When the French arrive, it’s with armsful of things from France: breads wrapped in brown paper bags, coolers full of cheese, boxes of wine, even duvets for their beds. It feels like a hotel and we lose track of how many of us there are. Eleven, we repeat, an odd number. A family of five plus ours, also five, and Benny, who’s half-German, half-American. The French boy Mathis has a soccer ball and skateboard he drops upon entering, and climbs on top to do tricks, practices his footwork. The weather forecast is times of sun and clouds, cool. The week ending with a supermoon lunar eclipse best viewed from Paris or London, the last one until 2033.
Laurent has an Italian cheese called Burrata that’s white and soft, in liquid, and lays there on its side in the bowl like an entrail; Laurent mixes the salad with his hands and sprinkles coarse salt with his fingers, sifting the grains out, asking me to try it.
And the French kids greet us with kisses in the morning — we can’t talk about much with our limited French and their limited English, but they smile and give us kisses on either side of the cheek, as does Laurent when he comes, and it reminds me how nice it is and civil, to do that side-of-the-cheek thing.
They’ve come to celebrate Charlotte’s eighth birthday, which we’re making a big deal of, but not in that showy American way with all the gifts and the thank you gifts for all the gifts, wrapped in cellophane. But still there are more gifts than we thought, and more is probably better, no matter how you look at it, especially with little girl birthdays.
I make a slideshow of Charlotte-pictures, roughly 300 of them spanning her first seven years, starting with the first of her and me at the hospital, me with hospital scrubs and her with various monitors and wires, clutching my chest — I wear the same shirt over the weekend from the photo and doubt anyone notices, but do it for continuity.
And if you’ve made slideshows of your kids or any special occasion in life, it’s odd if you scan through the photos fast, because it’s a lot like life, these stills we save and how quickly you can flip through it all and think, well, that’s it!
That first autumn she came triggered a series of strange events, starting with Dawn’s dad getting sick, passing away early the next year — my stepdad the same — and there’s a photo of the two of them together, John and Dawn’s dad Dick, and another guy Willi, here in Germany (Willi is Eberhard’s friend), and in that next year each of them died: Dick on Valentine’s Day, Willi on John’s birthday, and last, John on Halloween.
Early 2009, Starbucks announced lay-offs and we decided we’d take a sabbatical here in Germany for a few months, hit the reset button as everything seemed to be coming apart.
Laurent and his family came to celebrate the first anniversary of John’s death, and we threw a party up the street at the Hirsch, the same spot the Boogie Woogie band from Minnesota played recently, and the weather was about the same that weekend, though the end of October, a brief throw-back to summer: the sound of fallen leaves in the morning like claws scrambling up the cobblestone, the wind threatening to just take everything away.
Benny, Laurent and I stay up until 3 AM both nights and we’re slow to rise in the mornings, and the mornings fan out with nowhere to go: plans are distant things, spots on the horizon.
Charlotte thanks me for making her favourite pasta sauce, and rides all the rides at the amusement park, barely meets the height restrictions, and it’s just memories we’re wanting them to have.
We talk about sentimentality because it’s something I keep trying to figure out, why some songs sound sentimental in a way that’s good or not so, and why that is. And all of us agree “My Funny Valentine” by Chet Baker is a good-sentimental but Laurent won’t budge on Elton John, can’t stand the violins.
Charlotte left her plastic fangs by the toilet in the first floor bathroom, the set she won at the Winzerfest fair last weekend for throwing darts at balloons. And it’s that time I’ll remember, that moment she popped the balloons and the guy offered her a few prizes to pick from, and she had trouble fitting the fangs in with her retainer, and I suggested it’s one or the other, probably best to put the retainer away somewhere safe so we don’t lose it, it would be hard to replace here in Germany now. Most things are like that, hard to replace.