Postcards from Paris

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This will be the first summer when I don’t send my sister Liz a postcard from Paris.

People don’t really write postcards these days, preferring to share digital snapshots, but Liz wasn’t on social media and my sister Deb often reminded me that it would make Liz happy if I remembered her this way. So, each time I arrived in France over the last several years I would find for Liz an image of the Eiffel Tower or a Parisian street scene, offering her a faint, idealized idea of what I might see as I went about my day, far from her in New York.

When I saw Liz at family functions, she thanked me for thinking of her from abroad. We didn’t really engage with each other outside of Christmas or the occasional birthday or graduation cookout. She didn’t get out much, her manic depression having shrunk her world to a small unlovely apartment in Queens. In a way, I was the wider world for her. In a way, she was the world I might have been reduced to if I had not escaped the demons of my own addictions or if I, like she, had succumbed to mental illness.

“What’s new in Paris?” Liz would ask whenever we’d meet, as if she’d been there before and was checking up on familiar sights. What she was really asking, of course, was that I help broaden her perspective by telling her about the France I’ve come to know and the French I’ve met and befriended and fallen in love with. I kept my answers vague and short. I’m not a natural raconteur. I’m private with my family, even with my friends, and I tend to play down events in my life. I’m not sure if this is because I undervalue my listener, or myself, or my own experiences. With Liz, I let my brief postcards do the talking. That is, I said little beyond the surface.

But I did send her postcards, at least. In France, I also send thank-you notes, to people who’ve hosted me for dinner. My friend Gilles, who’s a bit old-fashioned, refers to these only half-joking as my lettres de château, the formal letters you’d write to your hosts after spending some time as a guest at their home. In any event, thank-you notes of any sort, like postcards, are rarely written and sent today.

They’ve been important for me, however. Committing even the most anodyne phrases to paper is a sign of respect for people who’ve taken the time to make you welcome. In writing these cards, I also practice my written French, without having to reveal anything of myself other than that I enjoyed dinner (though I also send notes even if dinner wasn’t all that good). These letters have proved successful and my French friends appreciate them. My friend Odette and her husband Renaud have hosted me for dozens of dinners at their apartment, and Odette tells me that she keeps my thank-you cards as a way of noting my progress in a language I’ve only come to learn in recent years. “You’ve even developed your own style in French,” she said, “like a true writer.”

I usually say nothing in these notes, but I nevertheless manage to say it elegantly which, in France, can actually carry more weight than deep pensées about the state of the world.

My sister Liz sent me a thank-you note in April. I was able to attend her 60th birthday, which my six other sisters had organized, since I was just back in New York after two months in Paris. I sat next to Liz at dinner and, as usual, revealed little about what I had done between January and March, except to mention some places I’d visited and the week I spent seeing my boyfriend in southwest France. Never enough, but more than I usually allow myself to share.

“I was so glad you could make it for my birthday,” Liz wrote in her large, childish script. “Thank you being there to celebrate with me.” I didn’t know that her simple words of thanks would be her last to me, and my family hadn’t expected her to die last month – of causes we believe were related to her manic-depression too-long untreated. But at the time, I sensed on reading her card that she wasn’t merely writing empty phrases, a practice I had perfected. She really had been happy I was there. And I am grateful that I had a chance to see her shortly before she left this world.

Even if I’d known how little actual time remained for Liz, I’m not sure I would have been more forthcoming with her about what I’ve learned and loved in my recent years in France. Probably not. I keep such things too close to me. It’s easier to communicate by postcard or thank-you note than by revealing who I really am. I think Liz knew that. She was my sister, after all. I did not know the extent of the suffering she’d endured these last 25 years, nor did she share with me the state of her troubled mind. But she knew I thought of her when I sent her postcards. This wasn’t much, but it was as much of me as I was able to share. I hope she thought that was enough.

2 thoughts on “Postcards from Paris

  1. Beautiful.I, too, send written notes on special paper.Sorry for your loss. I think you made her happy.Delighted you have a BF…in France    lol…not exactly convenient!!!!I was in Paris 2 weeks ago for 5 days at a  conference. Stayed at the Hotel Duo in LeMarais. Nice place and a great neighborhood a block from Hotel d’Ville. Easy access to metro and RER, tooSent from my Verizon, Samsung Galaxy smartphone

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