirls, the almost edible, dessert-like swirls, in the marble of the fireplace to the left of the record player, before you pulled yourself upright and returned to the hallway where the red chair waited for you, or for someone else who’d not yet arrived or who’d already left, and you’d not linger, not sit down in the red chair but walk to the end of the Persian carpet and from there continue down the long and bare corridor, passing all four bedrooms one after the other, your most urgent destination being the water closet, and after visiting the water closet, unless you’d earlier taken a long journey by airplane or had walked for hours under a punishing sun, the latter being very unlikely given how often it rains in Paris, you would decide against bathing right away and not enter until much later at night, if at all, the ample bathroom painted a dark blue, where a deep tub with clawed feet invited repose, and a new and efficient, large-capacity hot-water heater of German design and make, a birthday gift to E from her family, who insisted she accept it, reminding her that the war was long over and that she ought to permit herself this one luxury, worked tirelessly, heating water in case you or someone else should wish to bathe, and you would retrace your steps along the bare corridor to the kitchen, where you’d unlock the back door next to the stove and step onto a wooden landing, an island worn smooth over time, and there, if you had in your hand a small sac of refuse, you might deposit your offering in the garbage chute before climbing the winding and somewhat-cramped stairs to the next floor, where you’d knock, if not overcome by shyness, upon the door of one of several maid’s rooms, hoping you’d selected the correct door, the one belonging to E, and after several minutes, just as you were about to retreat, the door would open and you’d be invited in by F, an old and skinny friend of E’s with nervous hands, who’d hurry to clear the books off her chair, her one chair, a woman with meagre financial resources, eking out her living as a graphologist. You’d stand inside her miniscule room beneath the sloping roof, uncertain what to do with your own hands, what to do or to say next, and you’d imagine that the room still belonged to E’s grandson, the psychiatrist, who’d lived between these walls and beneath this roof as a teenager, and then you’d bend and look out the window, and feel him watching you as you crossed over the river, on the Pont de Bir-Hakeim, your long red hair loose in the wind, though by the time you first came to Paris and moved in with E, he’d long ago trundled his possessions across the city to a larger room.
The Pont de Passy, built between 1903 and 1905, is made of steel and extends 230 metres, reaching from one side of the Seine to the other, connecting the Sixteenth District to the Fifteenth. The bridge is comprised of two levels. Above the flow of motor vehicles and pedestrians, the sixth line of the metro whirs and trembles as it races through a viaduct resting on metal colonnades and upon a masonry arch where the viaduct passes over the Isle des Cygnes. In 1947, the bridge was renamed “de Bir-Hakeim” to remind the world of a glorious battle fought five years earlier in the Syrian desert by the Free French Brigade, who for fifteen days held back Rommel’s German Africa Corps. Outnumbered ten to one, advanced upon by hundreds of tanks, and bombed from the air, the French soldiers succeeded beyond all expectations, buying time for the British to bring more troops into position in Egypt, where the Germans would soon be decisively thwarted in their desire to reach and snatch control of the Suez Canal. Bir Hakeim, “le puit du sage,” “the old man’s well,” was an Ottoman fortress located at the site of an oasis, long gone dry by the time the Free French soldiers arrived and were ordered to dig large holes in which to plant themselves in the sand and rock, and to dig smaller holes in which to place mines by the hundreds. The photograph below shows three soldiers of the French Colonial Artillery, one from Senegal, one from Madagascar, and one from Equatorial Africa, recognized for having fought with exceptional bravery in the battle of Bir Hakeim.
On F’s desk lay a letter she’d received that same day, requesting her services as a graphologist. The missive addressed to her enclosed a copy of an older letter, composed in June 1942 by a Senegalese soldier. The soldier’s son explained that he desired to have his father’s handwriting analyzed in the hope he might better understand his father’s character, and in particular his father’s precise frame of mind at the time he composed the enclosed document, which described at length the night sky, the weight of so many stars pressing down on the desert, the sound of voices singing in German not far away, then silence once more opening its vault, and the dogs that wandered, and continued to wander untroubled when British planes flew overhead but who dived into the nearest hole in the ground upon hearing a German plane, so that the quickest way to learn who was coming at you from the air was to keep an eye on the dogs, and mentioned also that its writer had recently been obliged to cut off his friend’s left leg, and that during this act the whining of the planes diving straight for the ground did not for a moment diminish, nor did the number of bombs being dropped, so that once night fell, when he climbed out of his hole to answer a call of nature, he had no choice but to pull on his shoes or the shrapnel strewn everywhere would lacerate his feet.
The soldier’s son, in his missive to F, explained that he’d recently been fired from his job, declared redundant by a company nervous about its profit margin, a company for whom he’d worked for fifteen years, and that he’d now been searching for work for several months without success, his movements becoming slower, he noticed, and his appetite shrinking and his clarity of mind waning, and given the hardships his father had endured, he hoped to now draw on his father’s secrets, if only F could assist him in sweeping away the sands of time concealing the source of his father’s courage.
In 1900, E travelled with her father from Kiev to Paris to attend the World’s Fair, where they were invited to marvel at a diesel engine that burned peanut oil and at a Human Zoo displaying men and women from Senegal and Madagascar.
“A small suitcase travelled with us,” she told me. “It was never to be left unattended. I learned only later that it was full of gold bars.” Her entrepreneurial father, owner of a large sugar refinery and man of foresight, had decided to invest abroad and with a portion of his gold had purchased an apartment in Paris, overlooking the controversial Eiffel Tower.
Less than twenty years later, having narrowly escaped the capture of Kiev by Russia’s Red Guards, the sugar magnate and his wife would again arrive in Paris, this time to take up permanent residence in the apartment awaiting them, while their daughter, E, newly married and pregnant, travelling in the company of her husband, an accomplished viola player, was making her way to America.
From Boston, in 1924, or thereabouts, E journeyed to Paris for the purpose of introducing her two young daughters to their grandparents. While in Paris, she received a telegram announcing her husband’s death. “I stood on the balcony,” said E, “and considered throwing myself onto the pavement below, but a voice instructed me to submit. Il faut subir, the voice told me. Yours will be a long life and you must accept to live it. Il faut subir. And so I came in off the balcony and continued to live.”
Though E raised her daughters in France, for the rest of her life she insisted that they speak to her in English, which they did, English being for E a language of happiness and freedom, a Boston language. With anyone but her daughters, E spoke French with ease. Russian she spoke with displeasure. Russian she associated with her mother, a cold and dismissive woman. In the sounds of the French language resided the ghost of E’s beloved Swiss governess, in whose long skirts she’d hidden as a child, clinging to the folds of cloth, ardently gripping the legs concealed, the moving columns of muscle and flesh draped in layers of fabric, her nostrils burrowing into warmth, her cheek pressed against the solid weave, and for such extended periods of time that her nanny threatened to attach her there with safety pins if she refused to let go.
When E’s life of one hundred and four years ended, depression ensnared L. She struggled to escape. She took up the piano. She’d not played since she was a child. She faced the big box full of strings, allowed its reverberations to travel through her body.
“Such pleasure it gives me,” she said as we sat in her kitchen. “When I play, I feel close to my father.”
Daily, she opened her piano and entered its many rooms, listening and losing her way, beginning again, repeating. Her hands applied a precise pressure. The descent of her fingers felt more like a lifting, a leap upward that freed a selection of notes that resolved everything and nothing. Her feet on the pedals dampened or sustained, shaping longevity.
My telephone rang. L’s voice alighted and my room’s walls revealed that they were only pretending. They were no more solid than a voice. “I can no longer play the piano. I miss it terribly.” It was the new medication. “But I’m told it will help, that with time I’ll adjust to it.” The new medication swung certain doors open and slammed others shut. It placed music in exile. Fear it invited in.
The voice that spoke to me from Paris belonged to L’s daughter. She’d found her mother, or rather a shape and weight dressed in her mother’s clothes, broken by the act of falling, all breath choked off in a descent interrupted yet final.
Long ago or yesterday, P, L’s husband, so that he might maintain his trim figure by doing chin-ups and other exercises, had installed at the end of the second-floor hallway a sturdy metal bar close to the ceiling. For this metal bar L had found her own use.
In the months preceding her decision to end her life, L’s behaviour, I was told, had become unusual. She’d begun hoarding potatoes, buying bag after bag and hiding them away. Taxi drivers she’d come to distrust, and she would lash out, accusing them of overcharging her. It could be argued that L had already ceased to exist. It could also be said that she advanced toward her decision as if walking into a mirror. Much can be argued.
In the months following L’s death, I repeatedly dreamed of removing the keys from under the statue, to the left of her front door. Inside the house I climbed the graceful stairs that led to the second floor but partway up I stopped. Again I retrieved the keys, unlocked the front door, and started up the stairs. When at last I reached the top and walked down the hall, L was standing in the washroom, the window thrown open, the birch tree that grows from the sloping front lawn filling the frame of the window, air shifting the innumerable leaves, small areas of sunlight and shadow exchanging places, and the tree taking its next breath.
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