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Authors: Lisa Schroeder

My Secret Guide to Paris

BOOK: My Secret Guide to Paris
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W
hen you go to Paris,” Grandma Sylvia said to me, “you must ask for a
baguette de tradition
. That’s the good kind. The crust is thin, with just the right amount of crunch, while the interior is light and fluffy.” She continued, and by the twinkle in her eyes, I knew what was coming next. “Just imagine it, Nora. As you turn the cobblestoned street corner, the scent of freshly baked bread greets you, and it’s as warm and welcoming as an old friend. You follow the scent to the bakery, because resistance is futile, and you peer into the window at all of the lovely pastries. There are little apricot tarts and—”

I couldn’t stand it any longer. “But, Grandma,
when
are we going? I’ve been waiting my whole life!”

Grandma Sylvia chuckled as she set down her mug on the table, the rim now red from her lipstick. “You have been waiting an awfully long time, haven’t you?”

I thought back to the first time Grandma Sylvia read the story
Madeline
to me, when I was three or four years old. We curled up on the sofa with the pretty picture book, and together we studied the front cover. A bunch of little girls wearing yellow coats and hats stood in front of the Eiffel Tower, and Grandma explained to me that it’s one of the most famous and most beautiful structures in the whole wide world.

“Someday, Nora,” she’d said, “we will go to Paris and you’ll stand under the amazing Eiffel Tower, just like Madeline and the other girls from her school. Right now, it’s just a dream, but dreams come true every day. The secret is to make sure you always have at least one tucked into your pocket, so when it’s your turn, you are ready!”

I’d never forgotten that.

“Let me ask you a question, my dear,” Grandma said now, her pretty blue-gray eyes searching mine. “Why, exactly, do you want to go to Paris?”

More memories popped into my head.

When I was eight years old, Grandma Sylvia gave me a jar of buttons and told me some were old and some were new, but every single one came from Paris. I loved the gift so much, I chose one every day to take with me. It was a way to carry the dream of Paris with me wherever I went, and to feel close to my grandma all at the same time.

When I was nine years old, and Grandma and I started our monthly tradition of a sleepover at her house on the first Saturday of every month, I learned more about Paris than I ever dreamed of. My mother would ride the subway with me into Manhattan, go as far as the nearest corner, then let me walk the rest of the way to the place I was meeting my grandma. It worked out well for us to meet in the city, because it’s halfway between Brooklyn, where I live, and Grandma’s home in Connecticut. We’d do something fun like visit a museum, go shopping, or have lunch before taking the train back to Grandma’s apartment. There, we spent our time playing cards, reading books, and talking about Paris. Grandma Sylvia shared stories and photos with me as if the city was part of her family. She loved her job working as an assistant designer for a famous fashion company, which took her to Paris once or twice a year.

The way she’d talked about it through the years, I was convinced there was no place more magical than the city of Paris.

So there we were, on the first Saturday in December, sipping our large mugs of hot chocolate at a cute little chocolate shop called La Maison du Chocolat on Madison Avenue in New York City. And Grandma wanted me to tell her why I wanted to go to Paris.

It seemed like I had lots of reasons, but I didn’t think she wanted a long list for an answer. I finally decided to tell her in the most honest way I could.

After I wiped my mouth with the fancy cloth napkin, I said, “Since I was a little girl, you’ve told me about the delicious food and the cool, historical buildings and the artwork and the fashion. I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but it’s a little bit like if you brought me to this chocolate shop and got yourself something wonderful and only let me have a glass of water. I want to see everything you’ve told me about for myself!”

I’ll never forget what happened next. Grandma sat back in her chair and started laughing. She was quiet at first, but pretty soon she was laughing so hard she had tears running down her cheeks. It was kind of embarrassing, because a few people looked over at our table and gave us funny looks. But Grandma didn’t seem to care.

Finally, she stopped, and as she wiped away the tears, she said, “Oh, Nora. Sweet, sweet Nora. I’m so sorry if I’ve talked too much about Paris. I thought you liked learning about it.”

“I do!” I said. “But I’m ready to
go
.”

“Do you know why I’ve waited so long to take you to Paris?”

“No,” I said. “I really don’t.”

“Because I didn’t want you to be too young, so that you’d get tired of lots of walking and get bored. I took your mother when she was eight, and I’m not sure she enjoyed herself as much as I thought she would. But you know what your answer tells me?”

“What?” I asked.

“It tells me you are grown-up, more so than I realized, and I think you are quite ready to go to Paris.”

I jumped up and ran around the table to give her a hug.

“When?” I asked. “When can I go?”

“It’s December now,” she said. “You turn twelve in how many days?”

“Ten,” I said.

“Yes. Not long at all. I’m scheduled to go to Paris for work in March. How about I take you with me then, for a belated birthday present?”

“March? Do I really have to wait that long?”

“Yes, I’m afraid you do,” she said. “Besides, winter in Paris can be rather dreary.” She picked up her spoon and stirred her remaining hot chocolate. “You do know it’s not a done deal until your mother gives her permission, right?”

I felt like a deflated balloon as I sank into my chair. I had forgotten about my mother. Things between my mom and my grandma were kind of complicated. Ever since Grandma Sylvia and Grandpa Ted got divorced a few years before, my mom hadn’t spoken to my grandma very much. The divorce had hit my mom really hard. When Grandma left Grandpa, Mom had begged her to change her mind and go back home. I could remember how I’d tried to make my mom laugh after she’d finished talking to Grandma on the phone one time, but she’d burst into tears and locked herself in her room. As time went by and it became obvious her parents weren’t going to get back together, my mom got angrier and angrier.

My dad had tried to make me feel better. He’d told me that underneath all of Mom’s anger was a lot of pain. She was hurt, and nothing would make it get better except time. I’d told him I didn’t understand why Mom was so hurt. Grandma wasn’t leaving
her
. He’d said there were things about the situation I didn’t know, and I had to try to understand that Mom’s feelings were Mom’s feelings, and she was entitled to have them, even if I didn’t agree with them.

So, while my older brother, Justin, and I spoke to Grandma on a regular basis, my mom hardly ever did, unless it had to do with the two of us. Mom hadn’t even visited Grandma’s apartment in Connecticut, where she’d moved after the divorce.

As I thought of my mom, I reached into the pocket of my jeans and pulled out the button I’d chosen that morning. It was a big, cheerful yellow button, because spending time with my grandma was definitely a cheerful occasion. I secretly rubbed the button in the palm of my hand as I tried to calm my nervous thoughts.

“It’ll be okay,” Grandma told me, reaching over to touch my arm. “I’m going to do my best to convince her. Don’t you worry.”

And she did, too. When Grandma asked her the following day, my mom said I could go. I was as happy as a kitty on a warm, sunny day. Grandma said she would buy our airplane tickets soon and we would start making plans. All kinds of plans!

For a month, it felt like I was walking on clouds.

And then, on January third, two days before I was supposed to see Grandma Sylvia again on the first Saturday of the month, the clouds vanished and I came crashing down to earth.

We received the news that while Grandma Sylvia was on a walk to the market just up the street from her apartment, a car hit her. She died instantly.

T
he couple of weeks after the accident were a blur. To say I was sad would be like saying it’s hot when the thermostat reads 102 degrees in the middle of August. Just when Grandma and I had the chance to go on a trip of a lifetime, she was stolen from me. I would miss her. I would miss her so much.

It wasn’t fair.

A few days after the memorial service, before Mom got home from her part-time job as a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I took a library book about Paris out of my backpack and set it on the dining room table. Then I got myself a snack of cheese with crackers and grape juice.

As I took a seat, I looked up at the dolls staring at me from the hutch. That’s what they like to do—stare. They are so creepy. I’ve never told my mom that, though. She keeps collecting them because she thinks they’re beautiful.

“Don’t look at me that way,” I said. “I know the book might make me sad, but I can’t help it. I still love Paris, and I still want to go there someday.”

We live in a hundred-year-old Victorian house in Brooklyn. Mom and Dad bought it soon after they got married, and although the people who previously owned it put quite a bit of work into it, my parents have still spent a lot of time fixing it up. My mother likes to say our home is a perfect example of modern vintage. Like, one of the bathrooms is completely updated, but to give it the vintage feel, it has floral wallpaper and a claw-foot bathtub. Oh, and two little antique ceramic dolls, wearing old-fashioned bathing suits, that sit on a white corner shelf.

Personally, I don’t think antique dolls add anything special to the whole modern-vintage “look,” but obviously, my mom disagrees. There’s only one room in our house that doesn’t have a single doll in it. My bedroom. No dolls, just Lego sets (mostly Harry Potter ones).

It’s not like my mother hasn’t tried to get a doll into my room, though.

“Oh, Nora, isn’t this one cute? Look, it’s a baby doll from the 1950s. Wouldn’t you like this one to have as your very own?”

“No, thank you.”

“I found an old Raggedy Ann doll today on eBay. Everybody loves Raggedy Ann. Would you like to have her when she gets here? I know she’d love your room. It’d be the perfect home for her.”

“No, thank you.” And yes, my mother talks like the dolls are real. Just when you didn’t think things could get any creepier.

“Oh, sweetie, look! It’s a Shirley Temple doll. You’d love this one, wouldn’t you?”

You would think she’d get the hint. “No, thank you.”

As I took a bite of my cheese, I heard the front door open and close. My older brother was home, saving me from more strange conversations with the dolls.

“Hey, Nora,” Justin said, his blue eyes smiling at me. “What’s up?”

“Nothing, really.” I took a drink of my juice.

He narrowed his eyes. “Nope. Not buying it. You look like a sad puppy dog. Come on. Tell me. Are you thinking about Grandma?”

My brother is seventeen, but he acts like he’s thirty-seven. He thinks he knows everything. He’s also very good-looking, which kind of disgusts me. It’s not fair that he got all the good looks while I got nothing. He has beautiful blue eyes, while I have boring brown. His dark blond hair is thick and shiny, while my brown hair is thin as silk, and gets greasy if I don’t wash it every single day.

I sighed and answered Mr. Know-it-all. “Yeah. But it’s more than that. I feel guilty about something.”

“What?”

“I still want to go to Paris. And that’s just wrong, isn’t it? Paris was supposed to be our thing—mine and Grandma Sylvia’s. And I probably shouldn’t want to go now that she can’t go with me, but … I do.”

“I don’t think it’s wrong,” Justin said. “And I think Grandma would want you to go.”

“Would I even be able to have fun without her there?” I asked as I broke a cracker into tiny pieces on my plate. “Would I be sad the whole time, wishing she was with me?” I let the last piece of the cracker fall. “Why am I even thinking about this? It’s not like I can go now anyway.”

“You never know,” Justin said. “Mom might decide to take you. She’s only been one time, and she was pretty young. Maybe she’d like to go back. You should ask her. But if I were you, I’d wait for a little more time to pass.”

“Okay, thanks, Justin.”

He rubbed my head as he walked by. “Anytime.”

Later that night, after dinner, I was in my room, lying on my bed with my stuffed owl, Hedwig, and reading a book for school. Mom came in, sat down next to me, and said, “How are you doing, Nora?”

I shrugged. “Fine, I guess.”

She didn’t say anything for a minute. I think she wanted to say more, but it was like the words had scrambled underneath my bed to hide, and she couldn’t find them. We hadn’t talked about Grandma much. In the days right after the accident, when I’d cried a lot, Mom would check on me in my room, bring me juice, and give me hugs.

“I wish I could make your pain go away,” she’d told me then. “But the only thing that will really help is time.”

Now I looked at my mom and noticed how tired she looked. The bags under her eyes were darker and deeper than they normally were.

“How are
you
doing?” I asked her.

“Don’t worry about me,” she said, stroking my hair. “I’m doing all right. Thanks for asking. I actually came in here to see if you’d like to go to Grandma’s apartment with me. I need to see what’s there, and figure out what to do with her things.”

I couldn’t imagine anything I wanted to do more. “I’d love to go. When?”

“Saturday morning. After breakfast? Justin has a basketball game, and Dad’s going to watch. It will just be you and me. Is that okay?”

“Yes,” I said. “Thanks for taking me with you.”

She patted my leg before she left my room, shutting the door behind her. I pulled out the button I had in my pocket. It was the same one I’d carried since Grandma had died—a red button with six tiny crystals in the middle, in the shape of a flower. Except one of the crystals was missing. The button would never be the same without that last crystal, just like I’d never be the same without Grandma Sylvia.

*  *  *

The next day at school, during lunch, I told my best friend, Lindy, about going to Grandma’s apartment on Saturday.

“That’s gonna be spooky,” she said as she tore off a piece of her peanut butter and honey sandwich. “What if she’s there, haunting the place?”

I shook my head. “You know I don’t believe in ghosts.”

She leaned in and whispered, “Maybe you don’t believe because you’ve never seen one.”

I scowled at her. She knew me well enough to know this was not something I wanted to discuss. Ever. I still slept with a night-light in my room. “Please don’t talk like that, Lindy. It’s not going to be scary. It’s going to be sad. At least for me. My mom seems to have a heart of stone, so she’ll be fine. She’ll probably just be looking for anything valuable that she can sell.”

“I don’t know. I bet your mom is sadder than you think. I mean, it’s her mom! And I bet she feels guilty about not making up with her before she died. Wouldn’t you?”

“Yes,” I said as I picked up a potato chip. “But I don’t know what she’s thinking or feeling. She hasn’t said much, and I haven’t seen her cry or break down or anything. But maybe she does it after I’m asleep. Who knows?”

“Do you think she’ll let you pick some things out?” Lindy asked. “Like, to take home and keep, to help you remember your grandma?” Her eyes grew bigger. “Oooh, make sure and check your grandma’s closet. She might have kept some of the samples of clothes she’s designed. Oh my gosh, wouldn’t that be cool if you got a whole new wardrobe?”

“Well, not really, since samples are designed for models,” I said. “And they’re about a foot taller than me, at least. Besides, you know I’m not good at putting outfits together. Grandma was the one with that special skill. I always thought there’d be lots of time for her to teach me how she did it, you know?”

I realized after I said it that there was much more I wished I’d learned from her. Like, how to be confident and outgoing. She was always so warm and friendly to everyone she met, even strangers, while I usually got flustered and wanted to run the other way. Maybe deep down I’d hoped that one day her amazing personality and strong fashion sense would magically rub off on me.

“There wasn’t enough time,” I said softly. “There’s so much I want to know, and now I’ll never get the chance.”

Lindy looked as if someone had stolen the dessert out of her lunch as she said, “That’s so sad, Nora. I’m sorry.”

“I know,” I said. “Me too.”

*  *  *

On Saturday, Mom and I took the subway from our place in Brooklyn to Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan. From there, we rode the train to Greenwich, Connecticut, where Grandma’s apartment was located. When we got off the train, we took a cab to a car rental place, where Mom had made arrangements to rent a small pickup. With a truck, we could take home anything of Grandma’s we wanted to keep. The rest, Mom had told me, would be sold at an estate sale.

While Mom fiddled with the key and the lock on the front door, I wondered if she could hear my heart beating. I was so excited and nervous and scared and sad and just about every other emotion you can think of.

I put my hand in the pocket of my sweater and felt the day’s button I’d put there after I had gotten dressed. It was one of my favorites: small and black with a decorative ridge and a tiny diamond-like jewel in the center. It was elegant, just like my grandma, with her pretty clothes and gorgeous apartment.

She was only sixty-three years old when she died, which isn’t
that
old. She still loved to work. Loved to travel the world and meet people. It wasn’t fair, I thought for probably the hundredth time. None of it was fair.

I followed my mother through the door. She stood there, taking it all in. I could still remember the first time I saw Grandma’s new place, after she’d moved out of Grandpa’s house. She’d told me she’d gone a little crazy with decorating, because it had felt so good not to have to answer to anyone.

In the end, she’d created a home that looked like something out of a beautiful magazine. Everything was so modern and … white. White shelves filled the far wall of the living room, where vases and bowls sat on some of the shelves, and of course, some books, too. In the middle of the room was a white sofa and a square, glass coffee table with a variety of fashion magazines fanned across the top, next to a pretty set of bright red candles, the only bit of color in the room. A thick white rug lay on the polished wood floor, and sheer white curtains hung alongside the windows.

I always felt so fancy staying here, but at the same time, very much at home, too. I could picture Grandma and me sitting on that sofa, looking at photos together or reading a book. I blinked back the tears.

Mom didn’t seem to notice. She was still taking in the nice apartment. “Wow. It’s so … chic. Very pretty.”

I wondered if she was having regrets about not coming here sooner to see her mom. I looked at her to see if she was starting to cry, but she seemed to be doing fine.

“I think I’ll look around in the kitchen,” Mom said.

“Okay.”

Mom turned to our right while I went in the opposite direction, to the left, down the small hallway. Grandma’s bedroom was the first doorway on the right. I walked into her room, where the sweet, familiar smell of lilacs greeted me.

I had always loved her bedroom, with the soft yellow walls and the pretty red-and-yellow quilt on her bed. Against one of the walls sat her dresser, the top of it covered with framed photos. They were pictures of my mom at different ages, and of Justin and me, as well. I picked up a small square frame that held a photo of Grandma Sylvia and me together. It was the day she’d given me the jar of buttons. I held the jar in my hands as Grandma leaned down, squeezing me tight. Grandpa had taken the picture, and the first thing I noticed was how happy I looked. The second thing I noticed was the dress I wore. It had been one of my favorites. Grandma had made it for me. It was white with a pink satin sash at the waist and pretty pink buttons in the shape of tiny flowers up the middle.

I pinched my lips together and told myself not to cry.

“Are you okay?” Mom asked. It made me jump.

I didn’t answer the question, because I wasn’t sure if she really wanted to know the honest truth. “Check out all of these pictures,” I told her.

She moved toward me and took the one I held in my hands. “Aw. Look at how cute you were.” She looked at me. “Do you want to keep this one?”

I nodded and she handed it back to me. I stuck it in the messenger bag I’d brought along. Just then, Mom’s phone rang. As she stepped out in the hallway to take the call, I continued to look around.

It felt a little weird to be in my grandma’s bedroom without her there. Like I was invading her privacy. Except, when you’re dead, the things you’ve left behind aren’t yours anymore. Because my mother was her only child, and Grandma wasn’t married anymore, everything Grandma had owned belonged to my mom now. Her last will and testament even said so.

I gently pulled open a dresser drawer. It was mostly panty hose, all different colors. I shut it and pulled open another one. This time it was socks. I closed the drawer and turned around. All of those items felt so personal. I couldn’t look in any more drawers.

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