“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.