My Aunt Lisa may have been in my life from the day I was born, but she really “came into” my life when I was five, and she arrived for a visit in her little blue car during the time when my father had sailed out of my life in his big blue convertible with his new upgraded wife. Youth and innocence kept me from understanding the pain and misery that had broken my planet, but also allowed me to completely envelope myself in Aunt Lisa’s joie de vivre. How better to explain what magic she brought to a child, than to share the words that sprang from our mouths when she walked in the door. “Aunt Lisa is here! Aunt Lisa is here!” we’d squeal.
She was that type of woman who always kept a sweet smile on her face. She was regally gorgeous. She drew little puppies and cats and flowers for us; and, even more important, she wrote a column for The Ledger-Enquirer in Columbus, Georgia, and often wrote about us… mentioning our puppies and cats and flowers. We had acquired a veritable zoo because of our knack for rescuing animals that were pregnant. My Great Aunt Ella named one litter of kittens, “By, Far, Too and Many;” and that was the sort of thing Aunt Lisa would write about in her column, and then come to show us – the wide-eyed Gilbert children. “Wow, I’m in the newspaper?!” I’d ask, with my thumb in my mouth, my blanket trailing the floor.
“But, why yes, darling? If not you, why should anyone else be in the paper?” she would say.
Suddenly we were important little people. Not because of our new found fame, but because someone understood that we were worth writing about – and not worth being left behind.
There was another thing Aunt Lisa loved to write about as much as us – she loved to write about France. Oh, how she loved France! In fact, she loved France so much that, until I was an adult, I always thought she was French! She’d spent a long, glamorous honeymoon in Paris, bringing back photos of her new husband sipping coffee in the café; fashionable women walking their dogs; her, turning to smile back at the camera, with a scarf flapping around her neck from the wind flying off the cars zooming down the Champs Elysées. She spoke about the Loire Valley, Versailles, Fontainebleau, and a little old man smoking a cigar in a little French town, saying something in French to her that we didn’t understand when she said it back to us, but it didn’t matter, because understanding what he said was not the point. It was that he had spoken to her in a foreign language at all… and that she could say it back to us… with a look of sheer bliss on her face as she recalled his words.
She brought the real France home to us, so that when we struck out on our own, we weren’t in search of the Eiffel Tower — we were in search of that little old man who spoke French in the small towns.
Sometimes we never find that elusive thing for which we search. But I’ve found that old man on every visit to France; and his counterpart, the old woman who wears an apron and sweeps the store front. And maybe that’s the beauty of France… we really do discover those things in which we seek when we visit. We go to France and take off our judgment hat. Back home at the Waffle House, we see the heavy man smoking a cigar and we are flooded with verdicts about his life. In France, we see that same man smoking a cigar and we see him for what he is: a human being just making his way in life, the same as us – only with much better bread!
This month, ten years ago, my mother died. This month yesterday, my aunt died. And you know, just when I think I’ve lost them, I head over to France and I find them again — the element of them. And that really does matter. There’s my mother in her Keds, taking photos of the Seine. There’s my aunt, waltzing down the Champs Elysées. They haven’t really died. They’ve just, as Oscar Wilde said, “Gone to Paris.” And whether I go on a plane, or I just go, I get to join them.
Copyright © Sarah Gilbert Fox
Formerly published on www.BonjourParis.com.