A few weeks ago I attended a memoir writing workshop with Lisa Dale Norton. We went through a series of exercises that resulted in a short memoir. My theme was “Homecoming.” I promised to share it here, and realized I had not done that. Until now…
by Patsy Terrell
I didn’t want to go in the first place. I was tired after a 14-hour travel day that had started in another country. It had involved drunk Germans, fresh-faced South Africans and rude British. Finally, after using my limited French, we had landed ourselves in a nice, comfortable hotel room and I had no great desire to leave it.
But Greg was going. And even as I was saying, “no,” I was reaching for my sweater. Because something interesting might happen, and I’d miss it, and I never want to miss anything. So, out into the chilly May night we went.
The narrow, wet cobblestone streets were lined with buildings that prevented us from seeing beyond the next curve. History was surrounding us on all sides. We were headed to the river.
After a few twists and turns, we found ourselves going through a long passageway. As we neared the last arch, I could see a glimmer ahead. Then, there it was, in all its glory, IM Pei’s Pyramid marking the entrance to the Louvre. At the late hour there were few other people around, except in cars whizzing by, seemingly oblivious to what was in front of them.
I was stopped in my tracks. Not by the building, but because it was the gateway to the Art. Famous Art. Art that people had been inspired by for centuries. Finally, it was my turn to worship in its presence.
I hadn’t grown up an art lover. Kentucky farmers don’t spend a lot of time at the dinner table discussing the finer points of Da Vinci’s talents. Had I expressed an interest, my mother would have found a way to satisfy it, but having no exposure to art I didn’t even know there was such a thing.
A serendipitious experience in college had resulted in me seeing the Armand Hammer collection, one of the finest private art collections in the world. That night I discovered this was something that had been missing in my life. I knew I could never be whole without this beauty. I would never feel at home in my own skin without knowing more.
I was ignorant about art. I had never even been to a museum. Since I couldn’t go to a museum then, I went to a library instead. I started reading and learning. I didn’t know how to say the names of various artists, but I soaked up the information. Whenever possible I visited museums. The next few years became a series of trips that were a dot to dot of museum visits. It had all been leading up to this moment. To be in Paris, where museums lay on either side of the Seine.
That May evening as we stood on the plaza around the Louvre, Greg clutching his Paris Plan 11, ecstatic that everything was exactly where the map had indicated it would be, I knew I had come home to a place I’d never been.
Across the Seine, Greg pointed out the Musee d’Orsay. The glowing clock reminded me I didn’t have enough time. I had been in Paris less than an hour, and had a week stretching out before me, but I already knew it wasn’t enough time.
Unfortunately, I was correct about that. I’ve returned to Paris more than once, but it’s never enough time. I always want more time in the museums, gardens and streets. More time with the French people who have never been rude to me, despite their reputation.
As I stood with the Louvre at my back, looking across the Seine toward the Orsay, I knew at the other end of the gardens, blocked from my view by construction, was yet another museum, the l’Orangerie. What I didn’t know was that the l’Orangerie would be where I would fall in love, not with a man, but with something far more permanent than that – art.
I would tumble head-long into love with Monet’s final eight works. They’re huge and no photograph can give you the sense of being surrounded by them like being in their presence. I was to spend many hours in the windowless basement, contemplating brush strokes and color combinations. I would leave at closing time and be waiting the next morning when they opened.
But that night, on the banks of the Seine, I didn’t know that. I was so grateful for the chance to be there. I was surrounded by art and culture, something I wanted my life to be; and by the river, a representation of all my life had been. This was just a different river than I’d known.
I spent that week going from one museum to another, wrapped up in my own world and my desire to see everything in case I never got another chance. I was not as kind as I should have been to Greg, and his mom who had traveled with us and was making it possible for us to be in far more comfortable hotels than we would have been on our own. I was selfish. I’m sorry to say that, but it’s the truth.
Today, I’m a much better travel companion. Multiple trips to multiple countries make me believe there will be another time, another chance. But sometimes there’s not another chance with that person. The art that has survived for centuries is likely to be there the next time you visit. The rivers will still be flowing.
I’ve always heard we travel to run from something or toward something. I’ve done both, but on that night, I was definitely going toward something. I was headed home..