Everything assumes such an immense quality when you are a child. You are a seed amongst the trees - waiting, waiting, waiting - for the soil and the sun to open you up, to release you from the feeling of smallness. And in that smallness rests another seed, one of fear or something like it - a lack of agency and hopelessness.
My parents were trees.
Especially my father. Every morning as he would get ready to head into the confiserie, I would sit on the edge of the tub and watch him shave. To this day, I cannot feel cold without the sour, soapy smell of shaving cream filling my lungs, an association unbent by time and experience. He had this way of making everything he did seem so big, so important.
And my mother. She had this way of approaching everything with a preternatural speed. She had a reputation of being the best confiseuse in Northern France, but her inborn modesty kept her from accepting any compliment. She broke so easily - at least that was what my father would come to say - yet she stood the tallest despite the weather.
The first eight years of my life were relatively soundless. If I were to go back and throw a ball of yarn against my bedroom window, I probably would have been able to hear it. My parents used to rise together at the faintest hint of dawn and sip coffee, Mother with a novel and Father with Le Parisien, occasionally locking eyes as if to say, "Mon dieu, je t'aime tellement." I would watch this from the thin crack of my bedroom door and inhale their light as if to retain it forever, not knowing that it was a fruitless task, for soon after my ninth birthday there was no light left, only rough blue dark that filled my lungs like fiberglass.
My parents’ confiserie was among the oldest in Old Paris, inherited as it were from my namesake, Grandpère Julian, my father’s father. It was once said that I was born in the shop, my mother heaving me out of her amongst the almonds and fruits and sugars. It was just the first of many family myths that I had learned to entertain and then quickly dismiss: Julian, you are part sugar.
In any case, I grew up there. If I wasn’t in school or at home, I was sitting at one of the few tables that lined the windows of the shop, eating raspberry guimauves and reading. My mother spent most of her days in the kitchen whipping and whisking and slicing, stopping only to deliver trays of fresh sweets to my father, who would then arrange them in the cases with admirable precision. She might pause briefly to kiss him, or to ensure that I was keeping up with my studies (all she had to do was raise a brow if I met her gaze).
My father would tend to the patrons; that was what he did best. He never seemed to tire of boxing up têtes de chocolat and placing sucettes in children’s palms and chatting with the regulars over le chocolat chaud. Occasionally he would have me help fill larger orders, paying me with another guimauve. He would wink at me as if to say, “Don’t tell your mother.” I smiled then, because I thought that would be the first and only secret between us.
I wish I could go back and erase that smile off my sticky face, as if to tell him that I wanted no part of it - any of it: the guimauves and his drinking and his women (right now, imagine the sound of your most favorite song ending - forever). This leads me to the second family myth: Love is always enough.
Sometimes I think about what would have been different about my life had I kept believing that, instead of being a child who realized that his parents manufactured false truths right before his too-trusting eyes.
The first time I heard my mother weep because of my father (right now, imagine the sensation of coughing up a knife), I was an inch shy of nine and learning long division.
Irony tastes no different to me than my mother’s pastilles du mineur - hard and black and terrifying. Which brings me to the third family myth: Sugar is always sweet.
I just sat at my rickety table and pressed my pencil so hard into my notebook as if to signal to them that my little world had been reduced to making sense of problems that cannot be solved. Yet she continued to cry and eventually he would leave, only to stumble home at the smallest hour of night smelling of something I wouldn’t come to recognize until I was much older: sex and regret and more sex.
Sometimes I wish I could have leveraged my smallness to my advantage. When you are small, you have more power than you know to augment your reality. I would have shrunken myself into the tiniest common denominator and crept into my mother’s cocons, breathing in their musky sweet smell and breathing out my parents’ old light, dead and yellow and broken. Or I would have made myself small enough to rest my head on her Coussins de Lyon - tiny teal cushions that could have carried me into sleep instead of leading me from it (right now, imagine the darkest of dark things clawing at you, leaving bloody lines down your back).
The back door of our kitchen led to a magasin de papier. Sometimes, when either their yelling or their silence became too much, I would click open the doorknob (right now, imagine the sound your heart might make if it woke up after a thousand-year sleep), and Mdme. Laurent would say, “Bonjour, Julian!” in a way that my mother never had, and she would tousle my hair and show me her newest calligraphy sets.
By the time I was sixteen, she had stopped pretending that I was a boy, but I didn’t.
I think about the sweetness of Mdme’s mouth, and how I wish I would have captured it in a confection, though I wouldn’t have called it "‘Mdme’s Mouth," but rather "Love or Something Like It."
I think about my parents’ bitter tongues, and how I wish I would have captured it in a confection, if only so they could know what it had been like for me as a boy; to be deceived and subsequently disappointed, ill. I don’t know what I would have called it, though.
Sometimes there are no words, just feelings.
Sometimes I think about my daughter’s smallness and if she ever wishes to be a tree. And how I wish she didn’t view me as a tree because that is such a thing to live up to: damn near indestructible and also so fragile (right now, imagine your mother’s smallest voice and how sometimes it sounds like branches cracking, but other times it sounds like nothing).
Everything assumes such a small quality when you are approaching death. You are a tree amongst the seeds - waiting, waiting, waiting - for the soil and the sun to dry you up, to release you from the feeling of immensity. And in that smallness rests another seed, one of calm or something like it - an abundance of agency and hope.