The older I get, the more I miss my family.
At this point, all I have left is one sister—a half-sister actually—of whom I am in awe, and a few nephews and grand-nephews whom I barely know. They live in France; I am their Oncle D’Amérique, an honorific, I suppose, that used to mean a lot more than it does now. When America was indeed the country of opportunity, an Oncle Américain meant a well-to-do relative who had emigrated to the Promised Land and on whom one could count on for fistfuls of dollars and expensive Christmas presents. Times have changed.
It struck me recently that I have not written much about either of my half-sisters. I had never considered them half until a few years ago when someone pointed out this was technically what they were. I never did accept either the term or the concept.
I have, or had, two sisters, Florence and Isabelle, the daughters of my mother and her first husband, Marcel, a physician and accomplished film-maker. He was Jewish from North Africa and when Paris was invaded by the Germans, he and my mother, along with their two daughters, fled France and went to his family home in Algeria. Things did not go well there. My mother and Marcel separated and she joined the Free French forces. Marcel was awarded custody of the girls.
Florence died in 2003 of bladder cancer which, oddly enough, I contracted five years ago. I was diagnosed early. She was not. By the time the doctors got to her, little could be done.
Flo was mythic from the start. She was a decade older than me and lived in a different world. At age sixteen, she went off to London by herself and learned English. She smoked. She drank. She had serious boyfriends early on and, later in life, serious girlfriends too. She was an author, a music impresario, the mother of two children, the lover of a French rock star and the mistress of a much older French millionaire who ferried her across the world in private jets.
Flo, at one point, wrote several books, works of assumed fiction that closely followed her real life. She chronicled the marriage of my mother and Marcel and its eventual dissolution in what can only be described as harsh terms. She blamed my mother entirely for the union’s failure and did not mince words. Her books were well-received in France, and some critics compared her to the famed writer Françoise Sagan.
The problem was, of course, that my mother found Flo’s novels devastating, and for years the two were estranged. I would travel to Paris and spend time with Flo. She’d speak of her writing and shrug off my mother’s reactions. “C’est simplement la vérité,” she would say.
Flo and my mother eventually reunited and spent a week in Florida. Flo brought along her current lover, a wonderful woman named Jane whom my mother liked immediately, and the three drove through the state and marveled at the tackiness of the Tamiami Trail.
Shortly after this, Flo discovered a young Swiss singer whom she molded into the French version of David Bowie. Patrick was a beautiful rail-thin youth who espoused androgyny and make-up. He became a sensation in France; he and Flo dressed alike, and bought Porsches and his-and-her jewelry. I remember one summer having lunch with them and an aging but still amazing Brigitte Bardot in St. Tropez, surrounded by paparazzi. Neither Brigitte nor the photographers manifested the least interest in me. I saved face by willfully ignoring them as well and pretending not to speak French. Flo found this hilarious.
The trouble was, Patrick and Flo never paid taxes on their massive earnings. The French IRS seized the Porsches, the mink coats, the Rolex watches and most of what was in their bank accounts. Patrick took to using drugs. Flo had to start over again, which she did.
She managed a series of singers, some better known than others. She had adventures and once showed up unannounced at my parents’ suburban Maryland home. She and her wealthy new love interest had flown in from Paris on a chartered plane, wearing matching chinchilla coats. My mother, perhaps for the only time in her entire life, was speechless.
Then Flo got sick, and then she died.
I flew to France for her funeral, saw her two kids and their kids, saw Patrick who was now clean, saw a couple of French movie stars who’d known her. The service was held in a Catholic church, which was unexpected since Flo had never manifested the least belief in a god of any kind.
I was jet-lagged and wore new shoes that hurt. There was a reception in a pretty good restaurant, and then I flew home to America, feeling as if I’d lost someone I loved, a stranger I knew very well and yet not at all.