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 clichéd 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.