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A Better Place MAG
When I got the call, I was on top of the greatest city in the world. I looked around Paris from the tip-top of La Tour Eiffel and saw everything I wanted: the elegant Parisian apartments, the Seine, the wide elegant Tuileries Gardens. One day, I could see myself living there for good.
It was the summer before sophomore year, and I had decided to travel to Paris with an American program. Probably 80 percent of the kids were from the New York-New Jersey area, so I was stuck in my usual bubble of private-school party kids. Most came to Paris because the drinking age is 16. Eventually, I found a group I felt comfortable with. We talked about our mutual “city” friends, and tried to locate the best shopping areas in Paris.
July 17th was swelteringly hot, but Ariel, Mary, Gracie, and I were determined to see the most famous monument in Paris. The Eiffel Tower defines Paris. It appears on every travel brochure, seemingly every postcard, and every guidebook. It is the representation of quintessential Parisian tourism.
Of course, we had to go to the top. The lines seemed to drag on for hours, but eventually I found myself crowded onto an elevator shooting skyward. When we exited, I walked over to the edge to see the city. That was when my cell phone rang. My blood froze, and I knew immediately something was wrong.
“Lily?” My mom's voice shook. And then I really knew without her having to tell me. My 94-year-old grandmother had died. And as I looked out over Paris, a tear fell to the world below.
If you asked me six months ago, I would have probably rolled my eyes and laughed at the mention of my grandmother (or Grandma Illy as I called her). For as long as I can remember, she has looked the same: short hair dyed a garish purple-red, wrinkled face laden with too much lipstick and eye shadow, and gaudy amber jewelry paired with a matching baggy suit. She wasn't exactly the warm-and-cuddly type. After what she'd experienced in life, I wouldn't expect her to be. My father had hired a writer to record her story so we would know the details she never felt comfortable telling us.
She was born in Hungary in 1915, and was sent to a French boarding school at 14. “And I spoke no French, vatsoever. I vas forced to learn,” she would constantly remind me in her thick Hungarian accent. “It is important for you to learn another language. Always practice your French!” At the time, I thought, Easy for you to say! She spoke five languages: French, German, English, Hungarian, and Czech. I didn't pay much attention to her old French poetry books or Hungarian novels. I also tried not to pay attention to her snide remarks that she would let slip during our times at her nursing home.
“Lily, 'ave you put on weight since I last saw you? You don't look as bony,” or “Your hands are so rough. You should really try some of my cream.” She was always so proud of her silky-smooth hands.
She was never very aware of those around her, like the doormen at her nursing home or the occasional day nurse who came to look after her. “Zat woman hurt me! She did not know the proper vay to 'elp me out of bed. I could be in the hospital because of her!” Of course, the nurse had been perfectly helpful and courteous.
My grandmother seemed to always blame the help and not give them the respect they deserved. But also, she had her favorites. “The priest who lives on floor two alvays stops in to say hello and give me communion. Ve 'ave nice little chats,” she would tell me, with a smile on her tired face and a momentary twinkle in her eye. But then, in an instant, it would be gone, and a questioning frown would form in its place. “But of course, you might not care anymore. You left Catholic school. Is your religion even important to you anymore, Lily?”
My answer was always, “Yes! Of course, Grandma Illy.” (Though, in reality, I had not set foot in a church since my confirmation.)
When I read my grandmother's story, I finally began to understand her complicated life. When she had been sent off to boarding school in a foreign country, she was exactly my age. Her mother had passed away and her father had quickly remarried.
For a year she was forced to mold to a new culture. Then the World War II broke out. My grandmother's family was Jewish. “But I vas a Catholic. A true Christian. I say my rosary every day!” But in the eyes of the Nazis, Grandma Illy was Jewish, and she was carted off to Auschwitz with the rest of her family.
Auschwitz. That was where I stopped reading and stared in disbelief. Of course I knew Auschwitz – it was infamous for its brutality and deadly gas chambers – but it hadn't seemed real before now. Before it had only been one of those places I read about in textbooks. And now? Now my grandmother was part of it, and the blurry textbook image became sharp and vivid in my mind. Grandma Illy with her little brothers, her father, her stepmother, barbed wire, industrial buildings, and bodies.
And my grandmother was the only one in her family who survived.
It took a while for my mother's call to sink in. And then standing there at the top of the world seemed to make me nauseous, and I desperately wanted to get down. I pushed my way through the throng of people, running down the stairs in a dizzying twirl as Paris drew closer to eye-level. My mouth was dry, and I couldn't seem to breathe through my tears.
I was on the Metro in what seemed like an instant, headed back toward Rue Vavin. Street performers, wearing stereotypical French berets entered the car, singing and dancing to the Beatles. “C'mon and shake it up baby now! Twist and shout!” And I was laughing in spite of myself; Paris was so full of surprises.
I walked back to the school and bumped into my friend Micah Jo, who gave me a hug, saying simply, “I heard.” Then, without another word, she dragged me from the lobby back toward the Metro station. This time, we exited at St. Michel and walked into the sinking sunlight reflecting off the Seine.
“C'mon,” she said, as she dragged me toward the colossal Notre Dame cathedral. I watched my feet as we walked, avoiding eye-contact with the all-too-cool Parisians. I didn't want to be in public. I wanted to be sitting in my dorm room eating a Nutella crepe and crying by myself. The cool darkness of the church enveloped us, and I looked up in the dim, glare-free light. It really was magnificent. Heavy chandeliers hung from every column. Wooden benches seemed to stretch for miles. The stained glass above the alter sparkled with somber purples, reds, and blues.
Micah Jo led me to some tables covered in hundreds of tiny flickering candles. I stood there, crying and hypnotized as she retrieved one for me to light. There were hundreds of candles that hundreds of people just like me had come to light for their sick, or their dead.
I shivered, and an eerie feeling washed over me. For the first time in a long while, I prayed, not knowing what else to do. I prayed for the hundreds of candles, and wondered about the people they represented. How many were as dedicated to faith as my grandmother? How many had spoken five languages? How many had lived through what she had? I prayed that she was in a better place, with the God she believed in. Maybe now she could be genuinely happy and the troubles of her past would be gone.
We sat for a long while before emerging from the church.“We have one more stop,” said Micah Jo, dragging me toward a Tabac. She bought a postcard. It was an image of the Eiffel Tower illuminated at night. We walked down the streets until we reached the Seine. “Sit,” Micah Jo commanded, “and write.” And so I did.
On my last visit to my grandmother's nursing home before this trip to Paris, I'm almost certain she knew that she was never going to see me again. There was something different about that last visit. It was more real; there were no forced formalities or niceties. My grandmother and I had a real conversation. We laughed. She told me her old boarding school stories, and sang me French and Hungarian songs. I talked about what my month in Paris would be like.
It was then that she took my hand in her smooth one and her face grew more serious. “Lily. I vant you to promise me that you vill go out and 'ave the best month of your life in von of zee most beautiful cities I know. No matter vat happens. Enjoy your time.” At the time, I thought little of her words. I smiled, nodded, and gave her a kiss. I never saw her again.
The tears came again as I wrote my letter, sitting there with Micah Jo by the Seine. The words blurred while I was writing. “I love you. I'll miss you. You're in a better place, and God loves you. Everybody loves you. You were loved.” And with that, I ripped the postcard into tiny bits, thinking of Auschwitz and the losses that hardened my grandmother's life. Piece by piece, I tossed the postcard into the Seine and watched it float away, to a better place.