On April 15th, 2019 I walked into my gym and paused in front of the television, stunned to see the images of Notre Dame Cathedral in flames. It was such a disturbing sight because it is easy to assume buildings like Notre Dame will stand for eternity. After all, they are a particular form of evidence of human ambition, of religious devotion, of a hand extending from our past into our future.
The image brought tears to my eyes–because, in addition to being a beloved cathedral and an architectural icon, Notre Dame plays an important role in the story of my family. In 2016 I was able to visit Paris for the first time–and in 2019, upon seeing the video of Notre Dame engulfed in flames, I was overcome with gratitude for that trip.
My trip to Paris came at a particularly difficult point for me. At the time I was coming to terms with the fact that my life was looking decidedly smaller than I had anticipated. As I spent my days giving much-needed direct care to my daughter, my own interests and desires seemed to have wound entirely around Esmé and her fragile health. I wasn’t certain what was left of the parts of me that were just about me. Explaining those thoughts to my mom and stepdad, I’d offhandedly said, “Like Paris…I’ve always wanted to go to Paris…but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to.” My parents rose to the challenge, as they are wont to do, and a few months later I was flying across the Atlantic with them…sipping pear brandy handed to me by a flight attendant with a stunning accent.
I had three days, because I couldn’t leave Esmé for longer than that…but, let me tell you, I soaked up as much of that city as a person can in three days. We ate and drank and walked and laughed…and I confused Parisians with my odd French Canadian-isms and American accent.
And I also did something I’ve planned to do for my entire life: I climbed to the top of Notre Dame, in search of something. What a fortunate thing it is that I did it then…
On the flight home I wrote about this pilgrimage to Notre Dame…It was only a glimmer of a story I have wanted to write for ages, part of a story that started long before my birth. But I never returned to it, and all but forgot about it. I thought of this half-baked piece of writing back in April when I saw the cathedral in flames. And, although I haven’t been writing lately, this piece has been calling to me. I was grateful to find it sitting there for me after this long spell devoid of writing, just waiting for new life:
Visiting Notre Dame feels like a pilgrimage. Not a pilgrimage of the sort I imagine it is for the people I saw crossing themselves in the nave. It is something different, but I guess, in a way, it is also the same.
The wait to climb up to the bell tower is not a short one, but it passes by rather quickly. As I sit uncomfortably perched on the low stone wall, I distract myself with unanswerable questions, wondering what it was like when he visited—was it a touristy thing to do, like it is now? Were there lines? Did he have to pay then, as I must, to make the climb to the top of the cathedral?
Soon I am working my way up the dizzying spiral staircase, and the questions expand as I think about him, here, as a young man. I wonder: Are my feet hitting the same curving worn spots his did? As it finds holds at the center spoke of the stairs, has my left hand grasped the same divot his did? When my right hand runs over the carved markings on the walls and windowsills am I grazing one he might have made?
I don’t know where it is, but I know that my grandfather carved my grandmother’s name somewhere here, long ago, before me, before my father, before their marriage, before the war…and I cannot help but hope to find it. Because this is my religion: the remarkable things that we do for love.
My grandfather, Al, is 18, maybe 19? He is the younger, American-born, son of two Scottish immigrants. His father is a rug-designer and frustrated not-terribly-talented painter (who happened to be friends with a painter named Henri Matisse…you may have heard of him?)
Al, much to the joy of his father, has the makings of a talented artist.
While we dig through the pile of the oldest paintings in his studio, the smell of oils and canvas intoxicating me, my grandfather explains, “I started training with portraiture when I was your age, Bird,” using our shared pet name, Bird—one part reference to Charlie Parker and one part reminder of my appearance when I was a baby, “I was painting for hours everyday.” He finds what he is looking for, “Here, this one, this is a portrait of me when I was, maybe 18? You can have it. (But don’t tell Grandma. Loie wouldn’t like it).”
Grandma, Lois, is, after all, the gate-keeper of the paintings. I enjoy having this secret from her…
I admire the painting, the young man I see looking back at me is confident, a bit goofy, happy (despite the serious set to his face). I glance back up at my grandfather’s face as it is now. I can see that young man still, superimposed over his face. “Wow, Grandpa Bird,” I say. “This is amazing. You were really handsome,” I continue, teasing, “I can see why grandma fell in love with you.” He smiles back at me, wiggling his giant ears, a trick that never gets old. “It took some convincing,” he says, suddenly serious. “I loved her the first time I saw her. We were 15.”
I know the story. My grandmother had told me.
Grandma is in the kitchen, the sun streaming in. Her nervous laugh betrays emotion as her face softens uncharacteristically, while simultaneously retaining its elegance and seriousness: “He had these squeaky shoes. He’d squeak them to get me to look at him… Then he’d run up the wall.”
“Up the wall?” I ask.
“Yes,” she says, looking up at my grandfather, her lipsticked mouth pulling into a secretive smile. “It worked, right, Al?” As always, her voice draws his short name into two syllables. We all can imitate the hard nasally sound of it to perfection (and we do, often).
Al isn’t supposed to get married. Not to Lois. Not to anyone.
He is supposed to be a painter–untethered to anything other than art.
Marriage, his father believes, will only stand in the way of the dream of The Art. So when my great-grandfather sees his son after high school graduation, still enamored of Lois (who wears lipstick, of all things), he decides to show his son the pleasures of life as an artist in Europe. Al goes, studying first for months at the Glasgow School of Design and then continuing on a tour of the continent.
Certainly Al enjoys the art and the architecture (and the wine?), but the thing on his mind is getting back to Lois, his Loie, my grandmother. So, while in Paris Al climbs the almost 400 steps to the top of Notre Dame, stopping to carve Lois’s initials somewhere into the edifice, an act of devotion, an act of rebellion, an act of faith.
Tell me, how can the grandchild of such people not be permanently ruined by the romance of their story?
Seeing Paris for the first time, I repeat my grandfather’s act of devotion as I climb the narrow stair as slowly as I can without making everyone behind me angry. I search the staircase, running my hands over every surface, hoping that I’ll find the evidence, somehow…having faith that my fingers will find their way on instinct.
I remember the words, “I carved your grandmother’s initials at the top of Notre Dame.” The problem is: I’m not sure where “at the top” is. My dad remembers that it was the staircase. I thought it was the bell tower, but I have no idea if that means inside, outside, or above. I diligently check each windowsill, even though they are all so scarred with the ridges of carvings and age that I cannot make out more than a letter here or there.
Then, at the top I am delighted (and overwhelmed) to find the doors of the north bell tour to be completely covered with names. It is only around the edges that much is legible. The rest is just layer upon layer of the historical sediment of longing and love and graffiti. I see some dated ones around the edges going back as far as to the 40’s
The inside of the south bell tower is timber, remnants of similar etchings soften in the wood. I look, carefully, but nothing much is legible.
Outside of the south bell tower on one of the doors I find two of her three initials, LB, hastily, but deeply, carved into the surrounds of one of the decorative windows. I doubt this is it, but I stop anyway, knowing that this is as close as I could possible hope to come. I stand there, trying to envision my grandfather on this spot, as a young man–making this mark quickly, but assertively, while his father stood a few feet away, looking the other way, admiring the view over Paris.
Coincidentally, next to these initials, I see my own initials, HS. I’m not confused that someone has carved them for me, of course. (I’m rather certain the only vandalism involving my initials occurred in an elementary school dugout). Still, they make me feel as though I’ve found some version of the answer I came for.
I stand there, drunk on the thought of it all, and wonder what it would feel like to be my grandmother, knowing that somewhere, once, far away, at one of the most spectacular cathedrals in the world a man stood looking away from the view over Paris to leave a remnant of you there… because he was hardly able to stand to be away from you a moment longer.
In that moment, at the top of Notre Dame, could he imagine what would come? Could he imagine repeating this story to his children, to his grandchildren? Could he imagine his youngest grandchild returning to the scene of his vandalism, trying desperately to understand something about her history, about love, about devotion.
I stand there, pretending to be in my grandfather’s exact footprint, ignoring the view of Paris, my chest rising and falling, overwhelmed with the longing behind the dense tapestry of marking scratched into these ancient surfaces–overcome by this proud and hopeful display of the irrational belief that somehow, somehow, there is someone out there who makes everything make sense…
I descend the stairs, like all of those people who’d climbed before me with hearts set on love, longing, and devotion. How many of them found what they were looking for? I am surprised to see that there are names carved here, too. Although the names are far less dense–existing like an afterthought. My eyes well up as my right hand slides across the stone wall as I go down, down, back to the day, back to reality…away from the typographical evidence of logic, geography, and gravity defying romance.
In a short few hours I will be quickly propelled back across the Atlantic.
Al, against his father’s wishes, works for his passage on a freighter slowly, slowly finding his way home Lois. For some time it seems his father was wrong about art’s ability to thrive with love, as they navigated a life of art and smoke filled jazz bars and red lipstick. Al is a talented young painter in New York City in those early years. He wins awards–including a Merit Award from the Grand Central School of Art and first prize for his Still Life in oil at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art…both of these medals he will give me when I graduate from college with a note saying “You are the “Bird” and go wherever you want.” These live on my desk, and during the times my life has felt the smallest, when it is only my writing that could carry me wherever I want, I turn them over in my hand to remind me of something bigger.
In 1940, Lois and Al are married. They have a couple of children, Alan and Bill (my father). They move to Connecticut. Al stops painting. He begins designing rugs, like his father. The stuff of romantic acts from an ocean away, turns into the stuff of daily life and family and work and bills.
Many years later, after retiring, Grandpa returns to painting. He creates beautiful canvases filled with flowers, birds’ nests, jazz musicians, and the form of my grandmother, grey-haired and, as always, stunning–her hard edges so easy to love when seen through his eyes.
After she dies, he keeps painting.
He paints until the end of his life, when his eyesight flattens his perspective and darkens his colors, yielding haunting new and unfamiliar scenes.
Al paints Lois. He paints for her. The lines of his work announce the same as his marks at the top of Notre Dame: I was here. And, so, Lois was here. Our love was here.
This has been a Finish the Sentence Friday post. Although it has been awhile, I love participating in Finish the Sentence Friday (FTSF) with Finding Ninee. Each week on FTSF we receive a sentence to finish.
Join the Facebook Group to start linking up with all of us! You never know what will happen… The first week I linked up I wrote something that I didn’t even know I needed to write. It felt so raw and close to the bone that I wasn’t certain I wanted to share it. But I did it anyway…and I am so happy I did.