Originally published on Open Salon on April 24, 2011:
Recently, my mind has been on a recently departed friend and colleague. Her name was Jocelyn, but I always called her Madame.
Madame and I met in early 1992 when I became a long-term substitute at an inner-city high school in Pennsylvania. I was just beginning my career; she was approaching the end of hers. She had taught French for many years, and my interest in the language had started in high school ten years earlier. We would sometimes have short conversations in French, and she was very patient—at first—with my halting syntax and sloppy pronunciation.
Madame was a mysterious sort of woman. She was thin and petite, with her long, dark hair always up in a bun. And she always wore black. Her home phone number was not included in the faculty directory, and she was known for being very private about her personal life. We developed a warm acquaintance that spring, but not a full-fledged friendship. When the school year ended, so did my assignment at her school.
Inexplicably, Madame was transferred over the summer. She was told she would teach English as a Second Language at two elementary schools. Having taught high-school French for so long and having developed some ailments that made the new assignment a challenge, she was quite concerned. Perhaps to buy time, she decided to have surgery that September, and I was called in to be her long-term substitute. I wanted to reach her to see how she was doing and to develop a program that would be consistent with her plans when she returned to work, but I didn’t know her telephone number or where she lived. I was quite relieved when she called me one day—and very surprised when she gave me directions to her home and asked me to come see her.
I arrived at her home one hot afternoon a few days later, and I was unsure whether I had the right place. She lived on a dead end that backed up to a college campus, and the house she had directed me to had a big yard with a lovely garden. It was every bit as private as one would expect for Madame, with hedges walling off her lot and trees shading and partly concealing a house that appeared to be a renovated stable. When I knocked at the screen door, I could hear classical music playing inside. In a moment, she came to the door dressed in her usual black, but smiling broadly, her greyhound Desmond wagging his tail behind her.
When Madame invited me in, I felt as if I were entering an antique shop. “Oh, don’t look at the dust, Paul,” she said. “Promise me you won’t look at the dust.” I would hear that often in the future, as we would ultimately become very close friends. Truly, I couldn’t see any dust. But I sure saw a lot of other glorious things: gorgeous antique lithographs, ornate lamps, stacks and stacks of coffee-table books, delicate figurines and statues, oriental rugs, and furniture too old and too beautiful for me to appreciate fully at the time, though I was very impressed. Her home was solid antiques from one end to the other, and everything seemed to have its place. She had a tremendous number of things, but the house didn’t feel oppressively crowded with them. This was a woman of impeccable taste, and she indulged her passion for the objects she loved, creating her own little world at the end of the street several blocks from the high school.
Over a glass of wine, Madame confessed that she did not know what to do about her new assignment. She hadn’t the first idea of where to start. Anything I could put in place, she told me, was fine by her. What to do when she returned, however, was a question that troubled her deeply. She hadn’t taught such young students since she taught in France decades earlier. I assured Madame that I would see to everything, and I did. By January, she was relieved to find that I had left everything in order, and that she had a general plan she could follow for the rest of the year. Roughly once a month, she would invite me over for a glass of wine, and she would thank me over and over for what I had done for her. Then in May she told me she had decided to retire at the end of the school year, and she asked me to accompany her to her retirement dinner. I did so with pleasure.
After that, we got together regularly, usually at her home. In fact, the next school year, I was hired permanently in the school district where we had both worked, teaching middle-school ESL, and we had dinner together nearly every Wednesday night. She would cook all sorts meals—Cornish hens, boeuf bourguignon, leg of lamb—and I was always in charge of tending the fireplace and keeping Desmond away from the hors d’oeuvres. I would look around the house at all of the gorgeous pictures and antiques, I would look at the elegant dinner table with the china and the silver, and I would just marvel. Madame would ask me to pour the wine, and then she’d always say, “Now who in this whole town is doing dinner like we are tonight?”
After dinner, we would sit by the fire, and I would smoke a cigar. She loved the smell, she said, because it reminded her of her deceased father. She would often chide me—in French–for not having kept the fire going adequately, and we would continue to talk in French for a considerable period of time until she invariably announced that the practice session was over by breaking into English and saying, “Damn it, Paul, your accent is horrible!” For some reason, I always saw this as a sign of affection.
Not that Madame didn’t go in for direct expression of her feelings. She would often tell me while I smoked away at my cigar, “Paul, if I had a son, you’d be it, and if I were your age, you wouldn’t stand a chance!” We truly thought the world of each other, and I learned that Madame was not nearly as reclusive as everyone had thought. She had a few friends with whom she would go to antique shops, and one teacher at the high school would come by each week to fix things in her home. She also had a very attractive daughter in New York. I noticed a picture of her on a table one evening, and asked if I might meet her some day.
“She’s nearly twenty years older than you, and she’s been dating the same Czech fellow for ten years now.”
Then I noticed a picture of a hauntingly beautiful petite brunette.
“Wow!” I said. “Is that another daughter? How about introducing me to her?”
“You’ve already met her.”
Madame looked at me with a mischievous gaze and told me that it was a picture of herself taken nearly forty years earlier. I rose, walked to the table, took up the picture, and shook my head disconsolately, lamenting that I had been born four decades too late.
“Like I said, Paul, if I were your age, you wouldn’t stand a chance!”
Those Wednesday evenings were very special to me, and though we met less frequently for a few years after, it was always steady and consistent. Eventually I moved to New Jersey, and we sent cards at the holidays. When I got married, my bride and I eloped to that same city in Pennsylvania, where my former roommate happened to be mayor. Days in advance, I called Madame and arranged to pick her up after the ceremony so she could join us and the wedding party for dinner. She was delighted to be included.
On the day of our marriage, however, Madame seemed surprised and embarrassed when we stopped by to pick her up. She was confused and insisted that I had told her the wrong date. No matter, I said, she could still come with us. She looked marvelous as always.
“Oh! I look terrible. Let me put something else on. And don’t look at the dust! I’ll get you back for this!”
So off we went and had a lovely dinner. We took lots of pictures, and Madame had a wonderful time. I knew, however, that something was different.
Sadly, that was the last I saw of Madame for several years. My Christmas card that year came back unopened. Her phone was disconnected when I tried to call. I contacted several friends to see if they knew any news. No one could tell me anything. Every few months I would check the online obituaries, fearing the worst. Then one day after nearly seven years of uncertainty, a friend emailed with a tip. Madame was at a nursing home, and she had been suffering for years from dementia.
I decided to drive out one day during my spring break to visit her. I was warned that she would not be as I remembered her. I didn’t care. I was just relieved to know where she was. When I saw her, she was indeed very different in her appearance. Her hair was down to her lower back, and she had put on several pounds, but she still wore a black sweater. I did not expect her to recognize me or respond to me, but when she saw me, she gave me the same smile I saw at her door in the summer of 1992. She took my hand as an attendant led us to the lounge where we could sit. She couldn’t say much, and she did not remember my name. She just kept rubbing my hand, saying, “This is just remarkable! You always meant so much to me!” This went on for quite some time.
Perhaps she did not know me for who I was and mistook me for someone else. She had once told me of the true love of her life, Bill, or Sweet William, as she liked to call him. Then I asked if she remembered telling me the stories she had told me about him. A sly smile crept over her face as she nodded and giggled. “Of course I remember telling you.” Maybe she did know who I was.
Last October I received a call from the same friend who had found out Madame was in the nursing home. She’d seen Madame’s obituary in the paper that morning and thought I should know. I called the funeral home and learned that the cremation ceremony was for family members only. There would, however, be a Mass afterward.
The next morning I drove out to Pennsylvania to attend the Mass. It depressed me to see how few people were there—how very few. But I was glad I went. After, I drove to the end of that street and looked at Madame’s old house. I wondered who was living there now, and if they knew what a special woman lived there before. I doubted there were antiques and classical music and china and silver and a greyhound, but it probably didn’t matter.
I can still see everything, smell everything, hear everything.
Madame, je ne t’oublierai jamais.
“Damn it, Paul! Say it right!”