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My Mother Has Disappeared

“Ma mère est disparue,” Madame Bonnet said sadly that day in 1984 when I ran into her on the rue Claude de Caen. She lived on the same floor of the apartment building in the 12th arrondissement where I worked as an au pair, taking care of a 3-year-old. The quintessence of French elegance with her beautiful foulard always in place, her bright blue eyes, and her unfailing politeness, Mme. Bonnet seemed to make a point of being kind to me.

She had talked to me about her mother before, who evidently had Alzheimer’s and no longer recognized her. In a common manifestation of Alzheimer’s, Mme. Bonnet’s mother would grow agitated at times. “Elle cri tout le temps,” she reported once (she screams all the time).

As so often happened in the early days that I spent aimlessly drifting around Paris, the subtlety of the language went right by me. I took Mme. Bonnet literally, thinking her mother had wandered away from the nursing home. In my halting French, I think stammered something ineffectual like, “Who is looking for her?” or “I hope you find her soon,” or “Where could she have gone?”

Mme. Bonnet hastened to correct me. “Non, non, non, elle est morte.” (She is dead). Appalled, I tried to offer my condolences as well as I could, mortified by my failure to grasp her meaning right away.

In the run-up to Mother’s Day this week, I’ve been thinking about that sentence: “Ma mère est disparue.” The very French mix of melodrama and poetry in the euphemism softens the harshness of death just a bit, as if disappearing ruptures our grasp less brutally somehow.

My mother “disappeared” eight years ago, and while the years have eased the terrible, heavy grief, I find that every Mother’s Day I miss her more than usual. I tend to avert my eyes from the racks of Mother’s Day cards and I fairly cringe at the nonstop, braying ads: “Don’t forget about Mom!”

Yet in many ways, she hasn’t disappeared at all. On a very hot day, I sometimes detect the faintest trace of her favorite perfume, Angel, in her car, which she sold to me for the extravagant sum of $1 after she became too ill to drive, and which I still drive. When I hear accounts of presidential campaign follies involving dogs being eaten or strapped to car tops, I picture her rattling her newspaper in annoyance and making a noise of mild disgust. And I sometimes sense a glimmer of the pride I am certain she would have in her only grandson, our 16-year-old who occasionally displays a flash of her wit.

Vanished from sight, her presence still has imminence, the echoes of her voice and laughter still resonate, and the generosity and thoughtfulness she brought to our lives continue to be a blessing.

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About treacycolbert

I make my living by writing about health care. I've always written about life's chastening effect, but just as a way of sorting it out for myself. After years of doing this and keeping these essays quiet, I decided to put some of these impressions out there on this blog. Thanks for reading, and let me know what you think.

12 responses »

  1. Oh, TREACY, this one made me sob. I think of your mom so often, and I only knew her for such a short time. She was such a remarkable woman, my friend, like you. These eloquent and heartfelt snapshots you give of us of your journey through life touch us so deeply. They remind us of all of the subtleties and nuances that exist around us every day. They nudge us to laugh, to weep, to be present for all that is because it is all so fleeting. I love your work.

    Reply
  2. With tears in my yes I am writing this because, of course, your writing has touched me, bringing forth the memories of my Mom who left suddenly ten years ago. Thoughts of Mom’s uncanny ability to know everything before we told her, her ease with other people – “never having met a stranger”, and her ever-present smile, humming, whistling, and always in a good mood. Those are the things I remember most. All in all, not a bad legacy.
    I miss her more with every year that goes by – wishing that I could, ask her those questions you can’t ask anyone but your Mom; take her out for her favorite foods; and hear her proud, loving comments about her grandchildren and great-grandchild.
    Thanks for that time-out.

    Reply
    • Linda, I have such fond memories of your mother. I still cherish one of her Christmas cards in her beautiful handwriting and the sweet note she wrote to me. She was a treasure.

      Reply
      • As was yours Treacy. I aways thought “how cool and together your mother was”, so intelligent with such a great sense of humor. Now that I’m writing that about your mother, I could just as easily be writing that about you.
        Thank you for remembering Mom.

  3. What a beautiful tribute to you mom, Treacy, as are you. I’m sure she is smiling down on you with pride.

    Reply
  4. What a beautiful tribute to your mom, Treacy, as are you. I’m sure she is smiling down on you with pride.

    Reply
  5. Tina Thompson

    What a beautiful homage to your mother, Treacy. She was a wonderful woman.

    Reply
  6. Wonderful to see the comments of those who knew your mother as well as your own eloquent writing about her.

    Reply

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