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She now routinely was going by Jacqueline, her French given name, instead of Gadgie, her father’s nonsensical childhood nickname for her – which my mom would use, but never my maman. She had our foyer, sunroom and bathroom floors all rehabbed in black and white tile (see, Malmaison), named our wire-haired fox terrier Pierre, and never, ever, even if she were flat out postal with hunger, eat so much as a bite between meals. Of course, a French madame is like that: Emerging from the boulangerie she might bite off the butt end of her baguette before lunch or dinner to avoid a faint, but dive into a sack of Cheetos? Horreur! I would learn things like that later, of course, after my mom was well into her mamaninization. So after her first trip to Paris and the I’ve lived before, but I was French! incident at the Place de la Concorde, my mom could not get enough of it. Like she was picking up the misplaced bits of a soul that long ago had shattered and was scattered by the winds of time; like she was ecstatically sticking each one back in place until her essence again was shining, happy, whole. She did a trip of French cathedrals, another of museums, a third of spas – Vittel to Evian. There was the chateaux tour, the art trek, the ancient villages drive-by event. If she didn’t pray to the Virgin at Lourdes (she did), she was buying a bikini in Biarritz that was oh-so-Brigitte Bardot. If she wasn’t getting teary at the beaches of Normandy (she was), she was flipping over the faience of Quimper, lost in downtown Dijon, or found to have friends in Provence. Over the years each trip would leave my mom at little more maman-like. Her hair, for instance. My mom’s graying brunette bob that in the youth-obsessed U.S. was dyed (to its eternal shame) a shade not found in nature became in my maman a glossy bob of silvery pride, its au natural hue (as encouraged by her Paris hair people) a halo of honor for her ageless grace. Her shoes went down a heel height – the better to speedwalk Paris cobblestones – her handbags up in quality, and her closet…. why, if my mom were to get a load of her closet, practically bare but for a few – a very few – exquisitely tailored things, she would wail I have nothing to wear! But not my maman. She finds her dribs and drabs of outfit take her from day to hot date with my dad (I don’t want to know about it) in something that before her Frenchification my mom tried for years sans success: total chic. " H e r s h o e s w e n t d o w n a h e e l h e i g h t – t h e b e t t e r t o s p e e d w a l k P a r i s c o b b l e s t o n e s " Weird, no? Or as my maman would say, non? And it’s not like my mom’s transformation is limited to such frippery as style. No, the more and more my maman emerged after mastering the many mom-challenges of life in France – the art of just saying yes! to rich French pastries daily without packing on pounds, say, or the science of shampooing, leg shaving, et al. with a shower nozzle that has an agenda of its own – the more I was convinced: I am the daughter of a madame! A madame almost as authentic as if once upon a time in another life she had been ruled by a Louis or two. Or has she? Who else holds family as the raison d’être of a happy life, and has made long French-style Sunday lunches a weekly ritual? Who else infuses grace in moments, charm in hours and meaning in years of loving and generous efforts on behalf of those she loves – never forgetting that nothing says love like a perfectly made tarte aux pommes? My maman, that’s who.
Oh, my mom could navigate her 70s convinced it’s time to slow down, stick close to home, be content to look back – a lot – at a fruitful life best enjoyed these days through the adventures of her grandchildren. Well…no. My maman will have none of it. Racking up Air France miles, she is – jetting between San Francisco and Paris with a vengeance bred of the overwhelming need I’m guessing she lost at the guillotine: that is, to fly along rue de Passy in the rain on her way to the Métro, her shoes French flat, her handbag Frenchfine, and her part-French heart totally at home. We miss her when she’s there, of course. But knowing my maman, with dad, is snug in her itsy-bitsy Paris pied-a-terre, which vacation schedules permitting we always are invited to share, is to thrill to my mom knowing a happiness – no, a bliss – that I hope one day to find for myself. The day I was born, long before she became my maman, my mom named me Colette. I should have seen it coming. In the next issue of The Good Life France magazine Colette O'Connor reveals how her maman moved to Paris at the age of 76 proving it's never too late to make your dreams come true...
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