Like Proust and his madeleine cake, the taste of pain d’épices still reminds me of my initial grief
I dropped out of college after my mother’s death in the fall semester of my junior year simply because I could not put one foot in front of the other. I did clerical work for a professor during spring semester and then left Cambridge.
I moved to Washington, D.C., to be with my boyfriend and spent the summer preoccupied with my mother’s death. At night, while he slept, I sat on the cold tiles of his bathroom floor and ate one of my grandmother’s favorite snacks: Lorna Doone cookies dipped in cold milk.
I resumed the smoking I had experimented with as a Radcliffe freshman. I felt guilty that just as I was beginning to assert my identity apart from my mother, I had been called home to attend her funeral.
My reaction to my mother’s death was to idealize her. I rehearsed to myself the good ways I was like her — feminine and intelligent, grateful for new experiences, eager to be seen by the world — and actively forgot, at least for a while, the things I didn’t like. Becoming my own person would mean remembering them, little by little, and learning to love and mourn her with full knowledge of them.
Only later could I begin the work of confronting in myself the qualities of my mother that I’d criticized. Becoming my own person meant that I could be grateful for all she gave me. The upside of all the downsides.
In the meantime, during that D.C. summer, I sat on Rick’s bathroom floor and summoned the courage to proceed. I remember the stifling cigarette smoke and feelings of dread.
I took part in a weekend group-therapy experience that asked all participants to find their own mantras. I settled on one that seemed both realistic and hopeful: “You are not supposed to be happy. You just have to walk toward the light.”
It was too much to pretend that I felt myself on an adventure. It was enough to do the best I could. I felt dizzy, unmoored. To avoid my stepfather who had wanted me to discontinue my education, my grandparents encouraged me to leave the country.
I chose Paris...