I dreaded the first Thanksgiving without my mom so much so that I impulsively ditched the annual extended family ritual and ran away to Europe to visit my friend, Grace (who coincidentally shared my mom’s first name). I dragged my 16-year-old daughter along with me, never-mind that she was simultaneously experiencing the thrill ride of first love and abject grief over the loss of her grandmother, with whom she had been quite close. I was in no shape at the time to help her with either and she wasn't eager to leave the country or her first boyfriend at the start of the holidays. The dynamic made for an interesting trip.
The North American tradition of Thanksgiving does not exist in Europe. This is why I was there. It was a relief to walk down streets and see no hint whatever of turkeys or pilgrims. I saw no doors festooned with raffia-bundled ears of Indian corn. Front stoops were devoid of artistically arranged gatherings of pumpkins and gourds of varying shapes and hues, presided over by grinning patch-worked, overalled scarecrows sporting the obligatory jaunty straw hat. None of this in sight was good.
There was no need to rush or check lists or think about cooking green bean casserole, trying to remember if I’d doubled or tripled the recipe last year to feed the group that gathered annually at my brother’s house: aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, friends, neighbors. Every year was a fantastic rumpus of noise in every part of the house, spilling into both the back yard and across the front lawn, the Macy’s parade as background music and my brother losing his shit at least once, ordering everyone except Mom out of the kitchen, into which they would all eventually drift back, wine glasses in hand, and the chatter would build again, a stew of laughter and familiar aromas, all of it wafting from one end of the house to the other. There would be none of that warmth and familiar contentment. Not this year. Never again. It would never be the same again.
But this first awful year I was thousands of miles away, so I would agonize less about how terrible the first family holiday would be without Mom, the center of everything and all that defined us as family. I couldn't bear the quiet, the subdued soldiering on and going through the motions, the spectacle of my dad trying to deliver his annual pre-dig-in toast, knowing he wouldn't get through it, knowing there would be choked words and lump-throated tears and tears and tears. I couldn't bear it. My brother understood. My husband understood. Go, they said. Do what you need to do. It was cowardly of me, and I knew it, but I needed this complete break from everything that suggested home and family and tradition. Three months in, I was still staggered by my mom’s unexpected death. We all were, but all I could bear at that point was my own grief, which was, in effect, not at all bearable.
We spent the evening of November 26th eating Thai food in London, my lovely daughter and I. We shared our glossy teak table and benches with a group of four women who talked loudly about how impossible it is to meet a decent man. Their vocabulary was colorful and mesmerizingly different, clearly exotic for my daughter—they used words such as “ghastly” to describe the situation and there was a lot of talk of bonking and shagging and bloody this and bloody that. My daughter was riveted by their conversation. This was a much more captivating development than the British National Museum tour and she soon dropped all pretense of not eavesdropping. Our conversation trailed off and she sat, her body turned toward them, listening to the trials and tribulations of 30-something dating in the UK as I washed my pad Thai down with icy pints of 1664, grateful to sit quietly with my own thoughts.
We had spent the day walking and pausing to look closer at some things and to take pictures of others. We’d thrown caution to the wind that morning, eating the beans and salty slabs of pork that came with our eggs at breakfast, lingering over tea to enjoy the ambiance of the basement breakfast room of the B&B, including a loud argument between the two Bulgarian cooks, which was broken up (much to our disappointment) by the burly Greek man who owns the B&B.
The next day we took the train to Paris, where Grace lives. She is the only American in her building and yet fast friends with nearly all of her French neighbors, who found themselves disarmed and unable to fend off her sunny-nature and undeterred overtures. Such is her charm that her neighbors volunteered to prepare a Thanksgiving feast to welcome us. There was no turkey or stuffing; dinner included roast duck and chestnuts, various cheeses and grapes, rich wines, salad, and a delicate delicious chocolate mousse that tasted like nothing I have ever tried before or since. My daughter was mooning around missing her boyfriend, so she excused herself after eating to Grace’s apartment two floors up, where she would no doubt Skype with the lineman—he of the blond crew cut and gargantuan neck.
The meal and conversation went on for hours, food and wine continuously passed around, neighbors popping in and out, cigarettes smoldering continuously in Venetian glass ashtrays scattered on the dining room table of our hosts, Catherine, and her mother, Simone.
Simone was in her nineties and had lived in the building since before (and during) World War II, during which, she said, German officers came to visit their French mistresses, several of whom had been installed there by their German lovers, to the horror of the other residents. I listened as Simone told her stories in French, her voice rising and falling dramatically, the smoke floating around her like the conjured embodiment of those of whom she spoke, Grace interpreting all of it in my ear, a whispered streaming current of English.
I pictured men in uniform striding across the polished alabaster floor of the building’s foyer downstairs—unchanged in sixty years—and stepping into the tiny elevator, carefully closing the ornate metal gate behind them. When I stepped into the same elevator later that night, I wondered if those men thought they would be in Paris forever or if they realized as they passed from one floor to the next that their time in that city was finite and doomed, that there would be a reckoning. Paris seemed to me to be such a haunted place, one that demands that the past be recognized and lived with, and it seemed even more so after my evening in Simone’s salon. It occurred to me that I've never gotten that same feeling visiting anywhere else; Paris seems to suspend time for me, as if everything everywhere else doesn't really exist during the time that I am there.
It was gloomy and overcast the entire time we were in Paris, which was okay. It matched my mood, which was growing gloomier and more anxious as the trip wound down and the return home loomed.
I carried some of my mom’s ashes with me throughout the trip. I was aware of the tiny bottle in my backpack as I wandered through Windsor Castle and around Stonehenge, as I walked through the Louvre and Notre Dam, as my daughter and I strolled arm-in-arm along the Thames and the Seine, as we enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner with our Parisian friends. I intended to scatter the ashes from the Eiffel Tower the night before we returned home, which is what my dad wanted.
He said that he and my mom had spent some of their happiest times together in Paris — a few days of leave for him while he was stationed in Germany in the early 1960s. My mother had been a language major at Kent State with dreams of working as an interpreter at the United Nations. But she met my dad at a fraternity/sorority mixer, married him while she was still in undergrad, then joined him overseas after she graduated. She followed him and his career around the world, the quintessential military wife, raising two children, hosting teas for other officer’s wives, volunteering with the Red Cross, helping Dad get through graduate school and promoted through the ranks.
She’d leapt at the chance of a few days exploring Paris and meticulously planned every hour of their time there, unwilling to squander a moment. My father wanted to visit Napoleon’s tomb and she scheduled it for the last day of their trip. But when they arrived the ticket seller refused to accept their 50 Franc piece. He told them to go down the street several blocks to a shop and ask for change. My mother implored him. She told him that they were Americans and had to catch a train soon to take them back to Frankfurt, that they didn't know if they would have a chance to return for a visit soon or perhaps ever at all, but the man laughed. He didn't believe her, he said, because she had no accent. Her French was too good. Who did she think she was, trying to fool him? He was a smart man and he knew she wasn’t an American.
They walked to the Eiffel Tower instead and spent their last precious moments there, looking out over the city. They decided it was the best way to end their trip and spoke of it many times over the course of the succeeding fifty years of their marriage.
My daughter and I headed to the Eiffel Tower on our last night in Paris. We got there just before sunset and for a while we sat on the grass and watched the tourists queuing-up to take the elevator to the top. When my daughter got up and walked around to assess which line looked to be the best one to get into, I reached into my backpack and found the bottle I’d been carrying for two weeks. I thought about my mom, tried to picture the 23-year-old girl she had been when she’d visited this place and wondered what sorts of things were on her mind that day. Had everything she hoped for come to fruition? Had she felt fulfilled and truly happy with how her life was turning out? Did she have any regrets?
I wrapped my fingers tightly around the bottle, squeezing as mightily as I could, trying to memorize the feel of it. It was the same thing I’ve done my whole life — whenever I’m leaving a place for the last time, a place that’s meant something to me, and to which I know I’ll likely never return, I stop and take it all in. I breathe it in, memorize the smell of the place, the colors, the way the light hits it, the angles, and the sounds of it. I listen, I hold it tightly for a long last moment, and then I close the door.
The day after we got back my dad called me up and said, “You brought Mom’s ashes back with you, didn’t you?”
I have no idea how he knew. It wasn't as if I had protested scattering part of her remains in Paris in the first place — I thought it was a fine thing to do and I said so when we discussed it weeks before. But when it came down to it, I just couldn't let go, and he knew it before I did.
Lorrie Lykins is a longtime correspondent with the Tampa Bay Times in St. Petersburg, Florida, where she also teaches journalism and creative nonfiction at Eckerd College. A 2012 Pushcart Prize nominee, she has published nonfiction and photo essays in Prime Number Magazine, Gravel magazine, and the anthology, “Red, White & True: The American Military Story from WWII to Present,” University of Nebraska Press. She earned her M.F.A. in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte.