Telluride Daily Planet, Friday, November 1, 2019
Three days before my French aunt Bibiche’s (Bee-beesh) 95th birthday recently, I remembered that I’d forgotten it (again), and that (again) it was too late to send a card or letter or anything that would show care, appreciation, forethought and good manners, the kind she had and the kind she so appreciated in others.
In the middle of some attenuated moment of embarrassment, I realized in a radiant white whoosh that I could simply do what others in every quadrant of the first world do, which is — via Google, a click, an easy choice, and a payment — send flowers. Across the world!
It was way too easy, and she was way too happy. In fact, she was not complete until she’d called me (the day of) to describe the exact look of the flowers, probably unaware that an image online had taken me swiftly and successfully to the pink rose mix that had her name all over it.
I’ve written about this particular aunt before, the middle child of three girls, the sensible, careful, sweet, dutiful and easy-to-love one. The one who became the oldest in a hurry at age 19 after my mom decided to marry my dad, an American soldier, at the end of World War II and sail across the world to start a new life with him. The one who kept track of the entire American family (us) through letters at first, then intermittent and very short long-distance phone calls, then more frequent calls until my mom passed 16 years ago. She’s the one who continues to keep track of the entire family, Americans included, better than anyone else in the clan, even after the death of her own husband seven years ago. The one who felt it necessary to follow up on the flowers with a thank you note (postcard in envelope) using the same words and same handwriting I’ve recognized for decades. How happy I was to receive flowers! Thank you again! Big hugs to you and Peter!
Bibiche — through the 40 years my family lived in Seattle, where we settled after all the tours of duty had finally ended — never made the trek to see us there. Her husband, Jacques, permanently scarred from bomber noise he heard during a work-camp year in Germany (something required of all French young men of certain age at the time), would never fly in his life. So everything she knew about her big sister’s life across the pond was done in letters, over the phone and in the occasional photos that would be sent before cell phones changed everything.
We got to know Bibiche in the 1960s on our last tour of duty in France. For many years the mayor of Cognac’s secretary, she was the stickler — the stickler for details, manners, follow-through, proper behavior. She was the perfect foil to her husband’s sharper sense of humor and less discreet way of making his strong opinions known. She was prim and took care of herself in ways my mother considered self-indulgent. She would be the one to set the table for one if she were home alone for lunch and add a flower in a bud vase to her own setting. For my mother, who had had four kids instead of one and was busting immigrant-army-wife moves her sister could never have imagined, it was something out of a fairy tale. Turns out, it was not; it served her well in the long run.
Years ago, when my daughter was young, I had one of those life-changing 6-minute chairlift conversations with a complete stranger. Because of some bad behavior we’d witnessed getting on the lift, we were speaking about teaching manners to children. His opinion, and an opinion I have revisited many times over the years, was that the point of teaching children good manners was not as much about their doing the right thing and greasing the wheels of social and political intercourse, but more about how this would teach children eventually to deeply apply these manners to themselves. To create neural pathways of auto-niceness in order to heal the parts of themselves that would without a doubt one day need healing. This is what I see in my aunt at 95; a person whose manners have helped keep her sane, self-aware, engaged and alive, even through the roughest of times.
I am thinking about this relative and how — though I might do the diets, the exercises, the visualizations, the “me time” — that a certain automatic, easy-does-it bud-vase aspect is often missing. That little “ting!” star-flash on the toothy grin of life.
Luckily, it’s never too late to create new neural pathways of being nicer to ourselves in those sweet, delicate, quiet, humble ways that make us whole again.