Notre Dame Cathedral Is Afire Today
N. Barry Carver
© Copyright 2019 by N. Barry Carver
Honorable Mention--2019 Biographical Nonfiction
15 Avril 2019
Notre Dame Cathedral is afire today.
I am, with the world, wallowing in a grief bigger than buildings, or nationalism, or fire, but I am also assailed with personal memories. I've been trying not to think about it, not to watch the images that are coming in from everywhere, but this fire in Paris is breaking my heart.
I went to Paris the first time, with the first wife, for my birthday in December of 1983. I've lost all the pictures, but it was winter and there was a sharp wind that whipped around every corner. There was only one image that was exceptional. A wonderful candid of a few leaves, brown but clinging, part of an art nouveau Metro sign in the background, and my lovely first wife, Susan.
That thought led me to this:
While I tried to get "the" picture of Montmartre, some Turkish children, herded by their mother ensconced in a dark tent, stole Susan’s wallet. They put a newspaper under her nose and insisted she look at some article in Arabic. This was a ruse of course. It simply made sure that she didn't see the children, all crowding and bumping into her, scavenge her purse for her wallet.
When she finally shooed them off, a woman approached from the café across the street. Susan spoke some German, but this was the weekend to put my two years of French into play. Now nearly all of my ability in French surrendered during that two years I was stationed in Germany with the Army – I’ll let you make your own joke.
Still bent and intent on my viewfinder, and how to cut the powerline out of the shot that some idiot stretched in just the wrong place, my concentration was pushed aside. Susan finally pecked me on the shoulder and pointed to a woman who was compressing a mile of Gaul-speak into a steady drone. I picked out a few words and, without putting 2 avec 2, went back to my lenses.
"She says the gypsy woman has your wallet."
"That's crazy,” my then better half said. “They were just kids and my wallet is right... oh my God!"
Okay, that got me. I scanned down the block to find the chattering gaggle accelerating as they left the scene.
I would have done the Superman thing, but there was no time to put my underwear on the outside. So instead, I just ran after them.
And right when I needed it most, I could not think of a single word in French that might elicit some help or, at least, make slowly closing the nearly two blocks in silence less frustrating. Thanks to basic training just a couple months before, though, the sprint was respectably fast.
As I ran, there was giant poster, covering the entire side of a building, of Belmondo (a French superstar of the time. Think of a Dean Martin-y James Bond). Just as I reached the last of the gang, a straggling little girl who was maybe nine years old, Belmondo popped out of my mouth:
"Vous êtes mort!" and with that I grabbed the tail of her coat’s belt. The compression of the sudden stop, and fear I suppose, forced an awful scream out of her. It sounded as if I'd carried out on my threat and killed the child.
I dropped the belt at once but the woman in the brown portable teepee threw the wallet into the street and yelled, "Ici, Ici." When I went for it, they vanished into the Metro - where they'd been heading, anyway.
It seemed like it took forever to walk back to where Susan was guarding the camera. I handed her the wallet, flipped a salute to the cafe (I think the lady had left), and snapped the shutter. The picture, as I remember, was completely forgettable. The postcard available in the lobby for just five francs was undeniably better.
Susan took the wallet and held it open to show me there was no money in it. I looked for something to kick. I mean, the military-spouse ID was there, along with all sorts of other important bits and pieces, not the least of which was two credit cards, but it irked me that they had actually gotten away with something. After packing up, I told her to just forget about the money, my wallet was still full of francs that we needed to spend before catching the train back. It was then that she reiterated what she had told me, as I ran off, and proven when I returned: that there never was any money in her wallet.
Well, we all had a good laugh and got divorced just eight years later.
Oh … Notre Dame.
We went to see it, of course, but I have always had more of a soft heart (or head, your choice) than she for this whole religion thing - as well as L'Histoire.
The wind had kicked up just enough rain to be miserable and when we stepped inside (no body or bag searches in those days,) the warmth was wonderful. And it was dark inside. The ancient tradition of having a giant curtain just inside the doorway kept most of the light and cold outside. It also provided a stunning reveal of the amazing interior of the place.
Wandering around, which one was then free to do, we came to the famed window at a quiet moment between the scheduled tours. I stood bedazzled in the colorful spotlight. After what seemed like a long time, I sat on the end of one of the pews while my impatient wife made another circuit (or three) of the interior. I wondered if her Lutheran upbringing somehow impacted her appreciation of this well-preserved relic and if she’d rather just tack a note on the door and be done with the place.
I can't tell you what I was thinking as I sat, just outside the multicolored circle of light which slowly worked its way across an even more ancient floor. It was spiritual, and peaceful, and uplifting and, for a non-Catholic, I thought that was pretty amazing.
Going back out, into an actual rain, was much easier (and, of course, we'd been scalped for a flimsy umbrella from the nun-run gift table in the vestibule).
Now all of that, the pews, the marriage, the moment of transcendence, are gone. Transformed into dust motes, regrets, and tear-stained ash. The famous window will shine again, but now its light will fall on different floor. Another round of sanding and polish attempting to diminish another round of scars. It’s the way of all things; buildings, nations, and writers who grow syrupy with age.
Thus, our world, and I, continue to be remade in ways I would rather we were not.
C’est la vie, non?