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?”

Interior, Notre Dame (Dreamstime)

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.

Paris, Lady with Her Dog (C. Bertelsen)

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.

Older Woman, Chinatown, Bangkok, Thailand (C. Bertelsen)

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.

Mushrooms, Paris (Unknown)

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.

Cat walking (Dreamstime)

3 Comments

  1. Hello Cynthia, it has been awhile since I received anything from you, so glad to see you are back. Or maybe my laptop just gobbled up previous posts. So touching to read your post — I usually stay on Ile Saint Louis on my yearly trips to Paris, so the cathedral was a big part of my Paris experience. ( I’d go really really early so I could get inside before the hordes. I also loved Saint Gervais). The night before it burned I had this dream of a huge fire in Paris. It was so odd, and in my recent novel, a year earlier had written a scene in which the cathedral (she) was a charred hulk with broken spire…. Hope you have been keeping well in this covid storm. I have been Rome but going back and forth to our village place near Rome when travel by private vehicle is allowed outside one’s official residence. Right now we are in fairly hard lock down again. I have been isolating since the end of Feb. My last trip to Paris was Dec 2019 -Jan 2020, and it was a nightmare to get there because of the on going train strike, but it was well worth the hassle and expense of having to buy all double tickets —considering what happened next. I do hope we can all travel again safely soon and not have to wait years.

    My new book is out – I was working on it during the Iowa workshop —LOVING MODIGLIANI the afterlife of Jeanne Hébuterne. Historical fiction/magical realism. It was recently revised in BonjourParis.com https://bonjourparis.com/art/a-novel-for-the-new-year-loving-modigliani/ If you would like a digital review copy, I can arrange to have one sent. Hope your writing is going well and that you and your loved ones are safe. best Linda Lappin http://www.lindalappin.net

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  2. I agree that Notre Dame’s flames were a warning of what could come. The world didn’t die with COVID19, but our past went down in flames without a shot being fired or a match being struck. It remains to be seen if we will rise from these ashes.

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