A Palmier Moment

Picture a window in a fourth floor apartment in the 11th arrondissement of Paris, a tall narrow window that opens like a door to a ledge bound by a wrought iron rail. The ledge is almost a balcony, and I suppose one could step out onto it…not that I ever would.

Looking out to the right one sees the steeple of Église Saint-Joseph-des-Nations, a majestic 19th century church whose name reflects the diversity of the neighborhood and whose distinctive clanging bell punctuates our hours here. Below us are the busy streets where bicyclists, dog walkers, workers, and shoppers wander past in an endless procession by day, and where noisy gatherings of friends loiter at night outside the bars, fragments of their conversation drifting into the bedroom, adorning my dreams with mysterious snippets of French, so near and clear that they startle me, and I lie awake wondering for a moment where I am, and the bed is a little boat on the great sea of the city.

One night there was rain. Umbrellas went up and paces quickened. A streetlamp illuminated raindrops falling and yellow leaves floating in the air and gathering in puddled curbs, and voices gave way to the splash and hiss of the rain that was the background sound to everything, interrupted occasionally by thunder.

But the next morning the sun shone and the clouds were so white and pretty they looked like they were pasted to a painted blue sky as a setting for a children’s play. And that’s when you should picture the window in the main room of the fourth floor apartment, this time with a beautiful dark-haired young woman standing there, looking out. She is my daughter, of course, and I know that this is one of those moments I will never forget.

Here’s the part where I blow it. I walk up to her and say, “Here we are looking out a window in Paris together.” I stand alongside her and reach for her hand. I am very conscious of this moment and I want it to last.

She quickly walks away. I’ve changed something for her, invaded it, I guess. Now I’m standing by a window in Paris by myself.

Later, I talk to my husband about this. He thinks my problem is that I verbalize everything. What would you have done? I ask. He would have quietly stood behind her and gently hugged her, he says, and they would just be there together without narration.

At first I think this seems a little bit like blocking her, a masculine trick, a more aggressive way to turn the moment into a shared one, but I realize that it’s a sincere expression of affection, and reflects the way they are together. They swim together, these two, they do things. I talk too much. I write too many secret scripts and expect others to know their roles. I’ll try to learn.

Later that day we wander over to the Île de la Cité. Several years ago, I bought a scoop of poire sorbet here. I’m almost certain of the street, and it was a pricy and tiny little scoop, a few precious licks and it was gone, but oh, it was heavenly. It was the sorbet to which I would compare all sorbets forever after, and none would ever live up to it. Its flavor was subtle and perfect. Poire.

So I decided to find some poire sorbet for my husband and daughter while they sat on a bench by the river looking at a map and resting their feet.  I wanted the delicious memory of poire sorbet at the Île de la Cité to belong to all of us. Alas, there was none to be found.

Instead, I came to a place selling baked goods, and I bought a palmier. I was thinking of  Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past in which the taste of a Madeleine pastry unleashed a flood of vivid memories from a cup of tea. He wrote:

When from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection. 

Exactly. Such are the keys to precious memories. How often has a fragrance, or a flavor, or for that matter, a fragment of music, taken me away to a long-ago time and place? Perhaps a bite of palmier now would prompt a Madeleine moment someday, reviving for my daughter a recollection of this moment. Maybe not. It would at least be a pleasing snack. No narration would be needed.

I carried it back in a white paper bag and presented it to my people. It was perhaps a little stale, but sweet and buttery, and big enough to share, and we were in Paris together.

And without expectations, everything was surprisingly good.

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