Sunday, May 29, 2011

(Not So) Daily (Cathedral) Photo

A few years ago, my mother, as often happens with mothers of young women, was struggling to understand who I was. What motivated me? Why was I so different? So different. Why, in God's name, would I want to move half-way around the world to spend months in a country that didn't even speak the same language? I inherited a lot from my mother, and wanderlust was part of that, but she didn't understand the move part--why so far, why so long, why France of all places. It was, after all, early 2002 when I broke the news to her that I'd be studying in France for a semester, and she couldn't imagine why I'd want to leave the country at all. (France had not yet been vilified in American media.)

For Mother's Day that year I bought her a copy of one of my favorite books, Without Reservations, by Alice Steinbach, the travel memoirs of Baltimore journalist who travels the world trying to remember who she was before she was a(n ex)wife and mother. It sounds a little clich├ęd now, after so many of these books have flooded the shelves, but it really struck a chord with me in my early 20s when I thought that my truest self must be wondering around somewhere lost in the labyrinth of Paris. Before I gave it to her, I went through the book with a stack of Post-its, leaving comments and stories (sometimes many Post-its long) throughout the book.

My mother loved the book, and she finally understood why I craved something so far away. One of her favorite passages recounts Steinbach's visits to Sainte-Chappelle, where she goes to "stand in the light," broken into colors by the walls of nearly-solid stained glass. I don't think it had ever crossed my mother's mind to visit Europe; it was something so different from anything she had ever imagined being possible for her. But her imagination was enlivened by that book, and the fact that I had those possibilities made her immensely proud. What she didn't know was that one of my sisters was already planning to fly them both over to meet me in Paris when my semester was done.

Nearly a year later, my mother was standing in Sainte-Chappelle, so far away from everything she had ever known in rural Mississippi. As her eyes reddened, watered, and spilled over, she whispered, "I'm standing in the light." That was one of the most sacred moments in my life, and I probably hadn't thought of it in years, until I saw the light of the rose window breaking into color and falling across the columns of the National Cathedral.


  1. What a wonderful story to accompany your terrific photo. Thank you for it. I read the book and usually save any book on France so I will hunt my book shelves to find it and reread some of those passages.

  2. Lovely story and beautiful stained glass

  3. Lorin, this is beautiful. The photos and your tale.

    I am no expert in France, but I think you posted this on the French Mother's Day. You probably knew that, but if you didn't, the spirits were with you when you put this post together.

  4. Back again. I found the book--brand new copy in a Half Price Book Store so now I can reread it again. Thanks for the reminder. Just saw Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris and I think I need a Paris-fix again!!

  5. Thanks, everyone, for your kind words!

    Kate, if you like Alice Steinbach (a. you're an instant friend of mine), you might also enjoy Carol Drinkwater's Olive Farm trilogy. Sorry; I know I sound like Amazon's "Customers who bought this also bought..." feature.

    Jack, it completely slipped my mind! Thanks for the reminder; it must have been in my subconscious somewhere.