La Rentrée

I have never been in Paris in early October, never traversed le Luxembourg on the first day of school, when it is a little sad, yet more beautiful than ever as yellow leaves fall from trembling trees, one by one, on the white shoulders of statues. I have stolen this description from Anatole France, and because of him I feel I have been been there, my memory of a passage from the first lesson in Cours Supérieur de français superimposed upon his own.

I have read no more of Le Livre de mon Ami than the passage I refer to, though it has remained in the back of my mind since the fall of 1957. France is a boy, a petit bonhomme, hands in his pockets, books on his back. He hops like a sparrow, he carries a top. He recalls a hectic sky, the first dinners by lamplight. It’s now early morning, it isn’t even 8 o’clock, but c’est la rentrée. There’s a tightness in his heart.

This kid, who begins to feel lighter, more joyful, as he thinks of his friends, his camarades, of soon to be recounted summer adventures (for what else were they for?), this kid is nothing but a shade, a shadow of Anatole as he was twenty-five years ago. The air is still fresh at the beginning of October in the Luxembourg gardens, same heaven, same earth. The inner being, the soul of things, France maintains, the soul that cheers, or saddens, or troubles him, does not change. Only he, the boy that was, no longer exists.

Even in California where the change of season is not pronounced, where many children go back to school in mid-August, even here fall straightens the heart. These are some of the most beautiful days of the year, warm, dry, and fresh, but the temperature goes down at night, and soon I will have to swim at the Y, because the sun will no longer heat the pool. The year is dying, no question. Ninety-seven degrees today, but I’ve stopped wearing white, it’s good-bye to gin tonics, and corn and watermelon are missing from the Farmers Market. I catch sight of a skeleton swinging in the wind on my walk, and Ernst has been dead 18 years, my father 30, my mother 11. Ernst’s birthday is behind me, but our thirty-sixth wedding anniversary lies still ahead this month. And today I must add pictures of my beloved friend Caleb and of much-lamented Meestycat, who disappeared recently to die discreetly as cats do, to my altar for the Day of the Dead. That’s fall for you, gloom and doom. The death of summer is particular with me. I mark the procession of dates on the calendar: August 11, September 2, September 13, September 30, October 16. It’s a marathon I have to run. A minefield.

Year in and year out, all my married life, as my mother used to say. But then there’s La Rentrée, a new school year with tutoring challenges in AP Spanish lessons, which produce a sudden need to master the rules for diphthongs that refuse to settle down. It’s the time of the year to be in New York, or at least to be on top of what’s happening there in the theater, music, art, literary, dance, fashion, and food worlds, by living vicariously through reviews in the NYT. I wish I were there, but who could afford it? There’s quite enough to do and to celebrate in L.A. Disney Hall is ten years old, the Master Chorale fifty, the Fowler Museum, also fifty, and Westridge, where I taught for forty years, 100. It’s clear that L.A. must grow old in its turn, but to be in the avant garde, I’m thinking of listening through wireless headphones to an opera taking place in the middle of Union Station. Of roasting chiles, of buying a cashmere sweater, a long plaid skirt. I can almost rejoice in certain facts: that Ernst has escaped the indignities of old age, that he cannot, as he would if he were still alive, be 77, that our marriage would not have come undone as so many among my acquaintance have.

I am ready to welcome Sirène’s baby, sex still unknown, due on October 4, into what seems to be an increasingly desperate, but still wonderful world; to celebrate David’s birthday, October 31. So clever of him to be born on All Hallows’ Eve, making the day more sacred. To accompany Anatole France as he crosses le Luxembourg, thinking indulgently of his former self and of my own. It touches me to see how dutifully I have filled in, with blurry fountain pen, the blanks in an exercise on de, du, de la, and des, that I have looked up a single word in the passage: âme = soul. First day of school dresses, scary new teachers, my book covers ever with protruding corners. France measures out, as he grows older, his abiding interest in la rentrée des classes. Let’s translate literally for once. La rentrée is not the weary monotony of back to school. It’s more like a vuelve a la vida seafood cocktail, an important part of Day of the Dead observances. It’s a command, or at least an invitation. Come back. Return to life! It’s time to re-enter.


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