CoffeeBeer >> Warts & All >> Losing My Mother


I hadn’t intended to lose my mother in Paris. That’s what I kept telling myself when it happened. Certainly, like all mothers mine can be a bit exasperating at times—even downright infuriating. But never would I deliberately abandon her in a foreign metropolis without benefit of money, map, or at least a good traveling knowledge of the local language. Perish the thought! No decent daughter would do such a thing, would she?

But somehow, like all unforeseen calamities, it happened. The two of us were on holiday, visiting friends in southeast England, when we decided to take advantage of a short excursion deal to Paris. This included return tickets on the EuroStar through the Channel Tunnel as well as two nights’ accommodation at the TimHotel near Gare du Nord. The train ride was most enjoyable, taking a mere thirty minutes to pass under the Channel and emerge onto dry French land. We arrived two hours later at Gare du Nord where we debarked and, after I closely studied my Plan de Paris, we made our way through a zigzag of streets until we found our hotel.

After checking in we decided to venture out and see some of the city. For years I’d had this dream of taking my mother to Paris. Sure, she’d been here several years earlier with my father, and they stayed in a posh hotel along the Champs D’Elysses, taking taxis everywhere and having a glorious time. But this time I wanted to show her my Paris, the Paris I’d come to love: Pére Lachaise, the Musée Rodin, the odd little streets of Montmarte and the Latin Quarter, the strange assortment of characters along Rue St. Denis. And finally my chance—probably my only chance remaining—had arrived.

I convinced my mother I knew the Metro system well and that we could ride the subway to anywhere we desired. When I asked her if she’d like to stash in her purse the extra Paris map I’d brought along she refused, insisting that I handle all directional navigation, money transactions, and French-language inquiries. All she had in her possession were English pounds and American dollars, and she intended to charge our dinner on her credit card. “I don’t need any francs or maps,” she insisted.

So we re-zigzagged our way back through the streets to Gare du Nord and hopped on a train toward the center of town along the Seine. We got off at the Châtelet Metro station and strolled through Les Halles, stopping at a small brasserie for a light lunch. It was a spectacular day, bright and windy. We made our way past the buskers performing outside the Centre de Georges Pompidou, through the Marais district where an artist friend of mine used to live, and by late afternoon we ended up at a cafe not far from Nôtre Dame where we sat and watched the tourists mosey along and the office workers scurry homewards as we sipped our glasses of Känterbrau. It was at this point my mother announced how exhausted she was. After all, we had arisen very early this morning, and though my mother was relatively healthy for a 75-year-old the events of the day had simply worn her out. So I suggested we catch the Metro back to our hotel where she could have a nice long rest before dinner.

I could have eaten my words. It had started to rain lightly, so we quickly made our way back to the Châtelet Metro station, dodging from shelter to shelter as we walked. (My mother hates her hair getting wet or windblown.) Once inside the station we descended several flights of stairs into the depths of the vast and bustling Metro hub, ultimately emerging onto the northbound platform where a train had just arrived. As the doors to the nearest car opened I waited for passengers to debark before I hopped in, my mother directly behind me, or so I thought. Yes, she was directly behind me; she simply couldn’t move as fast I could.

Suddenly the doors closed, and I realized with horror that I was inside the car and my mother was still outside on the platform. We clawed simultaneously at the door latch, beating wildly on anything that looked like it might be a release button, but the door stayed insistently closed. And then I felt a subtle but sickening lurch; as the train pulled away I could see through the window my mother, her eyes wide with alarm, mouthing the words, “What should I do?” I yelled back, “Get on the next train!” “To where?” I tried to answer but my mind was blank: what were the two metro stops near our hotel? How about

But it was too late; the train was barreling onward to its destiny and the Châtelet station was nothing more than a memory. I slumped down into a seat and dropped my head in my hands. What should I do? I muttered to myself. What should I—what should I—Yes, that was it! I’d get off at the next stop. That’s what I should have told my mother: to catch the next train and get off at the next stop. But did I think of that at the time? Of course not—that would have been far too easy.

I got off at the next stop, Réamur-Sébastopol, thinking—and praying—that my mother might have thought of the same thing. I nervously waited for the next train to arrive, at which point I sprinted up and down the platform, scanning the cars frantically for signs of my mother. No luck. I waited for the next train and did it again. And then the next train. And then the next... On the spur of the moment I jumped onto the next train, intending to ride up to Gare du Nord. Maybe she would remember that stop, I thought, because that’s where we’d started and where we first arrived on the EuroStar. Gare du Nord; it’s on the metro maps posted at Châtelet. Surely she’d think to catch a train that far.

By the time I arrived at Gare de l’Est, one stop before Gare du Nord, I realized the chances of my mother thinking of riding back up to Gard du Nord were small. After sitting in the stationary train for a moment or two I impulsively jumped out of the northbound train and vaulted across the platform onto the southbound train. I’d decided I should go back to Châtelet where my mother might still be standing, lost and confused, on the northbound platform. But after sitting on the unmoving southbound train for another minute or so I realized that if I were to alight on the southbound Châtelet platform I would have to weasel my way through miles and miles and layers and layers of passageways and stairs, all the while dodging massive gridlocks of commuters, in order to make my way to the northbound platform. This in itself could take twenty minutes or more, by which time my mother may well have given up and left.

So I dashed across and reboarded the northbound train. After debarking at Gare du Nord I waited by the Metro entrance for awhile, thinking maybe my mother would come all the way to Gare de Nord after all. And I waited. And paced. And waited some more. After fifteen minutes I gave up and trudged dejectedly back to the TimHotel with the faint hope my mother might have caught a taxi back to the hotel. But did she even remember the name of the hotel? And what about the fact that she had no French money on her? How could she possibly catch a cab, pay the fare, and find her way back to the hotel? And once she got there, what could she do? I had the only key to the room.

I asked the woman at the hotel desk if an elderly woman had stopped in or called in search of her daughter. Non. I left my room key with the woman in the unlikely event my mother would arrive, and I headed back toward Gare du Nord. Once there I descended back into the Metro station, realizing the futility of my acts. What will my mother do, anyway? How good is her memory? She was so dependent on my late father—how will she reason out what to do now? Will she figure out how to change some money and get a cab to the TimHotel? Will she remember where it is?

Desperate, in complete despair, and devoid of ideas, I trudged back to the hotel. Night had fallen suddenly, and the streets were dismayingly dark. In my anxious, dazed state I made a wrong turn and ended up on a somewhat frightening deserted street which dead-ended into some train tracks. Threatening-looking figures eyed me from dark doorways as I retraced my route. For some reason I didn’t feel in much danger, though, probably because I was in such a furious state I figured if anybody dared accost me I would lunge forward with a bloodcurdling shriek and rip his or her arm out of its socket. In retrospect it was good I took this dangerous walk, because it burned off the worst parts of the utter and complete frustration I was feeling.

Back at the hotel I sat in the lobby, hoping and praying my mother would figure out how to find her way back. I waited a half hour, and then another half hour. Finally I dragged myself up to our room, my mind and heart filled with hopelessness and anguish. How could I ever explain this to my brother, that I lost my mother in Paris? What would our English friends say? Would they ever speak to me again? Why wasn’t I hanging onto my poor old mother, body and soul, every second? How could I be such a thoughtless, careless daughter? At 6:30, just as I had picked up the phone and was about to call our English friends, there was a knock on the door. My heart jumped; I flung the door open and grabbed my mother, hugging her and gasping, “We’re going back to England tomorrow!” Then I cried for a moment, and then broke out laughing, and I laughed and laughed until I couldn’t anymore. Just a mild case of hysteria, a somewhat routine outbreak from a daughter with an elderly mother.

While I giggled and babbled and spluttered and tried to reassemble my sanity, my mother related to me what had happened. As I had suspected, she’d waited on the platform at Châtelet for me to return.

After forty-five minutes she decided she’d better find her own way back to the hotel. But first she needed to find her way out of the Metro station, which was a challenging task since she didn’t know that “sortie” meant “exit” and “Entrée Interdite” meant “Do Not Enter”. After winding her way in and out of wrong-way passages and up and down a million stairways and escalators, eliciting no help from the oblivious rush-hour stampedes of Parisian commuters, she finally emerged into daylight, at which point she realized she had no French money for a taxi.

“I noticed these two policemen just down the block,” she said. “So I walked up to them and told them I was an American and I didn’t speak any French, and I needed to exchange some English pounds. Well, the young one was very nice and he spoke a little English. He told me most of the banks were already closed for the day, but there was a currency exchange just across the street. So he helped me get across the street, which was a good thing because I don’t think I could have made it through all that traffic on my own. I mean, do you think these crazy Paris drivers would even notice an old lady like me under their tires? I seriously doubt it! Anyway, after I exchanged a little money the nice gendarme waved down a taxi for me. He was such a pleasant young man!

”Well, when the taxi driver asked me where I wanted to go, I realized I didn’t know the name of the hotel. So I told him it was a big blue and white hotel near Gare de Nord. There are lots of hotels around Gare de Nord, he told me. Well, I’ll recognize it when we pass it, I told him. Then he told me he was an Algerian terrorist moonlighting as a taxi driver. Well, you’d better damn well not be, you little brat! I bellowed. He laughed; but, you know, I’m still not sure that he wasn’t in fact an Algerian terrorist.

“Then we drove around and around the train station, so many times I was getting dizzy, and I began to worry that maybe while we were out the hotel had been torn down or moved. I was getting pretty concerned, wondering what I was going to do if I didn’t find it, not to mention how I was going to pay for this never-ending taxi ride. Had I exchanged enough money? And what if he really was a terrorist? How would I get out of that one?

“But just when I was at my wit’s end I spotted it! That’s it! That’s my hotel! I shouted, pointing. You sure? Yes, positive! Absolutely!

“And here I am.”

Instead of returning to England the next day as I had threatened, my mother and I ended up having a lovely time in Paris. We spent most of the next day wandering through Pére Lachaise Cemetery in search of Oscar Wilde’s grave, browsed through shops on the Left Bank, and in the evening enjoyed an absolutely exquisite dinner at a brasserie near Gare du Nord. So everything worked out just fine.

But the next time I bring my mother to Paris with me I’m definitely going to pack a leash.

© 1999 JC Mitchell

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