My mother died twenty-five years ago tomorrow in the city she loved. By one of those strange but commonplace coincidences, she died at the American Hospital in Paris where, 46 years earlier, she had given birth to me. In her last days, my father, whose Alzheimer’s was already making life difficult, could not quite figure out where his wife was, so to me fell the unpleasant task of telling the doctors to end her life support. The cancer that had begun in her liver had invaded too many organs and she would never awaken from her coma.
Marie Thérèse Henriette Hughette Février Sagnier was a woman of great courage and wondrous talent. At 16, she ran away from home and married a North African Jewish doctor and film-maker. Fearing for his life, they fled Paris for Algiers just before the German occupation. She joined the Free French fighting forces, drove trucks—possibly badly if her skills behind the wheels were as poor in Algeria as they would be in America—and in time separated from her doctor husband, but not before having two daughters who never quite forgave her the divorce.
She married my father when she was seven months pregnant with me, the mention of which always drew a blush and a Gallic shrug.
She evinced monstrous gifts but lacked patience. She was a painter of extraordinarily beautiful scenes from La Belle Époque, where the men and women stood ramrod straight in bucolic settings, but if she showed in a gallery and failed to sell every work, she would spiral into a deep depression and not paint again for years. Instead, she would write of her childhood in a middle class family with aspirations, where an older pianist brother received all the parental attention and she was relegated to helping the maid do chores.
She too played the piano and, I learned after her death, the accordion. She acted, and after coming to America was the chairwoman of a dozen organizations that supported the local French parishes (Catholic and Protestant), the French theater, the French lycée, the French book club, the Franco-American Friendship Society, and the French Language Club. She was a Meetup maven a half-century before the creation of social media. She entertained and created soirées on a shoe string, serving fare I fled from (poached eggs in aspic) and cheap Gallo wine in crystal carafes. She loved my father madly but belabored his perceived lack of ambitions. She wanted to be an ambassadress, a job she would have done well, but he was perfectly satisfied in being a little-known journalist whose hobby was building exquisite frames for his wife’s paintings.
She was a pharmaceutical drug addict who never fully recognized her dependence, though both my father and I did, and we worried. She overdosed twice. When I cleaned out her apartment after her death I found thousands of pills—Xanax, Valium, opiates, phenobarbital, and a host of other stimulants and anti-depressants—stashed in her shoes, her purses, the pockets of her suits, beneath the bed she and my father shared, in the toilet tank, and in baggies in the freezer. There were even more in a safe deposit box, and I would learn she had a half-dozen doctors prescribing whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted. Like any good addict, she was terrified of running out, and so she hoarded.
Her dependence never made her less brave. Four days before she died, she organized an afternoon tea and bridge party for her favorite women friends, and though I knew she was in terrifying pain from the disease destroying her, she never showed it.
She was fortunate. She had a long and good life with a partner she loved. She lived history. Her paintings still adorn my walls and her spirit haunts my house, which is as it should be.