My father sleeps. His august aspect
portrays a peaceful heart;
he is now so sweet…
if there is any bitterness in him, it will be me.
Cesar Vallejo, The Distant Footsteps
(translated by Michael Smith and Valentino Gianuzzi)
I was thinking of my father last night and there is a very limited treasure of memories. A dozen, perhaps fifteen. The killing of a garter snake, my excited running to the garden at the announcement of what he’d found, my terrified running away from the garden at the serpent’s death at the end of a pitchfork. The smell of blow torch and peeling paint, the feel of a cola so cold that slush was in the bottle’s neck, the sun so hot on the sand and tar of the boatyard. My trying to haul a basketful of clams over the side of his boat and his rescue of me and the clams. His taking the boat into a hurricane, my family on shore screaming for him to come back, my bawling desire to go with him: it was years later that I realized he must have been dealing with news that he had lung cancer and would have but a few months to live. Watching him on the telephone place bets with a bookie. The most vivid and intense smell of chocolate, so strong that it didn’t seem possible I breathed any oxygen molecules while wandering a distributor’s warehouse as my father settled accounts in closing our neighborhood store. After the closure of the store his planting of gladioli, the sword flower, still my favorite, in his garden behind the house newly bought in the newly crafted housing development.
There were late spring and early summer days when my younger sister, then four years old, and I waited for hours inside a car parked outside New York City’s St. Luke’s Hospital (St. Luke, the patron saint of artists, physicians, surgeons, students and butchers) where my father lay dying, no surgeon, no physician able to keep his lung cancer from taking him young. The final memory: his grave marker, a small metal marker that I was never able to find in later years, unable as I was to find his grave. Then years later the final memory as I looked at the photograph of a man and a woman full of smiles, holding a baby, as if that were the act that defined their lives.
What would life been like had he lived? My sisters likely would not have married so young: they did so just to escape living with our step-father, someone whose presence, like an ingrown toe-nail, was tolerated until it could be excised. I likely would have spent Saturday mornings on the water with my father instead of chasing down my step-father in saloons. I might have become an M.D. as he had so hoped, but more likely I would have followed a life similar to the rest of the family and might still live in my home town.
If he hadn’t died, I would have seen a husband and wife try to negotiate their way through life, debt, grand children, bad decisions, good times—or maybe not. Maybe seeing my mother and father together would have helped me with my own relationships. But if he had lived, then I would not have had a life of not knowing what to call the man who seemed an intruder, a jolly enemy, a person whose moods could change with just one more beer.
This cascade of thoughts began when I learned this week there is the slimmest of chances for me to live in France, that it might be possible to put enough pieces of the visa puzzle together to spend time there. Somehow, that reminded me of the Judy Collins song.
People have often asked why I am so drawn to France. There is no ready explanation. I struggled so during European History in high school to keep the Louis and Charles and Henris straight, to keep the Napoleons in order, to list the revolutions in sequence, and state the years of the Republics. It wasn’t any easier with Medieval History in college. My French teacher in college had the thickest southern drawl (U.S.) that made French all but impenetrable and sounded nothing like the tapes we used in lab. I have so struggled with learning French over the years.
There was a neighbor, Michelle Palfe, whose French parents seemed so strict and secretive—they wouldn’t let her play with the rest of the kids in the neighborhood and she alone went to Catholic school—and there were Italian and Irish and Polish kids aplenty in our neighborhood.
There were images of de Gaulle and Paris, the movie Casablanca, Charles Boyer and Louis Jordan and Maurice Chevalier (whom I thought so handsome and debonair), the legacies of two wars, and fashion added to the collection of French references: more than anything, fashion. One of my brother-in-laws worked at Condé Nast Publications, so I had access to Vogue and Glamour and Mademoiselle and imagined myself on those pages. As ridiculous as it may sound, I so wanted to be in those magazines wearing those clothes, and so Chanel, Dior, Balenciaga and Givenchy became part of my secret vocabulary.
There were movies like Moulin Rouge and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, both too scary for me. My other brother-in-law, the lusty one who married the lusty sister, came back from having seen And God Created Woman, and his over-the-top appreciation for the naked Bardot locked another piece of French womanhood into my being. There were Edith Piaf and Charles Trenet tunes. An American in Paris, Funny Face, Love in the Afternoon, Gigi, and An Affair to Remember— these, too, helped set the stage for my totally unrealistic view of life. And so the foundation for my appreciation of all that is France was set. The walls and floors that came later included:
- Picasso, Monet, Manet, Matisse, Cézanne, and Corot
- Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, and Varda
- Gainsbourg, Hardy, and Hallyday
- Blier, Belmondo, Trintignant, and Delon
- Jeanne Moreau, Catherine Deneuve, Jean Seberg, Simone Signoret
I made it to France, finally, in the 1990s and for a while there was, on average, a trip a year, in all seasons. I thought it would be the country to which I would retire. Then a lot of things happened and it looked all but impossible.
Now that I may be able to realize this dream, I suddenly have a solution to “my stuff in storage” issue. If I can’t live with my things, but I can have something of far greater meaning, the experience of Europe and of France, then I can give many of my things to a woman who’s starting anew, as my mother had to. A fitting realization on International Women’s Day.
Nina Simone lived in France from 1992 until her death in 2003.
My Father (Collins)
A Single Woman (McKuen)
The title song from her last album (1993). The song was written by Rod McKuen, who died in January of this year.