Famous in My Mind


Jean Carpentier: the boy who helped us translate our difficulties with the car to the mechanic near Carcassonne on a Sunday afternoon. That sentence appeared in one of my mother’s letters to her mother, written during my mother’s seven-month trip through Europe after college in 1951 with her friend, Liz. Romantic musings percolated in my mind. This was a real-life “meet-cute,” proof that my mother lived a charmed Hollywood life. Maybe “Docteur Carpentier” resembled Cary Grant or Gene Kelly?

Perhaps Jean was included in my mother’s general comment that the car “broke down a lot.” Men often came to my mother and Liz’s aid regarding their dark brown Morris Minor car, which resembled a chunky Volkswagen Beetle. How did she come to pen his Carcassonne address on the edge of a page in her notebook, which I found in 2014, a year after her sudden death at age eighty-six?

The Morris Minor broke down in Limoux, not far from Carcassonne, in the south of France. The car stopped—pushed it across the bridge. Jean Carpentier [or spelled the French way, “Charpentier”] (twenty-three-years old, dentist) came across the street, spoke good [sic] English. After trying to fix it, we took it back to Limoux, and Jean went with us; had beer afterward. How does one decide to have beers with a Good Samaritan while waiting for the car to be repaired? And not only beers. We stopped to let Jean off and had champagne with his father and several other Frenchmen. Best I ever tasted—Guinot Blanquette de Limoux. Made in that town! Left at 5:30 p.m. What a Sunday afternoon!

I had to see the place for myself. During one of my trips retracing my mother’s journey, I visited Limoux hoping to find a handsome man, a film-worthy romance, and champagne. The guidebook said Limoux’s main “cultural pastime” was the café scene, and the main square seemed like the spot for connection. I sat down at one of the cafés and ordered lunch. An advertisement for Coca-Cola was in a café window—the sign was of a smiling woman in a sailor’s cap with the words Coca-Cola on the brim, a bottle of the fizzy drink held between bright red lips and red fingernails. I remembered when my brother and I traveled with our parents as young children, Coca-Cola was our touchstone of home. That beverage was a relief from long, hot sightseeing walks and was supposed to help settle nervous tummies. Introduced to France in 1950, barely a year before my mother’s trip, the soda had mixed results. Frenchmen spit it out, sometimes directly at a camera, in showy defiance of Americanization and “Coca-Cola diplomacy.”

I stopped in a wine store on the main square to ask the location of the Guinot Blanquette de Limoux winery. After a few blank stares at my awkward grade-school French, I walked out with an address on a piece of paper. The Limoux libation was properly called “sparkling wine” since it wasn’t from the Champagne region of France. Back in my car, the GPS on my phone led me to an empty winery outside of town, which had a walled courtyard between two of the winery’s processing buildings.

A dusty sign of a man wearing a ribboned beret and a medallion necklace holding a bottle, standing between two bunches of grapes framed with the words Maistre Blanquetier, was affixed to one wall of the winery’s courtyard above a greenhouse; inside, an orange rose bush bloomed. My grandmother was the only person I knew who had a greenhouse attached to her home—my mother would have loved that bit of horticulture. Hip-high, glass bottles encased in wicker and wide as the circle of one’s arms leaned next to trees and pink flowering vines.

I spotted a wood structure with holes for the necks of 120 dark green, empty glass bottles, ten rows vertical by twelve rows horizontal. This was used in the “riddling” process (tilting and turning sparkling wine bottles so sediment or dead yeast collected in the neck could be easily removed) described in The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It. I gave that book to my mother on a prior Christmas. If the book brought back memories of Jean and the “best champagne,” she never let it slip.

Sitting alone at one of the courtyard tables, next to the wood casks, I imagined my mother, Liz, Jean, and his father next to me, shaded by trees and a trellis of vines; cigarettes in ashtrays next to their glasses, all of them laughing and toasting to a convivial Sunday afternoon.

I purchased several Limoux bottles from the sales office across the street and carried them, protected with cardboard and wrapped in a double paper bag, for weeks before I found a post office that had packing materials to ship them to my cousins in Pennsylvania. My hope was that we’d open the bubbly at Thanksgiving when I returned to the USA. However, I’ve never been an alcohol drinker and had low expectations of enjoying “the best champagne.” I preferred the flat Coca-Cola from my childhood.

Since childhood, some part of me harbored the fantasy that my mother and I would embark on a grand tour retracing her travels. I wanted less of the mother concerned with social mores and more one-on-one of the playful spirit that appeared on our picnic lunches during family trips to Europe in the 1970s. Lunches were bought-in-the-market-that-morning bread and cheese, with wine for the grown-ups (water for my brother and me) and fruit. If the fruit of the day was cherries, my mother began a family spitting contest with the words, “Have you ever been to Pittsburgh?” She often won. Had she played this game with Jean and his father at the garden of the Limoux winery?

During our 1971 family trip to the medieval walled city of Carcassonne in France, my mother spilled no details about her 1951 car mishap. Neither my mother nor grandmother (who traveled with us and was my roommate on our family vacations) mentioned their letter exchange about Jean Carpentier twenty years earlier. Were they complicit in forgetfulness? Perhaps my mother chose not to speak of beer and champagne in front of my father or risk raised eyebrows from her mother? Jean continued to send my mother letters during her European trip and a Christmas card that year. Maybe his epistolary attention stopped when my mother wrote something to the effect of, Big news. I’m engaged. My grandfather once told my mother, “Sarah, you have one man coming in the front door while another exits through the back.” I didn’t have a man coming or going.

I was determined to find Jean Carpentier’s Carcassonne address in a part of the city modern enough to be outside the medieval walls but old enough to be a walking street with no cars allowed. The cosmetics/perfume shop next door confirmed a dentist had been their neighbor at some point, but they didn’t know where he was now. At least, that was what my limited French understood—a brass plaque at Jean’s address said a foot reflexologist/podiatrist and another doctor had moved to a different location.

More disappointing, instead of being discovered by a present-day hottie like George Clooney, a suspicious man gave me unwanted attention. Was I too much of a spectacle or an easy target, snapping pictures of street plaques with a telephoto lens? To lose him, I ducked into a larger department store and waited ten minutes before walking back to my car. My mother was feted with the “the best champagne” and Christmas cards, whereas I found an empty winery and a creepy stalker.

Perhaps I’d have better luck feeling my mother’s spirit at Rocamadour, a pilgrimage site as old as the Crusades. Rocamadour was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site of the “Way of Saint James” (a path to Santiago de Compostela) and also “the favorite village of the French 2016” by viewers of a French television channel. I met two friends there, who were in search of the spirit of Madonna, a Black Madonna. The Black Madonna was associated with inner transformation (her blackness was said to represent either smoke from votive candles or the African origins of humanity). I wanted to see Rocamadour because my mother mentioned it: Up and down many hills to get there. Had tea and cola overlooking town which is built on the side of a mountain.

My friends and I began our climb at the bottom of the rock face just as rain started to fall. A lane of cobblestones bordered by medieval houses was the sole road through the village. When the serpentine road ended, there were 216 steps up the Grand Escalier (staircase), which the most devout Catholic pilgrims ascended on their knees. My experience as a “mainline” Presbyterian involved wearing our Sunday best—white cotton gloves with never more self-deprivation than patent-leather shoes that pinched. At the entrance of the Chapelle Notre Dame, the sanctuary with the Black Madonna, the rock face was streaked with gray stone, almost as if it was streaming tears.

Inside the chapel, I felt dampness but no spirit. I sat silent and heard the occasional scrapes of feet or creaks of the wooden pews. Arches disappeared into the rock face. Some of the angels around the altar had wings that pointed skyward, three feet above the angels’ heads, a type of wing that seemed scary and overpowering to me. I preferred the round cherubic angels. The miracle of the chapel was that a bell was reputed to have rung in landlocked Rocamadour when a ship or sailors were saved in the Mediterranean, four hours away. This sounded like a sea-shanty tale met a Catholic crusade. The nautical theme was evident—suspended from the ceiling as mobiles were replicas of wooden sailboats.

Set back from the angels and boats, the Black Madonna was high above us in a glass box with red-velvet panels, the centerpiece of the altar. Her tilted face and clasped

hands were barely visible, cloaked in a crown and white gown with gold brocade and a white veil, both three sizes too big for her small frame. She seemed choked by veneration.

I hoped for a feeling, any feeling. It didn’t have to be a miracle. A year prior, I felt my mother in front of the Black Madonna in the French seaside town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in the Camargue. Maybe my experience was different because the Camargue sanctuary was named Sara, the same name as my mother but without the final H. That Black Madonna wasn’t the main show. Not even the most important artifact, as the statue was kept in the crypt until it was floated in from the sea during All Saint’s Day as part of a Romani celebration. But clearly, covered in beads as colorful as Mardi Gras, the Camargue Black Madonna was beloved by those seeking spiritual help. Nose-to-nose with her, I wanted to wrap my arms around the figure’s shoulders, just as I might have done with my mother. I had that Black Madonna all to myself, surrounded by pictures of others’ loved ones, their hopes written on scraps of paper, their prayers and mine suspended in the air.

Was I not the right kind of pilgrim? Were my intentions not clear enough, not spoken from the heart? Presbyterians often used call-and-response in their worship services, so if I called my mother now, would she respond? I yearned for a sign of her, like the errant leaf that landed with a loud “thwat” on my purse, sailing in through the open car window a few weeks after her death. I waited for an answer. Have I not called her with sufficient fervor? Decades after I read about the theory of evolution in National Geographic magazines, my mother said she thought humans were too complex to have evolved from monkeys, too late for me to reform my perception of the origin story. Who was the inadequate believer, my mother or me?

Maybe I couldn’t connect to my mother here because her Presbyterian upbringing didn’t appreciate a tiny Madonna or a bell that rang when sailors were saved hours away. We weren’t a family who believed in miracles. My mother had a tolerance level for churches; above it, she’d rather go shopping. She made sure I had a doll from every country we visited—maybe that was our connection. Maybe, in 1951, she was too busy drinking cola and taking in the vista instead of the religious significance of Rocamadour.

The sanctuary’s motto, “Hope as firm as rock” (“L’espérance ferme comme le roc”), didn’t hold true for me. A sign outside the chapel presented a guarantee: Here, the pilgrim truly experiences that “nothing is impossible with God.” (Luke 1, verse 37). As I read those words, bells began to ring. Bells upon bells, as if peace were declared, a king and queen married, a baby announced. I walked down the empty courtyard steps, shooting pictures of my friends who were ahead of me, trying to capture the moment of their faces uplifted in delight and reverence. Was this the miracle? All the photos ended up being blurry, with wisps of spirit in front of and behind my friends.

Leaving Rocamadour behind, I traveled back to Carcassonne for the night. I particularly wanted to stay at the Hôtel de la Cité, inside the walled city. My mother wrote it was darling with all leaded glass windows, ivy growing on the stone. Perhaps her love of the place was boosted because it was their first really sunny day—even shed my snuggies [long underwear].

My goal was to check the hotel’s registers to see if I could find my mother’s signature. But first, because the hotel was inside the walls where cars aren’t allowed, I had to find the hotel’s parking area (was it just inside or outside the walls?) where a valet would come and take me to the hotel—such a strange procedure. I had the directions and my phone’s GPS, but unfortunately, I got stuck on a street that was barely width-wise larger than the car.

I twisted and turned until the end of the street came to a metal gate worthy of the Pentagon. I waited. My car hadn’t triggered the gate to open automatically. No one came to open it. I got out and saw there was a key lock. I backed up past a few curves in the road, but didn’t trust that I could do it for ten or fifteen minutes to retrace my entire route. I drove forward again to the gate. An elderly man came out of his house, looked at me, and laughed. He went back into his house with me trailing behind him saying, S’il vous plait, la clé, la clé (please, the key, the key). Was there a policeman, a firefighter, or even a school crossing guard to help? I had to back up the entire way, sweating and swearing at myself, until I returned to a place where I could turn around. Someone would have opened the gate for my mother! Defeated, I called the hotel to have them talk me through how to get to the parking lot.

At the hotel, the bread crumbs left by my mother’s journal finally had a satisfying crunch. The place had spirits everywhere. Lead glass windows near the reception desk were peaked at the top like in a church and filtered the afternoon light onto the rug and red-velvet cushioned pew below it. The living room had cobalt, gold, and clear stained-glass windows in the ceiling. The walls were covered with huge oil paintings of the countryside with Carcassonne’s walled city on the top of the hill. Wood-paneled doors showcased green and moss stained-glass insets.

My mother described eating on the veranda. Met Bill and Tom (boys we saw at Albi) [a town in southern France with a cathedral built out of brick, not stone]—they are writers for theater, TV, etc. We had breakfast together on the terrace overlooking the countryside. On the veranda, semicircular red roof tiles met the blue sky and white clouds, next to towers from the medieval buildings beside the hotel. An art exhibit of life-size gargoyles of pigs dressed as burghers holding their heads in their hands was placed between white umbrellas, metal chairs, and square wood tables. Ivy on the walls turned red in the autumn air, a counterpoint to the town’s newer apartment buildings that stretched nearly to the horizon.

Was my knight in shining armor going to ride through the restaurant’s massive wood panels and ceiling, iron chandeliers, and lead-glass windows showing the pink and blue of the coming night sky? After dinner, I retired to the Bar Bibliothèque, truly a library bar, to look at the guest registers, which dated from the 1930s. The “stirrer of drinks,” a lively man named Gaétan, pointed me to the registers and said, “We don’t have all the years here…some are in storage, and we lost some over the years to floods and fires.”

I nestled into one of the well-worn, brownish-red club chairs in the Bar Bibliothèque to review each one of the black, bound-leather, two-foot-high guest registers. Perhaps I embarked on retracing my mother’s trip to reconnect physically or spiritually. Emotionally, my mother and I didn’t bare ourselves to each other. Was it because of our Presbyterian propriety and reserve? Or that I was adopted? Or I wanted to be accepted by her without judgment? No matter the reason, I relished the times my mother and I connected physically—for example, when, as an elder, she held my hand to help steady herself as we walked across a country club golf course to the ladies’ room before the Fourth of July fireworks. Maybe those physical links would precipitate an emotional opening. Maybe retracing her journey would inspire a spiritual relatedness.

Alas, May 1951 wasn’t one of the dates in the registers. But I still believed my own mythic version of my mother as an adventurer who charmed everyone who crossed her path. I was sure my mother had stayed in the same room. As I fell asleep tucked into bed, I heard my mother speak each line of my nightly prayers, and I repeated them, just as we did when I was a child.

The next morning, the registration clerk asked me, “Was your mother famous?”

“Yes,” I replied, “even if only in my mind.”


Margaret Wagner is a writer, dancer, and artist. Her work has been published in Cacti Fur, Coachella Review, I-70 Review, Perceptions Magazine, and Steam Ticket.