On the outside, nothing has changed. The same little French town with its narrow streets nestled in the countryside outside of Paris, the same apartment building, the same photos of all the children and grandchildren on the walls, and the same routine as summers past. I’ve even been sleeping in the same twin bed that I grew up sleeping in while spending summer vacation with my grandparents from the time I was six until going to college. In the past ten days, I have slipped back into the simple routine of my childhood summers, a peaceful yet nostalgic endeavor that on one hand feels very natural and on the other, seems out of place.
For the first couple of mornings, my grandmother left the hot chocolate powder out on the breakfast table, along with my favorite mug as a kid. It wasn’t until I had kissed her good morning in traditional French fashion and went for the coffee maker that she realized her mistake, the effect of over a two year absence. “Oh but of course, why would you want hot chocolate, you’re 21 now,” she exclaimed. By contrast, my love for freshly made croissants has not changed!
Apart from the new-and-improved breakfast routine, much of the day looks the same. Going to the market, picking out fresh produce, daily walks in the park of the local Château de Chantilly (when in Europe, you’re never far from a castle!), and watching my grandmother’s favorite soap opera. I still run into the same neighbors on my runs and the same kids splash away in the pool across the street, just a few years older. My grandmother and I still pass hours together talking on the couch, myself listening to stories of her childhood and family legends that I’ve heard many times but still love to hear.
But looks can be deceiving; that’s one of the first things you have to learn about grief. For as much as things appear to have remained the same on the outside, everything has changed. The lives associated with this apartment look nothing like they did four years ago. In 2010, our last summer together as an entire family, none of us could have imagined how different things would be. And sometimes it’s hard to know where your place is or what role you should assume in an environment that, down to its very roots, has been profoundly changed from the place you were so familiar with before. We are all changed. Certain topics of conversation are avoided; there are boundaries that are not crossed. The emptiness of my grandfather’s chair is ignored but ever present in my periphery vision. The candle burning in front of Mom’s picture day and night seems less obtrusive and more of an accepted reality than it did during my first visit after her death. Sleepless nights are common and no one needs to explain why. In the face of all these changes, it seems odd that life here should continue as it did before all those summers ago as if nothing is different at all. It almost feels dishonest.
Maybe my anticipation of this trip has made this intense feeling of deja-vu mixed with discomfort and a pinch of fascination harder to understand. After two and half years since my last visit and four years since visiting under happy circumstances, I guess I expected either a jubilant homecoming or a complete deviation from what I had known before. In other words, I prepared myself for the extreme ends of the spectrum and wasn’t prepared to find things the same … yet so different. When I arrived, I quickly found my grandmother in the crowd and after hugs and kisses, it was as if no time had passed at all since the last time we had seen each other. The drive home from the airport was just as I remember it as a kid, lots of fields and passing through little towns. And although the surroundings flashing by my window were all familiar, I just couldn’t quite connect myself to that them. I have such happy memories of this place, full of family and laughter, but they feel so far away, so different from the present. How do I reconcile those memories with how our lives are now, moving forward but always looking back?
I am so grateful to be able to come back to this special place, to spend time with these people who mean so much to me. But it will never be the same. There will always be a hole, a piece of the puzzle missing. Life has moved on here just as it did at home but we still hold on to the past, perhaps as a way of reminding ourselves of what we’ve lost. It’s painful to weigh the present against the past but sometimes it’s important to go back to a place where you may fear the sadness will overtake you and plant new roots, new memories to look back on. And if you’re lucky, the people who understand what has been lost will be waiting for you, arms wide open and ready to pick up where you left off.