The search was on. Coasting at our final altitude, and about three hours into the trans-Atlantic flight, I felt that familiar feeling between my legs, followed by that familiar sinking feeling in my chest and stomach.
I had my period, and the tampons were in my checked luggage.
Too embarrassed to ask anyone myself, my mother walked up and down the wide aisles, asking women for tampons and making friends. Passengers removed contact lenses, gathered toothbrush and paste, and when my mother interrupted their bedtime routine at twenty-four thousand feet, it was as if she was tucking them in with a story.
“Well, she checked her luggage, you know, it’s a large suitcase because we’ll be in Europe for two weeks. I don’t have any because I started menopause a couple of years ago.”
I hid and waited in my seat, toilet paper balled in my jeans, wanting to know how her menopause stories were helping me get a tampon. Her conversation only derailed further.
“…so we’re going to see Paris, of course, and she’s excited about that. She’s had t-shirts and journals and mouse pads all with the Mona Lisa on them since she was really young. Now she does theatre, she doesn’t draw or paint, but she’s always just loved it. Anyway, we’re also going to Normandy, because my father fought there on D-Day. That’s where he got his Purple Heart.”
Five minutes later, the chatter turned to past travels, and I heard, again, about my mom renting a car in Ireland with five other cousins, and how glad she was to have seen where her grandparents had been born. She laughed, the same way she laughed every damn time she told this story, when she reached the tale of the hole in the car’s floor, and how the rental place had simply thrown a mat over it. My mother spoke of the Irish rain knowingly, as if she’d spent her entire life driving in the cold and fog, rather than a mere week in the 1970s.
My teenage angst, coupled with menstrual cramps, had me at my worst. I had heard about her father, my grandfather whom I had never met, so many times. She had his rifle, and she had his Purple Heart and other medallions I cannot name in a shadow box, proudly displayed in a hallway. She had the flag from his casket, a framed photo of his entire army unit, along with a framed photo of him in his Army uniform, her uncle in his Air Force uniform, and the other uncle in his Navy uniform. All together, unsmiling, and my mother commenting to any house guest who walked past it on just how handsome the Esselborn men were, especially in uniform. She had a framed photo of the Irish cottage where her grandmother was born. She had Waterford crystal bought in Ireland.
She had all of these things, but no tampon.
Finally, she made her way back to me, and, seemingly, as conspicuously as possible, gave me the scavenged item. I tried to hide it, but didn’t berate her for the display, knowing it would only be followed by, “Honey, every woman on this plane understands, and the men too! It’s just nature.”
The crisis resolved, I made my way back from the lavatory, the plane silent with sleep, the little floor lights guiding me to my seat, and my mother, snoring her way into our landing at Charles de Gaulle.
We spent weeks roaming museums and taking photos of cities I’d seen in textbooks and on PBS. The European distaste for Americans was “cool” to my thirteen years, and whenever my mother spoke about her father’s appearance on D-Day, I cringed. In these, the beginning of my formative years, I had a fascination for the protests of 1960s, and the older kids I had met during theatre camp who cried for peace at all times and talked a lot about the military industrial complex. I started going beyond saying I was a Democrat to calling myself a radical. All I wanted on this trip was to appear worldly, different from the slack-jawed yokels crowding the tourist spots. And in that special ignorance reserved for the teenage years, I just knew I’d have made the leap, had it not been for my mother.
She wanted photos of me pretending to hold up the tower in Pisa; bought me a beret in Paris and had me pose under what she loudly called “the arch,” like how you would pronounce the name Archie, and I rolled my eyes and shouted back, “It’s L’Arc de Triumph!” In Rouen, she wanted to stop as we walked the town looking for a crepe, but I pressed on in macabre delight at seeing the church built on the place of Joan of Arc’s execution. Not little was said by me on the hypocrisy of the Catholics.
When all the tourist photo ops had been exhausted, we journeyed to Normandy. Aboard the tour bus, my mother was giddy with excitement. She talked about her father, how he earned the Purple Heart, and asked if I had ever really looked at it – I mean taken it out of the shadow box and really seen it? The major metropolitan areas behind us, with no chic Parisians to emulate, I was sullen. I endured the bus ride, and trudged from the parking lot through the paths to the beach behind my mother. I saw a bench, and stopped to sit, take out my journal and write furiously. She could have her time here, and so could I, and I’d find her later at the bus. A sign to my right warned visitors to stay on the wooden boardwalk, as there could still be live mines on in the area. I moved closer to the middle of the bench.
It was a windy, cloudy, grey day at Normandy. I was cold, and I rose to walk for the warmth in it. I approached the sand and saw a young boy climbing in the old bunkers, desperately calling for his parents to watch him and take photos. I saw two middle-aged men with history books and a map taking photos. And then I saw my mother.
Standing like an island, far from anyone else in the middle of the sand, she looked long in one direction, and then another. She was posed in her familiar stance, hands in pockets, head always slightly raised. Her short hair rustled slightly with the wind off the sea. As I came near, still unseen by her, she slowly bent down to touch the sand. I’d seen her reach that delicately for only one other thing, but many times, and I was suddenly curious as to what age I began flinching when she tried to stroke my hair. She reached for a rock, and then a pinecone, and when I came right up next to her, I saw that she had a handful of sand and pebbles. Before a usual disapproving comment from teenager to mother could be uttered, her voice joined the wind, the seagulls, and the screaming boy playing in the bunkers.
“It’s June 6th!” she exclaimed. “D-Day. Gosh, can you believe we didn’t even plan it?”
She rose then, slowly. Her arthritis, I know, reminded her of its presence in this damp cold.
“Your grandfather was so gentle,” she said to me, but toward the sea. “He never talked about the war, and we’d watch war movies together, but he never talked about it. I can’t imagine him here.”
I know that while I saw a young boy playing soldier, my mother saw troops, thousands of them, and was trying to crop her father’s face from her memory’s photo and paste it onto the shoulders of an actor she had seen in an old black-and-white film. She closed her hand around the sand and pebbles, and handed me the rock and the pinecone. Then, she reached into her purse and removed a plastic bag. “Put those in here and close it tightly,” she instructed.
Doing so, I realized that she packed that bag at home, for this purpose. In her blue bedroom on the second floor of her home in suburban Indianapolis, she had thrown underwear, a hair dryer, electrical outlet converters, and this plastic bag that would bring home whatever she could take from this beach. And now she was trusting me with it. I carried the sealed bag back to the tour bus with more care than I’d given anything in years. I packed it in my suitcase that night, stuffed into the now-empty tampon box for extra protection during travel.
Fifteen years after that trip, I am alone like my mother was then; or, an orphan. Like her on that cold June 6th, both my parents are dead now, and I am the adult always at the ready to collect a piece of them. I sit in bars and tell stories about my father, dead when I was just six years old, and his early life as an Irish immigrant. I show my guests my father’s typewriter, which might be the only thing in my house that gets a regular dusting.
I tell my husband the same stories again and again, moments from the past that I don’t want to lose in the future. It’s lonely, having the witnesses to your history dead and gone. It is terrifying – your very story, threatened by the passage of time, and with less people to help you remember it all.
I feel the burning presence of more sentimental trinkets three floors down, packed away in the basement. They are waiting for me, there to be retrieved when it hasn’t been just four months since my mother’s death, when I can think of her without exploding like one of those live mines off the boardwalk. I’ll hold that smooth rock one day, and the pinecone too, and I’ll try to figure out her Normandy, the place where I can go to collect things, the place where she did something important.
And I wonder if it might be the same place.
Mary-Margaret McSweene is a writer based in Chicago. Her work can be found at http://www.nootherlifebuthere.blogspot.com/.
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