My Last Day in Paris

Posted on

Last October I achieved the unenviable milestone of passing a full year without spending time in Paris. By now, my withdrawal symptoms should be subsiding, but no, they surge uncontrollably at the slightest provocation. To soothe my malaise, I drop in for a perfectly brown and crusty croissant at the one downtown patisserie in our West Coast, USA, university town that is capable of producing a convincing facsimile. It’s a great croissant. I squint hard and sniff for a whiff of diesel to evoke an early morning café in the City of Lights, but I’m not there.

My table, Café du Centre

Honestly I prefer not to talk about it. To the random American, it sounds effete. The phenomenon of Francophilia is not particular to me. What can I say? “Paris feels like a second home?” This is ludicrous, like the faithful servant granted a night alone in the palace. Home? I wish. Or I pretend. Desperate to maintain the language, I peruse Le Monde, the French daily, for news of the latest strikes. I engage conversation and even hazard a recently acquired French idiom on a French-speaking guy on the bus. Pleased with the attention, he thinks, under his ironic grin, “Pathetic.”

No, at this stage of my displacement, I’m hooked on a more satisfactory accommodation: Oliver Gee’s “The Earful Tower” podcasts. An Aussie, in Paris for nearly five years, he engages savvy guests and compelling topics on all things French and Parisian: the Seine, the best fromagerie (cheese shop), the Mona Lisa, critical pronunciations, great walks, best streets. On those mornings I awake with my familiar yearning, I turn over in bed to indulge myself in Oliver’s most recent podcast. I’m immediately swept into his ardent enthusiasm for his subject matter. Is it difficult for him to sustain this pitch over time? Does he weary of cranking up for each episode? Does your love for a place intensify only when you know that one day you will lose it? Just so, Oliver often closes by asking his guest some version of “If it were your last day in Paris, how would you spend it? Where would you go, and what would you do?”

The question has inspired a new daily occupation. In quiet winter moments, on meditative walks or sitting by the fire, I’m dreaming up ways to spend my last day in Paris. If it has not occurred already, it has to come sometime, right? Best be ready.

How would I do this; that is, how would I say goodbye? Having lived in the 2e arrondissement (2nd district) as my home base for a period some years past, I imagine I herald my last day exiting through a large dark green door onto rue de Richelieu, for a short jaunt to Notre-Dame des Victoires (at Place des Petits Pères, in case you’re curious) for early mass in this parish that possesses an authentic, diverse, and devout congregation, unabashedly at prayer and meditation as a natural way to greet the day. Hence, in silence I gather my wits and brace myself for the hours that will tick away today’s time.

Looking out on the Palais du Fruit

Fortified, I jut across Place des Victoires to the best morning street I know—OK, thousands of people’s special place—rue Montorgueil. Having snagged a newspaper from a tabac down the street, I light on the terrace at Café du Centre, for my café crème and croissant. There, across from the colorful fruit market, I intermittently read the paper, watch the world go by, and plot my route for the better part of an hour.

What have I determined as my meandering begins? My goal is not to preoccupy myself with anything grand. I want to pass my time as flâneur (an idle wanderer—masculine), or as Lauren Elkin feminizes it: flâneuse. More aptly, I want to stroll in that dolce far niente, or sweetness of doing nothing, perfected around the Mediterranean basin.

I aim myself toward the smaller island in the Seine, Île Saint-Louis, walking along Quai de l’Hôtel de Ville up to Pont Sully, a bridge leading me to the peaceful little park at the island’s eastern tip. From there I turn onto the street straight down the middle of the island: rue Saint-Louis en Île. I take my time along the less populated park-end of the street, frequently criss-crossing the ten to fifteen paces from one side to the other among the more sober, less kitschy establishments. Halfway along, the lately traffic-restricted street is choked with tourists drawn by ice cream. Hypocritically, I, a tourist, have the urge to bolt past the crowds jamming these perpetually inventive shops but find it hard to cast a cold eye. When I succumb and press my way inside, I fall upon beguiling soaps, scarves, hats, and art prints. Yet I firmly weigh any purchase as to whether it will impede my freedom of movement as the day progresses. In the end, I buy nothing.

Square of Pope John XXIII

I’ve reached the cafés at the end of the little island only to confront my first important decision. Feeling peckish, should I stop for a bite? I could grab a Berthillon sorbet, or even a ham/gruyère baguette sandwich and Orangina to nosh in the garden of Pope John XXIII behind Notre-Dame, just a hop over the bridge to the larger island, Île de la Cité.

I had tucked in my bag a little edition of a Willa Cather novel, The Professor’s House. The main character, Godfrey St. Peter, reflects on his early days in Paris. I can rest, read, and summon perspective in the sunshine of a garden bench, before my next foray across the river to Place Maubert, on the Left Bank. I’m struck with the realization that this must be a Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday, so that I’m able to scope out the market! Yes, it’s Thursday. Yet I find today I’m not so much drawn to the linens,cutlery, and cheese. I pass through guiltless. I had put off lunch, after all. I figure from here, down rue des Écoles, past Montaigne’s statue, it’s only fifteen more minutes to a café that has previously proved its worth—Le Rostand, facing the Luxembourg gardens.

Café Le Rostand

Have ingrained images from my first meal there on a Sunday morning decades earlier distorted today’s reality? Young parents crossing the intersection and through the Luxembourg gates with children in tow. Dark red and green curved-back woven chairs. Blue and white Villeroy and Boch china. Soft, moist omelettes with herbs, served with a little crystal pitcher of fresh lemon juice and a tiny Dijon mustard pot. Along came a basket of sliced baguette, of course. I even recall salient details of the blue and white tiled toilettes.

Villeroy & Boch

It is now half past midi (noon). I can dine at leisure on the warm terrace. First, I thoughtfully scrutinize the menu, and after five studious minutes, order an omelette anyway. Since the day is bright and temperate, I add a request for their smallest carafe of white wine, a Chablis, well chilled. I note ruefully that the china has been replaced and there is no fresh lemon juice today. The service is more tepid than warm, but the omelette and other details are true to form. I have decided to text a friend to meet me here. She arrives expeditiously, and we remain for a couple of hours, extending our meal with another carafe and an espresso to fuel the remainder of the afternoon through the gardens.

Jardin de Luxembourg

The Luxembourg gardens! How many writers have depicted trysts, espionage, or breakdowns under the protection of those green borders and in the anonymity of its diverted crowds? There is no such thing as rushing through; one strolls at a full-leisured pace, looking outward at the park’s many enchantments, whether the Medici fountain, the marionnettes, a carousel, a game of chess, brilliant French and English garden beds, potted palms, or pond sailboats. One luxuriates in rotating observation.

Following a short ramble, we don sunglasses and pull two chairs close to the pond, propping our feet on its ledge, so to gaze hypnotically on the children’s slow drifting sailboats while we dissect the engrossing interpersonal interplay, expansive gestures, and understated French style on display. We converse as the spirit moves, although an amiable silence better befits the drowsy tenor of this moment.

Place Saint-Sulpice
Pont des Arts

On towards evening, it’s time to stretch our legs. We slip around the western edge of the park, past the fountain at Saint-Sulpice. Here, convinced we are French after all, we exchange the affectation of farewell bisous (little cheek kisses). When would we meet again? Probably pretty soon back home, truth be told. Shaking off the languorous afternoon, my pace quickens, as I am to meet my husband at Le Fumoir, one of our go-to restaurants, at the Place du Louvre, for happy hour and dinner.

As I cross back to the Right Bank over the Pont des Arts, I realize I’m quite late. There can be no dawdling, though on such a fine evening, la vie en rose is on full display. Sunset’s pink and coral cloud fingers reach across from left to right bank. The bridge is uncharacteristically empty. Its unsightly padlocks have been stripped away for an unimpeded view west to the Tour Eiffel.

Le Fumoir

I find my husband looking self-satisfied and comfortably settled at an outdoor table with a Heineken, soaking up the sunset, now punctuated by glowing lamplight. I order a cool rosé to match the evening sky. They bring us tiny trays of nuts and olives.

Dark descends quickly, but our table inside is ready, in the cozy library room at the rear. We saunter back past familiar servers. They greet us cordially, while we suppress the sense that they are “friends” only in this moment, there to earn a living.

Once settled in a quiet corner, a bottle of Burgundy uncorked, we trade stories of our respective last adventures. He has been to his favorite haunts as well—to a pub between Place Saint-Michel and the innumerable Gibert Joseph bookstores of the Latin Quarter, to the bouquinistes (book and tchotchke sellers along the Seine), to see once more Poussin’s paintings at the Louvre, exiting toward the Tuileries.

As M.F.K. Fisher has written, everyone has their own mental map, highlighting what matters in a place they love. My husband and I each have our very own map. I think: where is this more likely than in Paris? I think: I will draw my map; I will mount it in my kitchen back home and take it down for revisions, plotting my next adventure as memories surge and fade. But wait: this is my last day. Do I want to lock in my map of a fixed time, conceived in vibrancy, too soon a dingy scrap of what has forever passed? Not likely.

Avenue de l’Opéra

After small bowls of savory lentil soup, we order our entrées, cod and lamb, and lift our glasses, pretentiously I fear, to the inoubliables (unforgettable): the people, places, and moments secure within our selves. Two hours along, we’ve failed to finish the bottle, but we push off, arms linked, to traipse up rue de Rivoli to Avenue de l’Opéra to rue St. Anne and back to Richelieu. What a day this has been; what a rare mood we’re in.


Berthillon

Back in our apartment, I grab some water from the fridge, drop my bag, fall on the couch, and hit “replay.” The only images that surface reveal what I have omitted: rue du Bac, Bois de Boulogne, Montmartre, the Arts et Métiers and Saint-Paul quarters. What was I thinking? I really have not left the center. Why, after all, must I avoid the métro or my favorite bus route, line 68? My day has been unintentionally but decidedly touristy. Unimaginative. I’ve botched it. If I had been strategic, I would have scheduled this day in the off-season. Is there an off-season? I would have stretched myself further in each direction.

We fly out tomorrow at 10:25 a.m. Next stop, Dulles, then points west. Tomorrow evening, my real home will feel comforting and easy, so why not let go? I know of no optimistic tradition in Paris, like the Fountain of Trevi in Rome, where you can toss a coin over your shoulder and into a basin to guarantee your return. As the years roll by, we lose confidence in such assurances. Is to be in Paris a consequence of chance or determination? Is it wise to force oneself to return everlastingly? Onward we advance, whether across an ocean or into the breach. The only comfort we possess is that as we forge our lives, at home or away, we become a composite of who we are based on where we’ve been.

Break a leg

From earliest childhood, upon graduating from the front seat in our family stroller, I let go of my mother’s hand. Walking along downtown, I ran ahead, my mother’s cries of “Slow down!” faintly detectable, yet unheeded. This is not to suggest that I was particularly agile. My UItendency to forge ahead frequently ended in crashing and burning—tripping up stairs, wiping out on my bike, sprained ankles, and roughed up elbows and knees. Fast forward to my adult life, when on my first date with my eventual husband, he remarked, “You’re a fast walker and I’m a slow walker; we’ll never get along.” Undeterred, and despite my blunderbuss tendencies, we have survived several decades of marriage.

As summers go, this past one ranked with the more idyllic I’ve experienced: warm but not hot, dry but not parched, still but not airless. The gardens in our valley overflowed with blossoms, and herbal scents drifted over our outdoor dinners under starlit skies. Guests and family roamed in and out throughout June and July, until one busy morning, dashing from the house IMG_7815to the car (ahead of my husband, naturally), I lit on our recently reconfigured entry steps. My left ankle gave way, and I went down hard, crying out. I can still see in my mind’s eye my printed wrap skirt askew, ill-considered short tapered heels scuffed, now appearing daft as I sat back and looked at what damage my haste had wrought: a grossly malformed ankle, left foot folded under and jutting right. I called for ice, and my husband called 911. Our visiting family members emerged aghast on the front stoop, to hold me and to cover me, as I was going into shock. This was no minor mishap.

Within 30 minutes, I had been wheeled into an emergency room stall. By three hours post-tumble, I was led out atop a wheelchair and in a temporary cast. My pronounced diagnosis: a trimalleolar fracture (translation: three bones broken) requiring surgery within the coming week. As soon as I was back home, lifted up the treacherous front steps and resettled on the couch, my husband ran out seeking grab bars for the bathroom and setting in action all that needed care in our home, our property, and ourselves. I alternated dozing and wakefulness as from a nightmare. By morning, I undertook my first lesson in bird-bathing from a warm water pot. By the end of the week I braved lowering myself into the tub, left foot upraised to keep it dry.

Surgery day dawned and with it my resolve: whatever is to be, we’ll soon know. Let’s get it done. The surgical repair included piecing my lower leg and ankle together with a bracket and six screws on the left, two more longer screws on the right. Keep it dry. Alternate oxycodone (an opiod?!) and Tylenol for pain. Rest. Wiggle your toes. DO NOT put any pressure on the left leg.

Living the disabled lifeShell-shocked, and knowing I was now dependent on him for every detail of my life, my husband took to frenzied cleaning, mowing, and stockpiling groceries. My two daughters had swept in filling vases with flowers, plumping pillows, and perching alongside me to chat. The house felt fresh and fragrant as I drifted in and out of consciousness. Spectacular plates of food miraculously appeared; dinner occurred al fresco. I had become a useless object of attention and obligation. I had no urge to help in any way. My greatest effort was to smile and express gratitude at every turn.

For two weeks nothing seemed to change. I must acclimate myself scooterto immobility so as to stabilize the repair sufficiently to take on a rigid knee-high boot. This would be removed for bathing or icing only, zero pressure still. I hobbled one-footed on crutches, perpetually unsteady. Within days I was desperate to find alternative means of mobility. I ordered a sturdy metallic blue knee scooter that allowed me to zip around on the main floor. Our second-story and sunken family room (thus, the TV) remained inaccessible. Never a television enthusiast, I felt suddenly bereft, cut off from the evening news and the diversion of Netflix.

Throughout the next six weeks, friends popped in with meals and highly touted books. Their visits and updates refreshed my mental scope. Otherwise days consisted of the ordeal of bathing and dressing, scooting around the kitchen to make coffee, hobbling out onto the deck, reading the news, icing and dutifully rotating my ankles (sans boot). My stack of completed books climbed on the bedroom desk. I stared out the same windows for hours on end.

Eventually my desire to move overcame trepidation. I ventured to make my own lunch and carry it out back. I negotiated the two steps down from the deck to the lawn and into the garden. Expanding my horizons by baby steps, I risked leaning in over the flower border to smell apricot roses nodding among lavender, hydrangeas and quieter perennials. I reached what seemed a historic milestone when I walked a full ninety paces on crutches to pick up IMG_7570the mail from the lockbox three doors down. I worked out a series of maneuvers that would get me into and out of the car, tossing crutches into the back seat. My husband invented a multitude of welcome diversions. Gin rummy games. A drive to Barnes and Noble to pick out a promising new read. An escape from the city limits onto a country road to a local farm to gather fresh blueberries, greens, peaches, and tomatoes. To my recently restricted perspectives, these rides acquired the shine of exotic adventures.

As I progressed with the orthopedic boot, I now could drive! I scoured local boutiques for flared pants that would slip on and for wider, half-size larger shoes and boots to accommodate my grotesquely swollen foot and ankle. I acquired five pairs of knee-high compression socks to help push out the persistent fluid pooling from my toes to mid-calf. Months earlier, we had booked several cross-country flights, including a major family gathering in early October, just as I was emerging from my ortho-prison. For me, there remained significant hurdles. We  strategized ways we might beg the indulgence of other people’s forbearance. My husband packed along my ankle x-ray to show the agents when we arrived at each airport gate. This secured pre-boarding for each flight, though the ache of immobility once aboard had simply to be borne.

Fortunately physical therapy had been prescribed as part of my rehabilitation. The refreshment and encouragement of exercise! Steadily plodding, obedient to my physical therapist, I built up my fully atrophied left calf muscle. He reminds me repeatedly that 100 years ago, I would have been lame for life. I wince every time he says it. I know I will do whatever it takes to walk again. Now eager and driven, I relearn how to point my toes, to squat, and to walk backwards.

A friend had three years earlier experienced the same sort of fracture much more heroically: by falling down a mountain rather than off a five-inch step. She pool.pngtold me the key to her recovery was going to the pool every day for an hour and essentially just treading water. Having been an avid swimmer in my first twenty-five years, the prospect of recovering that habit was beyond tantalizing. I found I could hit up a lap swim/aquatic exercise session twice a week for $5.60 and dove in with a vengeance.

Now that six months of recovery have passed, I can walk without a trace of a limp. I’m still working on left ankle strength. I cannot walk on tiptoe. My balance is marginal. Time passes while I persist. I go to the fitness center for weights and treadmill two to three times a week. Two days a week I swim. After the first three weeks of steady exercise, things fit better. Another two weeks along, life fits better. I want no longer to charge ahead like the proverbial bull in a china shop. The manic drive with which I had formerly greeted my days has yielded to equanimity. I step to a slower, steadier pace. I recall a day now months ago, as I sat inanimate and blank, my husband admitted having thought, a split second before my fatal fall, “She’s going too fast.” That was me, and that was then. Today I take care that we walk in tandem.

I find that to rebuild from jarring circumstances, I prioritize what I value. The dreaded unknown forced me to examine untouched tools yet available in my toolkit of life, to abandon resistance to alternative ways of being. It is only through previously untrod paths that I recover a long-lost self.

On losing a place

Monday evening in Paris is mid-morning in my West Coast home. It was a chilly first day of Holy Week, the week before Easter, and as I wrote and drank coffee beside the fireplace, a message from my daughter in Paris popped up on my screen: this photo.

It was the gut punch felt round the world. The roof of Notre Dame in Paris was disappearing in flames. A second message, from a friend in Bretagne, provided a French TV link, so we watched. And watched.

We grimly viewed feeble water spouts shot from the street; they seemed only to fuel the nightmare. We saw smoke pour through a stained glass window. We witnessed the 19th-century spire’s collapse and an aerial view of Our Lady’s interior engulfed in flames.


I knew the Crown of Thorns was cherished as most valued relic of the treasures inside. I remembered waiting in line one Good Friday to venerate this relic, now encased in an acrylic sheath. I knew it would be on display this Friday for veneration by the faithful and inspection by the curious. The Easter Vigil would be slotted for six days hence, Saturday at 8:00 p.m.—à vingt heures—with the caveat: Would Notre Dame survive?

More than a decade earlier, two of my high school kids and I had spent Holy Week in France, wandering from Paris to Poitiers to Tours and back to Paris—and Notre Dame. I now relived every detail of that week, beginning with Palm Sunday, when church bells across the city rang incessantly from ten in the morning til after noon. We were staying on the rue des Écoles on the Left Bank at the time, a five minute walk to the Seine and Point Zéro, the marker in front of Notre Dame from which all distances in France are measured.


That Palm Sunday we saw families strolling home from mass with their armloads of branches. At home in the U.S., we pinch a couple of scrawny palm leaves between thumb and forefinger as we enter the church on Palm Sunday. At home there are no palm branches. In France the faithful embrace arms full of boxwood boughs to round out lavish white rose and lily bouquets for Easter Sunday’s afternoon feast.

The following weekend we joined the Saturday vigil. Imagining the cathedral would be packed, we arrived an hour early and selected seats halfway back from the altar. The great space was lit only by fading daylight. Each woven chair held a small white candle. A cupped paper fleur-de-lis encircling the candle would capture wax drippings as mass proceeded. (Some would catch on fire, their owners blowing frantically mid-mass to put them out.)

Daylight continued to dim. I stared into the vault, studying ribbed arches, the exquisite, now darkened, candelabra strung along the ambulatory. I imagined the hunchback gazing down from the choir far overhead. The crowd silenced in the blackened space as Cardinal Lustiger, himself a converted Jew, lit the paschal fire, soon blazing alongside the altar, flames leaping, casting wavering shadows and a vista of Notre Dame’s architectural bones.

Gradually, lit from the paschal fire, an unwieldy five-foot Easter baptismal candle flame would spread to each of our tapers until the flickering sanctuary reflected each face radiant with surprised, expectant joy.

The rest is as you might envision. This Feast of Feasts ended with the pipe organ pulling out all stops, dissonant chords echoing off the ancient stones. As we departed, close to midnight that vigil of Easter, the bells of Notre Dame burst forth again, and a group of Nigerians re-lit their candles and sang and danced on the parvis under the bell towers. We stopped along Île St. Louis for un cornet, a cone, of Berthillon sorbet, meandered “home” to our quartier across the Seine, and tucked in feeling filled up, complete. We slept with our windows open to the street sounds and smells of Paris at Easter.

Now we have the same iconic photo images of “our” Notre Dame as in anyone’s personal scrapbook: the cathedral from across the quai from St. Julien-le-Pauvre, or from beyond the flying buttresses to the garden of Pope St. John XXIII, where we would gnaw ham and gruyère baguette sandwiches and drink Orangina.

Yes, we took her for granted. We have lived in her and around her; we have loved her. Now she is lost to the future, even as we tenderly hold her, a piece of our life, our own place, our owned memory.

Body and spirit

For years I have accepted without question, that humans are a balance of spirit and body, though I think I have devoted more care to the body. As a child, I took both body and spirit for granted, I suppose, favoring bodily health over any concern for my daily dose of happiness. But this was because I had been given happiness by a wagon train of perpetual loving care around my circle of life.

January in Chicago

In January of my sixth grade year, John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as 35th president. The following Friday night, my parents had a dramatic argument, admittedly not so dramatic by today’s entertainment standards. We ate dinner late on TV trays and watched the spookiest episode of Twilight Zone I have ever seen: The Hitchhiker (for those who care to follow up). The next morning, although my sisters and I were still a little shell-shocked, both from our parents’ emotions and the horrifying television show, Mom and Dad were all smiles. They had made up, and life went on.

New figure skates

It was a bitingly frigid Saturday in Chicago-land. The cold meant the ponds were frozen and our buoyant parents were taking us ice skating at Phillips Park. Coming of age in this era meant a pair of figure skates if you were a girl—hockey skates for boys— from Santa one Christmas. The perfect skating weather foretold a crowded rink, although this one was enormous, probably a good acre. Yet figure skaters and hockey skaters fought for turf, their styles hopelessly at odds: hockey skaters ramping up speed while figure skaters glided and scratched curlicues into the ice. This day, like a running back in football, there came a moment when in mid-twirl I tried to jig around a charging boy claiming right of way. My lower left leg folded underneath the rest of me—and I couldn’t get up.

Skating park

Mom and Dad skidded across twenty yards of ice to the rescue, each grabbing an arm. Mom said, “Stand up.”  I could not. “It’ll feel better if you walk on it.” But still my leg gave way with the slightest weight. They gave each other a look. Within five minutes my three sisters had circled back to our home bench. Grudgingly they changed into their boots and slung skates over their shoulders. We were headed for medical attention at Dreyer Clinic, about fifteen minutes away. My instructions from the doctor were ambiguous: go easy. They would call us by Monday, after someone took a look at the x-ray.

Two days later, I still struggled on crutches, unable to bear any pressure on my left leg and my mom still urging me to “walk on it.” The clinic called with a diagnosis. I’d suffered a fractured fibula. I would get a walking cast for six weeks. My more sedate and cautious 7th-grade sister burned with envy; my classmates would be able to sign my cast with doodles and cheery greetings. I failed to be inspired by her enthusiasm for my lame condition. I sat alone in our empty living room, stilled and dismayed, waiting to be cleared to return to school. On the third day, my favorite uncle, Uncle Bill, came to visit, that is, to visit me! Always ebullient, he blew in, dashed to my side, and with a flourish bent over my leg and kissed it, declaring that all would be well. Now encouraged and heart-warmed, I knew I could handle the weeks to come.

The next six weeks I could wear only skirts and shorts, in a Midwestern February and March, mind you. But I remember these winter days fondly, as a pleasant departure from the dreary slog of a long winter. Too soon the cast came off.  Spring was in the air, and I was free. On a Friday, precisely ten days later, a last blast of winter roared in mid-morning, scouring the streets with fresh drifting snow. As usual, we walked home for lunch, but begged Mom to drive us back for the afternoon session.

As we pleaded, the telephone in our kitchen rang. Mom answered cheerfully but immediately grew quiet. She thanked the caller (our family doctor, we learned) and whisked us into the living room to sit down. Puzzled, we held our collective breath while slowly, calmly, Mom explained. Our Uncle Bill, my dad’s brother and best friend, 39 years old, father of our four closest cousins, had collapsed and died suddenly of an aneurysm. I felt my heart too had stopped. I heard the echo of his assurance that all would be well. I had thought all had become well, but Spring had been overtaken by frigid cold and ice. We walked back to school. I was walking normally, but I would never see Uncle Bill again. 

Less than three years later, I was now a sophomore in high school. Our fall term choir class was interrupted by the public address system at just past noon. JFK, our handsome and inspiring President had been shot. Stunned, the forty or more rowdy teens in the choir sat speechless. Twenty minutes later, the PA crackled again and pronounced that the President was dead. These events strung together in my memory of the early 1960s, like a chain of clouds in an otherwise flawless sky.

Image

Decades later, strolling along a Northwest beach in January, a woman walked with a friend, not far from my path along the shoreline. She swung along on crutches, landing on her solitary leg. The beach stretched for miles, but on she swung, never pausing, apparently never flinching, in rapt conversation. I held back behind the two of them, thinking and wondering: eventually she would have to turn and walk back to her starting point. Such thoughts did not appear to deter her, as she kept pace, effortlessly it seemed. It struck me that this woman was whole, unified. She possessed the balance I forever lacked. As I walked on two legs in tennis shoes, I thought how brief and inconsequential my childhood incapacitation had been over a couple of winter months many years ago. For me the old struggles from emotional upheavals still mattered. Momentarily disruptive physical events had faded, all but blown away with the snow drifts. My body had a habit of healing, while the spirit held fast, frozen in its pain.

Gardening Vagaries

Image

We have nice neighbors in all directions, but the ones we interact with most are those whose driveway runs parallel to ours no more than 20 feet away.  US driveways being the café, the front porch, of the 21st-century, we step into or out of the car expecting a social encounter.  If we were to grow lonely, we could consider washing the car or pruning the roses alongside our neighbors’ turf.

Ten years ago things weren’t so copacetic.  The young couple next door lodged his father, an unemployed, bombastic, heavy-metal, beer-swilling outlaw who left evidence that he had burglarized our house.  At Christmastime.  Opening all of the wrapped gifts stacked in the study.  We never recovered the stolen goods, but we investigated the cost of an iron grill on which we could train fast-climbing vines for a quick wall between driveways.  That improvement evaporated when the iron-worker demanded artisanal prices, but the dream of a natural wall persisted.  We planted Italian cypress, both forest green and golden, to divide the two homes, at least presenting a visual impediment to our neighboring persona non grata.  As time rolled on, I watched the sweet gum tree my mother had given me one birthday, planted in the back corner of our lot.  It had grown to thirty feet and to occupy most favored status in my heart.  I added a sweet gum tree to the end of our driveway.

The sweet-gum tree, most glorious of the fall display.  Which leaf color do you prefer? Burgundy? Gold? Tangerine? Crimson? Canary?  The sweet gum displays them all intermingled over three to four weeks, extending autumn’s glory and defying the encroaching winter landscape.  This joyful display up close to the street would cheer drivers-by and extinguish any suspicion that we were anti-social grumps intent on isolation.

Although the outlaw neighbor moved on, my anti-Frostian love of the wall never abated.  Yesterday, I was set to act on my creeping determination that we needed one more tree along the driveway border; this selection should partner with the existing sweet gum, now at its radiant best, and break up the monotonous wall of cypress.

I began my quest at Bloomer’s Nursery, where they had artfully displayed five sweet gums, up close to the office, as backdrop for yellow and tawny chrysanthemums.  About five feet tall and $70 each.  Pricey.  How far did my commitment extend?  I would look for another source.  Second stop, the reputable Gray’s Nursery in town along 6th Street.  I approached the end of the tree lot where the street trees and garden trees were mostly de-leafed, looked for a stray sweet-gum leaf hanging on, but I found none.  Two ruddy young men were standing about in a professional confab, and they asked if they could help.

“Do you have any sweet gum trees left?”

“No, we don’t carry sweet gums.”

“You . . . don’t . . . carry . . . them?”

“No, we find that they cause too many problems.”

“Problems?”

“Yeah, people don’t like them.  They have a shallow root system that lifts up sidewalks.  They are just not that popular.”

“REALly?  I’ve had one for more than thirty years and never had a problem.  I love it.”  And I’m thinking, they’re not that popular?  They are all around town, one of the most commonly seen street trees and garden trees in town, growing in columnar fashion, so modest in breadth, vivacious in display.

“They are beautiful,” one young man added, gesturing to the tree just beyond the nursery fence, in full glory along 5th Street.

“Has the sidewalk been uplifted there,” I asked. “No.”

The companion added, “They just hang onto their leaves too long!”

Now there was a novel critique of an autumn tree.  That it was “not popular,” a reasonable economic criterion for not selling, this was an implausible excuse.  But why would one fault an autumn tree for displaying its colorful leaves for too long?”

“You cannot be serious; you guys are missing an opportunity.”  I turned on my heel and said they should have no fear, I would not check back.  I reflected on my avid life as a gardener for more than thirty years.  How I kept a garden journal and contemplated through the dark winter months how to perk up the landscape, shape our half-acre into a coherent park-like space, with color for all seasons, shapes, heights, and flashes of color, no matter where or when you surveyed the space.

I have tried to shape my garden like I’ve tried to shape my life, to impose beauty and order, creative but not permanent combinations, to remind me I am never finished.  There is much I have accomplished but much I still can do.  I can find a source for a tree, no matter how one nurseryman of limited imagination attempts to limit my choices or to impose what he thinks best.  One’s vision, one’s spirit, after all, cannot be bound by “Big Brother” or squelched by popular dismissal.  No, these brush-piles ignite the energy required to leap them.