Question for the week
Each day a different chapter from The Square Root of Someone is featured. Readers often ask if the essays are true. Every single one is.
She was in her late sixties, and years of travel to Everywhere were stamped on her passport. But wherever she went, she had one idiosyncrasy.
My mother never stayed in fancy hotels. Why pay for a posh room, her argument went, when she would only use it for sleeping. Instead, she found lodging in fringe areas that never saw four stars.
And that is how we ended up in a petite hotel in Montmarte the last time we visited Paris together. I don’t think she even noticed the obvious comparison to the “red light” district of any major American city. Nor did it bother her that the bathroom was a long walk down the long hall.
Our second floor room looked out on the front of the hotel. In turn, the hotel fronted a square that boasted a carousel and a café. Across the square was a Catholic church with a banner stretching between its farthest corners that begged tourists to make a contribution to its renovation. Mother would have approved of the effort to preserve the church, but would never have donated a dime.
After checking in and dumping our bags, we left the hotel in search of an early dinner. There were many small restaurants to choose from in the neighborhood, and she found a little French bistro to her liking only a few blocks away. That night, over a bottle of red wine, Mother let down her perpetual guard and reminisced about her childhood and mine. She talked of her parents and of leaving home. She talked of marrying my father and then divorcing him when I was still a child.
Mother loved to travel. She often told about her first trip, at age nineteen, when she’d saved enough money to fly from New York City to Syracuse in the morning and back on the same afternoon. From that day forward, she decided that she would be an airline stewardess. And when my mother decided something, it was as good as done. She applied to TWA and became a stewardess long before men sought the position and the title became that of flight attendant.
Mother loved the job; but it was during World War II and, like many young women, she met a soldier after she’d been on the airlines a while. He proposed. She accepted.
In those days, married women were not allowed on the airlines, so Mother resigned. My mother and father married on Valentine’s Day, and I arrived two years later. Although the marriage didn’t last, her love of travel did.
The first trip I remember taking with my mother occurred the summer I turned ten. We crossed the United States, from New York to Oregon and back, by train. That was in the day when railroads were considered a fine method of transportation, instead of simply a way to carry freight from Point A to Point B. Mother, who always maintained an open door policy in her own home, had friends all along the way who owed her free lodging; so we rode the train from one home to the next, spending a few days here and a few days there. We didn’t stay in a single hotel.
When I was in high school, Mother announced at the beginning of one summer that she wanted to save $400 and treat us to a trip to New Orleans for Thanksgiving. Both $400 and New Orleans seemed like unimaginable extravagances to me, but I agreed to do my share by giving up our weekly dinner at the local cafeteria. I really did not see how this would make a difference; but if Mother said it would, then it was so.
Sure enough, at the beginning of November she bought two coach railway tickets and took me out of school a day early during Thanksgiving Week so that we could be in New Orleans for the traditional turkey dinner. Since we knew no one in the city, Mother broke down and made reservations for the smallest room at the Monteleone Hotel in the center of the French Quarter.
“Do you remember,” she’d say to me in later years, “The Thanksgiving dinner in New Orleans?”
I wasn’t obliged to answer, but I always nodded.
“Remember how they turned off the lights at dessert time and asked everyone in the restaurant to light a match. It was like a thousand twinkling stars.”
As a rule Mother kept these memories -- and many others -- to herself. But this particular night in the French bistro in Montmarte, with the Paris lights twinkling like the thousand matches of long ago, she was as warm and charming and gentle as I ever remember; and we shared secrets back and forth, made more special by a second bottle of Cabernet. Silly and tired, we strolled back to the hotel.
As always, Mother fell asleep immediately. But before she shut her eyes for the night, I remember her rising up on one arm from the bed and saying in miserable French, “Shut the door, Anne, shut the door.”
I smiled in the dark. This remarkable woman could master the Metro but her tongue could not conquer the French language. "Shut the door" was her American way of saying "I love you" in French.
“Je t’adore, Mamma, je t’adore,” I whispered back, hoping she had heard me.
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