I knew your Mother

I knew your Mother

“I knew your mother, once.”

This simple phrase that once may have only sparked mild interest took on a whole new meaning this year. It was the sentence in a conversation that changed a social interaction from superficially formal to deeply personal, with an unspoken mutual understanding of what it meant to know the woman in question. It was the signal that sent my mind on high alert to try and retain any piece of information about her that might come up in conversation, the mark of someone else in the world walking around with stories and information about the person to whom I wish I could still ask so many questions.

Almost a year ago, I set out on a trip to France, my mother’s homeland where she spent the first twenty-two years of her life before moving to North Carolina to pursue a career in microbiology. Wanting to reconnect with her roots and the people who knew her during this period of her life, I spent a lot of time tracking down old friends and family members to talk with them about my mom and to try and capture some of their memories on paper. When I started this trip, I wasn’t exactly sure where it would lead me; I just knew that I needed to be in this place with these people who were connected to my mom in a different way than how I was. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I reached out to these people, some of them who hadn’t spoken to my mom in over 20 years and many whom I had never met before. And sometimes the hardest conversations were those with my own family members, aunts and uncles and my own grandmother, as we all try to protect one another from each other’s grief. But I was welcomed into many homes, fed some of the most delicious food, and got to know and befriend some of the kind-hearted people.

So I want to share some snippets of these conversations with you. Not so much to mark the year that has almost flown by but as a tribute to all the time and love that these people have shared and continue to share with me. This is but a small sampling of the stories I have collected and there are still many people with whom I have yet to talk. Some of the stories may seem mundane but they represent the type of information that we often share with others and that my mom can no longer share with me, and so I appreciate them for the simple factoid that they are and my mind grasps onto them tightly as a little piece of my mom’s identity. These stories help fill in the hole that can never quite be filled and I’ll continue to search and collect them for as long as there are still stories to be told. For those of you that knew her and for those of you who only know her through my stories, here are a few little pieces of my mother, shared with you with much love from many many people.

On growing up:

“She always had a book in hand. That is how I will always remember her.” -D.B.

She and I were the stars of our dance class when we were little. We were the only ones who had any sense of rhythm.” -A.B.

“On Saturdays, we would all go into the city to run errands. When we were little, Mom and Dad would leave us at the cinema while they did the shopping. And for some reason, they were always playing the Jungle Book, so we saw that movie at least fifty times.” -A.B.

“She just always had this sense of wisdom about her, even when we were really little. It was like she knew more about life than her age gave away.” -A.B.

“One time while we were living in Paris together, she left the apartment with her purse and the bag of garbage to throw it away in the dumpster. And then while she was waiting for the metro, she looked down and realized she was still carrying the garbage bag and she had thrown her purse away! That was your mom, always in the clouds.” -A.B.

“When she would come down to the farm to stay with us on holiday, it was our job to look after the goats in the field. But we always got distracted with our games and we would get in trouble because the goats would run off and be in someone else’s field!” -C.B.B.

“From the very beginning, she loved school. If she was misbehaving, we would threaten to keep her home from school and she’d straighten up right away.” -M.B.

“When she was in preschool, she befriended all the children from poor families who worked in the factory nearby and would bring them home with her to have a snack, holding their hand with an arm around their shoulder. She was five years-old.” -M.B.

“She was always very independent, she never wanted to do things the way everyone else did them.” -M.B.

“We met in “Les Guides” (France’s equivalent of Girl Scouts). Those were some really good times, I have very fond memories of that time together.” -A.L.

“It was the summer of 1976, I believe, because I had just graduated high school…and we went on a backpacking trip around the English coast. We were a group of six girls. We hiked and biked and hitchhiked a little as well! We ended up missing our flight back to France on this small cargo plane and ended up sleeping in the parking lot of the police station so that no one would bother us.” -A.L.

Entitled “The Little Old Ladies.” Photo courtesy of Anne Barbier.

On moving to the US:

“I think at that time, it was hard for us to understand why she would want to start her life in a foreign country so far away from home. But she was so dedicated and passionate about her scientific work that she needed to be in that kind of open environment. America provided that liberty of thought that she desired. I can understand that now. But I still don’t think I would have been able to do the same thing!” -A.L.

“When she first got to the States, she didn’t think she’d be able to stay, she hated it so much. She’d say, “I don’t think I’ll last a month here.” But slowly, she got used to it.” -M.L.

“We used to call each other “The Three Graces” after that famous painting by Raphael because we were inseparable. For many years, we were very very close. But then life happens.” -M.L.

On resemblances:

“You have the same profile as your mom.” -C.V.

“You have the same eyes as your mom. And she’s in your smile as well.” -E.

“I’m sorry but you look so much like your mother! It’s taking me back fifty years!” -C.B.

On cancer and death:

“Maybe I should have visited more. You know the last time I came to North Carolina was 2000? But it’s so easy to look back and realize that you really DID have the time and you DID have the money to go spend a week with your best friend. When life is actually happening, though, you forget what is important. You just work, work, work and you think there will always be more time.” -C.V.

“From the beginning of her illness, I think that your parents made a very conscious decision to be a team despite any other differences they may have had. And I know that was really important for Claire, for you kids, especially at the end.” -C.V.

“There were moments at the end when I saw her leaving this world already and I had to hold my breath. But then the moment would pass and she’d still be there.” -A.B.

“The last time I saw her, I told her I didn’t want to leave. But she told me, ‘Don’t worry, go home. We’ll see each other this summer and everything will be a lot better.’ Now I wonder if she really believed that or if she already knew it was the end.” -A.B.

“Did she know it was the end? Did she believe she could beat the odds again? I will never be able to stop asking myself that question.” -C.V.

“To this day, I still consider her my best friend.” -C.V.


Holding On

The time stamp on the email was April 14, 2011. The subject read “bad news.” Here in my hands was the exchange of emails between my mother and her best friend, announcing that in all likelihood, the end was near.

I read them over and over again, memorizing every word, every turn-of-phrase. I read them going south on the 4, made my change at Réamur Sébastopol, then unfolded the piece of paper again on the 3, direction Levallois. The next morning, I sat by the window on the J line headed into the city, sleepily reviewing the words again. Later in the day, I sat in a park eating my lunch and couldn’t help taking it out of my bag again.

These are the last words I have from my mom that she put down on paper, and I want to understand every single one.

Looking back on the dates of the emails, I can place exactly where I was and what I was doing. I know that on April 14, I was living in the library, in the middle of writing two final papers and preparing for final exams of my freshman year of college. I distinctly remember calling my mom outside the library during my breaks for moral support and having no idea of what was going on on the other side of the phone. This was a source of anger for a long time afterwards, as I felt that I should have been made aware sooner so that I could have been more present during her final weeks. But I also know that I aced both of those papers and that had I known right away, I probably would have dropped everything, run home, and never come back.

In any case, this anger was resolved a long time ago. As I absorbed my mother’s grief in these words, something I usually was not privy to, I felt no anger. I even found it hard to connect with that time in my life at all. As time goes on, we evolve, we become different versions of ourselves. But when you go through a loss where you feel as if you have to hold on to every memory in order to preserve that person or thing, how can you possibly shed all your skin without letting go of that person completely and truly losing them forever? I am not the same person I was at eighteen, when these emails and many more like them were sent. I will grow old and change but my filaments will remain attached to this particular time in my life, stretched in some places to weaken the hurt, but always intact. Otherwise, how else can she continue to exist?

“Whatever happens, it will go as well as it can,” she wrote.

And despite the regrets that sometimes resurface, I guess it did.