I bought myself a trip to Paris with a plan to see two French women – my (now deceased) grandmother’s 94-year-old friend Yvonne and Edith Piaf (or at least what was left of her). I brought a black suit to wear for the former and a black dress for the latter, both neatly hung and folded in the same plastic bag in my suitcase. This androgynous carry-on is not altogether atypical for me. Already four years out of theater college, where I mostly played the Orlandos and the Lysanders, I have played almost as may women as I have men. And of all of the characters I have played, Piaf has had one of the biggest impacts on me.
Oddly enough, I don’t speak a lick of French, but thanks to my forays into Piaf’s music, I sing in it frequently. Therein, my linguistic experience in Paris was one of both great familiarity and “otherness.” I felt like I should and sometimes could understand the flutter of French tones, but it was more of a musical or emotional understanding than anything having to do with actual content. The whole time I was there, it felt like I was listening to a song I used to know, but for which I have entirely forgotten the words. My best recourse against this confusion was to smile and practice my “oui.”
Fortunately for me, Yvonne worked as an English teacher much of her life. And although she claimed to be rusty in her age, her accent, diction and syntax were better than mine – and she spoke a lot. She told stories, hours and hours of stories while seated in her living room or at the kitchen table – or walking slowly from one to the other. These were stories of my grandmother and WWII and twins she knew who were sharing the same wife. Stories were told at least twice and always ended with some exclamation about how amazing life is, or simply: “But that is life.”
I learned how my grandmother had met my grandfather on the last ship back from France to the States before the war, how my grandmother (post-war) introduced a 30-year-old Yvonne to her friend (and former lover?) Boris, who then married Yvonne. I learned how Yvonne survived two heart attacks, the death of her husband, her parents and her younger sister. “But that is life.”
Yvonne puts The Moth and This American Life to shame. The power of the stories and the way they affect her is often more fascinating and moving than the stories themselves. Stories are a kind of food for her.
But since she can no longer go out alone, she lives in a huge apartment decadently and dustily decorated with inherited portraits, Russian boxes, cloth wallpaper, a grand piano and flowers – both fresh and fake – everywhere. Yvonne can no longer make or take in too many stories (her short-term memory is fading – I fear I may call her next week and she may have forgotten I even came). But unlike me and my friends, who seem to be ever embarking on adventures and the “making” of things, her action is really to “remake” or “remember.” Volume and duration are her favorite tools for emphasis. One might even feel, at times, that the most important details of a tale are tiny nails being driven in by a precise carpenter – and in a way, she makes furniture out of people.
I sat for hours listening and nodding my head in encouragement like some strange, but attentive rocking chair. Listening to her for like this for hours, it made me wonder at what point in our lives does a reason to live become the determination to share the deliciousness of the past.
The other woman I visited was much less talkative, although she carried with her her own sordid past. I embarked for Pere Lachaise where Piaf’s grave sits, wearing my Edith Piaf dress tucked into a pair of jeans. I buttoned a long-sleve flannel shirt over my top and a grey coat and scarf over that. I felt sufficiently deviant and a bit like a closet case or flasher – but, “se la vie.”
I brought with me one of the handmade cardboard hearts the Bearded Ladies gifted to the audience during our Piaf show No Regrets. On the back I wrote a note:
A piece of our and your art
The Bearded Ladies
I also brought a rose. Well, two actually. One for Oscar Wilde, as well.
At Pere Lachaise there was an ever-flowing stream of grave gawkers, some on tours, some in couples. Very few were alone or, for that matter, concealing a black cocktail dress under their coats like I was. While early on into my visit I placed my heart and flower on the Piaf’s grave and meditated a bit, I had to wait nearly an hour before I felt up to it, and I felt like the present company was up to me shedding my flannel and coat.
The other challenge was that I needed someone else to take the photo. I attempted to avoid the cemetery police, tour guides and children until finally I spotted what I thought was a gay couple. Although they didn’t speak English they understood “photo” and, I think, the words “actor” and “strange.”
People stared as I threw off my two outer garments, revealing the black dress, but there was no time to make objections. The couple took three photos. I grabbed the camera and my clothes, said, “Merci,” and started dressing behind one of the lesser-known graves. I thought I was free until a blonde French woman in heels came clicking towards me, talking very fast in French. All I understood was “photo particulière” or “peculiar photo.” I said “actor” and “Piaf” and “performer” and “Philadelphia” and I peppered in some hand gestures until she laughed. She went away smiling.
Later in the trip, I did something that felt even riskier – I showed Yvonne my Piaf performance. Yvonne is not only 94, but also a devote Catholic. I started playing the video for her on my laptop, thinking she might never tell me a story again, and her first question was, “Who does your makeup?” I immediately relaxed.
We skipped most of the cabaret banter in favor of the songs. Yvonne said I need to work on the pronunciation of certain words and sounds. “You must start at the beginning with the way sounds are made,” she told me. But she also asked, “You did all of this?” and “How many people come?” And, eventually, she even sang along.
Piaf and Yvonne are not at all alike, but reflecting on the musicality of Yvonne’s reflections – the way she stops for a full torso breath as if the story to come were the breath itself – it made me think of Piaf’s full-body singing. Piaf sang until she died, until her voice was cracked and broken. I think Yvonne will keep on remembering and retelling until she can’t anymore, until she’s left repeating, “This is life, this is life, this is life” like another strange song.
John Jarboe is an actor and performer with Philadelphia’s Bearded Ladies Cabaret.