"London is a riddle. Paris is an explanation." -- G.K. Chesterton, 1908
For centuries, of course, the legendary cities have inspired poets and artists. Evelyn Waugh grumbled that the English were hard to find in London 30 years ago while V.S. Naipaul conceded it was "a good place for getting lost in," but remained, "a city no one ever knew." Decades ago, James Howell found Paris "a huge (though dirty) Theater of All Nations," and W.E.B. DuBois wrote rhapsodically about the treasures of the Louvre.
But not everyone has sampled the stuff of which those legends are made. At 61, my oldest sister, Evelyn, had never left the United States. A strict Methodist and southerner to the core, she was determined to make her first trip abroad to celebrate Christmas with her nieces and perhaps to see what Chesterton meant.
So several months ago we began discussing the possibility of a family reunion at Christmas in Europe. Discouraged by the weak dollar and uncertain economy, I was frankly cool to the idea at first. I also was broke from helping the girls' dad meet their college needs. But Evelyn persisted, even offering to pick up part of the tab, and my resistance finally collapsed.
So this week, we are converging on Europe from different points. Melissa is already near London. Leah is coming over from Paris for Christmas, and we'll all go back to Paris with her for New Year's Eve. But without doubt, the trip means most to Evelyn, who came up from our hometown Louisville on Monday to travel from Washington with my daughter Stephanie and me.
Some people would say that by waiting until 1987, Evelyn had already missed London, but for her it is still the trip of a lifetime and her excitement has infected us all.
You see, Evelyn is a late bloomer. The owner of a small hotel, she shocked all us younger siblings when she got married for the first time at age 57.
She's of an older generation who neither broke away from the old homestead nor the old roles that guided our mother, as I did. While my mother's life was one of endless sacrifice for her family, I have striven hard to eschew that model and find a better balance in my own life between sacrifice and my own fulfillment -- in my personal relationships and my relationships with my children.
But Evelyn still has the old ways and has taught me many lessons about love. When our mother died eight years ago, one of her five surviving children was our mentally retarded younger sister, Juanita, who under my mother's lifelong care had blossomed, even worked full time in a sheltered workshop.
As we mourned our mother, Evelyn told us she intended to be responsible for Juanita. "The rest of you have your own families to care for," she said simply, as if that was explanation enough. In these days, when many families shut their elderly parents and handicapped relatives away in institutions and nursing homes and face no social sanction, Evelyn provides security at home for Juanita at personal sacrifice but with few complaints.
Still, she's always wanted a little travel and adventure and always envied my penchant for circling the globe. Unlike some of her friends, who have been known to live an entire lifetime without even surveying Big Sur, Evelyn has clearly decided that it's better to see the world late than never.
Months ago, Evelyn began throwing all caution to the wind. She postponed buying new living room furniture to be flush with weak U.S. dollars. She abandoned her lifelong habit of limiting long distance telephone calls to ring at all hours of the day and night to check on trip details. When our Tennessee cousin was late sending her birth certificate and she felt she might not get her passport in time, Evelyn telephoned her in Memphis every night. "If it doesn't come today," Evelyn told me one day, in desperation, "I'm going to drive down to Nashville to get it. It's only three hours each way."
And her new attitude hasn't ended there. While I am rushing to buy sweaters on sale at Hecht's to give as Christmas gifts, she's planning to purchase perfume from Lanvin in Paris. As I spend lunch hours scouting for books from Common Concerns, she's set on picking up cravats from Harrods in London.
Although, like mothers everywhere, I have been practically aching to hug my daughters, half the fun of our Christmas reunion will be watching the lights of Paris reflected in my sister's eyes.
And so, from the chill of the Seine and the Thames, and the cities that harbor them, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year -- from all of us.