In the summer of 2000, my brother got married in France, where he had lived since graduating college in 1981. He was marrying into a respectable bourgeois family who could afford to host a large celebration at their country house in Normandy. They were the most gracious of hosts, but they could not have expected the clown car of characters that emerged representing the American side of the family. If it is somewhat of a cliché to say that the French find Americans vulgar and absurd, in this case, the circus was definitely in town.
Among the party was my oldest brother, aka, “The International Man of Mystery” who enlisted in the army after my mom threw him out of the house in 10th grade. He has since retired with the rank of full Colonel. By the wedding year he was a Lieutenant Colonel, slightly scary and a bit of an enigma. Nobody really knew where he was and what he did most of the time. We just knew you didn’t ask. We also knew not to discuss politics with him. After the “election” of G.W. Bush that fall he took a job in Vice-President Cheney’s office as Middle East advisor. He spent much of that misbegotten war living in a trailer in the Green Zone with his wife, also in attendance at the wedding, who worked for the State Department. His job was, as far as I could ascertain was to tilt at windmills and implement whatever fresh idiocies were decreed by the Bush regime. He was given the Beckettian tasks of organizing local councils in Baghdad and liaising with the (non-existent) Iraqi ministry of Defense. Of such misadventures are post-retirement consultancies and think tank sinecures made.
The best man was a real-life horse whisperer from Missoula, Montana where my brother had roomed with him in college. My two French nephews, from my brother’s previous concubinage, as the French call it–perhaps 13 and 7 at the time–were thrilled to meet un vrai cowboy. And, he looked the part, with a handlebar mustache, snakeskin boots and a kickass bolo tie he wore on the day of the wedding.
But the most colorful character and, I believe the star of the week was my brother’s father, Morty, who was a Plumber at Disney World.
I remember Morty from my early youth as the kind, funny man who came to our house on Fridays to pick up my brothers for their weekend visitation. He used to tease my hypersensitive sister, which was delicate stuff, but always knew just where the limit was. Later, I heard my mom on the phone screaming at him to, “Send the damn child support.” And after we moved from Baltimore to Cleveland, I remember the packages of sardines that arrived for my brother. Apparently Morty lived by the credo that people need sardines, which is not the worst thing as far as credos go. My father was gone too, but there were no sardines, or anything else, coming from him. So, with both of our fathers absent and our older brother in exile, my brother shared his sardines with me and along with them, Morty’s kindness. The salty fish was the only taste of paternal kindness I have ever known. I still love sardines to this day.
Morty didn’t travel much because he had a fear of flying and his wife kept a pretty tight rein on him. But he would not miss the wedding of his son in France. When he arrived, he acted as if he been appointed ambassador to France from Disney. Everywhere he went he would pull a handful of Mickey stickers out of his fanny pack to offer to anyone within range. Even on the Paris metro where people are often at their most guarded, they would smile at this goofy American with a gleam in his eye, proffering Mickey stickers.
I’m not even sure how he had room in his pack with all the croissants he crammed in there after every breakfast. He felt perfectly justified in purloining the pastries because of the barbaric French custom of not giving free refills on coffee. Morty would raise his cup aloft as if expecting coffee to fall like manna from heaven. Or maybe he thought Gladys from the Denny’s in Winter Haven would materialize with a fresh pot and say, “here you go, Dear.” We finally convinced him that if he wanted a second cup of coffee, he would have to consider paying for it.
Most of us were charmed and amused by Morty. However, his brother, Irv was decidedly not. Like my brother, an expat, Irv lived a semi-nomadic artist’s life in Europe, complete with beret and black turtleneck sweater. My wife said he reminded her of the guys in the Sprockets sketch on Saturday Night Live. Here were two brothers who could not be more different. I had met Irv once before, when my brother and I visited him at his loft in Zurich in 1982. He was the perfect host then, and I knew that under a layer or two of Weltschmerz was a very sweet man. But he couldn’t conceal his bemusement at the fraternal lot that had been cast before him.
Then there was my mother’s younger sister, Aunt Sue, who had apparently deputized herself to carry the grudge against Morty that my mom, had lain down years before. My mom could barely carry herself and was just trying to keep up with the pack and not get left behind. At 67, she had already had a stroke and had COPD but still she smoked. In a walking city like Paris, she was at a distinct disadvantage.
A couple days before the wedding, I requested a personal day. Incredibly, my wife assented, even though with my brother absent for wedding preparations she would be the only French speaker left and essentially in charge of the group. But I had my own relationship with Paris that I wanted to rekindle; I had done my dissertation research there in 1993, where I walked each day from my apartment in the 18th arrondissment, in the same building where actors William Hurt and Sandrine Bonnaire had set up their menage, to the Bibliotheque Nationale in the Rue Richelieu. Now the BN had been relocated the southwest extremes of Paris, where no one would go on purpose.
But I wanted to see what the French were calling the Tres Grande Bibliotheuqe, or TGB, a play on the high-speed trains or TGVs. My conclusion? The books were undeniably well cared for in the new location but were probably a little homesick for central Paris. I arranged, on my way back, to meet my nephews at the Place de la Concorde to take a spin on the giant Ferris Wheel, from the top of which you could see all the entire City of Light. For me it was one of those magical days that Paris so effortlessly conjures. When I returned, however, I may have asked the dumbest question in the history of questions, considering the company I left behind “Did I miss anything? Well….
The rump party, consisting of my wife, my cousin Carol–Sue’s daughter–, my oldest brother and his wife, and my mom had decided to take a cruise on the Seine on the famous Bateaux Mouches. To get to the boat, you must descend from street level down to river level. That is not a huge concern. However, the ascending part at the end of the cruise is tricky. My mom could not negotiate the climb up the ramp from the boat to the street. It took a long time to get her back up and they still needed to get her back to the hotel.
My Lieutenant-Colonel brother who was used to barking orders, implored a hotel concierge, who, after all, was also a man in uniform, to get them a cab. But French concierges have a very precise understanding of their responsibilities, and those don’t include hailing taxis for random tourists. Two hours later they got my mom back to the hotel. This is a story that my wife likes to hold in reserve and trot out when needed, like the story about how I was in the south of France during the summer of ’95 on a research grant, while Chicago experienced a record heat wave. Oh, there is this: she was in her third trimester of a high-risk pregnancy. In my defense, I did bring her back a lovely bottle of olive oil.
For the wedding celebration we caravanned from Paris to Lyons-la-Foret, in the apple-strewn region of Normandy. Though France is a predominantly a Catholic country, the French Revolution assured that weddings are secular affairs held at city halls, no cassocks or collars in sight. The Revolution and its Napoleonic aftermath also liberated the ghettos of Europe, and as a Jewish family we appreciated the lack of a wedding mass. After the ceremony, we processed on foot from the Mairie to the bride’s parents’ house. Someone had gotten the memo that my mom might need assistance, and a car was sent for her.
When the festivities wound down, we caravanned again to Rouen, the city of Joan of Arc, where we spent the night. The next day, a Sunday, we drove back to Paris, the highways clogged with people coming to the capital to watch France play Italy in the final of the European soccer championships. The game was in Amsterdam, but the public spaces in Paris had been transformed into huge outdoor sports bars, so we cheered as France, improbably, came from behind to steal the game at the death.
From the older generation at the wedding, only Aunt Sue still lives; my mom unsurprisingly was the first to go. The writing was already on the wall that separates the Seine from the Parisian streets. Irv died a couple years ago. A lifelong bachelor married only to his art. But not before relishing the role of the beloved and eccentric uncle to my brother’s five French children. Morty passed last May at the age of 91. In a case of classic understatement, his obit referred to him as, “A people person.”
Hemingway said Paris is a moveable feast. If you are lucky enough to experience it, especially when you are young, you can take it with you wherever you go for the rest of your life. Families, too, are movable feasts. Since that summer, we have regathered, with a slightly rotating cast, in Vienna, Frankfurt, and New York. Morty, a homebody with a fear of flying did not make any of those occasions, so three years ago we brought the feast to Orlando, where he, for the first and only time, met the three grandchildren that issued from a marriage in the French countryside in the summer of 2000.
Robin Carre is a freelance writer living in Madison, WI.