When I began writing personal essays in 2012, the people, places, and things I’ve loved over the years, both in Cleveland where I grew up and in Milwaukee where I live now, instantly became subject matter. The more I write about them, the more I enjoy doing so.
If I’m lucky enough to live as long as my great-grandmother Christina Badamo DiNovo Salvatore, who died when she was 98, I will have many years left to write my own stories, in spite of the fact that I came to it late in life. One of the great joys of my life at this moment is knowing that if I do live as long as she did and write every day for the rest of my life, I will never run out of material to write about.
Something else has come up that will also provide a great deal of subject matter, and that is that I am going to be taking a very important trip with my father this summer.
The trip is to Laon, in the north of France, where my father was stationed in the U.S. Air Force, where my mother joined him after they married, and where I was born ten months after she got there.
During my last trip to Cleveland, Dad asked if I have ever been back to Laon, and when I said I’d been to Europe but not there yet, he quickly replied, “I’d like to take you.”
I don’t know if my mother, who died in 2011, ever returned to Laon after leaving for the States. I’ll have to ask. But Dad has been back many times, and over the years has maintained friendships with several of the people he and Mom knew back then. I will meet many of them this summer.
I have no memories of having been in Laon but have been inextricably linked to it all these years in my heart and soul. I have the mystique of having been born on a different continent and the fun of telling people about it when it comes up in conversation. I also have a few tangible souvenirs: a teddy bear from England; a doll from Yugoslavia; a pair of child-sized wooden shoes from Holland; and a French birth certificate. I wonder what it will be like to physically be in Laon. I wonder if my spirit will feel a sense of belonging.
As I write this, I realize right this second that I have never experienced this feeling, of knowing my birthplace. John, my husband, lives where he was born. My brothers live where they were born; so does my father; my mother used to visit Pittsburgh, her birthplace, all the time. Is this the way it is for most people? How many of us are there, who have never returned to the places of our birth? Does it happen to most people, that we never go back? Or do most of us stay close?
Maybe this is why I have always had this vague notion that some part of me is missing. I have this feeling that being in Laon is going to provide the last puzzle piece. I can’t wait.
When I come back from my trip with Dad, I will begin work on my first book. An octogenarian father and his very middle-aged daughter, going back to the place where their young lives are rooted. What happened then, and what’s happened since. As my mother used to point out, my daddy and I are an awful lot a like. We like the same things. We both tell too-long stories and tote cameras everywhere when we travel. We love the arts, have no problem speaking out, and are Type-A control freaks. We also complement each other; he loves to talk and I love to listen. I will warn him about this again before we leave, but I plan to incessantly interview him while we are away together. I don’t want to miss any details, and I don’t think he will mind providing them.
When the Internet exploded in the late ‘90s, there was nothing online about Laon, France. Now it has its own Wikipedia page, and there are videos on YouTube. I have learned that it is situated on a hill, which made it militarily strategic, going back to the Romans.
It is where Jacques Marquette, the Jesuit explorer and namesake of the university where I got my master’s in English and John got his law degree, was born, in 1637.
There is a famous Notre-Dame cathedral there.
There is even a primer on how to pronounce “Laon.” My mother pronounced it with a hard “n” and in a Pittsburgh accent, as in “I’m going to the bank to get a loan.” This is how the French say it:
(Side note: My father emailed me after reading this and takes issue with this pronunciation. He says, “I get two pronunciations from the French: one is like ‘Lahn’ and the other is ‘Lah-awn,’ both with the nasal French ‘n.’ It seems the first is Parisian and the latter more Flemish.”)
While in the north of France, among other places, my father has brilliantly seen fit to book us a stay in Épernay, The Champagne Capital of the Universe, and the Left Bank of Paris, where many famous writers and artists lived. My beloved Samuel Beckett lived there when I was born. While I was living in Laon, he built a cottage 70 miles away in Ussy-sur-Marne. It blows my mind that I lived this close to one of my favorite writers.
For me, looking at all these images is sort of like looking into a shop you really want to go into, but it’s locked and dark and you can’t make out much when you peer through the window.
Later this year, I will be able to see.
Photo of Samuel Beckett: Mary Evans (apieceofmonologue.com)