Two weeks before my seventeenth birthday, my Nana, aunt, and uncle took me on a ten-day trip to Paris. An enthusiastic French student, I was beyond thrilled to have the chance to visit the city’s famous landmarks for the first time, tour the Louvre and see the paintings that we’d studied in my classes, and spend some time abroad. I was also thrilled, of course, to spend some time with my family and be wined and dined like a grownup. The trip turned out to be adventurous in many ways, as so many vacations do. Our arrival coincided with Bastille Day, so the streets were packed with excited Parisians, and Nana was thrilled by a young man who charmingly spoke French with her while simultaneously trying to pick me up. We were also there during one of the worst heat waves France had experienced in recent history, and Nana fainted on the metro on a trip back to our hotel. Her memory was beginning to become fuzzy, and her French even fuzzier, but I- the too-smart-for-you teenager- was shown up at city navigation when she remembered the way to Notre Dame after I’d gotten us hopelessly lost.
What made the trip truly special was that, in many ways, this was Nana’s city. She and her husband had, for many years, swapped homes during the summer months with a friend of hers from her university days who had married a Parisian. Nana knew Paris like the back of her hand, and she made sure to introduce me to the friends she’d made there over the years. On our last night there, we went out to dinner with her home-swap companion and her husband at a tiny little restaurant in Vaugirard called La Gauloise. We practiced our French, talked French politics, and discussed the myriad merits of being travelers at any age. It was an incredibly special evening, simply because we were spending time together as adults- a new experience for me- and has since become one of my favourite memories.
I tell you this because, this past weekend, I spent some time in Los Angeles and got to visit my Nana for the first time in over two years. She has steadily been succumbing to the effects of Alzheimer’s for several years now, so I was prepared for the fact that I would be a stranger to her, but it was still a reality check to see what toll the years have taken on her. She is stooped now, only walking down stairs with the support of someone, and her hands shake when they hold things. We sat next to each other at a large family lunch, and while she wasn’t overly excited by her food- preferring small bites of mine instead- she graciously engaged in conversation with me. She wanted to know how we were related, what my husband was like, what I did for a living, where I lived now…the details were consistently mixed up, the questions often repeated. It was a different sort of adult conversation from the one we’d shared seven years before. This time, the adult-ness of it came from the need to love her as she was in the moment, not becoming frustrated with the gap where her short-term memory used to be.
At one point, two-and-a-half year old Simone and I started talking across the table. The oldest of my niece-cousins, she and her two compatriots represent the beginning of the new generation of Laues and Brownsons. Already she, her sister, and her cousin have been to several countries as part of regular family vacations. When not traveling, the three girls are always being taken for walks and time at the city parks, going to new environments and meeting new people. Thanks to Dora the Explorer, Spanish is already becoming part of her vocabulary. As we chatted that day, I asked her to show Nana how she can count in Spanish. “Uno, dos, tres,” she obliged. To my immense shock, Nana chimed in. “Cuatro, cinco, seis,” she said in a wobbly voice. I blinked in amazement, and my cousin and I joined in. As we finished counting together- “siete, ocho, nueve, diez!”- I marveled at the funny things memory can do. It’s a family fact that Nana remembers the babies better than the grownups, and is enamoured of my cousin’s husband over all others. But counting in Spanish was something I thought she’d lost the ability to do.
In the end, of course, we were four different generations of Go Girls (well, maybe my uncle is a Go Guy) in a restaurant in Pasadena, taking joy in the fact that everyone could do this one, seemingly basic thing. In my Nana’s case, the counting exercise is one of the few remaining memories from a lifetime of travel. For Simone, and for her generation, the ability to count to ten in Spanish is the beginning of a lifetime of possibilities. Nana said very little for the rest of the meal, refusing further bites from my lunch, and the kids became increasingly energetic. I hate to become hyperbolic, and say that some torch was passed, but that moment is another special memory for me now. Now, as an auntie in addition to being a niece, I get to look forward to being part of the group- like my Nana was for me- that shapes and contributes to a whole new generation of travelers.