Carnet de Voyage: My Mother Was Not French

Carnet de Voyage: My Mother Was Not French

My mother was not French. She was from sturdy, midwestern stock, descended from strong, silent, sensible Swedes. But, after we took her to Paris for the first time, she confessed to me that she loved Paris enough to consider wishing she had been, in another life, born Parisian – not French mind you, just Parisian. After all, being French, for a descendant of Swedes and Scots was a bridge too far.

I asked her why she had such a notion.

“Because being here, in Paris, makes me brave and a little invincible.” Was her simple reply. I never pressed for a fuller explanation.

She confessed, at the time of our trip, that at 84, being in Paris was an experience of a lifetime, unlikely to be repeated while tethered to her earthly body.

“Why the trip of a lifetime,” I asked.

“Because there’s a time for work, there’s a time for your family, and then there is a time for yourself,” she answered matter-of-factly. “I love Paris!” she proclaimed, as so many before her have claimed.

Even though she had the initial apprehension of being an “innocent abroad,” she was in excellent spirits, and eager to experience all she could of the City of Light. She was, as French women say, “bien dans son âge”. She was comfortable at her own age.

In the past few years, as the days of her own mortality weighed on her, she drew up lists of songs, people, and festivities she would like for her own memorial service — une cérémonie d’adieu, as I reminded her of the French term, to her delight. And more than once she acknowledged that she would likely never return to Paris. Each time I repeated to her, “Même dans la mort, nous aurons toujours Paris, maman” (Mom, even in death, we will always have Paris). In fact, these were the same words I whispered in her ear as I left her deathbed for the last time. Between us, over the years, it had become a prayer, and I weep even now as I write the words of our secret code.

After she entered Hospice, I asked her how she felt about it. “I’m impatient to go. I’m ready. It’s enough. It’s not much fun hanging around as my body falls apart.”

My mother was not eager to die, but while living, she was intensely alive and curious about her experience. She kept track of precisely what she did and did not like. Instead of a bucket list, she delighted in small daily moments and meeting with old friends. She also enjoyed her palliative care and the various services it offered -“Who knew I would get free massages?” she remarked with the penurious sensibility of a Scot. Referring to her doctors, nurses, and death doula, she told me: “We really have profound conversations. Because they’re involved with life and death all the time.”

She reminded me of the lessons she learned from decades in Al-anon: Don’t confuse your own joys and preferences with anyone else’s. Observe your own mind and experiences carefully and arrange your life — and your death — accordingly.

My mother did not think of herself as a “women’s libber.” She was not of that generation. But she was a liberated woman – une femme libre, as I would tease her. And now I am confident she is NOT among les disparus – the disappeared. Rather, she will be with me always, especially each year I am in Paris.

Nous aurons toujours Paris, maman!

Lead photo credit : "We'll always have Paris" © Alexander Kagan on Unsplash

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  •  Margaret Morris
    2023-05-10 06:39:44
    Margaret Morris
    Although my eyes are wet with tears, you have spoken to my heart, you and your mother too. I am 83 and just on that brink that many of us fear to cross. You both reminded me to see the cup half full - and how to do it. Merci mille fois. Grosses bises.


  •  Laurie
    2023-05-04 10:56:29
    What a special relationship the writer and his mother had! It reminds me of me and my son and our love of all things French. Thank you, Alan, for sharing these precious memories, and yes, you and she will always have Paris.


  • Patricia Diana Folk
    2023-05-03 06:32:50
    Patricia Diana Folk
    This is genuinely a lovely tribute to your precious Mother. As a mother myself, I am so pleased to read your sincere words. I was just looking at a itinerary of a river cruise I would like to take before I pass. But with the COVID and now a few health problems, I have delayed making a commitment. I have been to Paris twice but not for any extended time, which I regret. Currently, I would love to experience a trip to the Normandy coast and Brittany with a visit to Le Havre where my Father served during WW2. He was with the American soldiers who entered France just after the initial attack on D Day. I am sure that your Mother heard the French sentence you whispered to her and passed with a smile on her heart.


  •  Anthony Fitz
    2023-05-03 02:02:33
    Anthony Fitz
    Great write up. Looking forward to more.