We’ll Always Have Paris by Jennifer Coburn

I just finished reading Jennifer Coburn’s tres magnifique memoir, We’ll Always Have Paris, a hilarious, wacky, and terribly moving memoir about a mother and daughter traveling the world together in the face of their inherent mortality.

We’ll Always Have Vodka!
Photo (c) Jennifer Coburn
Worried she’ll die young after experiencing the death of her adored, hippie father who never lived to see 50, Jennifer sets out on what she thinks is a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Paris with her 8-year-old daughter, Katie. Their adventures, juxtaposed with vignettes from Jennifer’s own childhood, strengthen the bond between mother and daughter for us – we get to see the way their personalities play off each other, with Katie as the practical, worry-free child and Jennifer, the neurotic, determined mother. “You’re not exactly a zen master, are you?” Katie quips. The same holds true for the relationship between Jennifer and her father when she was Katie’s age.

Throughout their journey, Jennifer experiences the height of living through her travels alongside the constant reminder of death. Which makes sense, because the latter is the reason for the former; otherwise she’d be making more sensible decisions, like getting the tile replaced in her bathroom.

For instance, in the present moment, we have the pair unable to get into the Musee D’Orsay due to a terrorist threat, which serves as a reminder of the time Jennifer’s father took her to the observation deck of the newly built Twin Towers when she was ten. Because, even if we don’t acknowledge it, the Grim Reaper will get us in the end. Jennifer jumps so effortlessly into the past tense that it seems so right to be there, even while leaving us hanging in suspense from one time period to another.

It’s interesting to me how sometimes our children are the ones who comfort us, when it’s normally the other way around. There’s plenty of this when we see Katie comforting her mother through an unintentionally overzealous dose of spiced cake in Amsterdam that left her baked out of her mind, and when Jennifer lectures her father on the merits of using birth control after he gets his lover pregnant again.

I was especially gripped by the story of Jennifer’s father, who died of lung cancer when she was 19. The fact is mentioned at the beginning of the memoir, but she vividly delves deep into the actual events surrounding his death about three-quarters of the way through the book, after we’ve gotten to know him a bit. Without ever slipping into heavy-handed melancholy, Jennifer shows us the bizarre yet mundane circumstances of his death that will draw a tear from the driest eye.

The surprise turn in the memoir is when Jennifer turns the trip to Paris from a once-in-a-lifetime experience to a bi-annual sojourn overseas – to Italy when Katie is 11, Spain when she’s 14, and finally Amsterdam and back to Paris when she’s 16. Home repairs be damned, she was using their savings to give her daughter something more than money could possibly buy.

She’s fortunate to have a practical and grounded, yet easy-going and supportive husband. We don’t see much of him, but the few snippets we do get make him one of the most interesting people in this rich ensemble of characters. At one point, after Jennifer decides to try to contact her father beyond the grave through a medium despite her husband’s doubts, she doesn’t hesitate to cry on his shoulder once it’s obvious the medium is a fraud, knowing that he’d never in a million years tell her “I told you so.” Instead he says one of the most poignant lines in the book: “I love that you are open to things…look at all of the things you try that work out well. Sometimes you’re open to things that don’t pan out, but that’s part of the package.” Just as some of her decisions while traveling inevitably don’t pan out, but the same is true in life.

By the time I got to the final trip, I was so engrossed in the book that I just couldn’t put it down and finished it around 4am, even though I had to be up the next morning. While Jennifer’s death-fear hasn’t yet come true, we’ve just watched Katie grow up (although, quite honestly, she seemed so mature beyond her years throughout the book that it was hard to distinguish her age as she grew). And Jennifer is now facing a life-altering event that can be as fearful as death – her child on the precipice of leaving the nest.

Lest you think that the book’s title has a similar meaning to its predecessor in Casablanca, there’s another twist: It actually means the opposite. Paris isn’t just a memory for the pair to cherish because the past is better than the future; they will always have Paris because the city will always be there and they will always return.

Fear of dying young isn’t an altogether bad thing,” she writes. “Sometimes it makes you try what you might otherwise delay.”

Jennifer and Katie at the WAHP Premier
(c) Jennifer Coburn