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It started, as these things do, without a lot of hoopla – my mother and I arriving at the Place de la Concorde during her firstever trip to Paris. The day was brilliant, the sun glittered off the Seine, and our jet lag made us woozy with the city’s beauty. But then, to my surprise, my mother flung her arms out wide and let escape a sound loud enough for every Parisian within earshot to turn. “I’m baaaaack!” she cried, her joy bursting forth in a teary laugh. It was at that startling moment I became convinced that what she always had felt was true: in a previous life my mother was French and had lost her head to the guillotine – the deadly blade that once stood in that very spot. Now, she has lost her head in a different fashion. Or maybe it’s her heart. At 70- something, this mother of five, grandmother to seven and lifelong Francophile is cashing in her fantasy and becoming a French madame. Who knew she had it in her, this utter oneness with a buttered baguette for breakfast (it used to be plain toast), this bliss while browsing Monoprix, this absolutely transcendent expression she gets when she says to the pear man at the market in something that’s actually French, “deux belles poires, s’il vous plait, Monsieur.” My mom. Now she is my maman.
She has learned to tie a scarf, become a connoisseur of lemon tarts. And to see her charming them in the stalls of Saturday’s marché aux puces at the Porte de Vanves is to see my mom – excuse me, my maman – inhabiting a character I suppose has been there all along. Maybe it just was hidden within the harried housewife of classic California suburbia, the Frenchthemed person that lurked beneath the surface of the well-to-do, stay-at-home mom possessed of passions, apparently, far beyond the obvious: beautifully prepared meals and a house that, thanks to her own mastery of a mop and certain vavavoom with a vacuum, tilted toward the immaculate. I don’t know, maybe there were hints. How her garden behind our modest woodshingled house had to have precisely pruned rows of shapely, pointy things, gravel paths and a fountain – a formal style I later would learn channeled Versailles. How she said “lingerie” unlike anyone else’s mom, or even store clerks or TV – pronouncing it the authentic French way (lahn-je-ree) even though she never had been to France, much less learned a word of French or even met an actual French person. These were things, she said, she “just felt.” And it is not like translated French books and romantic French films fed her imagination. From the day she met my Army officer-turned-stockbroker dad on a blind date, married him two weeks later and gave birth to babies one, two, three, four and, after a brief timeout, five, her life was an all-consuming whirl of wifedom, children and housework. Even if she had had the slightest second to herself to study a foreign language or culture, she would have used it first to collapse, exhausted. “Endless drudgery,” she called it all. But we knew underneath the sometime whining she loved it (didn’t she?). Home and family, after all, were her pride of accomplishment. So today when my maman, who keeps a tiny, pink apartment in Paris’s chi-chi 16th arrondissment, doesn’t just say, but wears sexy French lingerie, I wonder how she was born one person – my mom – only to become another: this mom-object of such major admiration (in me) that I would be beyond thrilled if I could be even a tenth as fabulous as she. How can becoming a French madame do that? Well, anyway, this is what happened. First there was the espadrilles and boat-neck, striped T-shirt thing. Maybe it was how Jackie Kennedy always was photographed in St. Tropez wearing the fetching, oh-so- French summer outfit (with white jeans), but my mom (who loves Jackie Kennedy, don’t we all?) wore espadrilles coming and boatneck, striped T-shirts going, even if it was only to the grocery store. Then there was the coq au vin. Maybe it was how Julia Child in TV cooking class would reminisce of her days at the Cordon Bleu while slapping around her chicken breasts, but my mom (who loves Julia Child, don’t we all?) started revising our meals. Coq au vin, remoulade, vichyssoise, tapenade: Not overnight but slowly, as surely as the Tour Eiffel lights the Paris night with romance, even magic, family dinners required a French accent to describe. By the time in her 50s she finally, finally put down the Hoover long enough to take her first trip to France, it was pretty much over. My mom was quite far gone as my maman. She could claim with pride a small, remaining shred of dignity (trés small) after being worked over for years by the terrifying Mme. Bliss, the adult-school French teacher who was none too impressed with my mom’s…well, let’s just say issues with the imparfait (for one).
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