Travel notesIssue 21 | October 2014

Life Jacket

by Margaret McMullan

On the marble topped bureau in the corridor of our rental apartment on Rue de Rennes, I line up ten slips of paper, a sheet for every day we have in Paris. Each sheet lists the names of two museums, opening and closing times, directions, and the names of a few nearby restaurants. The last two sheets are blank.

My mother laughs out loud when she sees the ten sheets of paper. “Two museums a day? You’ve become my mother.” Her mother was an art critic who dragged her through museums when my mother was a girl growing up in Vienna, and later, during their emigration in 1939, in Paris. They had just lost everything – their home, their furniture, and their own great art. I think my grandmother knew then there was no way they were ever going to get any of it back.

We invited my mother to join us for a trip abroad after my father died and after my mother had hip replacement surgery. She was 82 years old. She worried she would never see Paris again. We rented a comfortable fourth floor apartment in the 6th arrondissement. There was even an elevator for my mother and her four-month-old hip. We promised to take things slowly. I bought a pre-paid museum pass that would allow us easy entrance into all the museums to avoid the lines. My mother and I would spend these days looking at art she and her mother had seen before they left Europe during World War II.

On our first day in Paris, we visit the Musée d’Orsay, where the staff takes one look at my mother and hurries us to the front of the line. The French my mother spoke as a girl returns to her, and we secure a wheelchair, though my mother spends very little time sitting in it. As we enter each room, she jumps out of the chair to hurry to a Manet, a Degas, a Renoir, or a Seurat she recognizes as old friends of her mother’s.

After the Anschluss, after Hitler and his troops marched into Vienna, my mother and her parents were forced to leave. My grandmother was not Jewish, but my grandfather was born Jewish, and even though he had converted to Catholicism, he was no longer safe. The family split up. My grandfather left Vienna first, traveling alone, making his way first through Switzerland and then into France in order to get to Cambridge, England where he had acquired a teaching position at King’s College. Weeks later, my grandmother and my mother left together. My grandmother used that time away from her husband to go to museums and look at art. She was born in Paris, and she grew up there, and though this period must have been terrifying, my grandmother also relished returning to her childhood home and visiting every museum that was still open. Surely she thought this might be the last time she would ever see her family and friends. Perhaps my grandmother also thought this was the last time she would see her favorite paintings again. Museums were closing throughout Europe as all the art, and even, the stained glass, was being “requisitioned,” hidden, stored, or stolen.


On the second day, we visit the Louvre, and again, perhaps because of the museum pass, my mother’s French, and her advanced age, the museum staff ushers us to the front of the line and towards another wheelchair. On this day, my mother sits and I push. There are more crowds, the museum vaster. My mother grows ever more anxious with the number of people. She holds her purse closer.

A guard leads us towards a room, and another guard waves us in as I wheel my mother across the squeaky parquet floors. The guard parts a sea of people, and walks us both towards the front of a roped-off painting. I am paying more attention to my mother’s growing anxiety in this crowd, but when I look up, I see her, the mother of all paintings.

I have seen the Mona Lisa before, but not like this, not so close. The smile is demure. She’s not some ideal woman, but she is beautiful. And then of course, there is her glow from within and the magnificent, painterly skill in such a small painting of this woman alone, at ease, pleased, content. I kneel next to my mother’s wheelchair. There are tears in her eyes. Her fists unclench. She has forgotten about the crowd of people around her. “People say how disappointed they are when they see her.” She is shaking her head. “Unbelievable.” I am not sure if she is talking about the painting or the people who have been unimpressed. We both sit speechless for a long time before this one calm woman, sitting before an immense landscape of water, trees, and sky. 

After the Louvre, we tour the smaller, less crowded museums. At the Musée Rodin we stand before the stone carving of Paola and Francesco, inspired by Dante. “There is no greater pain then remembering happy times in misery,” he wrote in Canto 5 of The Inferno. We take in the water lilies and the calm blue dining room at the Musée Marmottan Monet, admire the sunlit studio and Alexandre Dumas’ lovely letters to his friend at the Musée National Eugène Delacroix, and, on a rainy afternoon, after seeing all of Chagall’s Bella paintings, with his wife, Bella à la fenêtra at the Musée du Luxembourg, we cry a little over lost loved ones and comfort ourselves with tea and honey cake.

“I wonder about heaven,” my mother says. Perhaps it’s Chagall’s yellows and reds that have stirred her. “But if there’s no heaven, I might not ever see him again.” She is back again, thinking of my father.

We visit other cafés, read the love notes posted in the poetry section at Shakespeare & Company, stand before monuments and fountains, and then it is the morning of Day Nine.

“Thank God,” my mother says, eying the two blank slips of paper left on the hall bureau. My husband has written pack and 11:00 a.m. pick-up on Day 10.

We are all exhausted. Our packable knit travel clothes have lost their shape. Even though we tie our scarves in different ways, we are still wearing the same scarf. “What do you absolutely have to do before we leave Paris?” I ask.

“Chanel.”

It is my turn to moan. I hate to shop, but, according to my guidebook, Chanel’s flagship store at 31 rue Cambon is a museum, and the metro stop is also my mother’s name: Madeleine. It appears to be fate.

When my mother and her parents finally reached New York in 1942, and then traveled on to Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, where my grandfather had yet another position to teach history at Johns Hopkins University, my grandmother began writing about painters like Paul Klee, Max Jacob and George Braque, artists who painted what they saw in their new century – broken geometric buildings and fractured, torn-apart lives.

My grandmother, who was considered a great beauty, loved beautiful clothes, but she could no longer afford such luxuries because there was no more money. My mother worked her way through high school, college, and graduate school. She bought clothes for herself and for her mother. She even bought her parents their first American home.

We are the only non-Asians at Chanel that day. Forget about the shoes and the handbags, the cosmetics and perfume, my mother says, leading the way towards the store’s famous suspended stairway. Here, she feels no need for either a wheelchair or an elevator. All strength and mobility, my mother is charging up the steps and marching straight towards the racks. I wonder, is my mother’s favorite art the wearable kind?

I don’t know when or how a Chanel saleswoman decides who is the serious buyer, but one saleswoman, Patricia, spots my mother. Patricia speaks English until my mother insists on French. Patricia collects the black pants my mother has selected, sits us down in a dressing room, then brings us cappuccino, sparkling water, and chocolates on a square black tray. Sensing my anxieties about the money and the expensive clothes, and perhaps my distaste for such luxuries that aren’t museum relics, my mother tells me to calm down. “This is exactly how I want to spend my last day.”

My mother tells Patricia in French that she is newly widowed, and her voice doesn’t crack when she says the word for widow, veuve. As my mother talks and talks, Patricia kneels down to remove my mother’s walking shoes. With her long black hair, Patricia could be Mary Magdalene getting ready to wash my mother’s weary feet.

“You need something beautiful to wear for the beautiful life you will have,” Patricia says in French. She looks through the all-black clothes my mother has selected—mourning clothes—puts them aside, disappears, and then reappears with a rack of clothes dotted with blues, reds and yellows. When she sees me checking the price tags, Patricia reassures us: she made her selections from what was to go on sale, and will charge us sale prices.

I sit in the corner, finishing off the chocolates.

We skip lunch. My mother zips herself into dresses and suits until Patricia comes with a jacket. She takes the jacket off its hanger, tossing the black and gold hanger in a chair, into the embrace of a mannequin’s disconnected arms. If she had been there, perhaps my grandmother would have appreciated the Picasso-like grouping.

Patricia helps my mother into the soft blue and green plaid jacket, a jacket my mother never would have selected for herself, because, she says, it is meant for a younger, more carefree woman.

“You’ll have this jacket for life,” Patricia says as we all look at my mother in the mirror. Her feathery hair is all white. She doesn’t bother with coloring any more. Sorrow has given her a new helmet.

In the mirror, my mother’s face transforms, and her shoulders fall into a relaxed Mona-Lisa pose, the kind her mother used to strike whenever she was photographed. My mother looks at the woman in the mirror, smiling.

“Does it look too good?” my mother asks. “Too sexy?”

“You’ll have to beat away your suitors,” I laugh.

“I’d never marry again. I’d be a mistress,” she jokes.

“You don’t act like mother and daughter,” Patricia says. “You’re more like friends.”

Purchasing requires yet another round of water, coffee, chocolates, and even a glass of champagne for my mother. Veuve Clicquot. Patricia doesn’t want to burden us, so for no charge, she arranges for a beautiful young man to bring my mother’s jacket in a bag to our apartment via Vespa.

That evening at the Hotel Cayré on 4 Boulevard Raspail, my mother and I meet up with my husband. As he tells us about his day taking photographs at the Porte de Clignancourt, we sip cocktails and eat almonds and wasabi peas. After the war, on their way back to live out the rest of their lives in Vienna, my grandparents stopped in Paris and stayed at this hotel, the Hotel Cayré. This is also where my mother and father stayed back in 1963, on their way to Austria for my grandmother’s funeral.

We discuss our dinner plans while my husband settles the bill. My mother looks around the room. An elderly couple sits on a sofa with what look to be their two grandchildren, a girl and a boy.

“I was never really close to my mother.” My mother fingers the matchbook with the name of the hotel on the cover. “Not like we are. I used to tell her everything, but she never said much, only, ‘Sometimes, Madeleine, you tell me too much.’” Even in photographs, my grandmother appears to be a distant woman—cool, beautiful, well-dressed, and aloof.

My grandmother admired and wrote a great deal about the surrealist and cubist movements, but, in her later years, she turned towards the realists and romantic landscape artists, writing about their wide open, calm skies. Perhaps my grandmother was facing her own anxieties of coping with a new world. She and my grandfather eventually went back to live in a depressed and torn-up Vienna, where she died of leukemia when she was only 65 years old.

My husband returns to our table and helps my mother with her new jacket.

“This has been the best day,” she says to him. I am pleased, but I admit, a little disappointed, too. What about all those days at the museums? What about all the beautiful art?


Seven months later, my mother and I sit alone together. We have spent the day in New Orleans eating speckled trout and crabmeat, and now, back at her home, I am heating up leftover gumbo in the kitchen.

“What was your best memory of the year?” my mother asks. It’s a tough question because it has been such a tough year. She lost her husband, my father. Even the good days feel more like recovery. Coming back from Paris was challenging too. My mother isn’t sure how to organize her days or her life. She still doesn’t know what to do with my father’s things. She gives away his ties, and then she asks for them all back. Then her VISA card doesn’t work. When she calls VISA to explain everything that has happened to her, she begins with her birth, telling her life story. The VISA employee interrupts and asks what exactly she wants. “I’m trying to establish my identity!” she yells into the phone.

Best memory? I say something about finishing research for a new book.

We are both tired from the day, too tired to go out or even change from our good clothes. She is still wearing her Chanel jacket, what we now call her Life Jacket.

“And you?” I ask from across the kitchen counter. “What was your best memory?”  She gets up to put bread in the oven, and then leans on the counter to steady herself. I recall the day at Chanel and Patricia bending to remove my mother’s shoes. In her lifetime, my mother has lost many lovely things – her family ring, her family home, her family’s country. She has lost friends, her mother, her father, and her husband. She worries now about losing her memory, her mind, her identity. When I look, when I see my mother, I have the feeling I’m watching the last of something – something rare and beautiful.

“Seeing that Mona Lisa,” she says, shaking her head. “I keep thinking of her so calm. And that road behind her and all that sky.”

About the author

Margaret is the author of six award-winning adult and young adult novels including Sources of Light. She received a Fulbright to research and teach at the University of Pécs in Pécs, Hungary, which she wrote about in her forthcoming memoir, and has recently edited Every Father’s Daughter, an anthology of essays by women writing about their fathers with an introduction by Phillip Lopate, due out in Spring 2015. Her novel-in-stories Aftermath Lounge is also due in Spring 2015. Visit her here.

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