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April 22, 2012

Eloisa James on Documenting Laughter

New York Times bestselling author Eloisa James writes historical romances for HarperCollins Publishers. After graduating from Harvard University, Eloisa got an M.Phil. from Oxford University, a Ph.D. from Yale and eventually became a Shakespeare professor, publishing an academic book with Oxford University Press. Currently she is an associate professor and head of the Creative Writing program at Fordham University in New York City. Here, she talks about her new memoir, PARIS IN LOVE, and what it meant to her as a mother to her two children (she is pictured here with her daughter, Anna). 

I wrote PARIS IN LOVE because I wanted to trap one year of my life in amber --- the year my family and I lived in Paris --- rather than allow it to slide away in the easy, dreamy way by which happy years disappear. My daughter Anna’s imitations of her favorite Disney princess, Ariel, used to make us laugh hysterically when she was three years old. But I can’t remember why we laughed; Ariel is fishy and sweet, but hardly a comedian. All I can remember is the laughter, and memory of laughter is not a memory of Anna herself. But I will always remember this, because I wrote it down:


On the Métro heading to school, Anna launched into a wicked impersonation of her enraged English teacher stamping her foot:  “Shut zee mouths!  Zit down!  Little cretins!” The entire subway car was laughing, though Anna remained totally unaware of her captive and captivated audience.

Reading these words over, I can see her little face turn pompous and angry as she transformed herself into the teacher she was imitating. Throughout the year we lived in Paris, I saw the city through my family’s eyes as well as my own --- as do all mothers --- and by writing their observations down, I have given my children a gift: a window into a year that they will remember acutely, but not in detail.

People kiss all the time here: romantically, sadly, sweetly, passionately; in greeting and farewell.  They kiss on the banks of the Seine, under bridges, on street corners, in the Métro.  I hadn’t realized that Anna had noticed until yesterday, when I suggested perhaps a single-mother situation in her classroom could be explained by divorce.  Anna didn’t agree.  “They don’t get divorced over here,” she reported.  “It’s ’cause they kiss so much.”

It didn’t take me long to scribble that down, but reading it now, I laugh again at the conclusions Anna drew about a world so different from the New Jersey suburbs where she’d spend her first ten years or so.

So, for all the mothers reading this piece… I began writing the small paragraphs that turned into PARIS IN LOVE as Facebook updates. Why not use your Facebook friends to shape the memories you don’t want to forget? Dash them off, save them, think about them later. You will be so happy, looking back…

It’s easy for us to remember the first and last moments --- the first step, the first girlfriend, the first prom date. But much of the sweetness of life is trapped in tiny moments that are easy to forget, and cannot be captured on film. And they are arguably the best parts of mothering.

Happy Mother’s Day to each and every one of you!