Mémorial de la Déportation
Kathy L. Brown
The Mémorial is not on the Highlights of Paris bus tour. I only visited that afternoon because I’d lost my group. More true, my group had lost me. Naughty American children make of the tour a game: rap-singing in Notre Dame’s chapels, smoking behind the flying buttresses, and embracing along the river banks. And in the shops, always in the shops.
School groups do not tip well; thin soup and coarse bread were my fate for another week. But I hoped to at least finish work early–Haiti was playing Ireland in the World Cup, and I keenly anticipated an evening with a nearby café’s television. So to assist the distraught teacher I attempted to locate the students. I know all their tricks. Hiding in the Mémorial was a favorite.
The subterranean memorial is built into the very tip of the Ile de la Cité
. A quaint bridge frequented by street musicians connects it to the charming community of Ile Saint-Louis
. The small island is a place apart from the hustle and bustle of Paris.
I descended through sunlight and shadow via two flights of steep stairs. The marvelous design isolates each visitor, limiting his view to that gained from a tiny barred window in the stone wall. It is a lonely place.
However, no trysting students emerged from the gloom. Instead, a female backside, covered in truly hideous polyester stretch pants, met my eyes. On her hands and knees, she crawled across the floor.
I hastened to her side. “Madame, have you fallen?”
An elderly woman, eyes puffy and red, looked up. “What? No want. No buy. Please, no parl paw--French.”
“Madame.” I spoke slowly. “I am speaking English. I speak excellent English. I’m a licensed guide.” I held up my striped golf umbrella, the typical signal for the tour group to gather.
“You don’t look French. I though you was one of those street vendors, like with all the watches spread out on a blanket,” she said.
I presented my arm and assisted her to a low bench. “I’m Haitian, Madame. But Paris has been my home for twenty years. Did you lose something? I, too, have lost some students–but I wouldn’t also lose my dignity over them.” I spend too much time with children, I thought. They have ruined my manners.
She nodded and sniffled, “M-m-my–”
“Allow me to assist.” I offered her a clean kerchief, and she honked into it. Yet still I looked for a graceful exit; just enough time remained to visit the Maison de Paris
and place a small wager on the football match. But then she held out her left hand to show me a ring, tight on her finger, the setting bare.
“My diamond—it’s g-g-gone.”
She looked so sad. I glanced about the floor, as helpless as she. “You lost it here, you believe?”
“I was looking behind the grate, at that shiny hallway–what is that, anyway? And felt it was gone.” She began to sob again.
I’ve no skills for comforting the crying woman. She already had my kerchief.
“Shall I summon your husband?”
She shook her head and wailed all the louder.
“Your daughter? Your friends, perhaps? Surely you are not in Paris alone.”
“I’m with a church group, but I couldn’t find my bus, and I really needed to go--I thought this was a bathroom.” She blew her nose and straightened her back. “Herbert would say, ‘Wanda, stop acting like a child in front of this nice man.´”
“You are not a child, Madame. Just a woman of passion, who is overwrought.” I began to understand the source of her woe. “Monsieur Herbert, he is gone, non
She nodded, twisting and untwisting my linen kerchief. “We had the tickets bought, the passports just came. This is his dream, his dream trip. He’d wanted to study art in Paris.”
“Yet he did not?”
“No, things got in the way, I guess. Like me and the kids. But I made the trip, anyway. For him, you understand. But it’s been awful.”
“You never dreamed of Paris?” So sad. To share a life without sharing the dreams.
“I don’t see nothing here that we don’t have right back home on Shady Grove Lane. But I didn’t think it would be so bad. My granddaughter liked it here. She said I should see--” She pulled a small notebook from the security pouch around her neck. “Ile Saint-Louis
,” she read. “Berthillon ice cream.”
“I will make of your granddaughter a city guide–this is excellent advice. The ice cream of the Ile Saint-Louis
is the best in the world. You must do this thing.”
“I want to go back to the hotel. And hide until time to go home.”
What a challenge she was. I could not, with honor, resist. “You asked about the passageway behind the grate. You don’t know, perhaps, its meaning?”
“The Nazis, they sent France’s Jews away by boat, from this place. Most never saw Paris again. See the walls?”
She looked more closely at the crypt-like chamber, lined with 200,000 quartz pebbles.
“A stone for each life--a life gone, but not forgotten.”
She nodded. “That’s a fine thing. You folks do have a way about you here.”
. And the Ile Saint-Louis
is right across the bridge. Sit at a café and try the ice cream. Watch the Seine
dance under the sky.”
The afternoon sun ventured into the tight passageway at just such an angle that a light winked at me from the darkness. “Quelle est-ce
? What have we here?” I picked up the glittering stone. A chip, really. Insignificant. “Your diamond, perhaps?”
“You found it!” Monsieur Herbert’s bride smiled as she took the stone and restored it to the ring. She held it out for me to see. "He surprised me with this ring at a church picnic. Fourth of July, 1949. Hot. Not a cloud in the sky. We took bowls of fresh-churned ice cream and sat under the trees by the pond, looking for some shade. It melted faster than we could eat it. Herbert was showing off, skipping stones across the water-plunk, plunk, plunk—”
“Well, yes. But then he falls in! He wasn’t hurt, of course. And all he was worried about was this ring in his pocket. He stood there in the mud, dripping wet, and handed me this ring. ‘Take it, before I lose it,’ he said.”
“And now it is rescued, yet again.”
She removed the chip from the precarious setting and gripped it tight. "We bought a house across the road from the picnic grounds. I walk around that little pond most days. Listen to the frogs."
"Your place of tryst, it sounds delightful.”
She started toward the exit, and then stopped. “He loved Paris. Or at least the idea of Paris."
"And he has made the journey, after all."
"I suppose so." She looked at her palm, the diamond chip in her hand. "It seems more right to leave him here," she said, looking behind the grill at the 200,000 other shining stones.
The American Woman, she never ceases to surprise me.
I helped Madame Wanda place the stone in a safe niche. “You have a way about you, as well.” I grasped her hand, bowing low, and she smiled.
“Now--Isle de France,” she said.
“Eat ice cream,” I reminded her as she climbed up the stairs to the bridge.