She smiles amiably as we meet again and she kisses me on both cheeks. She is dressed impeccably in a suit with a smartly cinched jacket and tailored pants.
I glance down and see she is wearing two-tone pumps that match her suit. The heels are fine and tapered. Three inches, easily. And I am reminded that she is an elegant woman, head to toe. As usual, I am admiring of the self she seems to preserve no matter what. And I am happy to see her.
We laugh as she slips out of her shoes and I find myself standing next to an 84-year old woman who is now slightly smaller than myself. I step out of my own heels – also three inches – and the two of us are standing at the threshold of the kitchen, giggling like girls as she hugs me.
In stocking feet, she is taller by an inch.
The day proceeds tenderly and pleasantly, though she repeats questions every few minutes, forgetting she’s asked and forgetting the answer. Then hours go by when that doesn’t occur and the rhythms of the afternoon and evening are about ingredients and timing and tasting and more laughter.
There is talk over dialect or patois, a flurry of words and expressions and memories of her parents and grandparents, and what she retains of everything before age 40 is considerable. She speaks of another era; to me it is history and to her, this is a set of accessible and lively recollections.
* * *
In its higher pitched tonalities, in its pleasurable pronouncements, in its lighthearted consumption, in its subtleties I cannot pinpoint in my mother tongue, I feel it again – the love for this language that warms and brightens me. Of course I also feel the itch – the itch to travel back to a place where I am at home though I am a stranger, a place where women in their twenties and their forties and even their eighties are freer to be themselves in certain ways. In other ways of course, there are conventions to follow.
There are always conventions to follow.
But these are the models I hold in both memory and dream: women who select a scarf with care and gold accessories to set off fine wrists and thin fingers; an armoire that houses a wardrobe of well-worn staples; a single drawer containing brooches and bracelets and treasured squares of silk.
The rules concern quality, not quantity. And here, there is no contradiction in having an opinion and feeling feminine.
This is the France of my accessible recollections, decades later. I wonder if I would feel the same were I to install myself again and stay for any period of time. I wonder if I would still feel welcome. We may of necessity abandon the homes of our heart, and retain them if we are lucky. Occasionally, our homes abandon affection for our presence. Or perhaps it is tolerance. Too many years have passed since the commitment to return.
* * *
We chat over squash soup and harvest salad, then roast turkey and sweet potatoes. There is pumpkin pie for dessert, more laughter over changing shoes and eventually kicking them off, and stories exchanged over espresso and Calvados.
After the meal we walk in the cold and damp, briskly. There are reminiscences of Normandy in winter and the bonnes soeurs before the war, there is coming inside to a relaxing night which eventually turns into pajamas that replace the walking clothes that replaced suits and skirts.
Elastics are searched out to pull back hair – hers is long and silver and satiny; my own is somewhat shorter, and still dark with the help of a little coloring for the creeping gray.
She washes her face. I wash my face. And there are kisses on both cheeks before sleeping, there is coffee in the morning, there are the repeated questions and answers and stories and equally, the clarity of her laughter which is reassuring. These are lessons in aging and timelessness.
In the afternoon, the suit goes back on as do the heels. I put on my own heels as well though this time ankle boots with black jeans and a gray sweater. I like that our attire is compatible, that we are compatible, that she is – to me – the quintessential French woman.
There is a stop at the local market for Cabernet and Brie, for apples and spinach, for milk and yogurt, for fresh bread and a small baguette. I take her arm and we walk down the corridor like girls along a French ruelle. As we unpack the groceries in her kitchen she points out the pictures taped to the wall that help contain the memories: she names her husband, her children, her grandchildren, her friends.
Soon more photographs will join these. Even if the names go missing, the faces are familiar and loving.
The smile returns as I comment again on how chic she is, admiring her shoes one last time.
There are hugs and I feel her strength. There are kisses on both cheeks and I feel her tenderness. Her skin is soft and sweet. We say au revoir, until we meet again.