I made mention in this post about the ways in which my dad, unsurprisingly, showed up around Paris while I was there. His love of the city (and all things French) was something we had very much in common –along with turtlenecks, neutral colored clothing, quiet time, and stinky cheese. Finding photos from his trip in the 90s was one of the greatest joys of my life to date; reliving the city through his eyes was the next best thing to getting to go there with him one day, something that we never got to share and will forever break my heart.
But he still had his ways of letting me know he was there with me on this trip. Here are stories behind just two:
When I was growing up, my dad and I spent a few weeks a year at his friend’s cabin on the Susquehanna river. It was a tiny thing, sandwiched on a cliff between the river on one side, and train tracks on the other, and had been completely redone inside with tons of smart architectural details: sliding pocket doors into the bedroom, a wide bay-window in the dining nook, and a secret spot to hide the tv a false wall panel. The coolest thing of all might have been the custom slide my dad’s friend installed off the deck, with a 15 foot drop into the water below. Flip a switch on the side of the house, and a spigot on the roof poured water directly onto the slide, lubricating the surface for maximum speed. My dad taught me play poker at the cabin one winter when we were stuck inside (I was 8), and let me drive our old Honda stick-shift for the first time (also 8, and I almost drove us off the cliff before he could reach for the emergency break). I collected tiny seashells from the sandy strip at the bottom of the cliff stairs, proof that I was, at one point, comfortable near sand.
I have also retained through the years two very vivid recollections of some of the tchotchkes around the cabin: In the kitchen, on the windowsill above the sink, was a small outhouse figurine on a little platform of plastic grass, with a cartoonish red and white mushroom, the cap of which you could remove and fill the base of the figurine with water. Why? Well, because when you opened the outhouse door, a little boy rotated towards you and sprayed water from…you get it. On the bookshelf between the kitchen and the bedroom was a lined notepad, with the words “Chopin Liszt” and music scales at the top. Chopin Liszt, get it? Shopping List! My dad loved classical music, and likely took great pride in being able to explain the pun to me. I felt so cool being in on that joke at that age, and whenever my dad would play Chopin or Liszt anytime after that one of us would say, “Remember that pad of paper at Fred’s cabin…”
So imagine the double-take I did one day in late June when, walking down the Boulevard Saint-Germain, I spotted a flyer for a concert at the Église Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre featuring music from both composers. The joke was lost on the French, surely (“shopping list” in French translates to “la liste d’achats”), but I got it. I stopped and stood there for a few minutes, shaking my head in happy, teary disbelief.
At the same time when I found the photos of my dad in Paris while going through storage boxes, I also took a huge stack of books –coffee table art books and small paperbacks– from his collection. They all smelled dusty and musty, the way all books should smell, and I was happy to have something else tangible of his. My brother, going through one box of books, handed me a paperback copy edition from the 1950s of “The Sun Also Rises” and said I should take it with me to Paris. So I did. I also took a few pocket dictionaries of our dad’s with me, as well as a wallet-sized metro map that was woefully out of date (from 1996!) but I had to have anyway.
I’d never read “The Sun Also Rises” before I had my dad’s copy. I know, I know, but my brother rightly figured it was a good book to read in Paris. I read “Beautiful Ruins” and a few others first, and then got into bed one night with Hemingway (now there’s a image!), but barely made it past the front cover. Not because the book wasn’t good –I’d go on to read the entire thing in just a few days– but because there on the cover was a stamp from a used bookstore, with the name of one of the major characters in my novel. (Dubois is the thief, the man stealing paintings, and if you’re angry that I gave that away, don’t be. You know that from page one; the mystery isn’t the who, it’s the how.)
The bookstore in question hasn’t existed under the name Dubois’ Bookshop for at least 30 years; I can’t find any record of it, and the phone number on the stamp doesn’t even include an area code, a dialing requirement that went into effect in 1994. There is a used bookstore at that location, but for as long as I’ve been alive it has been Whodunit?, which started out selling only mystery titles, hence the name. It’s a staple of the neighborhood, and just a few blocks from my dad’s old apartment. I never even knew it was called anything else besides Whodunit?, and certainly not the name of one of the characters I had spent 18 months writing about. What are the odds that a book would sit in my dad’s apartment for years, then in storage for years, then on my shelf for weeks, then travel across the ocean in my suitcase, only to open up and reveal a coincidence like that? I had to laugh. And then maybe cry a little.
I loved all the alone time I had in Paris. Reveled in it, in fact. But I wasn’t really alone, and these little things made it all the more obvious.
My dad died eight years ago today, and I didn’t realize it until this morning. I had written this entire post yesterday, went digging through old photographs to find a photo of the cabin last night, and it was only when my alarm went off this morning that I said, “Oh. That’s why.” I miss you, daddy-o. Today and every day.