France is the cure for a daughter in mourning, but nothing is going right. This short story is excerpted from Becoming Madame Texier, due out in 2018.
It begins with a tiny island in the South Pacific. White sand, a coral reef, a private villa. This tropical paradise can be yours, all yours, for three nights and the price of a modest home in Nebraska. It comes with farm-to-table cuisine prepared by the Fijian staff, 400-thread-count sheets, tennis courts, a yacht. The islanders welcome you with song. They wait at the airstrip with leis and mai tais and strum their ukeleles just for you.
And then you discover, quite by accident, that the villa was constructed without a permit, the coral reef is in danger, the Fijians are royally pissed off. The island, once theirs, is now the sole property of some rich American guy who makes sunglasses. This you learn from an obscure blog, much of it written in Fijian.
The Fijians have been allowed to keep their fishing rights. And they have jobs, laundering sheets and preparing mahimahi with vanilla sauce for the sunglasses mogul and his guests. The Fijians on the private island’s Web site look happy. They are picking vegetables, carrying platters of fruit, and smiling. But behind the smiling faces, there is anger.
This is interesting. This feels like a story.
This is the moment when you should bail, but you don’t, because you need the money. You have been working at this new job for two days.
You are paid to write nice things about Scottish castles with puffy clouds at the top of the photo and puffy sheep in the foreground. Beach villas where you can walk around topless and nobody will stare because there is nobody.
You are paid to write about spectacular sunrises, panoramic vistas, and quaint villages nestled in timeless valleys dotted with ancient ruins.
You are not paid to write about disappearing coral reefs, rising seas, displaced people, disputed land rights, infestations of seaweed, jellyfish, and mosquitoes.
Or maybe it starts with the move to France. They say that moving is very stressful. When you move a bird, or a plant, it often dies. Even rocks have memories. You should leave it, said your Albuquerque friend when you picked up a stone, studied it, and put it in your pocket. You were hiking by a stream. There were pretty stones in the streambed, white, red, gray, glistening in the sun of a high-prairie summer. They belong here, she said. If you take them to Los Angeles, they will be homesick.
Or maybe it starts with the trip to New Zealand in mid-November, a month after you begin the new job. The trip begins with a phone call. Your son, age twenty-seven, has been hit by a car but he’s okay. Okay? He’s in the hospital in Auckland so no, not okay. The injuries are to his foot and his face. How is that even possible? Everything in between seems unharmed. Broken toes and a broken cheekbone, a bruised eye socket. The phone call is from your son’s ex-girlfriend. Your husband answers.
What about his eye? What about his eye? You are practically shouting.
A week later, your husband leaves for Auckland, to be there when the surgeons repair your son’s face.
Maybe that’s when it begins.
You are a travel writer who rarely travels. You write about places you have never visited and will probably never see. Tropical islands, alpine ski resorts, mountain villages in Nepal. You do this with the help of dozens of travel agents, the occasional underpaid intern, and Google. The process is very time-consuming. When all is said and done—the sifting and sorting, the dredging, the assimilating, the crafting of a coherent narrative that will induce the reader to click “Book It Now”—you probably earn less than the Fijian ukelele players.
You used to travel. You were traveling when you met your husband, a safari guide, at an airport near Kilimanjaro. Most of your travel was in the off-season, to save money. The lodges that you visited with your husband-to-be were deserted. That was twenty years ago.
Today, you and your husband occupy a flat owned by your mother-in-law, who is in a nursing home. The flat is in Fontainebleau-Avon, a commune thirty-four miles from Paris. There is a royal chateau just over yonder. The commune—some people would call it a town—is in the middle of a vast forest where kings used to hunt boars on horseback. Now the boars roam the town at night, digging up lawns and terrorizing people. The Welsh friend who walks with you in the forest said she was late to a dinner party because she couldn’t get out of her car; it was surrounded by a dozen boars of all sizes. Some were very large.
When you are not in Fontainebleau you are in Randolph, Vermont, the small town where you were born, or in northern Manhattan, where your ex-husband has an apartment that overlooks the Hudson. You lead a complicated life, but you do not travel, except between these three places, back and forth, back and forth. You will not be going to Fiji anytime soon. Or ever.
You tell yourself that you are in transition and that transitions are difficult. They are supposed to be difficult, challenging, disruptive, painful as hell, otherwise you would be stuck doing the same-old same-old for the rest of your life. Transition equals growth. You are growing, changing, and it is bloody uncomfortable—a lot like being a teenager, in fact, except that at your age you are supposed to know better, whereas teenagers are supposed to be clueless.
Maybe “it”—this transition to God knows where, this belated adolescence, this middle-aged cluelessness—maybe it began the day you became an orphan. Can one become an orphan at age sixty? An orphan is a small person, a minor, who cannot take care of herself, who needs an adult to take charge of her well-being. If that is the definition, then you are not an orphan, you are something else. Not a noun but a bunch of adjectives, describing your condition: bereft, grieving, parentless, lost uncertain, sad, homeless.
Homeless because the house in Vermont is not really yours and never will be. Neither is the house in France. Neither is the apartment in New York. The cup into which you pour your morning coffee, the pillow on which you lay your head at night, those things—like almost everything else that you live with—belong to somebody else. Exceptions: your laptop, your toothbrush, most of your clothes.
Words can be orphans, when they fall at the end of a paragraph. In typography, you have both widows and orphans, words that suffer from loneliness and isolation. A widow is a word at the end of a paragraph that lives on a line all by itself, cut off from kith and kin. An orphan is the same word when it lands at the top of a column of type, as if teetering on the edge of a precipice. Orphans and widows are rescued in a couple of ways. One way is to squeeze the letters and words together until the dangling word is drawn up into the preceding line, joining the herd. (This is called kerning.) The other, more ruthless method is to cut a word or two somewhere in the same paragraph as the widow. The excised word must have at least the same number of characters as the widow, and removing it must not damage the sentence. Once it’s gone, every word that follows will shift backward to fill in the gap. The chain reaction will cause the widow to be drawn up alongside its predecessors. Editors and typographers fret about widows and orphans. A little word at the end of a paragraph, on a line all by itself, is a typographic no-no. Better to throw some lazy-ass word overboard and make room for the dangling one.
The house in Vermont has six bedrooms. Once upon a time, five children and three adults slept there. The small bedroom in the back was the domain of a great aunt. The great aunt, who was difficult, was taken in because she had nowhere to go.
One day she stepped off a Greyhound bus with her handbag and her suitcase and got into the front seat of your mother’s car, a blue 1958 Chevrolet station wagon with fins, white side panels, and silver trim. She opened her handbag and fished out a tissue. She dabbed at her eyes and blew her nose. Much later, you learned she’d had a showdown with your mother’s sister, the reason for the tears. The grownups decided, in one of those discussions that grownups have when children are not around, that she would live in your house, with you.
The children’s bedrooms were reassigned. You and your younger sister doubled up. Aunt Hilda watched the Lawrence Welk Show on a little TV in the back bedroom. She baked cookies and pies, ironed the pillowcases, and made lunch. She did the dishes. In the afternoon, she watched her “programs.” Edge of Night, The Secret Storm, As the World Turns. You liked to watch them with her; they were your introduction to real evil. Once a deranged woman hid in the closet and then leaped out, stabbing somebody with a knife. Oh, oh, oh! said Aunt Hilda.
Your dad liked to play Scrabble with Aunt Hilda after dinner while your mom did the dishes. Alone at the kitchen table, Aunt Hilda played solitaire with a deck of plastic-coated playing cards that she sometimes washed in the kitchen sink. She had revolving feuds with three other old ladies in the neighborhood; the feuds were conducted largely by telephone. She used the phone so much that your mother finally got a second phone line so your father’s patients could reach him in an emergency. Aunt Hilda took offense at this. She told lies about your mother to make her look bad, but almost nobody believed them. It bothered your mother, but it bothered her more that Aunt Hilda used a lot of sugar—two heaping spoonfuls in her copious cups of Salada tea. When your mom made pie, Aunt Hilda reached into the sugar bowl with her teaspoon, then lifted up the crust of her slice of pie and sprinkled sugar over the filling, in defiance of your mother, who would follow with her eyes the trajectory of the spoon. World War II had been over for twenty years but sugar was still associated with the deprivations of the Great Depression. It also bothered your mother that Aunt Hilda was so self-centered, but she had always been that way, so there was no point in trying to change her. When your father died—suddenly, of a heart attack, at age fifty-eight—Aunt Hilda grieved in a dramatic fashion. “She carried on so, you would think she was the one who had lost her husband,” your mother said when the subject came up forty years later.
Aunt Hilda was family, so you took her in. Your mother’s house seemed capable of infinite expansion. Over the years, it took in a grandmother with dementia, a high-school history teacher who played the banjo, a blind judge, and a cousin who slept in the vegetable cellar. It was home to gerbils, rabbits, parakeets, and a crow. Turtles, snakes, and a baby robin. Dogs and cats. Numerous cats, especially after mice moved into the basement. The cats were supposed to catch the mice. They hung out in the basement and bred, scurrying into dark corners when your mother went down there to do laundry or fetch something from the freezer. Maybe they also caught mice, because one day a local farmer, in need of barn cats, came with some grain sacks, filled them with cats, and took them away.
Over the years, people left, people died, until the house, once so generous, so expansive, is empty and the five children who grew up there do not want to live with each other ever again.
This is the house that causes you to spend days on the couch, weeping.
To travel by air from Paris to Auckland takes a couple of days; the trip includes a long layover in Dubai. Your husband leaves for the airport in the morning.
Around midnight, the phone rings. You throw off the covers and rush down the hall. Who could be calling at this hour?
The phone stops ringing before you reach it.
When the phone rings in the night, it means something has happened. A plane crash. A bomb. A war.
Now you are wide awake. You open your laptop and search for clues. A bomb has exploded at a nightclub in Paris. Dozens of people have been injured. There are photos of people exiting the nightclub, of cops in the streets. The phone rings again.
“Where’s Dad?” News of the Paris bombings has reached New Zealand; your son heard it before you did.
“He’s on the plane. He’s on his way. Don’t worry. He’ll be there soon.”
There is noise in the background. “Where are you?”
“I’m at work.”
“You’re at work?” Your son works in a nightclub. “What are you doing at work?”
You know a little something about anxiety. Anxiety can turn you into a nervous wreck. Your mother used the term a lot. “Come down from there this minute you’re making me a nervous wreck!”
Once, a doctor gave you some breathing exercises. He was a naturopathic M.D. who had a radio show. Worth a try, said your therapist. What have you got to lose?
By then, you had seen a dozen different specialists, none of whom could figure out what was wrong with you. One of them wanted to remove your uterus. Another said, “I’m telling you, it isn’t malaria.” You handed the naturopathic M.D.— the radio doctor—a list of your symptoms. The list was very long. Fever, chills, stomach pain, headache, tinnitus, constipation, muscular pain, fatigue. The doctor spent a lot of time talking with you and then said, “I think this is anxiety.”
Your son was in his last year of high school. No, that’s not right. It was the year after, which was actually even worse. He hated school, the academic part, but he had lots of friends. Thank God for that. They were good kids, mostly boys, in love with video games. You fought with your son about the video games, which kept him up all night.
Five days a week, you took a bus into the city, along the New Jersey Turnpike. The view from your office was of Times Square. Your husband handled insurance claims for a rental-car company in the suburbs. You almost didn’t recognize yourselves.
Then your son graduated high school and hung around for a year, not ready to leave home, not very happy, probably feeling a lot like you do now. But more fearful than you, because he was only eighteen, and you are sixty-one. Feeling, let’s say, like you felt at his age. At his age, thinking about the future, you panicked. You were a nervous wreck.
You tell yourself that the best thing you ever did was to raise that boy, to help him through the rough spots, to keep him safe. But you know you are not responsible for his good heart, his intelligence, his courage, his compassion. He was that way when you met him, and he has stayed that way, despite everything. And now this.
Twelve hours later, the phone rings again. “Dad’s here,” says your son. “We’re in the car.” There is a loud commotion, yelling, then an ominous silence. “I’ve gotta go.” Click.
When he calls back, his voice is shaky. “Dad forgot he wasn’t driving a stick shift. We ran over the curb.”
Your husband: “Hello, darling, ça va?”
“Is everything okay there?”
“No problem. Everything’s fine.”
The next day, you get on a train bound for Paris. You take your laptop with you. The uniformed patrols at the Gare de Lyon carry automatic weapons and walk slowly, in groups of three or more. The bus to the airport takes you past the offices of a newspaper that was attacked ten months earlier; bunches of flowers are still piled on the sidewalk by the entrance. At the airport, there are more patrols, but the flights are on schedule. You board a plane bound for Dubai.
Years ago, you worked for a travel magazine in California. The editorial style guide included a list of banned words. Among them: nestled, paradise, pristine, breath-taking, the phrase “steeped in history,” and other travel-writing clichés. You were instructed never, ever to use the phrase “A journey to fill-in-the-blank is a step back in time.”
At the airport in Dubai, you open your laptop. Your task: to write three hundred words that will convince the reader to go to Japan. Immediately, before it’s too late. Before Japan is ruined by rising prices, overpopulation, industrial development, and global warming, and before the travel Web site, which is responsible for bookings, runs out of money.
You try to get interested in Japan’s hot springs, cherry blossoms, and volcanic landscape. The airport Wifi connection is very slow. You read about designer hotels, the way the train system works. You wait—fingers poised above the keyboard—for the Web pages to load. You marvel at how long it takes to write three hundred words that are not flabby, weak, banal, and riddled with travel-writing clichés. It doesn’t help that you have never been to Japan.
On the plane, you watch a British television series set in the early twentieth century. The European aristocracy is collapsing. The English countryside will be carved into housing developments, it is increasingly difficult to find a good butler, and the dukes and duchesses must adapt.
On the screen, you check your progress; the little plane flies across the big ocean. You do not sleep.
Once, the Randolph town crew paved the road past your house and the asphalt was sticky for days. Your mother warned you never to step in it. Something terrible would happen if you stepped in the tar. In your innocence, you imagined something much, much worse than blobs of tar on your mother’s living room carpet. Something like Br’er Rabbit stuck to Tar-Baby, or Pearl Pureheart, Mighty Mouse’s girlfriend, stuck to the railroad tracks. One day, you pushed your doll carriage along the sidewalk to the Steels’ house, two doors away. Then you turned around. But in turning, you stepped backward. Your shoe, the red canvas sneaker with the gold buckle, hit the tar. You screamed at the top of your lungs. Your mother came running. You see her, in your mind’s eye, turning the corner at the end of the drive, running toward you, skirt flapping. Tears were streaming down your cheeks. “I stepped in the road!” you wailed.
There was the time you convinced yourself that you had failed a test in second grade. You went home for lunch and wept tears of despair. After lunch, your mother drove you back to school and spoke with the teacher, Miss Kinville, who laughed and said that you had not failed the test. Miss Kinville and your mother reassured you. Your mother hugged you and left. “You’re such a worrywart,” said Miss Kinville. You didn’t like being called a wart.
When you became a third-grader, Mrs. Holman called you and Ronny Warner to her desk. The other third-grade class was too small, and yours was too big. You were being transferred to the other classroom to even things out. You wanted to stay with your class. You and your classmates had been together since first grade. You went home for lunch, and your mother held you on her lap while you cried and cried. Then she went to school and talked the principal, Mr. Murray, into switching you back.
The last time you sat on her lap, you were taller than she was and you couldn’t tell her what was wrong because the truth was too horrible.
At the airport in Auckland, you assess the damage. In fact, your son looks pretty good. It’s the first time you’ve seen him since your mother’s funeral, and that was three years ago. He has grown a full beard, and his legs are impossibly long, like the legs of a bird that wades in the shallows. You notice as you walk toward them that he is half a head taller than his father. He has a black eye and his leg is in a cast.
For the next two weeks, you wake up in a guesthouse that you found online, through a Web site for budget travelers. You write until noon, then drive with your husband to the house your son shares with three housemates. On the way, you stop at a French café and order a large latte and two croissants to go.
A surgeon fixes the broken cheekbone. The foot will heal by itself. Your son is relieved that they don’t have to shave his beard.
You wish your mother could see him. How handsome he is, how grown up, how confident and happy and gracious and kind. Loving him is the best thing you ever did.
One day, you and your husband drive along the coast and take pictures of giant ferns. Later, you will have a hard time remembering the drive, or the ferns, or anything about New Zealand. What you’ll remember is your husband and your son, sprawled on opposite ends of a leather couch, exhausted, asleep with the TV tuned to a football match. You’ll remember the lattes and the croissants, and the Thanksgiving dinner at a house overlooking the harbor, the father of one of the roommates carving a roast turkey, the mother serving pie.
One month later, your son comes to France for Christmas. Three months later, he moves to London. Maybe there is a God after all. London is three hours from Paris by train.
When you were a teenager, you liked reading books about young women with schizophrenia, suicidal depression, and other forms of mental illness. People hearing voices. People overdosing on colorful pills that looked like candy and dying in a pool of vomit. Multiple people living in the same body; which personality is the real one? The nice girl, or the horrible one who cusses and screams and threatens you with a knife? The insane asylum, madness, and delirium took the place of witches and ogres, dragons and dragon slayers. Welcome to the world of the weird and twisted!
On school nights, your bedside lamp had to be turned off at a reasonable hour—“reasonable” was not open to interpretation. The hallway light remained on, to protect you from vampires, until your mother went to bed. Kneeling by the open door, you read a grown-up novel in the light from the hallway as you listened for your mother’s footsteps on the staircase. This is how you discovered that terrible things happened to small-town girls who moved to New York City. From its title, you had thought Valley of the Dolls was a fantasy. One day your mother found it in your room and took it away, explaining that it was not for children.
When you were born, in 1954, people who heard voices were placed in asylums. They were strapped to the beds and chained to the walls. You learned the word lobotomy from a movie on TV in which a bald-headed man with pale skin and vacant eyes goes around killing defenseless maidens.
In 1966, the year you turned twelve, Bibby Giroux taught you and his little sister, Annie, all the words to a song called “They’re coming to take me away, ha-haaa!” The song spent five weeks on the Top 40 list of radio hits; the radio station in Waterbury, the Vermont town where they kept the crazy people, played it over and over. You still remember some of the lyrics. (“And I’ll be glad to see those men in their clean white coats.”) You were old enough so you didn’t fear the crazy people anymore, the ones who supposedly escaped from Waterbury and hunted down small children and murdered them.
Going crazy was, for a while, a big topic of conversation among the kids in the neighborhood; anyone of you could become a monster under the right circumstances. A flip of a switch in your brain. Then you would be “taken away.” The away place was called “the funny farm.”
In Fiji, a hurricane attacks the private villa. Bombs fall on Syria. Refugees flood into Europe. On the evening news, people complain about the refugees. There are too many. They won’t assimilate. They’re a bother, a danger, setting up camps and roadblocks, hijacking trucks en route to England, desperately trying to go where they are not wanted. Every night on the French news channel that you watch after dinner there are pictures of African children in boats, mothers and fathers weeping, small drowned bodies on the sand. Every day, more violence. The airport in Brussels, bombed. French police officers stabbed.
Six months after the new job begins, you compose an email to the CEO: You are not going to renew your contract. You hit “send.”
For many years, you envied people who work from home. If you worked from home, you reasoned, you could spend months at a time in France, or Vermont, or anywhere with a reliable server.
Then your wish was granted, and now you are miserable. You hate working from home. You hate writing sales copy. You hate writing about thatched-roof bungalows, pristine beaches, and bespoke vacations. You just can’t do it anymore. You will figure out a way to live without the income.
You spend the next two weeks lying on your mother-in-law’s couch. Sometimes you cry. Mostly you sleep. Sometimes you go for a walk.
You remember what it was like to be a teenager, wondering what to do with your life and to honestly have no clue. You kept thinking the answer would materialize. A door would open, an opportunity would present itself: Ta-da! From then on, smooth sailing. Half a century later you are still waiting for that ta-da moment.
You remember how, as a child, you were absolutely certain that if you yelled “Mom!” at the top of your lungs, your mother would come running. No matter where, no matter when. Like Mighty Mouse, she would appear out of the blue at the crucial moment and snatch you from the jaws of death.
And now everything is going to hell. Ma-a-a-a! Mama, why did you leave me here in this world on fire, this burning building of a planet?
Some days, even getting dressed feels like work. Vacuuming the living room, forget about it. The thought of dusting makes you want to lie down. Where does all the dust come from and what, exactly, is in it? You don’t want to know.
“Is there anything I can do?” says your husband. “I feel so useless.” You shake your head. He covers you with a blanket.
Dust piles up in the corners.
In Vermont, your siblings prepare the house for sale. They strip it of its furnishings. One takes your grandmother’s dishes, another takes your father’s desk, and so on. One sends you a photo of a few tschotchkes: Anything you want? What you want is for nothing to change, for everything to be just as it was when you went to France, so that when you come back the house will still be there, just as it has always been. After the photo of the tschotchkes, there is silence. Weeks later, you will wonder where everything went. Who got the spool beds, Dad’s painting of the lunar landing, his army footlocker, Grandma’s trunk? You don’t know and you don’t want to know. You have no right to be resentful. Do you?
I’m leaving the house to you two girls because I know you won’t fight over it. That’s what your mother said.
You spend a week lying on the couch, wondering if you have rheumatoid arthritis, chronic fatigue syndrome, cancer. You are a bona fide nervous wreck.
You sleep. You can sleep twenty hours at a stretch, no problem. Thank God for sleep.
When you’re not sleeping, you mope around your mother-in-law’s apartment in your father-in-law’s pajamas. You read about various illnesses. You think of this as doing research. It passes the time. It’s interesting. Maybe you have an autoimmune disease.
You make a plan for how to live the rest of your life. The point of this plan is its simplicity. You will learn to live lightly on the earth, so that when it is your time to exit, you will leave barely a trace—like they teach you in wilderness school.
Under the heading “What to do with the rest of your life,” you list your options:
Write romance novels.
Take in a refugee family. You will help them adjust to life in their new country and they will look after you in your old age.
Become a triathlete, like the eighty-six-year-old nun you saw on YouTube.
Become an expert housekeeper. Make your home into a sacred place, small and simple but beautiful. Burn incense. Say things like “Our door is always open.” Have coffee and soup ready for when people drop by. Bake things.
Start a neighborhood organic garden. First, learn garden skills. Buy a compost bin for the balcony. Red worms?
Reform the Democratic Party.
Run for office.
Learn podcasting. Start something called the Vermont Story Project.
Write detective novels.
Make lots of money and leave it all to charity.
Live like a monk. Be spiritual. Smile a lot.
Learn to play the ukelele. Write songs.
You research tiny houses. If you could just fit your life into a small space, maybe you could get a grip. This, too, was one of your mother’s expressions, employed when someone was having a tantrum. “Come on, now. Stop that nonsense and get a grip.”
If you could only have one hundred things, what would they be? There is not much room in a tiny house; the whole point of tiny-house living is to shed unnecessary baggage. This is the path to serenity.
Which would you keep:
Grampa Cooley’s school penmanship notebooks or your mother’s button collection?
Grandma Tucker’s unlabeled daguerrotypes, or your great-grandfather’s account book that lists maple syrup sales from 1910?
Your father’s old stethoscope, or his super-8 movie camera?
Your mother’s lace handkerchiefs, or her kidskin gloves?
A one-hundred-year-old wedding dress, or a handmade christening gown?
And what would you do with the thing not chosen? Give it away, sell it, bury it, burn it?
You could just walk away from it all.
It does not escape you that these things you regard as so precious, so indispensable, were made and used, bought and saved, by practical people. Once upon a time, they were useful. No more. What will you do with them? Where will you put them? You will need a storage unit. There they will attract mold and dust and moths and mice. They will reside in darkness, unseen, unloved. The situation could go on for years. The storage unit will have to be climate controlled.
One day you walk to the chateau. The walk takes you through a wooded park crisscrossed by canals. It is spring, the ground is blanketed with small white flowers called perce-neige. You tell yourself you can do this. Pull up stakes, make a clean break, become a citizen of the world. Tears roll down your cheeks. The tears, you think, are a good sign. They mean you are sincere. They mean you are ready to throw yourself off the cliff and into the abyss. If you survive the test, you will fly. The statues on Avenue des Cascades are shrouded in white sheets. You fully intend to give up all worldly possessions, even the sentimental ones. You tell yourself this is a massive step, life-changing. If you can do this, you will be able to accept death, peacefully, when it comes. It may not come for thirty years, but you’ll be ready whenever it does.
On the first official day of spring, you fly to New York. Then you take a train to Vermont.
Your mother was, let’s face it, a hoarder. Not entirely her fault. She was a farm girl, and Vermont farmers of that era were a thrifty lot. Her grandmother, a talented seamstress, turned blankets into coats. When the coats wore out they were cut into long strips; the strips were folded and then braided into rugs. Scraps of cloth were made into doll clothes, pot holders, and bed quilts. Everything was used twice, thrice, until it became dust. You have always admired this kind of thrift. Like your mother, you disapprove of squandering. You are like her in so many ways.
Sometimes you think about Aunt Hilda and the sugar. You think about the Great Depression, still a big subject of conversation at the Randolph Senior Center when you taught that memoir-writing class, eighty years after the stock market crashed. Your mother and her contemporaries sat around a table, swapping stories about deprivations and small economies, the moms and pops who worked day and night to put food on the table, the factories that shut down, the fathers without jobs, the relatives who needed a place to live, the grandparents who moved in and entertained the youngsters with their interesting habits, their old-fashioned ways. Listening to your mother and her friends recall their childhood memories of the depression, you couldn’t help but think it all sounded like a pretty good time, at least if you were a kid who lived on a farm, or a kid who lived in a big old Victorian house peopled by interesting oldsters—grandparents who wore false teeth and drank from mustache cups and carried peppermint candies in their purses. Yes, the Depression sounded like quite a good time as you listened to the stories around the conference table at the Senior Center. You kept this thought to yourself.
It wasn’t until after the war that people began throwing out perfectly good things. Your mother, never. She saved gift wrap, paper bags, string, rubber bands, store coupons, bits of hardware, old keys.
You dread going into her house now that most of her things are gone, dread the emptiness, the hollow sound of your footsteps, the picture hooks without pictures, the shiny floorboards where couches, beds, and dressers used to be. The word pristine, as regards these silhouettes, applies. To enter this hundred-year-old house today is to step back in time.
Cautiously, you let yourself in with the back-door key.
Maybe because you’ve rehearsed this moment often, in your head, it isn’t as bad as you feared. Your stomach doesn’t tie itself in a knot, your heart doesn’t stop beating, you don’t drop to your knees and scream, “I can’t take it!” Nobody has to call the clean white coats to come and take you away. You think, “I can handle this.” You look around, briefly, and then you leave. You don’t return for several days.
Meanwhile, you drive to another town, to look for a climate-controlled storage unit, big enough to store a few treasures. The town is not very big, but you get lost anyway. You drive around for a bit, not caring whether you find the place or not. After twenty minutes of aimless driving, you admit to yourself that your heart isn’t in this task. You turn around and drive home.
In the house, you sweep the basement. It is very dirty. There must be thirty years of dust down there. More. As a child, you used to play in the basement with your brothers and sisters. It was very clean. After the mouse problem was solved and the cats went to live in Mr. Leedham’s barn, your mother kept it well-scrubbed. You remember her on a stepladder, too, washing the windows, even the upper story. You remember accompanying her to the attic, the smell of mothballs, the rustling of newspaper, the warning not to walk in certain places or you’d fall through the ceiling. Your mother was a very good housekeeper.
You wish you had been a better housekeeper. You wish you had kept your mother’s house immaculate, after her legs gave out and you moved back home with your husband. You helped her, sure, in certain ways, but housekeeping wasn’t one of them. You kept meaning to clean things—the attic, the windows—and you never did.
While you are wiping cobwebs from the basement ceiling with your mother’s broom, a letter comes from Social Security. You can start collecting your checks now, or you can wait four years and get more money. You hesitate. Have you retired? Is this retirement? Somehow you had imagined there would be flowers. And speeches. And a cake and plastic forks. Who would buy the cake and make the speeches wasn’t clear. Your last full-time job, the one where you had to get up, get dressed, and leave the house, was years ago, before the magazine business went belly up.
In your mother’s garden, spring flowers are blooming—lilies of the valley, lilacs, violets. You clean the basement for three whole days, without a mask, wiping cobwebs out of your hair, blowing soot into a hankie. One morning your brother stops by. “Don’t knock yourself out,” he says.
In the basement are more boxes. You must have gone through a hundred, two hundred, over the past four years, plus countless drawers and cupboards. Several of the boxes contain old keys; some of the keys are labeled:
“Woodlot” (your father’s handwriting; the key goes with a padlock).
“Streeters” (the house of a neighbor; the handwriting is Mrs. Streeter’s).
“Sara’s foot locker” (your handwriting, dating from your freshman year at college).
You walk through the garden to the Streeters’ house, which is also for sale, and try the key in the kitchen door. It works.
You find a collection of short stories, written in French. The binding is worn, the pages tattered. The inside cover is inscribed “Ransom E. Tucker.” Your father. Several pages are filled with doodles. What? Your father studied French? It was your mother who spoke French. She learned it in college. Your father studied anatomy.
The boxes that you load into your car are full of unsolved mysteries.
You find several school notebooks with lined pages and elegant handwriting. Each notebook contains an essay written by your grandfather when he was a boy. One essay is about Rosa Bonheur, a “celebrated artist who lived in Fontainebleau, France.” The town where you live now.
You find a collection of eighteenth-century clay pipes made in Givet, a town in northern France, near the Belgian border. They are in pristine condition, wrapped in newsprint and packed in a white ceramic pitcher. You try to imagine their journey. What combination of circumstances brought them all the way from France?
You wonder if these objects contain some sort of message. How come you never noticed them before? How come you only discovered them after you sort of halfway moved to France and began pining away with homesickness and grief? Maybe your ancestors are speaking to you through the objects they left behind. Primitive people believe stuff like that. The Lakota, the San, even the Masai people, they speak with their ancestors all the time.
The French stories with your father’s doodles, the clay pipes from Givet, your grandfather’s essay about Rosa Bonheur, these strike you as unequivocally positive messages. France is good. France is interesting. In order words, get a grip. Buck up.
You find lots of photographs of men and women in mourning clothes. Mostly women. You find clothes that belonged to children who never grew up.
In a wicker basket lined with tissue paper are a black bonnet, a black wool cape, a black silk handkerchief, and a black lace apron. Victorian mourning attire. They are accompanied by a handwritten note, signed by your great-grandmother.
You really cannot deal with all this. It is too much, too soon. What on earth are you going to do?
Sometimes, alone in the house, you have conversations with dead people. In real life, nobody you know says “What on earth” anymore. As a child, you heard it a lot.
You do not rent a storage unit. You do not walk away. You do not try to whittle your possessions down to one hundred things that will fit in a tiny house. You put the Civil War–era bonnet, the mourning cloak, the essay about Rosa Bonheur, even the old keys, into the back of a friend’s Subaru. Then you drive the Subaru down the hill to a small house—small, but not tiny—and unload it. You sign a rental contract written up by the landlord, a friend of yours who makes stained glass windows, and you go back to France.
You begin writing for a friend’s travel website. This friend, whom you’ve known for many years, is a Harvard grad. She is brainy and as honest as a bathroom scale. She brims with good will. If you book a trip through her Web site, you can sleep peacefully in your bungalow by the sea, confident that your tourist dollars will not pollute the bay or enslave the people.
At your keyboard, you fidget. How many different ways are there to say “sustainable”? You stoke yourself with coffee and cigarettes. You stare into the abyss.
Maybe you’ll spend the next few years letting go of things. Instead of calling one of those companies that does it for you, stuffing everything into a moving van and hauling it away, you’ll give careful consideration to every object, making sure it finds the right home. This effort could easily span thirty years. At the end, only the basics will remain: bed, table, chair, bowl, cup, spoon. A hot plate and a toaster oven for cooking. Under no circumstances will you allow new objects to take up residence in your house.
In your small room furnished with the bare necessities, you will live a spiritual life. You will meditate, read, and receive a few visitors, one at a time. The visitors will have to sit on the bed. You will travel, returning home to your meager surroundings when your money runs out.
Your husband, of course, will not go for this plan, except for the travel part.
You will take lots of nature walks. You will learn about the forest where you live, its flora and fauna, the geological forces that created it, and so on. Maybe you’ll write a book about the forest, but maybe not. The writing thing is tricky. The writing life must definitely be examined at some point. It is filled with anxiety.
“Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” Kierkegaard said that.
You try to interest yourself in container gardening. The balcony of your mother-in-law’s apartment is perfect for growing flowers. It’s very long, maybe sixty feet, and shaped like a V. One side gets sun in the morning, the other in the afternoon. Six glass doors open onto the balcony. Yes, flowers are a good idea. Your mother-in-law grew them. The soil in her clay pots is dry as dust. No flower has bloomed there for at least five years. One of the large urns is filled with cigarette butts. There’s a bag of potting soil stashed under the kitchen window, a trowel, some fertilizer. You open the bag of potting soil and reach in: still moist.
At the point of the V you set a small round table where you and your husband can have lunch. At the grocery store next-door, you buy a little pot of mint and one of parsley. You plant the mint and the parsley in one of the urns and sprinkle a little water over the leaves. You scrub the balcony floor. You dump the butts in the incinerator and establish a compost bin. You toss in some kitchen scraps.
Your mother-in-law not only grew flowers, she also painted their portraits, great overflowing bouquets of blossoms in various types of containers. The paintings hang in every room except the kitchen and the foyer. They even hang above the two toilets.
In the foyer is a massive bouquet of silk flowers; there are maybe fifty stems. It must have cost a fortune. She really, really loves flowers, your mother-in-law. If you could grow them on the balcony, where she herself used to grow them, you could take her some.
Your mother-in-law lives in Chatillon, on the other side of Paris, in a posh residence for frail old people. Once a week, your husband goes to visit her. The trip to Chatillon from Fontainebleau takes a couple of hours—after the train, there are two different metro lines and a tram. Often, he falls asleep on the way home. Once he missed his stop and ended up on Thomery, where the train station is in the middle of the forest. It was dark and raining. He had to wait there for an hour.
“How was your mother today?” you ask him.
He shrugs. “The same.”
“Did she say anything?” He shakes his head.
Sometimes he can still make her laugh. Not laugh, no, that’s wrong, but smile. She laughs with her eyes.
Some days he sits by her bed while she sleeps. After a half-hour or so, he leaves. It bothers you that when she wakes up, she won’t know he’s been there.
In the beginning, you went, too—not every week but often. At least once a month. Your mother-in-law was always beautifully dressed, her hair in a chignon. A sheet of white paper was taped to the bathroom door in her room. On it was written “No ponytail!”
“What does it mean?” you asked your husband.
“It’s for the women who dress her.”
On Christmas Day, five years ago, the nursing home served a special dinner. Your mother-in-law sat at the head of the table; it was the first time you’d seen her in several years. It crushed you to see her in a wheelchair, barely able to speak or to manage a fork and knife. Your husband cut up her food. At a point, she knocked over her wineglass. Tears came to your eyes. “I miss my mother,” you said. “It’s the first Christmas without her.” Which was true.
One day, you opened a desk drawer and found a small notebook; the handwriting was your mother-in-law’s. It was shaky, the way your mother’s handwriting was at the end. You started reading, and realized that you were reading her will. It consisted of a few short sentences, composed before she went to live in Chatillon.
She knows she will never return home; there is only one way out of the nursing home. Since that Christmas when she knocked over the wineglass, she has stopped talking, smiling, laughing, feeding herself, sitting up, and rolling over in bed without assistance. You have stopped going to visit her, you can’t bear it, and your husband says there is no point. You know this isn’t true, but you pretend it is.
“I don’t want to make you feel like I’m rushing you,” you told your mother. You were helping her get dressed. “You can’t do that,” she said. “I’m too used to you.” With her, you knew what to do. You could stroke her hand, massage her feet, brush her hair. And still you wish you had done more. But your relationship with your mother-in-law doesn’t permit such intimacy. The prospect of a visit is so daunting, you give up.
You try to imagine yourself in such a place, a few years from now, with nobody to visit you, your husband gone, the nursing-home workers shouting words of encouragement as they lift you in and out of bed and wipe your butt. How to make sure such a thing never happens? The best idea you come up with is this: lie down in a snowbank on a cold winter night, with a bottle of bourbon for comfort, and make sure nobody finds you until spring.
At your sister-in-law’s townhouse in Paris, three generations of the family gather for lunch; the conversation is in French, English, Chinese, and Polish. The Singaporean children play hide and seek with the French children and teach them how to make an origami bird. After lunch, you stroll around Notre Dame. You have dinner at a sidewalk café on a quiet street lined with shrubbery; the children explore a hedge where they’ve seen a rat. Three months later you will recognize this spot on the evening news when the police find an abandoned car parked there. The car is packed with gasoline cylinders. Arrests are made.
In America, psychologists coin a new phrase: election stress disorder. Political conspiracies are rampant. Obama is a Muslim, Hillary has AIDS, Mrs. Obama is actually a man. The voting machines are rigged, the moderator is biased, Hillary has wires coming out of her back, she has a brain tumor, cancer. Trump is a Russian spy. Cries of foul play. Relatives stop speaking to each other and couples split up over politics. Baby boomers who’ve known each other since first grade unfriend each other on Facebook.
One evening, your husband invites you to go to the pub with him. Three times a week—every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday—he leaves the house at 5:25 p.m., has two beers with his friend Pascal, and returns at seven sharp. Always at seven, there is the sound of the key in the lock.
On this evening, Pascal is out of town. “Come with me?” says your husband. You hesitate, then say no, because you have been wasting the day and you have work to do.
You are watching a hula video on YouTube and calling it research when you hear a screeching of tires in the street. It is nearly 7 p.m., and Avenue Franklin Roosevelt—the street of General Patton’s victory march—is streaming with rush-hour traffic. The screech is followed by a thud. Then silence. Then a shout.
You pause the video and listen. The thud sounded to you like a car hitting an object that was not very solid. Possibly a bicyclist or a pedestrian. The thoughts running through your head go something like this:
Patrick should be almost home by now.
Maybe I should investigate.
But maybe I’ll just sit here and watch this hula video instead. Because if something bad is happening down there, it’s really not my business. There is nothing I can do. And Patrick will be home soon. So I’ll just finish watching this video and then we’ll have dinner.
And then the phone rings. And you think, oh, shit.
A man’s voice says in heavily accented English: “Your husband has been in an accident. He is in the street. He is okay. The doctor is here.”
There is some muffled discussion and your husband’s voice comes on the line.
“Hello, darling. I’ve been hit by a car. I’m just across the street from the Carrefour Market.”
You run around the apartment, grabbing things, then dash across the street, hugging your purse. Your husband is lying in the road. The ambulance is there. Two paramedics are kneeling over him. One turns to you. “Ça va aller!” he says. He’s going to be all right. What he really means is “Back off and let us do our job.”
Your husband’s eyes are wide open, darting from side to side. He wants to see what the paramedics are doing, but he can’t raise or turn his head. They bundle him up and lift him onto a stretcher, then feed the stretcher through the ambulance doors.
A man in a business suit approaches you. “I’ll drive you to the hospital,” he says. “It’s the least I can do.” He is the driver who plowed into your husband. And he’s offering you a lift?
A few minutes later, an attendant waves you toward the ambulance and indicates a jump seat.
Your husband is strapped to a gurney. “My heels hurt,” he says. “Put something under them.” He sounds desperate.
You offer the attendant your handbag. Why is there not a cushion? The handbag doesn’t help.
At the hospital, you sit in the waiting room. You are wearing a T-shirt and a pair of flowered pants, no underwear, and sandals. The T-shirt has the face of a grinning, maniacal-looking monkey on the front under the words “Ape-y Birthday”! Your husband designed it, and you have always thought the monkey looks a lot like him.
You watch the news. The chairs are plastic and hard. In the corridor, a drunk shouts at the two police officers who brought him in. He is escorted out.
An hour passes. “Madame Texier?” You follow the nurse through the double doors. The gurney is parked in a corridor; your husband stares up at the fluorescent lights. He is waiting for the radiologist’s report. “Go home,” he says.
“Are you sure?”
It is 10 p.m., time for a shift change. “I’ll give you a ride,” says a nurse. She drops you at the corner in front of your apartment building. Thank God you have your keys.
At 1 a.m. the phone rings. “The radiology report came. I have a broken pelvis.”
Eight days later, you pick up your husband in a friend’s convertible and drive him home. His arms are wrapped in gauze, and there is a big bandage on his head. You go to the pharmacy for a wheelchair, a walker, pain medicine, sleeping pills, bandages, and compression socks.
In July, your in-laws go to Nice for the Bastille Day celebration. On the news that night, there is carnage: another terrorist attack. This time, a truck has rammed into the crowd that had assembled to see the fireworks display. Your husband calls his sister: Everyone is safe. The children wanted to see the fireworks but the adults said no.
You spend the rest of the summer pushing your husband’s wheelchair around the park and along the forest trails. You shop, you cook healthy food that you think your husband will like, and you serve it on the balcony, at the little table next to the parsley and mint. You sign up for Netflix. You invite friends over to keep your husband’s spirits up. You get out the electric shaver and cut his hair. You tell your friend the Harvard grad that you can no longer write for her travel Web site because you have a new job: nurse.
A real nurse comes three times a week to change your husband’s bandages; then twice a week; then once. The summer days are sunny and breezy. At night, your husband sleeps in the living room recliner because it hurts him to lie flat. After a few weeks, he tries putting the couch cushions on the floor and sleeping there. Every evening, you watch a new episode of a TV series set in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Then you bring your husband his pee pot and arrange the cushions on the floor. You cover him with the blue comforter that was your mother’s; she used to call it her “puff.” You prepare the coffee in case he gets up before you do. In the morning you empty the pee pot, replace the cushions, and fold the puff.
The weeks go by. The routine never varies. Your husband keeps his sense of humor—a miracle—and never complains. He says thank you. He says, “I love you,” and “What would I do without you?” He goes off the pain pills even though he still hurts. He sets goals. One morning he pushes himself all the way to the pub for a coffee. One day he gets out of the wheelchair and pushes it up a small hill. He does not weep and moan and drag himself around the house, collapsing on the couch like a lunatic.
From the moment you get the phone call, you are focused and calm. Your days are structured. They have purpose. You are needed. You don’t mind emptying the pee pot, cooking healthy meals, and pushing the wheelchair around the park. For the first time in months, maybe years, you are happy.
In October, you return to Vermont, alone. Your husband is not yet ready to travel. You buy a rusty old van from a friend and park it in front of the carriage house next to the glass artist’s studio. You hang dime-store curtains. You invite friends over and serve them French toast with maple syrup. You move the furniture around, dragging tables and heavy wooden dressers across the floor on a rug in the middle of the night. Sometimes you stay up all night, rearranging the furniture.
You buy a bed.
You visit a friend who lives in the new nursing home on the hill above Randolph village. She is ninety-four. “How am I supposed to live?” you ask her. “I need advice.” She tells you to be open to new possibilities.
On the wall of her room are some of her recent drawings. All of them are of the nursing home, the residents and staff, the local musicians who come to entertain, the view from her window, which faces southwest. Across the hall, in the day room, are more of her drawings. One is inscribed in a shaky hand. You lean closer to make out the words: “Women of the world, unite! Dump Trump.” She tells you that her goal is to do a new drawing every day.
In November, you take a train to Newark Airport. You miss your stop. On a platform in North Elizabeth you wait for another train. You miss your flight. The next morning, you call your husband. “I think you were not ready to come home,” he says. He tells you it’s okay to stay a bit longer. He doesn’t get mad.
You return to Vermont.
On election day, you watch the returns with your aunt and uncle. Your aunt says, “This is the last presidential election I will ever see.” She is ninety-four.
On Facebook, the boy who sat behind you in biology calls your cousin a “condescending prick.”
In France, your mother-in-law dies.
To have no more toothache.
To close one’s umbrella.
Two French euphemisms for death.
The year comes to an end. You study the Social Security website, making calculations. Is it better to start early, or late? It depends on how long you live. You experiment with different variables. In one calculation, you live to be ninety-two and your husband lives to be eighty-six. But he has high blood pressure, and you have a family history of heart disease. You try lowering his age at the time of death and raising your own. You hit “calculate.” It feels odd to gamble on your life expectancy in this way.
You watch funeral processions on YouTube. One is called Taiwan Pole Dancer Funeral. The funeral is for an elderly man who liked to party. “He loved to drink,” says his son. “It was everything else that killed him.” Everything else? You click on the rewind arrow. Yes, that’s what the son said. You wonder what “everything else” consisted of. In the video, three young women in miniskirts prance next to the old man’s casket. The casket is equipped with a peephole.
You read about professional mourners in China and England. In China, the paid mourners fling themselves on the ground, wailing. They implore the dead to return. They sing and dance. In England, on the other hand, the mourners-for-hire try to blend in. They are, according to the company Web site, “polite.”
You imagine your own funeral. If you were to be struck by lightning today, in France, the disposal of your remains would be a sad affair. You imagine the owner of the Anglophone bookshop standing over the casket, the ladies from the book group, Madame Monin from downstairs, who invited you and your husband for canapés and came to your mother-in-law’s funeral. You thought the canapés were a neighborly gesture until you realized that, as head of the co-op association, she felt duty-bound to extend an official welcome. Nonetheless, you admire Madame Monin, who is always bright-eyed and friendly, always says hello and a few other things as well, speaking clearly and distinctly in consideration of your mauvaise French. Madame Monin spent all last year caring for her dying husband and always kept her composure. “It’s God’s will,” she said, as you stood talking in the produce section of the market, next to a pile of organic carrots. “Jean has had a good life; one cannot ask for more.” The last time you spoke, she was on her way to a Moroccan spa with her daughter; the spa, a great indulgence, was a Christmas gift. “My daughter says you can’t imagine the comfort,” she said. You wouldn’t want her to feel obliged to come to your funeral.
The best solution would be to send a small box of ashes to Randolph with instructions to scatter the contents in three of your favorite places: the hill where you learned to ski, the icy cold river where you learned to swim, the neighborhood where you played hide and seek. Maybe you’ll write an obituary and send it to the Randolph Herald to keep on file until further notice. You remember writing your mother’s obituary, a few days after she died. Not fun. Maybe you could start an obituary-writing service and help people write their own.
On the evening of the winter solstice, you and your husband watch a detective series on TV. You eat homemade crackers and onion soup. Your husband smokes a pipe on the balcony. He knocks the bowl of the pipe on the rail next to the cyclamen you bought for his birthday last year. The cyclamen—red, pink, and white—have revived in the cold air.
The two of you stand on the balcony, watching the traffic on Avenue Franklin Roosevelt. “It’s funny how people are so impatient when they drive,” he says. “Including me.”
“I’m never impatient,” you say. He looks at you out of the corner of his eye. “Am I?”
Every year at this time, you make a list. You resolve to do better. To work harder, to be more disciplined, to inch toward the achievement of your modest ambitions. Maybe this year you’ll resolve to give up all ambition. Maybe ambition is a killer disease. Maybe you’ll resolve to respect all living things and leave it at that.
On New Year’s Eve, the trees along Franklin Roosevelt are white with frost. In the park, every leaf, blade of grass, and twig is delicately etched in white. You have never seen anything like it. You walk to the chateau and back, following the same paths you took with the wheelchair last summer, but now you walk alone. You knew, even while you were pushing the wheelchair, that once your husband recovered you would miss those walks.
In the kitchen, your husband shucks oysters and prepares a small feast. “Did you know that on New Year’s Eve in France, the emergency rooms are full of people who have injured themselves shucking oysters?” he says.
“Really?” He could be joking, but this time you think not.
After dinner, you watch the news. In Turkey, a gunman has opened fire in a nightclub. At least thirty-nine people are dead.
Outside, frost clings to the trees.
You drink the last of the bottle of sweet white wine that your husband bought to go with the oysters and foie gras. Then you reach into the closet nearest the bouquet of silk flowers and pull out your mother-in-law’s fur coat. You open one of the six glass doors and stand on the balcony while your husband smokes his pipe. The trees are white in the lamplight. The air is thick with fog. Your husband likes to pretend the planes that cross the sky at night are government informants, keeping track of his whereabouts.
“There’s one,” he says. In the sky above the boulangerie, a blinking light.
You wish your mother could see where you live now. The castle with its reflecting pools and flowerbeds, its renaissance frescoes. You wish you had shown her wild cheetahs, minarets, fields of lavender, giant ferns. Thomas all grown up. You wish you could show her everything, share everything, forever.
You draw the lapels of the coat together and bury your chin in its fur.
That you are here, on this earth, is a miracle. That your child is happy, that your husband loves you, miracles. That you are safe in your bed at night, another miracle. Your life is full of miracles.