christmas cat is distroying my tree.


Junior year of college I did a midterm project on biographical writing.  I chose my mother and wrote a six page piece on her getting ready to board a plane in the year 1958, sitting on a vinyl chair in a pressed suit.  Just before she started her undergraduate degree her parents relocated to Hong Kong, leaving her in the states.  

As a kid this sounded impossible to me.  Granted, to a small kid a 17 year-old doesn’t sound much like a kid anymore, but still.  When I was 15 I flew by myself from Missouri to New York for drama camp in the Catskills (I wanted to be a stage actress/opera singer—5 years of voice lessons and I won Missouri state championships year, too, with a quartet I was in, singing Schubert). 

In homage to my mother’s travels as a very young lady, I decided to forego the pajamas route many of my campmates went with and instead wore a black pencil skirt and pumps, twisting my hair into a chignon, a la Audrey.  The whole time I thought of my mom’s trips to China.  When she looked down, she said, in the middle of open ocean, you could see whales.

When we were moving in some more of our things to our new apartment I found this photo.  The original is in my mother’s living room, kept in a bamboo album with Chinese characters.  I made copies of photos and her correspondence back and forth and used them as a cover for my project in college. 

I have another photo of my mom in Hong Kong wearing a bathing suit on the beach.  I’m not sure if it’s the sun, or the period, but every shot looks like something off the set of some wonderful period drama worthy of Edith Head.

In this particular set there are two pictures—2 that proceed.  In the first shot my mother is doing a headstand.  Beyond her bare feet you can see the skyline.   Beneath the point there are boat masts on the bay— it’s 1959 and June, and she’ll be 18 forever.

I started to drink coffee when I studied in France.  It sounds romantic enough, but in actuality it was simply the easiest thing to say.  To ask for “un cafe” leaves little margin for error, and I hate to be wrong. (At 21 I wasn’t so big on  “vin” yet—but it’s pretty easy, too).

After my a week and a half in a London hotel room the size of a pantry kept warm by only a space heater the size of a boom box, I flew into Cannes for three weeks of prep study before heading to Paris.  I arrived with out any towels, so my first French outing was a trip to Monoprix to purchase two very thin, pale blue towels and a cake of soap.  I listened to George Harrison’s song Apple Scruffs and Wilco’s California Stars on a portable CD player as I wound my way down a narrow, hilly lane filled cars so small they looked fake, and at the bottom of the hill, past some thick stone walls and gnarled, leafless trees and bocchi pits was the sea.

In the mornings the college provided us with breakfast—cereal, coffee and hot chocolate, fruit and bread with butter.  But the weekend “brunch” was the real treat, with croissant and nutella in a mixing bowl the size of my head.  We had four hours of class every morning, starting at nine.  At eleven we got a break and were allowed to spend tokens given to us at by the front desk in exchange for gingerales, cokes, or, in my case, coffee.  We had to order in French, of course, and weren’t supposed to speak English, despite the fact that every student (even the non-Americans) spoke it. 

There were a group of ten or so Chinese kids, their intonation so different from my own it was actually better to try to converse in French.  At least in French we were all slow and careful, more willing to ask for a repeat without fearing the other person would take offense. 

No one was French except the teachers and “workers” at in the computer labs and “cafe.”  When I shyly asked for my coffee the French “aid” would smile encouragingly and hand over the bitter, thick drink in a plain white cup and saucer.  And, without really liking it, I drank it, because I’d paid for it and it was warm to  hold in my hands, the solid heat against the drafty, damp Cote Azure winter. 

For the first week I would return to class after the coffee and my legs would dance beneath the table, wild with caffine as I tried to answer baby French questions from strangers seated across from me.

I never ordered a latte for fear of the complication—I wanted to seem French and have that understated simplicity, undilluted black in a plain white cup, no frills, no fuss, like Francoise Hardy’s hair blowing in the breeze.