“We’ll always have Paris.”
This famous line from Casablanca said by the character Rick to his former lover Ilsa is one of the most memorable lines in cinematic history. It was filled with romance and poignancy – two lovers spending their last moments together, clinging to something they shared in happier times. The notable phrase has evolved to mean any experience shared with another that both will treasure for the rest of their lives. It signifies experiencing something profound with another person, even if it wasn’t specifically a love affair in Paris. But, for me, it’s literally true, and it fits perfectly with a memory I shared with my Rick: the vacation we spent in France ten years ago next month.
Last night, as I watched the news footage of Notre Dame burning, at first, I was saddened by the loss of such a beautiful testament to gothic architecture. I’ve always cherished old buildings and historical sites. I’m a genealogist, and any old artifact or site from another era makes me feel a connection with past generations that moves me emotionally. The potential loss of this historic cathedral left me speechless. But then, I began to feel more.
Witnessing any loss can remind us of the uncertainties of life and how fleeting it is, how someone or something can be gone in an instant. It can also make us ponder the significance of decisions we make and discard, and how important they may turn out to be in hindsight. But, of course, as a widow, things like this can also trigger more personal memories – and watching Notre Dame burn brought back memories of touring Paris with Rick.
Ever since I was a young girl, I wanted to go to England. I’ve always been a true Anglophile. When my mother handed me a matched set of Bronte books – Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, she started a love of English literature that would never end. I loved reading the classics. I couldn’t get enough of Dickens or Austen or Shakespeare. I also loved watching classic movie romances where couples embraced on gloomy nights in the foggy London air, I longed to visit England, from the historic sites in London to the drizzly, yet romantic moors.
When I was in my thirties, I started delving into genealogy, and I was thrilled to discover that my father’s side of the family was from England! The Billings ancestors I knew of from Canada were descended from Billing family who’d come over from Cornwall in the 1850s. And so, when Rick and I were first dating, and I told him of my lifelong dream to visit England – which I now knew to be the land of my forefathers (and foremothers) – he promised to take me on my dream trip some day.
When my aunt was in her last few months of life after being diagnosed with cancer, I went to stay with her for several weeks and lend physical and emotional support to my father as he cared for her in her northern Michigan home. She and I had lots and lots of time to talk about her life – and her regrets. A few days before she died, she told me she had always wanted to visit Scotland. She lived in a pretty unpopulated area, and I tried hard to get a video with views and vistas of the Scottish highlands for her to watch in her final days, but there was no local Blockbuster and she died before I could lay hands on one.
A few years after her death, it was my son Brandon who first reminded me of how important visiting England was. He told me, “Just do it, Mom. Remember what happened to Aunt Ariel. You don’t want to end up wishing you had visited the place you’ve dreamed of going your entire life. You don’t want to regret it on your deathbed.”
I knew he was right, and of course, Rick agreed with Brandon, so we saved our money, made an itinerary, and off we flew to jolly old England.
Brandon and his wife (then girlfriend) Lindsey came along and parted ways with us when we landed. They stayed in London while Rick and I visited my ancestors’ home village of St. Breward. We decided to make the trip even more memorable, and the four of us rejoined and traveled to five more countries in the next two weeks. We began that part of the journey by taking the Chunnel to Paris.
Once there, we had only budgeted one full day to choose what sites we’d visit, and we all split up and started walking. Rick chose the Eiffel Tower, I’m not sure what the others chose, but I chose Notre Dame.
And now, watching it burn, I’m taken back to that afternoon in May 2009, when I sat staring in awe at the majestic architecture in front of me: the beautiful gothic building with the rose stained glass windows. I took in the historic spire and the vaulted roof, the age and the history. I’ll never forget the experience.
Then, of course, my mind traveled to other portions of the trip: that evening I dined with Rick at an outdoor Parisian cafe (followed later that night by him ordering a pizza to go from the Paris Pizza Hut next door to our hotel, because that man could really eat!)
I pictured all of it – all the trip’s highlights we shared, from the first part in Cornwall, and the afternoon when I watched him walk toward me up the deserted lane as I stood at the doorway of the church in St. Breward. The church was built in 1200 and all my ancestors had been christened, and married, and buried there. As he walked towards me, I realized my great-great grandmother Catherine Billing had stood in that very spot one day more than 150 years before, and I wondered if she’d ever watched her husband come up that lane toward her. And now, I remember that afternoon and those thoughts and the feeling of love I had for him as he walked toward me.
I relived so many memories we made on that trip, from our first night taking the Tube to London’s Piccadilly Circus to our last evening in Amsterdam getting drunk with two women we met at a cafe and then getting lost making our way back to our hotel. I relived scene after scene of our adventures – Germany, Luxembourg, Brussels – driving and visiting shops and walking the cobblestone streets. It was the trip of a lifetime for the girl from Detroit who had only visited a few local places before she met Rick Palmer, the wanderer, the man who took her to England, the man who helped her achieve her lifelong dream.
And as I watched the news footage of Notre Dame burning, and I remembered that lovely vacation so long ago, I realized how important those memories have become, because now, they’re all I have. Every widow has learned that life is short and you won’t ever get another chance. To smell the roses. To take the trip. To spend the time. To appreciate every moment shared with those you love. To make the memories.
And now that he’s gone, I’ll treasure these memories with the rest of those I hold here in my heart.
And I know I’m a fortunate woman, because I can say, Thank you, my darling Rick, thank you for giving me a heart full of memories. For the rest of my life, I’ll always have Paris.