The telegrams came twenty-four hours apart. One day my mother had pneumonia, the next she was gone. I had left home months before to go off on my own to Paris, to work at the American Embassy. I had stepped away so easily from my parents, from our little house, from all the familiarity of home. That world was abruptly lost. I could never share with my mother the reminiscent stories of my childhood. We would never enjoy together the grandchildren that were part of my future.
During the war years I had longed to come to Paris, always fearing it would not be the place I imagined. But the old city remained, wounded, run-down, coming slowly to life. Even in winter, even in the misty Parisian rain it was everything I had dreamed of. Now I chose to avoid the company of my friends, and explored alone.
On the Avenue de la Madelaine was a favorite bistro, its sidewalk café protected in this season by a glass enclosure. The tables were unevenly crowded together, the little wire chairs, dragged here and there, scraped harshly on the rough pavement. As the customers entered their damp coats steamed the air; rivulets of moisture ran crookedly down the squares of sectioned glass. I ordered café filtres from pre-occupied waiters, remaining isolated from the crowds of pushing strangers and their foreign chatter.
I searched out a quieter place on the Left Bank, where the long mirror behind the bar bore witness to the war with a jagged bullet hole and a crack that went its length. It was a more muted coming and going among those who stopped there. All I could hear were sporadic murmurs, the rustle of newspapers on their wooden staffs. In the late afternoons I sat undisturbed writing letters home to my father, creating for him these quiet corners of Paris. I wanted him to see the city through my eyes, to help him through the loss of my mother.
Two years later I came home to the tract house in Florida to visit him and his new wife. She was a short, tubby woman, with reddish-blond hair, and a square jaw. Her welcome smile was brief. I trailed after them up the short walkway of cement squares that led through the yard. The house was smaller than I remembered, and squat, the pale green of the stucco faded. We passed the remains of a small garden, the shrubs shriveled, long dead, the dry stalks broken and fallen. I heard my mother’s voice, as clear as if she spoke.
“Dad spaded out a garden for my roses,” she had written me. “I told him they would die in this heat, but he insists on trying.”
My step-mother led the way through the car-port into the house. “We’ll have lunch,” she said briskly, pushing my father along into the living room. She left us there and stepped into the kitchen. My father stood by his chair, filling his pipe as we waited silently. I perched on the corner of the couch, a heavy stuffed pillow pushing me toward the floor. The pillow was needle-pointed with a leering face saying “Happy anniversary, kids”. Our old clock was on the side table, next to a pink china flower pot holding a bouquet of artificial roses.
We had lunch at the kitchen table, and I talked about my flight home.
“We take naps after lunch,” my dad said as soon as we finished, though he was lighting his pipe.
“You need a rest,” my stepmother added as she waved away my offers to help clean up.
I went to my room, and saw my familiar belongings. The vanity with its bench, a chest of drawers, my narrow bed. The cover on the bed was the one I remembered, my portable typewriter was on the vanity. I sat on the vanity bench, and looked at my reflection in the glass. I look the same, I thought.
I closed the door when I was in my room. There was no shutting out the TV. It played day and night. The shades were drawn against the bright sun of day to bring its black and white pictures into sharper focus. In the evening it cast macabre shadows around the darkened room, its strident dialogue and raucous laughter penetrating everywhere. Dad watched his games in the afternoons. My step-mother was fond of the wrestling matches.
“How about a few hands of cribbage, Sis?” Dad would say to me. We had spent so many evenings in the old days moving pennies around his hand-drawn score sheets. My step-mother sat nearby, watching the two of us and watching the TV at the same time. Dad and I played through our games in silence.
Time passed in slow motion through the six allotted days of my visit. We talked of my next assignment and avoided mentioning Paris. On our last evening, though, I spoke of how I was going to miss the city.
“Do you happen to have the letters I wrote from Paris?” I asked.
There was an awkward pause. My father shifted uneasily in his chair.
“Did you want them?” he asked. “You never said to keep them.”
My step-mother swung her square jaw around toward me, her voice sharp.
“You never told us to save them. Why didn’t you say you wanted them?”
“No matter,” I said. “No one needed them. They were only letters.”
Catherine Mathews, a retiree of the Foreign Service, spent time in Paris, Rome, Tel Aviv, Athens, Frankfurt and Istanbul. Now living in northern Virginia she has published a memoir, and enjoys writing short fiction.