Sunday marked the 27th anniversary of my mother’s death. Marie-Thérèse Henriette Hughette Février Sagnier was an amazing woman, a liberated person long before it was fashionable, a feminist, an artist, writer, painter, an amateur actor and musician.
She was a soldier, too, and my favorite photo is of her and her new beau—my father—both wearing the uniforms of the Free French and smitten with each other. They are standing in a Dresden-like scene of total wartime devastation. Their feet are firmly planted in bombed-out rubble, and a spectral vision of a half-destroyed church is behind them. They are smiling and in love.
This icon was always in a prominent place in our family homes. I never thought to ask about it, and only recently a friend noticed that in the photo, my mother is holding a dog on a leash, a large black thing that may have been a poodle. Another mystery. When I was growing up in Paris, we never had a dog.
She was not an easy person with whom to get along. She was ambitious, anxiety-ridden, an early user of pharmaceuticals to ease her angst and force a smile. She could be critical and judgmental, traits she inherited from her own father, a man from whom she ran away when she was sixteen years old.
She had an uneasy relationship with her two daughters by an earlier marriage, one of whom wrote and published a series of books my mother found unfair, short works that roundly criticized everything about my mother’s life—her divorce from my sisters’ father, her remarriage, her decision to come with her new family to the United States. The books pained her, even as she was proud of her daughter’s rise to a moderate fame in the French literary world.
America confused her. She did not speak English when she arrived, and always struggled with the unfamiliar tongue. The newness of the country left her both amazed and wanting to go back to the familiarity of France.
She and my father returned to Paris after his retirement. Cancer took her quickly. She never complained, and on the eve of being hospitalized for the final time, she hosted a bridge party and served hors d’oeuvres she had assembled in her kitchen.
She gritted her teeth and smiled through the afternoon, and the next day was taken by ambulance to the American Hospital in Paris where, decades earlier, she’d given birth to me.
Our love and relationship were tumultuous. She wanted me to become a diplomat and serve in the Foreign Service. I didn’t. She forgave my shortcomings when my stories appeared in the Washington Post. She would call her friends and, “oh, by the way,” mention my byline in that day’s newspaper.
It made me happy to please her. Twenty-seven years later, she is still a daily presence in my life.