I once lived in Paris for twenty-eight days. My husband Micheal and I were cruising the Mediterranean when he woke me in the middle of the night to tell me he couldn’t catch his breath. After eight days of mismanaged care in sweltering Athens, we flew by Lear jet to the American Hospital of Paris, both hanging on to each other and our hopes that doctors there could figure out what was the matter with him.
Settling Mike in at the hospital where the Duchess of Windsor had once been cared for and the former Queen of Warner Bros. Bette Davis died, I poured myself into a cab. I looked out the window at the chestnut tree-edged streets and the blue-green flowing waters of the Seine. I was in Paris, the City of Light, but I wanted to be anywhere else in the world.
The next few days felt as if I were underwater. I spent every day in Mike’s sunny-white hospital room. Then I’d stagger back to my hotel to swallow a few bites of baguette left over from breakfast, watch a couple of episodes of Dark Shadows on my laptop and fall asleep to fitful dreams, only to start the nightmare all over again the next day.
Things got worse before they got better. My husband was put into a medically induced coma for the next three weeks because he couldn’t breathe on his own.“His condition is too unstable for us to operate,” his doctors said. Desperate, I begged them to give him the pacemaker he needed anyway.
This story has a happy ending. Michael survived the surgery to thrive, flying home only two weeks later. We resumed our lives in Portland—at first grateful for every minute we had together and then slowly forgetting the lesson our time in Paris taught us.
This experience did not endear Paris to me. While I appreciated its bustling charms even amid my terror over Michael’s condition, hearing the city’s name caused my heart to clutch and my breath to stop for years afterward. And it was nearly a decade before I could watch a movie or TV show set there without experiencing PTSD.
So, it’s understandable that seeing Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris (2022), Focus Features’ Valentine to the City of Light, and all those life makes invisible through their age and gender was a bittersweet experience.
Mrs. Harris is the tale of a London cleaning woman and erstwhile fairy godmother who discovers a Christian Dior gown in the closet of one of the upper-crust ladies she cleans for, and a dream is born. From this point on, the redoubtable Mrs. Harris’s only passion is traveling to Paris to buy a Dior creation of her own.
After saving every penny and receiving backpay from a war widow’s pension she didn’t even know she was owed, Ada Harris hops a plane to Paris. She walks from the airport to the House of Dior, where she’s not only fitted for a gown but manages to save the fashion house from ruin and discover her true worth in the process.
Mrs. Harris also grieves the loss of a husband she’s just discovered was killed in action in WWII, a war that ended more than ten years before. She befriends a handsome Marquis who is himself grieving a wife he lost seven years ago.
Taking a break from daily fittings and playing cupid for a young accountant and a model at Dior, Ada and the Marquis wander through the multicolored profusion of the Marche Au Fleur, where the distinguished gentleman tells her how much he and his wife loved strolling along the Seine in this beautiful place, saying, “We came here almost until the end. Ada Harris replies, “We mend, but we don’t forget.”
Wiping the tears from my eyes, I thought about how much I identified with this sentiment, particularly when it came to the life I’ve learned to live since Michael’s death. I’ve mended, weaving his memory into my new existence, and like Mrs. Harris, learned to embrace the opportunities a new life has given me, including the chance to love again and discover a new version of myself.