Thursday, March 27, 2008
The Eiffel Tower, Picture Perfect
I am a child from a marriage born in the sixties. My parents, depression era-babies, had run away years before from their prim mid-west upbringings and fully emerged themselves in the sexual revolution. By the time I came along in 1969 they were each on their third spouse. When I was turning three they were trying to avoid another divorce, so they rented a small apartment in their favorite city, Paris, and took the family for the summer.
The Polaroids from that vacation are fascinating, mainly because we resemble a normal family: my mom's three teenage kids from her first marriage, my dad, whose other kids are in NYC living with their mom, and me, the adored, precocious, ray of hope. We seem to be happily living the fantasy of being affluent carefree Europeans. This perception is corroborated by the stories everyone tells from that time, and the almost mythic stature Paris itself has always held in all our hearts.
The pictures show my two brothers sporting long hair and bell-bottom corduroys, laughing. My sister and I are loving each other. My parents look suave, and in their element. My mom is tall and svelte and obviously at the height of her feminine powers. In fact, my mom told me that in Paris she and my dad would play a game adding up how many imaginary conquests they made during the day….a conquest being a look with a passing stranger that made it very clear that they both liked what they saw. My mom won the challenge most days, despite my dad's legendary gift with the ladies.
Actually there is no reason for me to think that they weren't acting on these looks with strangers….my parents were trying to live the quintessential 1960's free-love lifestyle after all. Among the photos from that summer there are many family friends who flew over for short visits. I have learned through the years that most of those visitors shared romantic trysts with one or other of my folks.
Looking at those photos I always find myself wondering where everyone was with each other when those pictures were taken, whose heart was breaking, secretly. My parent's marriage would be mostly over in a mere two years, and many lovers later. Though they technically stayed married for 20 more years, hurting each other.
I have three memories from that summer. In one I am in the kitchen of our apartment, I see my mom, I see the window and I see another child, it is a little party of some kind. Another time, I remember waking up alone after a horrible nightmare underneath a desk having curled up in the nook where someone’s legs would go. The third takes place at the Arc de Triomphe. The Arc is a war memorial and underneath the curve of that arch is a small hole in the pavement, and down in that hole is a flame that burns eternally for the "unknown" soldier….this is where I learned about death, that there was even such a thing as death. I couldn't light a match till I was 21-fire equals death.
When I was 12 my dad, his girlfriend, her daughter and I did one of those see-Europe-in-two-weeks kind of trips. When we got to Paris my dad kept waiting for me to recognize something from that long ago summer. Nothing did it….I mean, I knew I'd seen the Louvre before, but I didn't KNOW it, in my bones. Several days went by, we were in and out of metro stops, frantically seeing the sights.
One destination in particular, one metro stop, my dad was especially jazzed about, but he wouldn't say why. We got off the train and my dad was truly tickled as we followed him up the stairs, out into the city. He led us around the corner of the station…up some more steps…and Boom…there the Eiffel Tower stood, in all it's glory, straight ahead, looking like a living picture postcard….My father was beside himself with glee as I took it in. I could tell he wanted me to remember this spot from before. But he was also pleased that it was an utter surprise. Mostly it felt like he was giving me the actual Eiffel Tower, for my very own. And though I was suitably impressed, I did not remember being there before.
On our last day in Paris we were descending into another metro station, one we hadn't been in yet and all of a sudden my senses stood on end. The smell, the stunning orange tiles of the station walls, the sound of the approaching train, they all conspired and suddenly I remembered in my very cells that I had been there before, when I was three, with my family, who loved me, who loved each other. I started to cry as we walked down into the station. I'm starting to cry as I sit here now.
I was in Paris one other time as a relative youngster…as an exchange student when I was 14. There is a funny picture of me at the Arc de Triomphe, meant to recreate a picture taken of me in the same spot when I was two. I am clearly miserable and hating my tour guide (that's another story). I've framed those two pictures together…along with a third….taken the last time I went to Paris in April of 2004.
My father had died on April 9 2003 after a relatively brief battle with liver cancer. By then my family was so divided that two of my Mom's kids were no longer speaking to my dad for very good reasons and his other kids were threatening to contest his will before he was even dead. I, myself, had had a somewhat-to-very strained relationship with him for the last 13 years of his life. The sexual revolution had taken it's toll on my dad. Over the years, he lost track of some of the most basic abilities in terms of care-taking the people in his life who loved him and who looked to him not just for financial security, but for emotional support and safety. He was not a man to put other peoples emotional needs before his own, and that had cost him.
Come March of 2004, almost a year after my step-mom and I had held his hands while he took his last breath, I still had my dad’s ashes on my mantle and was eager to find them a permanent resting place. With the anniversary of his death fast approaching, it suddenly occurred to me: Paris…on the Seine…on April 9th.
Terrified of flying, I turned to my boyfriend at the time, a man I'll call Andy, to hold my hand on the journey. I rented a flat for 2 weeks, bought tickets, bought some traveling clothes, and set off.
I could go on and on about this trip. It is fresh in my memory, and perhaps sometime I will tell you just that story, just the beginning, middle, and end of that funny little trip….which was really quite huge. Highlights might include walking so much that my arches fell, and when I came home I had to toss out all my shoes. Or I might tell you about how my boyfriend was so commitment phobic that he refused to hold my hand as we walked those sexy Parisian streets for fear that people might know we were a couple. Though, I'll have you know I was so ahead of him on the "conquest" game, that I could have been holding hands with someone had I really put my mind to it.
But, like I said, that's kind of another story. Or is it? I mean there I was in Paris, only a few years younger than my parents had been when they first went together. Andy and I were wandering the same streets, seeing things that hadn't changed in centuries much less since my parents had been there. Like them we were scouring the streets for the perfect place to eat each night, often taking three hours from the time we decided we were hungry till we settled on the perfect spot, drinking wine, flirting with the locals, falling in love with the city, if not with each other.
And then there is that…. Such angst, such bewilderment that the city could not make us whole in love…if Paris couldn't do it….scary it took another year for us to break up.
I was really learning to love the city as an adult, as my parents must have loved it. I felt its heart. And, with Andy, I felt my heart break. I felt the urge to love and touch and drink, and eat, and take in the all of it, and I felt the heartbreak of being with someone who couldn't love me the way that I wanted to be loved….something my parents must have known when they were there, with each other AND all those other lovers.
So, I was, in a way, seeing Paris through the tainted eyes of my parents, recreating their dysfunction, understanding their lusts, appetites, and heartbreaks first hand. Feeling some bond re-form with my dad as I felI in love with his favorite city, I found myself yearning to take Andy to that metro stop my father had taken us to when I was 12. I wanted to give Andy that postcard perfect picture of the Eiffel Tower, just like my dad had done for so many others over the years. However I couldn't find the station; I had even begun to think that I'd dreamt it up.
By the time April 9th arrived, I was miserable, but determined to give my Dad a send-off that celebrated those parts of him that I could get behind, namely the unmitigated joy he felt in the city of lights, and the pleasure he had introducing so many of us to it. To commemorate the day I decided that Andy and I would walk the Champs-Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe (I wanted that third picture). On the way we would take a detour to Café Laduree for lunch and the best Vanilla Tea in the WORLD. Then I wanted to take my dad to the Eiffel Tower one last time. Somewhere along the way we added an evening concert at Sainte Chappelle into the schedule, after which I would scatter my dad's ashes in the shadow of Notre Dame on the end of the island so that he could watch the boats and lovers go by forever.
By late afternoon on the 9th we had walked the Champs-Élysées, lunched in style, taken whimsical photos at the Arc de Triomphe, and all the time my dad sat comfortably in my purse.
But then we hit a wall…the day was growing short, and there was too much to accomplish. I really wanted to go up in the Eiffel Tower, but we thought we might miss our concert if we did. Andy was trying to be a good sport about that, though the concert was really his passion, his idea. So I said, "let's at least walk over to the Eiffel Tower which I remember a friend saying was a fun walk from the Arc de Triomphe, and we'll see what happens."
So we started walking, I was flirting with French men along the way, in that secret "I want to see you naked" sort of way, though I was feeling a little shy about this, seeing as how my father was tagging along in my purse. Then Andy and I crossed this street where we seemed to hit the end of the road, well before the Eiffel Tower. Instead of being able to continue down the street we'd been meandering on, we ran smack into a largish metro station, so I instinctually turned right, went to the edge of the building, took a left, went up some steps and BOOM: There was the Eiffel Tower-picture perfect.
And standing next to me, as real as the marble below my feet, was my dad, grinning from ear to ear.
And it hit me, “I have not brought my dad one last time to see the Eiffel Tower, he has brought me”.
And he was happy.
And for the first time on the trip, so was I.
Well, after that Andy and I did go to the concert, and I sat with my dad, afterwards, on the edge of the Seine under a willow tree---perhaps the very willow tree he stole a cutting from 20 years ago and transplanted to Virginia—and I said goodbye to him, and though it would take a year, I also began to let go of the dysfunctional belief that I could not really be loved the way I wanted to be loved.
Several months later I would pick up a DVD of some super 8 home movies that I had discovered in my dad's house. One reel is from that long ago, third-birthday summer. On it there are silent, moving images of my mom and dad being sauve for the camera, my dad and my brothers riding mopeds in the park, my mother showing me a roadside attraction, and me dancing with two twin girls I'd befriended in some chateau garden.
Then there is this: while standing on a marble outlook my brothers and sister, along with two family friends, goof off for my father who is holding the camera. Suddenly my dad pans to the left and, BOOM: The Eiffel Tower, picture perfect.