In 1981, I spent my junior year in Paris. It should have been a magnificent time, something that people with English majors and literary aspirations would have called “halcyon.” There I was, 19 years old, single, and earnest in the City of Lights. I should have been Leslie Caron dancing along the banks of the Seine with Gene Kelly, or Audrey Hepburn dancing in front of the Arc de Triomphe with Fred Astaire.
Instead, I was living alone, thousands of miles away from my Philadelphia home, and my father was dying of cancer. The thought of dancing never even entered my mind.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. My “Junior Year In Paris” had been planned ever since I took French in fourth grade at Merion Mercy. My first real memory is of twirling around in our Logan living room on Wingohocking Street to Jacques Offenbach’s “Gaîte Parisienne” like one of the dancers at the Moulin Rouge. So when the opportunity presented itself, I applied for the year-abroad program, was accepted, and paid the fees. One month later, Daddy was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer at the age of 42.
Of course, I begged to stay home. When the begging failed to move my parents, who saw the trip as a way to protect me from watching my father fade away, I became belligerent and vowed not to go. My father kicked that belligerence right out of me by saying, “If you stay here, you are basically saying you want to watch me die. If you do what we planned, you are telling me that you expect to come back and spend many more years with your father.”
Damn him, for always winning these skirmishes.
The day I left, it poured in typically melodramatic Hollywood fashion. Actually, since we’re talking Paris, it was more like one of those maudlin moments from a Francois Truffaut film where everyone looks depressed and all of the men are wearing scarves even though it’s 75 degrees outside. The pretense of “I’ll see you in a little while, pop,” was shattered by the vise-like hug I gave him. If he didn’t have any broken ribs it wasn’t for lack of effort on my part.
And so my Parisian adventure started out on a sour note, amer for this American. But my youth and my innate optimism (or possibly narcissism) helped me appreciate the surroundings, and while my heart longed to hear my father’s voice in these precell phone days, my stomach was comforted with chocolate, baguettes slathered in butter, chocolate, apple tarts, and more chocolate.
Until Thanksgiving rolled around.
Regardless of how delicious French cuisine might be, our Gallic friends cannot do Thanksgiving. Even their translation for the holiday is so awkward that it demonstrates how much of an afterthought it is: Le Jour de l’Action de Donner Grace or literally, the Day of the Act of Giving Thanks. By the time you finish saying it, the turkey is already cold.
The week leading up to the holiday left me incredibly depressed, remembering the type of Thanksgiving food we would have at home: turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts with bacon, corn, beets, pumpkin pie, apple pie, and lasagna (my Italian mother’s inevitable addition to the meal).
As I grieved for my father, who was becoming increasingly weaker, I mourned the meal that reminded me of our happier times. I felt like Emily in Our Town, walking ghost-like through the streets of Paris, looking for something that would carry the echoes of home.
Then I saw it.
Perched in the window of a patisserie was a small tart, the size of my palm, with maple leaves cut into the pastry and a tiny marzipan turkey perched on the edge. Through tears, I paid for the treasure, snatched it up, then walked to school where I could make a very expensive transatlantic call home.
It was the last time my father would recognize my voice.
Not knowing that then, but feeling quite blessed, I gave thanks.
(Christine Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.)