As Notre Dame burned on the night of April 15, 2019, all my memories of Paris converged, accordion-like, folding inward, into that deep place of mine where not much gets in. Sobs, tears, disbelief. History ignited, bursting into flames, before my very eyes. Never mind that history, by its very nature, changes day to day, moment by moment, year by year. Over the centuries, Notre Dame herself saw much history flowing by on the nearby Seine, providing sanctuary for lost souls. But not during the French Revolution (May 5, 1789 – Nov 9, 1799). Then she became a place not of sanctuary but rather one for stabling horses or staging plays rippling with debauchery.
An outpouring of grief swept across the world at the news of the burning in Paris. And some wondered why the intense emotion, why so much sorrow. Some even sounded callous in their disdain for that surge of grief. “Just a building.” “It’s only been the way it’s been for a while.” “People are starving in The Sudan, why don’t you care about that?”
Yes. But what those Grinches didn’t know was this: For me, and for countless others – believe me, they’re countless, because some days I could not get near the door of Notre Dame to even walk through it – Notre Dame symbolizes Paris. And France. A major part of the American patrimony, its English origins not withstanding, France stood by those ragged rebels who dared thumb their noses at tyranny in 1776 and sent an army packing in 1783. She – for the church is a “she” in my mind – embodies heart-felt memories, of ambling along the quays, fumbling through the books of bouquinistes, nibbling frites at sidewalk cafés, envying the fashion sense of slim French women with their tiny pups.
I don’t know where I’d be this year if it weren’t for memories like those, the good, the bad, the sad. The burning of Notre Dame now seems to be a metaphor to me, a precursor to what happened to the world a little over 6 months later after that fire. As COVID-19 slyly slithered from the womb where it was born, few humans on the planet knew what changes would occur.
No longer could we – if we cared about our fellows – hop on a plane and fly to parts unknown on the spur of the moment.
And no longer could we cluster together like sardines in a tin. Not in restaurants. Not in markets. Not in places where people congregate, laughing, talking, kissing. Not at holiday tables. Not in places where carefree spirits could comfortably sprawl. Not anywhere. Nowhere.
The herd instinct, one thing that makes us truly human, other than speech and cooking, fizzled.
The world shrank for decades after the invention of the airplane, allowing the mingling of cultures, the sharing of food, art, literature with mere hours of travel, not the long months or interminable years of journeying by many peoples’ ancestors. The travels of those ancestors demanded huge sacrifices of time and family ties, many never seeing their families again once the schooners and sailing ships caught the wind and sped out to sea. Memory became their friend, the thread connecting them to the past.
But within a month of lockdown last year that old friend, began rapping hard on my doors and windows.
It was as if the earth went flat again and all the ships stayed in port, the seas rough and threatening, the skies dark and foreboding and filled with uncertainty. Everything normal came to a standstill.
Memory walks with me daily as I slog 10 blocks or so in my neighborhood. By now, I know all the cats along my route. And they know me. They emerge like lithe shadows from the underbrush, the grass, the tree stumps. We “talk” and, for a moment, I smile as I trudge on. And with every step I realize the preciousness of the past. I wrap myself in those old memories, like the thick quilts my grandmother used to sew, drawing them close and tight to my heart.
I realize I’m making new memories, small ones, but still.
Memory, my old friend.