Saturday, September 10, 2016
Near-death in America
My mother never got used to America.
Years after she and my dad had returned to Paris where they rented a tiny apartment in Paris near the Opera that was smaller than the living room of the suburban house they’d lived in, she would say, “I almost died there. In America.”
This was technically true.
While they lived on the outskirts of Washington, DC, the tail-end of a hurricane roared through the capital. My parents were on Rock Creek Parkway after an evening with friends when the roaring wind uprooted a tree that crashed on their car as they were driving back to Maryland. The tree hit the roof of the car and collapsed it, shattering both front and back windshields. Had it fallen a nanosecond earlier, it would have landed squarely on top of them and killed them. Both were bloodied by flying glass but neither was seriously injured.
Another time, was mother was deep-frying beignets in the kitchen when the boiling oil caught fire and singed her eyebrows with a frightening whoosh. My father, who liked to hang around the kitchen and bother my mom when she was cooking, grabbed the sink sprayer, a new gadget much in vogue, and squirted the fire with a thin stream of water. The flames leapt to the ceiling with an angry roar, and my mother would later tell her friends in France that these were American flames, and not the standard European flames she knew how to deal with.
My mom was an accomplished artist whose works were displayed in both Washington and Paris. Once, as she was creating an oil painting of a scene from the Belle Époque, a small bat flew into the room through an open window. My mother had probably never seen a bat in its natural state. She screamed, covered her head with the palette full of paint, knocked over the easel, painting, and a glass jar full of turpentine and used brushes. The bat eventually found the window and vanished. The turpentine ate through the varnish on the floor, and it took my mother weeks to get her hair free of the blue, red and sun yellow paints she’d been working with.
In the recounting, the bat became a red-eyed monster with a two-foot wing span. She would tell people it had hissed venomously as it attempted to sink its fangs into her tender French neck.
Perhaps the American near-death experience that most affected her was when she and my father were vacationing in Florida and staying in an inexpensive beach-front motel. My mother realized she had left the pack of Pall Mall cigarettes she was never without in the glove compartment of their car. She went to retrieve it and was halfway there when she realized the parking lot was covered with scuttling crabs. She froze. She screamed. My farther rushed out and rescued her, picking her up bodily like a movie hero. The story might have ended there but it turned out the motel owner had told my father of the crab issue when they’d checked in, and my father, afraid to alarm my mother, had not passed on this disconcerting information.
Like the bat, the crabs took on science-fiction proportion. They were monsters from the deep with serrated claws and bubbling maws. From that day on, my mother’s occasional feasting on the crustaceans became almost vengeful. She would pound at their carapaces with a small wooden mallet and a bitter smile, recalling how she had, once again, foiled an American death.